Let’s go to Australia. We have family in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne. We’ll visit the three cities in turn, one week each. We’ll take notes and photographs to document our memories. We’ll go to Sydney first.
First sight, a thin line of sunrise-red stretching along the ocean horizon as we land at Botany Bay. Oh the perpetual irony of it.
A high view from a curving road reveals city, bay, landmarks and the great spread of people in an epic panorama. Few other cities display so well how people have chosen to find their home in safe harbours.
Bondi beach. The beach itself is obvious, but the cliff-top walks are pure theatre. Wind-blown sandstone records millennia past. Every view tells you how very old Australia is, and how very new.
Sydney central is full of young people, beggars and tall buildings. Everything is on the move. Everywhere there are signs of construction: new transport links, new offices, new homes, cranes overseeing our futures. There is money here, from somewhere. It feeds an urge always to be building up the new.
A busking guitarist by Central Quay plays ‘The Sultans of Swing’ with unsettling proficiency.
Noelle’s Cafe, close by the Central Station, offers the finest breakfast and the finest coffee, in all Australia. Maybe the finest anywhere. You could sit there forever, simply for the pleasure of sensing time pass. We shade ourselves under a pavement umbrella and see raucous cockatoos flying from hotel windows on either side of the street, demanding that those inside rise up to enjoy the day. Birdsong is everywhere, loud to reflect the tone of the growing city, or perhaps simply to be heard over the traffic.
The Rocks. Here is the location of the first white settlement, out of which spurted Sydney like a mad tropical plantation. It is a curious mixture of the neglected and the gentrified, the bijou shops making it hard to gain much of a sense of how this germ of a city once was. The Rocks Discovery Museum is small and exceptional. The focus is on what was lost, not what was built. The first inhabitants were the Gadigal people, of whom little can be known because so little physical evidence survives and the people themselves were mostly, and swiftly, wiped out by smallpox. A few drawings by not unsympathetic white immigrants, and some speculative recreations of canoes and implements, leave us wondering.
Everywhere in the city there are notices about The Voice. There is to be a referendum on adding words to the Australian constitution to set up a group (‘The Voice) of ‘First Nation’ leaders from Aboriginal and Torres Strait islanders which would stand outside government but would advise it and parliament. All of the notice encourage a ‘yes’ vote. But Australian referendums invariably fail, we are told.
For the visitor, one reads more about First Nations than one ever sees of them. One sees only the angst, the acknowledgments made to First Nations in the foyers of cultural institutions, at the start of concerts, in the dedicated, empty exhibition spaces.
Such leaps of culture lie around every corner. A short walk away from the Rocks is the State Library of New South Wales. It is a monument to civic pride, designed to project majesty and meaning. The foyer reproduces Tasman’s unfinished map of the continent. The symmetry of the reading room delights, with card catalogues to one side suggesting that time has no need to move on once you have made the definitive statement.
Unexpectedly there is a fine art gallery up some flights of stairs, with a clever central electronic display panel showing where the historic paintings of Australian life are on the walls and giving more information about them. The works are of a proud nation forever trying to rationalise its twin European and native inheritances.
All this and a Shakespeare First Folio exhibition too.
Chinatown is the beating heart of the city. An Asian-Australian man, possibly not entirely sober, leaves his family group for our restaurant table to give us his view of what makes the good life. We believe he knows it even if he has not always found it.
The Powerhouse museum has a fascinating history behind it of muddled government, with much money spent on planning to move it to elsewhere only for it to end up exactly where it is. It’s a museum of science and technology, built out of a huge factory building with a giddying sense of scale. A railway signal box with elaborate timetable stands alongside Soviet space vehicles. The steam train in the entrance is overshadowed by a helicopter and a man-powered box-kite.
A kindly guard explains centrifugal governors to us (for steam engines, that is, rather than a political metaphor). We are overwhelmed by friendliness everywhere.
We’re sitting in the opera house, the opera house, the opera house
We’re waiting for the curtain to arise
With wonders for our eyes
A feeling of expectancy
A certain kind of ecstasy
Expectancy and ecstasy… Sh’s’s’s.
Charles Ives, ‘Memories’
One is so used to the Sydney Opera House as a sight – the wind-filled sails of a society forever questing – that it is almost a surprise that one can go inside. It has a practical function. We see Nicola Benedetti playing Wynton Marsalis’s violin concerto. She is marvellous – pure musical theatre. The applause goes on forever. Marsalis joins her for one such round of acclaim. Our jaws drop, politely.
Somewhat bizarrely the encore comes halfway through the programme, since after the interval the orchestra plays ‘The Rite of Spring’ while Nicola and Wynton are presumably putting their feet up in the bar.
Every view within the building and looking beyond is pure thrill. Every shadow falls so neatly into place. It is a building that moves.
People-watching on the Central Quays. There is no better place for seeing a multifarious world walk by, parading in the late afternoon sun, exuding confidence. A stroll through the botanical gardens as the sun fades. Every plant is trained to be at its best.
Everywhere is growing. The need for development is compulsive. Older houses with iron balcony railings strive to hold things back.
Young finches learning to fly, circling trees in Circular Quay gardens, while anxious parents look on.
Circular panels in the harbour pavement instructing us in Australian literary history. One per author – Henry Handel Richardson, Miles Franklin, Dorothea Mackellar, Patrick White…
Buddhist monks eating ice cream. A busking Chinese guitarist strumming Coldplay.
Alien skyscrapers spell out their own language through lights in faceless windows.
We think of it as a young city, but it is not so young really. Many a great city is younger – Toronto, Chicago, Hong Kong, Singapore, Washington, Johannesburg. Sydney, though, feels young: if not young physically, young in an abstract way, as though the generations succeeded each other quickly here. There is something fugitive to the fascination of the place.
Jan Morris, ‘Sydney’
Ferries hurry out of Circular Quay, feeding the bays, coves and islands of the harbour vista. A micro-world decidedly pleased with itself. The sun sets over the harbour bridge, a small group of people being led over its top as we speed by. Fish and chips at Watson’s Bay in the dusk.
Sydney hums with life, intelligence and interest. It is a most accommodating city. Its main streets are commanding; its side street hold the charm and encourage adventure. It is a city with its well-sunscreened face to the bright light.
How far does Sydney stretch? Far out to the Blue Mountains it would seem, where, after a long journey through extended suburbia, one stands at Echo Point. Most of our fellow tourists are Indian. We stare out at the canopy, stretching away to beyond eyesight. Here is the true land, to which all will return in time.
The voice remains in those illimitable mountains and trees.
But we must fly on, to Brisbane.
- Photographs from my 2023 visit to Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne are on my Flickr site