In June of this year I moved back, temporarily, to Sydney. I say moved ‘back’ because I lived in Sydney as a teenager and in my early twenties: 12 of my 38 years, with the remainder spent in regional Victoria and Melbourne. But Sydney marked me formatively. It’s brutal and beautiful. I feel nostalgic for it but I also remember how it felt to struggle here. I remember why I left.
I haven’t moved back to the Sydney I remember. In some ways that would be impossible; more than 15 years have passed and cities, particularly ones you have nostalgia for, change rapidly. I’m also not back in the inner west topography of my adolescence. Rather, I’ll be the last tenant before the demolition of a glamorous but dishevelled apartment above a long closed corner store in Malabar, a beachside suburb I’d never seen before April this year.
Nested between a waste water treatment plant, a rifle range, a prison, and acres of golf course, Malabar draws me back to Vanessa Berry’s descriptions of the shadowy alternative city in Mirror Sydney. Architecturally, and geographically, it’s similar to Berry’s description of Kernell—1950s cottages largely replaced by ‘behemoth two-story homes’. The bay feels remote, like a south coast town. But there’s an uneasy undertone here, too, which is very Sydney in character and reminds me of Berry’s observation that the ‘traces of the eras’ a city has passed through can be ‘felt in the atmospheres as thresholds.’ On my block in Malabar, die-hard locals tattoo backpackers in the courtyard of the flats next door, and a family of five live in the tiny, windowless old shop below me. Meanwhile, cashed up retirees and European business folk occupy the mansions and golf courses all around.
The apartment is equal parts grit and glitter. It has 1970s chandeliers. It leaks. There are handrails everywhere. With it, I have temporarily attained my goal of a place of my own by the sea. I deserve it, I tell myself, as a pretty refuge from the injurious extremes of my past couple of years in Melbourne. In it, I read Mirror Sydney, and Deborah Levy’s Real Estate and think about cities, homes, women writing, and how they (we!) endure. My new apartment is like Levy’s ‘unreal-estate’. It bears ‘traces of the rituals of all who had lived there before.’ It has ‘enjoyed a life’ in and become ‘a loving house’. I’ve filled it with a bounty of Eastern suburbs hard rubbish. Like Levy, I’ve accepted its conditionality: ‘I did not own it, I was renting it, but I owned its mood.’
When I travel, I read books, watch films and TV shows set in my destination, and then design missions to their locations. The directionless of tourism can be disconcerting and this activity provides a sense of false, but undeniable poetic purpose. As I packed up my Brunswick share house bedroom, I daydreamed about doing this in Sydney, the furthest place I’ve travelled to since 2019. I could go Down The Hume with Peter Polites. Hit the Rocks with Ruth Park. I’d done this exercise in Sydney once before, walking the coastline to the Dover Heights house that belonged to Frankie, Claudia Karvan’s character in the TV show Love My Way. I arrived just in time to witness the new owner, an American, giving his friend a virtual tour, holding his iPad up to the view, repeating only six million aussie dollars bro, only six million, over and over. I sat on the grassy verge staring at the iconic Hills hoist and tried not to let him muddy the magic of stepping into a story I know well. Later a friend told me it had been his first share house in the 90s. They had mad techno parties there. ‘Fuck Love My Way,’ he said.
While I’m still unpacking, arranging, and getting used to looking at the Sydney skyline from the other side, an editor sends me the galleys for Max Easton’s debut The Magpie Wing. Uncannily, this novel is set partly in the Sydney I remember. The late 90s and 2000s inner west and the punk and electronic music scenes I grew up in. Recognising the pubs and streets gives me a vivid thrill I haven’t experienced since, as a Newtown High School student, I read Linda Jaivin’s Rock and Roll Babes From Outta Space and marvelled at a psychedelic, parodic version of my world in an actual book. Easton’s novel isn’t a whimsical romp though. It’s a nuanced portrayal of the intense tribalism of Sydney, and the line down the city’s middle, which—as I learned to write in high school General Studies essays—divides residents statistically: from income, to education and life expectancy. The Magpie Wing is a coming of age story fuelled by contradictions, class war and ennui—the simultaneous desire to belong and escape. I don’t need to design a mission to visit this terrain—it’s already in me.
I also read Anwen Crawford’s No Document and recognise my Sydney in those scenes, too. I remember the Emu Technology Cafe on Enmore Road where we circulated zines—some of them, surely, typed by Vanessa Berry—and took direct action workshops, learning how to drop roots and go limp, to link arms in blockade. Like Crawford, I attended the anti-globalisation (such a quaint sounding phrase now) protests at the World Economic Forum in Melbourne in 2000. But like a character in Easton’s novel, I spent the final day despondently drinking longnecks in a park. The combination of watching high-ranking delegates land helicopters on the roof while bloody-nosed friends were loaded into paddy wagons at street level, capped daily by a News Limited recap describing us as thugs and fools, had obliterated any sincere belief in affecting change. I had, I think, legitimately believed we could shut it down. Was that the last time I thought a protest could be more than symbolic? Both Crawford and Easton’s books explicitly link such moments of personal zeal, hope, and disaffection with the structural contexts that produce and constrain our action. In No Document, Crawford vacillates between acknowledging colonised country, and pining for the plans she and her dead friend had to take over the world. These contours are also achingly familiar.
You can’t go back in time, and cities change. But they also don’t. As I finish The Magpie Wing, the timeline of which extends to last year, Sydney is hit by the Delta variant of the Covid-19 virus. Malabar is one of the first local government areas to be restricted due to the ‘Bondi Cluster,’ but there’s no hard lockdown until it hits South West Sydney. Then they send in the cops.
In my apartment by the sea, I’m further than ten kilometres from anyone I know. I scan the internet anxiously, unable to reconcile the paternalistic, bullying message for South Western Sydney with the birthday picnics, golfing, and general merriment surrounding my new home. There are no police on the streets out here. It’s sunny. People are enjoying their good fortune. Am I, too? I feel unhinged, but the vistas are undeniably beautiful.
Looking for distractions, I start reading Emily Maguire’s Love Objects, and immediately see the impossibility of writing Sydney without addressing these inherent inequities. In the first few pages, a woman searches through Leichardt hard rubbish while observing what she imagines to be a higher order of scavenger—real estate investors eyeing the discarded objects at the aged care facility: ‘tracking which old ladies were due to die next, leaving their unrenovated 1960s houses to be bought cheap, flipped, and sold within a month for millions.’ I read all morning while the rain rattles the huge old windows in my bedroom. I’m drawn in to Maguire’s books each time by how realistically she writes women’s desire and strength, despite the constant knocks and snares of life in capitalist patriarchy. Levy does this too. From Real Estate:
Whenever I saw eccentric and sometimes mentally fragile older women feeding the pigeons on the pavement in every city in the world, I thought, Yes, there she is, she is one of those cut-down goddesses who has become demented by life.
Were the goddesses’ real estate owned by patriarchy?
Just a week into this lockdown I injure my knee walking across the rifle range to Maroubra. I start making use of the handrails to get around the apartment. I hobble into my writing room, lower myself gingerly into the pink and blue bathtub. I sit on the ironwork balcony with my leg up, staring at ocean glimpses. I imagine the woman who imagined this apartment’s glamorous flourishes ageing alongside them. In her home, satellite to a city that I’ve always called Sydney, I’ve been reading about familiar streets and conflicts, but going nowhere—using the traces of other people’s lives to navigate my interior.
Briohny Doyle’s new novel Echolalia is out now through Penguin Random House. Her previous books are Adult Fantasy and The Island Will Sink. She is a lecturer at Deakin University.