In 1950, Kenneth Slessor wrote A Portrait of Sydney. It took him barely a dozen pages to make the full account of the place he loved so entirely. You couldn’t add or subtract a single word to make it better. Everybody knows that Five Bells and Beach Burial are two of the finest things ever written by an Australian. The Portrait vies with them easily. Here are some bits of it.
Once I lived in the sky over Sydney, seven storeys higher than the top of William Street, eating, sleeping, loving, arguing, sausage-frying and head-scratching in a small room of stucco, wallpaper and brick, on top of a layer of steel in a structure of cement. From this perch in the air I could see, whenever I watered my window-box, the complete history of the sun, which came up behind North Head and disappeared fairly regularly on the other side of Hyde Park.
… … … At night, after a slick of rain has fallen on it, turning the roadway to a long, black mirror, William Street comes out like a beautiful adventuress. It is dressed in neon signs, the blazing arrows and the alphabets of light, in mandarin-yellow, tangerine-red, emerald and white, like the witch-fires of the Ancient Mariner, ‘about and about, in reel and rout’. In the water silvering the pavement, people walk on their reflected heels. The flesh is green or carmine or fluorescent blue as they move from one radiance to another, and in the juke-box bars the intense light exposes them as nakedly as if they were sliced and stained and gummed between slides for a microscope.
… … … Here … Wee Sun’s laundry, ‘Suits Cleaned and Pressed’, with Wee Sun himself at the door, and an even smaller son sitting on the counter, and the ‘Gents Wardrobe Purchasers’, the fish-shops and the pawn-shops, crammed with telescopes, concertinas, corroded billiard balls, carved emu-eggs, pimply mirrors, rusty golf-clubs, old-fashioned cameras, sewing-machines, cabin-trunks, painted vases, microscopes and artificial legs.
And at the end of every street, the Harbour.
The character and life of Sydney are shaped continually and imperceptibly by the fingers of the Harbour, groping across the piers and jetties, clutching deeply into the hills, the water dyed a whole paint-box’s armoury of colour with every breath of air, every shift of light or shade, according to the tide, the clock, the weather and the state of the moon. The water is like silk, like pewter, like blood, like a leopard’s skin, and occasionally merely like water.
… … … All this I watched or thought from an eyrie at the top of William Street, in time no longer than the opening of both eyes, while the dogs barked, the chimes cried out, the motor-horns bellowed, the telephone bells nagged, the trams clanged and the wheels and pistons made their buried thunder; and, as I let the curtain fall and yawned and turned back to the practicalities of breakfast and the putting on of garments, I knew that this was my city and this was my love.
In 1973, Ruth Park published her indispensable Companion Guide to Sydney. She rambles the full extent of the town, compiling 450 pages of keen investigation.
About 300 pages in, she leaves Luna Park as the night sky goes obsidian:
[Get] away from the lurid greenish light of side-shows and ‘attractions’, forget the long sustained howl of terror and excitement which is the Park’s almost constant atmospheric, and look across the water at Sydney, as insubstantial and fatally beautiful as Fata Morgana’s city. The barbaric hues of neon signs, monstrous and intestinal by daylight, now become extravagant gems amongst the sparkling rectangles and obelisks where cleaners work the night through in empty offices.
Six years after Park wrote this, the long sustained howl of terror would come keening from the fatally beautiful ride called The Ghost Train, as it was incinerated during peak-capacity time on a Saturday night, killing six children and an adult. Park could not have known but doubtless would not have been surprised to learn, that the coroner returned an open finding and failed to stanch ever-strengthening popular belief that there was criminal involvement and managerial malfeasance behind the evil blaze in Luna Park. Property-development chicanery was likely the main cause and the main prize.
In 1980 Gig Ryan wrote the poem ‘Dying For It’ as part of her brilliant and mordant first book, The Division of Anger. Up and down the east coast, the heroine chases prospective lovers, caroming through various sexual orientations, alliances, heartaches and enragement. A quarter-way through the poem, she’s finds herself in Sydney where everything is screwing her up, down and sideways. And dumb-arse chintzy glamour preens in a setting that is way better than anyone deserves:
He hands you fun in a glass jar.
Back in Sydney, you discover the exclamation mark,
Pumping the beach resort of his conversation.
You work hard getting them talking.
His American optimism sweet on the sky
She’s going gaga over.
In 1988, John Forbes ‘celebrated’ the Bicentennial year by publishing his mighty, slim volume The Stunned Mullet. It included ‘Afternoon Papers’. As with the very best of his work, it was full of disgust matched by yearning steeped in the addictive aura of the town:
The city fits the Harbour
the way a new suit
fits a politician like applause
as if a drowned river valley
was glad we’re here, moving
tons of paper around, punching computers
& answering the phone
where an amalgam of needs: money, boredom
& the fantasy life of a young executive
keeps a million people off the street.