Books: Flying Visits: Postcard from Sydney - 1 : Home, James |
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Postcard from Sydney - 1 : Home, James

Chugging through the stratosphere for twenty-four hours from London to Sydney, the Qantas Boeing 747 City Of Newcastle did its best to keep us all happy, but apart from watching The French Connection Part II and consuming the numberless meals delivered to one's lap by the hardest-working cabin staff in the history of aviation, there was little to do except make increasingly feeble attempts to keep one's children out of mischief and go to the toilet.

This, every single one of the several hundred passengers did at least a dozen times on the voyage, making a total of many thousands of separate visits. Queues for the loo stretched down every aisle. It was somewhere between Bombay and Perth that the vision hit me. Our enormous aircraft, the apotheosis of modern technology, was filling up with gunk! Converted into chemical inertia by the cobalt-blue reagent in the flushing water, the waste products of our skyborne community were gradually taking over the plane!

I adduce the above fantasy only to demonstrate the intensity with which one hallucinates after nearly a full day in the sky on the long haul out to one's homeland. I had been fifteen years away from Australia. While I had been gone, the whole of the modern phase of Australian politics had taken place. The Gough Whitlam revolution — often called a 'renaissance', to emphasise its air of cultural euphoria — had been and gone. The same conservative forces were now back in power as had ruled the country so suffocatingly when I left. How much had I missed out on? And what if, despite my unfortunate timing, the place had indeed altered past recognition? Trepidations about culture-shock were eased only by the knowledge that the captain of our aircraft was called Barry Tingwell. The sheer Australianness of that name was as antipodean as a sand-fly bite or a sting from a jelly-blubber.

In fact, culture-shock had already begun a few nights before I left London, when I had seen the National Theatre's Hamlet and Barry Humphries' opening night as Edna Everage in the same thrill-packed evening. From the Hamlet, an austerity production in British Army standard-issue boots, to Edna's non-stop spectacular, with its voluptuous wealth of sequins and gladioli, had already been a large step from the old rigour to the new expansiveness. As Hamlet, Albert Finney had lacked lustre. As Edna, Barry Humphries had had lustre to burn. Edna's Proustian savouring of the things in her rich life — the gaudy catalogue of Australiana she carries in her dizzy head — was a call from the homeland as imperative as Penelope's sigh. Thus it was that Barry Tingwell steered me south-east around the curve of the world.

The first view of Australia was the coast near Perth: reefs, white beaches, shallow water like the juice of emeralds. In the suburbs, hundreds of swimming pools the colour of Paul Newman's eyes attested to affluence. But then, I had never seen Perth before. Perhaps it had always been like that. The transcontinental haul was fascinating to one who had never flown over Australia before in his life. (I had come to Europe by ship: a five-week voyage costing about £60 sterling. In those days everybody you knew was too poor to fly.) Look at those circular salt lakes out there in the desert, each lake a separate colour like the little tubs of paint in a child's paint-box! But an Australian businessman in a short-sleeved suit who had got on with a blast of reminiscent heat at Perth explained that this was nothing. The really fantastic scenery, he said, was further north. I should try it some time. Perhaps I should, and one day shall: but I felt resistant. For this trip, the eastern seaboard would be enough, and I wasn't even sure I could manage that. For the first time I was becoming physically aware of how far-flung the land was into which I had been born. There had been another change of pilots at Perth. Where was Barry Tingwell? Help.

At Sydney the 747 made its landing approach low over the suburb where I was born and grew up — Kogarah, on Botany Bay. It was night. Sydney was a vast field of lights: since the Aussie's ideal is to own his Own Home, the cities sprawl inordinately. Not all that much less than London, Sydney filled the sky with costume jewellery as the 747 heeled over, shaken by a great inner surge of cerulean goo. The flaps jacked out. The turbofans lapsed from a whine to a grumble. Like a winged supertanker full of odoriferous amethystine ordure the colossal machine brought me back to my roots.

Next morning the roots were on display in bright sunshine. Whatever overtones of unease eventually accrued to my four-week stay in Australia — and I should say in advance that I ended the trip feeling even more of an interloper than when I began — nothing should be allowed to detract from a proper celebration of that first, and continuing, impression of Sydney and its harbour. It remains one of the Earth's truly beautiful places. Apart from the startling Manhattanisation of its business district, the city was more or less as I remembered it, except that for the twenty-one years I lived there I never really appreciated it — one of the big things that can be said in favour of going back, partly offsetting the even bigger things that can be said for remaining an expatriate once you have become one.

The late Kenneth Slessor, in his prose as much as in his poetry, probably came nearest to evoking the sheer pulchritude of Sydney harbour. But finally the place is too multifarious to be captured by the pen. Sydney is like Venice without the architecture, but with more of the sea: the merchant ships sail right into town. In Venice you never see big ships — they are all over at Mestre, the industrial sector. In Sydney big ships loom at the ends of city streets. They are parked all over the place, tied up to the countless wharves in the scores of inlets (‘You could hide a thousand ships of the line in here,' a British admiral observed long ago) or just moored to a buoy in mid-harbour, riding high. At the International Terminal at Circular Quay, the liners in which my generation of the self-exiled left for Europe still tie up: from the Harbour Bridge you can look down at the farewell parties raging on their decks. Most important, the ferries are still on the harbour. Nothing like as frequent as they once were, but still there — the perfect way of getting to and from work.

Some of the big Manly ferries have been replaced by hydrofoils, but there are a few of the old ones left. Always the biggest ferries on the harbour, they were built strongly to sail unperturbed through the pelagic swell as they crossed Sydney Heads to Manly. Poems in blond wood and brass fittings, they were named after surfing beaches: Dee Why, South Steyne, Curl Curl. Now there is a fund being raised to save the South Steyne from the breakers' yard, while the hulks of some of the others are to be seen lying derelict against the Pyrmont wharves.

Riding across to Manly in the 1940s, we used to lean perilously over the balustrade of the open engine-room and watch the reciprocating whatchumacallits clonk and gwerp — ‘we' being children in English-style school uniforms of flannel short-trousered suits and long socks. The smell of the machine-oil and the sensual heave of the ferry in the Pacific waves is an abiding memory, which I found unimpaired by repeating the experience as an adult. Towards sunset, when the light strikes the harbour at a shallow angle and turns the water silver, the ferries, their setting deprived of all perspective, hang in space, like long-lensed photographs of themselves: dream-boats.

But where the ferry somehow survived, the tram did not. Melbourne keeps its trams but Sydney had got rid of them long before I left Australia. The toast-rack tram — open to the sun and breeze, full of character and incident — was the best form of street-transport ever invented. Unfortunately it sorted ill with the motor car, which since the early Fifties has ruled the city father's dreams, as if Sydney might be a new Los Angeles horizontally, just as it aspires to be a new New York vertically. It was in this spirit that the Cahill Express-way — a flyover of heroic ugliness named after the same politician who gave birth to the Opera House — was built over Circular Quay, almost totally destroying the atmosphere of what had, after all, once been Sydney Cove, the site of the First Settlement.

Almost, but not quite. More by luck than judgment, Circular Quay kept some of its character, and while I have been away has even increased in interest, due to the effects of an unequivocally positive addition to Sydney's life — immigration. The cosmopolitan, or ethnic, influence on Sydney first of all becomes visible when you notice the amount and kind of fast foods on offer. At the Circular Quay milk bars, where once the most you could hope for in the way of takeaway food was a lethal meat pie and a cream bun, you can now take your pick from kateifi, baklava, syrup rolls, honey and almond triangles, Turkish delight and fruit slices. One of the indisputably beneficial European influences — food — has been added to one of the most enduring Australian traditions — the milk-shake. And as long as you are content to drink your milk-shake on or near the premises, it is still possible to have it prepared as it should be, in a dented silver container battered around the rim from being dipped a million times into the mixing machine.

The completed milk-shake should never be tipped into a glass, but consumed direct from the container, either through a paper straw (with a resonant slurp to mop up the frothy dregs) or by applying the loose mouth to the cold metal and tilting until the blob of ice-cream collides with the top lip. The conflict involved in choosing between these two methods almost always necessitates the purchase of a second milk-shake. While drinking it and eating your pastries, you can lean over the railings between the wharves and watch the sprats feeding underwater around the pilings. At such moments, Sydney offers a petit bonheur comparable to anything obtainable in, say, Paris, where there is seldom anywhere comfortable to eat your crepes, no matter how delicious the chocolate sauce. Stay on, or near, the water and Sydney's version of the Little Happiness can be very near to Heaven.

When Australians talk about Culture they seldom mean honey and almond triangles. Perhaps they ought to, though. It's in the ordinary facts of everyday life that culture is to be measured — which is why Edna Everage reigns supreme as Australia's greatest cultural commentator, the Raymond Williams of the South Pacific. Australians talk in the one breath about the giant strides made in wine and poetry, but the awkward truth is that while the advance made in Australian wine is beyond dispute, to claim an advance in Australian poetry is largely meaningless. In the minutiae of existence Australia has changed in all sorts of ways since I left home. But in the large abstractions it seems to me to have stayed roughly as it was.

Turn back from leaning over the rails at the Quay and you are looking at Sydney's answer to Manhattan. The tallest building in Sydney when I left is now one of the shortest in the skyline. Photographs of this upsurge had disturbed me in exile but brought up against it I was less impressed. Some of the straining shapes on view are at least original, but even those are usually hideous, and on the whole I'm afraid the vaunted progress of Sydney's business architecture ('Ar, Sydney's coming on,' my old friends have been telling me for years: 'Ya wooden wreckingnise it') bears out the Italian proverb about fifty skyscrapers screwing a city. To the extent that the tall buildings have created space around their podiums they represent what Raymond Williams (the Edna Everage of the North Atlantic) would call a Clear Gain. But on the whole, the city's human scale has been destroyed for the sake of physically reflecting an exultation which was always more like arrogance than self-confidence, and which was already fading before Whitlam toppled. Large areas of office-space in the new towers are still for rent and will for a long time stay as empty as Centrepoint in London or the Trade Center in New York.

Such conspicuous waste represents the self-destructive element in the burgeoning national consciousness. There is a creative element too, but it works within a more modest range. The care with which the Rocks area of Sydney has been preserved is a good example of the creative element in action.

By now the awareness that there are things to be cherished is widespread, like a taste for wine, which is no longer restricted to the travelled minority. (Nor, of course, is travel.) The wine buff can order his tipple at 30 dollars a dozen before the grapes are picked, with right of refusal at the first tasting: it's like putting your son down for Eton. But even the uninstructed are not likely to pass the stuff up when flagon wine at least as good as what goes into the carafes in a restaurant in Italy works out at 20 cents a bottle. In other words, it's free.

It's in these things — in food and drink and places to be and ways to behave — that Australia has come on since my time. But in more grandiose matters — matters where national consciousness is really self-consciousness — the results are more equivocal. Culture with a small c is doing all right. Culture with a capital C has lost its erstwhile diffidence, but in many instances seems to have replaced it with a bombast equally parochial. The Sydney Opera House is a case in point. The case in point, because in daring to suggest that there is something wrong with the Opera House, you run the risk of appearing to deny the whole country its right to an identity — a slur not easily forgiven.

Back in England and safe from physical reprisal, it now seems possible to say aloud what I scarcely dared breathe in Australia, even to my relations: that the Opera House is a dud. In the matter of its appearance I have no very strong opinion. To me it looks like a portable typewriter full of oyster shells, and to the contention that it echoes the sails of yachts on the harbour I can only point out that the yachts on the harbour don't waste any time echoing opera houses. But really it is quibbling to talk about the way the thing looks. What matters is the way it works. And for its nominal purpose it doesn't work, and never can.

During the time that I was in Sydney there were no operas scheduled, but I did see a ballet — The Sleeping Beauty — sufficiently big to test the opera auditorium's facilities. (There are two auditoria: the smaller one for opera, and the larger one for concerts, including concert versions of those operas too large to fit into the smaller one.) They failed the test. It was embarrassing to see the corps de ballet queuing up to get off, there being very little wing-space for them to disappear into. The flimsiness of the décor and the tension in the dancing could all be traced to simple lack of room.

The effort which was poured into finishing the edifice after its architect was fired should not he discounted, even though the American Beauty upholstery in the concert hall (in the opera hall it's tomato red) might not be to one's taste. But similarly it is foolish to suppose that all would have been well had Jorn Utzon remained in charge.The farce began at the beginning, in that first flush of enthusiasm at Utzon's preliminary designs. The judges fell in love with an idea without grasping its substance, thereby acting out in little — or, financially speaking, in large — the Australian attitude to Culture. That attitude is likely to go on generating unintentional humour in large amounts. But since to some extent I once shared that attitude myself, I'm not entirely whole-hearted about joining in the laughter.

— June 20, 1976

Footnote 1984 : By now I feel much more affectionate about the Opera House but the first impression recorded above is probably the more objective. If a Wagner orchestra has to be reduced in size to fit the pit, what you have got is an edifice which does less than the one at Bayreuth at a thousand times the cost. But it looks better: there is no denying that.

Postscript 2007 : Precisely because it now seems to me so nerve-wracked and grudging, I have left this piece exactly as it was in the year it was first published. I had been away a long time and it was a shock to be home. I could tell that, but I couldn't tell what kind of shock it was. Nor could I guess that I would spend the next thirty years finding out. Anyway, my reassessment of the land where I was born began with this article, and I like to think that there were already a few signs of pride shining through.