Issue 7.5: October/November 2004

Sydney Rising

by Stu Dawrs
photos by
Dana Edmunds­

“What happened to good manners?”

A good question … and hard to miss, printed as it was in bold type on the cover of The Weekend Australian magazine’s May 22 edition. It’s a universal lament, but the image that accompanied the query was one few other countries could produce: A model in evening gown and pearls, one elegantly gloved hand filling the foreground, “flipping the bird” to the camera.

Where else but Australia, which has given the world both the stately Sydney Opera House and post-Apocalyptic Mad Max? Where but in a country that embraces both lawn bowling and Australian rules football? Where but on the world’s largest island—or, alternately, smallest continent—a (mostly) well-mannered nation that began as a settlement of convicts, on land already inhabited for more than 40,000 years by a race whose mythic ancestors literally sang the world into existence?

An old friend once said that in order to be truly human, each of us has to embrace our own contradictions. Australia is a truly human place.


Gillian Coote

“What would you like to know aboutSydney?” asks Gillian Coote. “It’s very big. It’s huge. Really, it goes forever.” It’s true: The city where the story of modern Australia began—that is, the ground where the first boatload of “transportees” was landed—has mushroomed upward and outward in the last forty years. Now the largest city on the continent, Sydney’s four million-plus residents make up nearly one-fifth of  Australia's total population; its boundaries push north and south toward the cities of  Newcastleand Wollongong. Two hours by train to the west, the once-remote Blue Mountains are lately considered something of a distant suburb.


But it doesn’t always feel so big. Perhaps this is because the original settlement was divided—convicts and soldiers to the west, government officials and military officers further east. Or maybe it’s because modern Sydney is cut into northern and southern halves by the harbor, the water providing a sense of openness and scale often missing in landlocked regions. Whatever the reason, Sydneyisn’t so much a single unit as a conglomeration of shoulder-to-shoulder neighborhoods, each with its own traits. For instance, bawdy Kings Cross gives way to über-cool Darlinghurst; Darlinghurst opens out on the south to pubby Surry Hills, which in turn leads to the galleries of Paddington; the upscale surf-ghetto of Bondi faces the Pacific just down the coast from the southern entrance to the harbor, while Manly kicks off a string of beach communities near the northern entrance. And there is also the artist’s enclave of Lavender Bay, which sits just a bit west of theSydney Harbor Bridge, a ten-minute ferry trip across the water from downtown. More of a cove than a bay proper, there’s an elder air to the place: the homes are in a Victorian style; down at the cove, sailboats tug on their anchors. Luna Park, a rococo, brightly lit amusement park constructed in the 1930s, is just up the waterfront walk.

Gillie doesn’t live in Lavender Bay, but her dear friend Jan Cork does. And they—Jan and her daughter Jina; Gillie and her husband Tony—were kind enough to offer their assistance in understanding some small bit of the vast land they grew up on.

Together, they’re perfect for the job: Gillie is a documentary filmmaker, poet, environmentalist and teacher at the Sydney Zen Centre; Tony, who she’s known since childhood, is an architect concerned with historic preservation; Jan, who each has known for some thirty years, was a teenaged member of The Push, a Bohemian artists’ society active in the 1950s and ’60s; Jina is herself an artist. They’ve grown up together, even as the city has grown up around them, and their roots extend back to the country’s first European settlers.

“One of my ancestors was on the first fleet, in 1788,” says Jan, over muffins and a cup of late afternoon tea. “He was sent out for stealing a loaf of bread.”

“Mine was sent out from Ireland for forgery,” says Gillie. “It was actually a political prisoner thing.” Both, it turns out, are buried in the same churchyard.

Asked to describe the changes they’ve witnessed over the last fifty or so years, each raises the mix of good and bad typical of virtually any urban boom town. Traffic has increased dramatically; historic places have had to compete for space with modern developments, and haven’t always won. Peek under the city’s hem, and you’ll see the same challenges many cities face—in May, for instance, inquiries had just begun into the causes of a riot that had occurred three months earlier in the inner city region of Redfern. But keep looking and you’ll also see a metropolis like few others on earth: Extremely cosmopolitan and yet, prior to the advent of jet travel, a city that was to a great extent defined by its isolation.

“When I left university in 1966, the big thing was to go and live in London,” says Tony, “because Sydney was just a small town and the sense was that you needed to leave to experience Europe and the world. It took six weeks to get there by boat; people would go for years. And if you look at artists in the 1940s, they all left and quite a few of them never returned. So a sense of Australia being a backwater and culturally barren was really strong.”

“Hugely strong,” continues Gillie. “And then Gough Whitlam and the Labor Party came in to office 1972, after twenty-three years of a conservative government. One day he pulled the Australian troops out of Vietnam and then put the arts on the map and just went for it. And the artists and people started coming back—that was the beginning of a renaissance in the film industry and the theater industry and the arts … things were just cooking.”

In the midst of this thumbnail history Jan points out that the city’s population has more than quadrupled since they were children. Even so, as this trio’s longstanding friendship proves, Sydney’s emergence as one of the world’s great metropolises has not altered its history as one of the more geographically remote places on earth: a city bordered by the once uncrossable Blue Mountains and the vast blue Pacific; built on one small portion of a landmass that is, geographically speaking, the seventh largest country on earth—a vast island-continent-nation with a total population less than that of urban New York.

“Today Sydney seems like a big city, but it’s also very small,” says Tony with a chuckle. “If you live here long enough, you tend to know each other and be connected in all sorts of ways. And you get to know all the stink about everyone.”


Stephen Page

“When you think of this place —Botany Bay and La Perouse and especially Sydney, where colonialism first came to Australia—it’s always been a city of challenge,” says Stephen Page. “Its character is quite stern and confident—it’s cheeky, it’s got style, it’s a bit deviant and, especially in the arts, Sydney is sort of like New York: It’s the stomping ground to aspire to, the place to be to move forward.”

If ever there were anyone who could help make sense of Sydney’s occasionally incongruous elements, it would be Stephen. Sitting in the posh bar of the Four Seasons Hotel, around the corner from the Opera House and smack in the middle of the power-suit Central Business District, he is himself something of a contradiction to his immediate surroundings. Spiky black hair and deep brown eyes; blue rubber slippers, battered pants and jacket; bottle of Corona and cigarette in hand—the look is 21st century urban cool meets ’80s Brit punk band The Clash.

Don’t be misled by appearances. Stephen is one of the prime movers in Sydney’s contemporary arts scene: the artistic director of the Aboriginal dance troupe known as Bangarra; the director of the indigenous segments of the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games; guest choreographer for the Australian Ballet Theatre; director of the 2004 Adelaide Festival of the Arts … his resume is deep.

We’d been talking for a while, discussing everything from cultural preservation to the tug-of-war modern Aborigines face between urban assimilation and traditional ways (“It’s really about respecting the history, maintaining that respect but also evolving the culture into the 21st century”); about how this tension is mirrored in his art (“We can’t just be dancing for art’s sake—we are reawakening a cultural identity, it’s a huge responsibility”); and about how he sees the world coming back around to an indigenous point of view (“I really believe in the whole circle of life—ah mate, I’m sounding like the Lion King now!”).

And I’d also asked him to attempt to “explain” Sydney.

“It’s got that whole myriad of styles, and I think that’s because of its history,” he asserted. “The oldest city; the modernized colony and how it came to be; the relationship between white and black and how that evolved.  It’s a very proud city: It’s got one of the best harbors in the world; it’s got great beaches, it’s close to fresh water; it’s close to mountains. But beyond that, geographically and culturally its a very significant place. It shines with that history.”

Wanting to know a bit more about that history, I set out one day on a self-guided walking tour, using James William Waugh’s bestselling The Stranger’s Guide To Sydney. Or, I should say, “bestselling in its day”: Today the book is largely forgotten, but at the time of its publication—1861—it was right popular.

Circular Quay

I’d fully expected to take five steps and splat face-first into the side of a glass-walled office tower or chic espresso bar. But many of the city’s main thoroughfares were already in place decades before Waugh took to strolling the city, and it remains remarkably easy to retrace his footsteps. Sure, one does run the danger of splatting into any number of businessmen, bike messengers, careening taxis and kids in school uniforms—the last of whom all seem to carry cell phones programmed to hum a few bars of the latest Eminem track (it is a small world after all).

Backtracking along one of Waugh’s routes—OK, I was lost—I wound east along the waterfront pathway that borders the Royal Botanical Gardens (already forty five years old at the time of Waugh’s writing) and found Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair, a seat cut into the sandstone overlooking the harbor, dedicated, in his words, “to the lady of so popular a Governor who planned and carried out so delightful a promenade.” Just inland from there, The Domain also remained intact, in Waugh’s day “a pleasant and agreeable promenade … long used for reviews and military spectacles.” In my day, there was a heated soccer match underway.

Across the Domain toward downtown is the State Library of New South Wales, founded in 1826 and “a handsome building of the Corinthian order.” These days, it’s still quite a looker, with more recent facelifts including the addition of art galleries, two cafes and—readymade for pedestrian Strangers and those who just can’t deal with due dates—a bookstore.

Over the meandering course of the next two hours—that Waugh, some walker—I came upon the St. James Church (completed in 1824) and the Hyde Park Barracks (1819), the latter in its day serving first as convict quarters, then as an immigration depot, then as a court and now, finally as a museum. There was the Parliament House, originally a wing of Sydney’s Rum Hospital (1814) and reconstructed in stages through 1856; The Mint (also originally part of the Rum Hospital—it’s a long story); and St. Mary’s Cathedral—originally constructed beginning in 1821, but rebuilt following a fire in 1865.

Had I a better set of legs, I no doubt could have continued into the night, but—being from Hawai‘i—I took it as a sign to call it a day when I came upon an 1879 statue of Captain James Cook in Hyde Park—the selfsame Cook who came upon Australia during his first voyage and, as the statue’s inscription summarizes events of his third voyage, was “KILLED AT OWHYHEE 1779.”


Liesl Capper

In contrast to Tony Coote’s post-university experience, the journey from Sydney to London no longer takes six weeks. In the era of jet travel, one can now make the trip in a relatively zippy twenty-one hours. Also contrary to Tony’s experience, these days many people are making the journey in the opposite direction. Today, close to one in four Australian residents was born outside its borders; the country as a whole claims a net gain of one international migrant every four or so minutes.

While in Sydney, I met several recent transplants. There was Liesl Capper, formerly of South Africa, who had immigrated in the late 1990s and proceeded to risk much of her life’s savings on creating a groundbreaking Internet search engine known as Mooter. It was Liesl who introduced me to the concept of the “Ozzie Battler,” which she explained one morning while we were driving across the Harbor Bridge. It’s an idea rooted in the notion that, in a nation founded by another’s castoffs, you have to be a fighter, have a bit of faith, and temper everything with a sometimes wicked sense of humor. Or, as she puts it, “There’s not a lot of fear about failure here, it’s just, ‘Give it a go mate. She’ll be right.’”

I also met Alex Rayner, originally from Prague but also having arrived in Australia via South Africa. It was Alex who, over a glass of Tasmanian beer at the Iguana Bar & Restaurant in Kings Cross, explained why both the kangaroo and emu are placed on the Australian National Seal: That is, because neither the pouched mammal nor the flightless bird are capable of walking backward—“so Australia can only move forward, mate.” (Full disclosure: By the time I was three Cascade Ales to the wind, Alex also had me dining on kangaroo at the Iguana—it seemed a bit blasphemous, though not in the least bit gamey.)

And then there were the Middletons. Late one afternoon, having already popped in to the sprawling Bondi flea market to visit Jan Cork—she sells handmade hats there every Sunday, weather permitting—my love and I had settled onto the open-air veranda of the Bondi Icebergs to catch the end of the day. Perched on the bluffs overlooking town from the southern end of the beach, the Icebergs is an ideal vantage to watch the ocean push surfers along on the last of the day’s waves, which is exactly what Ian Middleton and his parents were doing.

Ian, his mother leaned over to confide, had come to Sydney from London a bit over a year ago to “find his way in the world.” She and her husband were down on holiday to check on his progress. A woman of consummate manners, Mrs. Middleton refused to turn her back to our table for even a moment, though it meant her craning in a somewhat awkward position to include us in her family’s conversation. We talked for a while about her home life and the rigors of crossing such a great distance to visit her only son. And then we fell quiet for a spell until, just as the last of the light was leaving the sky, Mrs. Middleton leaned over to whisper a wonderful bit of advice.

“Enjoy the world, dears, before someone mucks it up.”