Reviewed by Laurice Bondfield
Strictly speaking this is not a history book. It is more a meditation on what makes Sydney unique; one of a series in which “leading Australian authors write about their hometowns”. Nevertheless for history buffs there are many delights to be found in its pages. Chapters titled “Ghosting”, “Dreaming”, “Living” and “Sweating” delve into what Sydneysiders past and present thought, felt and wrote about their city.
From the story in Ruth Park’s autobiography “Fishing in the Styx” of finding an Aboriginal carving of a snake under the outdoor toilet of her house in Neutral Bay to quotation from Kenneth Slessor’s book on wicked Sydney of the thirties “Darlinghurst Nights” with its wonderful illustrations by Vergil Reilly; history, literature and poetry provide pointers to what lies beneath the glib description coined by playwright David Williamson in the 1980s “Emerald City”. The author’s personal recollections of living in central Sydney as a child and later in the late 1970s as a student when as she says “the inner city was a ruin” – Glebe, Balmain and Newtown being the haunts of the impoverished looking for cheap places to live – will revive memories for many. As will her stories of the great department stores like Farmers and the emptiness of Martin Place on a Saturday afternoon during this time.
The outer suburbs are not neglected either as so often happens in books about Sydney. Incidentally for local St George readers there is a wonderfully stinging description of Arncliffe’s “commonness” in the 1930s (and isn’t that a lovely reminder of the language of the time, when calling someone or something “common” was definitely a put-down!) from Sumner Locke Elliot’s novel “Fairyland”.
This article was first published in the January 2011 edition of our magazine.
Browse the magazine archive.