Books: The Dreaming Swimmer — Sidney Carton's Double Life |
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Sidney Carton's Double Life

SYDNEY AND London are my last two Postcards in a set of nine. Three years ago we started off with Rio, Chicago and Paris. Then we went on to Miami, Rome, Shanghai and Los Angeles. But in all that time the two cities I had on my mind were the one where I lived for the first twenty years of my life and the one where I’ve lived for the past thirty.

Sydney and London: I thought for a while of tackling the subject in book form and calling it A Tale of Two Cities. ‘Sidney Carton, the charming but reckless son of a wealthy Sydney carton manufacturer, changes his name to ... ’ But no. There was no ducking the challenge. In two programmes of just fifty minutes each, I would have to sum up my feelings about the two most important cities of my life.

It can’t really be done, of course. But the advantage of the Postcard format is that it isn’t like a letter. A Postcard can’t, by definition, go on and on for page after page until you’ve got it all said. You have to pick your moments. In Postcard from Sydney my production team solved the problem of how to compress the whole majestic phenomenon of Sydney Harbour Bridge into a few minutes of breathtaking screen time. They made me climb to the top of it. That’s where the breathtaking aspect came in; you can hear me taking every breath through a throat constricted by effort and fear.

The men who work on the bridge say that if you fall off, the impact with the water won’t kill you because it’s so far down that you’ll starve to death before you ever get there. But it was worth the trip to the top. Sydney looks amazing from up there. I realised for the first time just how far it spreads.

When I was growing up, the first waves of post-war immigrants were arriving. Migration has gone on, and the small provincial city I knew has become a multicultural metropolis. Yet the pace of life is still far less frantic than New York or Tokyo.

On a hot Friday you can take a long lunch on the harbourside. The weekend stretches ahead, full of things to do, but always on the understanding that they should be done without raising too much of a sweat. In fact, Australia is in the grip of the biggest economic recession since the 1930s, but people have too much self-respect to blame their own work habits. Laziness is still an art form here.

London is different, although just how different had taken me half a lifetime to figure out. There are long lunches in London, too, but people are more apologetic about them. There is a general sense that the city has become a bit of a pauper. The tube trains get stuck in the tunnels because nobody can afford to grease the ratchet that holds the flange against the wedge.

Or perhaps it’s just me. I arrived in Earl’s Court just in time for the 1960s to start swinging. I bought a second-hand pair of winkle-pickers with toes like knitting needles, and twisted violently to Cilla Black singing ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart’.

Anyone who had an eye by the time I finished dancing had to be fast on his feet. Since then, either London’s pulse-rate has dropped or else mine has. If it’s the latter, then the side benefit is an increased ability to linger over the stuff I really came here to get. The National Gallery, for example, is a bigger treasure house than ever when you have to walk, not run, to the nearest Rembrandt.

And what comes through, after thirty years, is the talk. Some of the best talkers in the world are in Postcard from London, and not all are famous. One of them is Stanley Green, the man who patrols Oxford Street with an elaborate sign warning against an excessive intake of protein.

Stanley says that eating protein causes passion, and passion is the root of all unrest. I think Stanley has failed to realise that for some of us, the exact opposite applies: we have taken on board so much protein that passion becomes impossible.

But Stanley has a point of view, and the ideal platform to express it: London, the biggest stage in the world for all those who talk for a living.

I suppose that’s why I live in London and not Sydney, but to the question ‘Which city do you prefer?’ I invariably reply that I’ll have to think about it. Later on I send a Postcard.

Radio Times, 25–31 May, 1991

[ Postcard from Sydney | Postcard from London ]