The brief to ‘write about the city you live in’ has produced diverse books by five Australian writers. Another has just started to contemplate the process. The cities series was the brainchild of University of New South Wales Press, with Peter Timms’ Hobart the first in the series to be published, in 2009. In 2010 Matthew Condon wrote Brisbane and Delia Falconer Sydney. Sophie Cunningham’s Melbourne has just been published, and Adelaide by Kerryn Goldsworthy is due out in October. Paul Daley has just been commissioned to produce ‘Canberra’. The series will continue around the country. The authors and I conducted an email conversation about the project, of which an edited version is presented here.
How did you arrive at the tone you finally used?
Matthew Condon: The book and its structure ultimately demanded a number of different tones. How do you embrace—in a work of literary nonfiction—something as fluid and organic as a city? I puzzled over this for some time before, in half-resignation, I wandered down to ‘X marks the spot’, the foundation obelisk at North Quay on the Brisbane River that commemorates surveyor-general and city founder John Oxley stepping ashore and declaring the settlement site in 1823. That action opened a low door into the book, and I set off investigating the actual obelisk.
I also wanted to write a ‘memoir’ component in the book, but I didn’t want to specifically write about myself, so I utilised the techniques of fiction to put down the impressions of a Brisbane ‘boy’ growing up in the city. Another narrative thread was the history of the city itself. So I had three threads to loop and lope through the book, building a picture of the city, past and present.
Kerryn Goldsworthy: If I thought consciously about defining the tone at any point, I think ‘meditative’ and ‘conversational’ were the two adjectives that came up in my mind most often. When you’re writing nonfiction, you’re writing either mainly from the head or mainly from the heart. This was a ‘heart’ book, and one of the several genres I was writing in was memoir, so writing in the first person and including some personal material came naturally. A lot of people react with knee-jerk scorn to writing in the first person, but if you’re careful with it and understand what you’re doing, it becomes a way of speaking very directly to the reader, and eliciting from them their own memories and feelings in response to stories about yours. You’re speaking straight from your own heart to theirs.
Peter Timms: I wanted to avoid a first-person narrative. Being a relative newcomer to Hobart, and not having grown up here, the personal-memoir approach was clearly inappropriate. Furthermore, since a lot of city narratives are told from a first-person perspective, I thought it would be a challenge to try something different. At the same time, I wanted to make it warm and engaging. So it was a tricky balance—my voice but not about me. As a newcomer, it was important that I didn’t come across as a know-all. Tasmanians are very sensitive about people from elsewhere presuming to encroach on their territory. So it was necessary always to adopt the voice of the interested, sympathetic outsider—opinionated but aware of sensitivities and deferential to the opinions of others with more experience of the city. This is why I based the book around interviews with local business people, artists, politicians and others. They gave me a springboard on which to launch my own observations. They also provide a range of voices, which gives the book more texture.
Delia Falconer: I didn’t set out with a tone in mind—for me that’s always the hardest thing to find (along with structure) in any piece of writing—and the challenge is to help both emerge organically from each work. That said, I wanted something fairly robust, to match my sense of the city. And hopefully funny at times, as I have always found Sydney a fabulously free, irreverent place to live, and I wanted to reflect that.
I think I was lucky to be working in a very written-about city, with a set of texts and tones already laid down over it. I know many people accuse Patrick White of not having much of a sense of humour, but I have always found his writing savagely funny; I love its ability to capture Sydney’s particular marriage of extremes, of philistinism and beauty, of melancholy and light. Some of his writing, especially in The Vivisector, has always reminded me of the very different Sydney of my childhood: its complicated love and hatred of eccentrics, the layer of repression laid over its humidity, its resistance of the sensual blandishments of the harbour. It’s not that I set out in any way to imitate White, though I certainly had his rich, ironic novels strongly in my mind.
But the sensibility that most attracted me was Kenneth Slessor’s, in Five Bells, but also his prose writing about Sydney. Like so many of his artistic contemporaries in 1940s Sydney, Slessor was wildly in love with the place. But he managed his tone beautifully, with such a lightness of touch, that it seemed to channel the almost Manichaean opposition here between light and dark, in constant negotiation. In Slessor’s writing the ugly is beautiful, the beautiful haunted, loveliness counterbalanced by the mad and wild. This was the tone I most responded to, and which I hope seeps into my book. At a certain stage I became aware that it might function in my mind as an antidote to the far more regulatory tourist and business discourses that have perhaps had the upper hand in this city since the eighties, and certainly since the 2000 Olympics.
I would be fascinated to know how the other authors ultimately arrived at their book’s structure.
Kerryn Goldsworthy: I was inspired by a novel that arrived one day in a package of books for review. I have long forgotten the title but I remember the general idea of it vividly. It called itself a novel and was the story of a romance, but it was really what I’d call a curated relationship: it took the form of an exhibition catalogue, in which various artefacts and memorabilia from the relationship—theatre tickets, a jacket worn on a first date, a loaned book, a special wine glass—were photographed and appeared with gallery-type notes under them explaining their import, adding up to the whole story of what Paul Simon calls ‘the arc of a love affair’.
It occurred to me that this would be a great way to do the Adelaide book: to choose iconic or numinous objects that seemed to resonate with meaning and to write a sort of meditative essay about each one, using it as a focus for different stories and ideas about the city. The objects more or less chose themselves: some are well-known Adelaide landmarks and others are personal memories, but all of them conjured up a complex set of associations, ideas and memories about the city.
Sophie Cunningham: Watching how Melbourne was being reduced by drought was a bit like watching it die of thirst. Then Black Saturday struck in early February 2009. Standing in my street on a 47-degree day, surrounded by a row of Victorian houses that had heated up like ovens, brought home to me that Melbourne was a city that had been built on European principles. It was obvious that its way of imagining itself was going to have to change if the city was going to survive the challenges of climate change and population growth over the next forty years. That terrible day became the opening of the book and once that decision was made I chose to run with the idea of Melbourne as a city ruled by weather, even if—or especially because—the joke that it always rained was so dated.
I wrote my way through its four seasons, over a period of a year (well, thirteen months, to be strictly accurate). I knew the book was done when a massive hailstorm hit on the Labour Day weekend in 2010 and the drought began to break. This seasonal approach also allowed me to focus on contemporary Melbourne. This suited me as I’d decided I didn’t want to write another book on the city’s history—though inevitably it finds its way into the book. But I tried to bring the same qualities to my written work that I brought to my (amateur) photography. A way of being present and capturing a place as you find it.
Delia Falconer: After receiving my advance I spent the first six months panicking, and thinking of giving it back. Then, like Kerryn, I had a lucky break. The Sydney Morning Herald ran a cover story on indigenous Sydney and one of the illustrations was by a photographer called Peter Solness.
It was a stunning image: a Cadigal carving of a stingray, photographed at dusk, and the photographer had somehow managed to illuminate its outline so that it seemed to almost lift itself up out of the coastal sandstone. There was a quality in this photograph that I responded to strongly, almost physically. It ‘got’ something that I instinctively felt about the place, that, for all the damage it has sustained, the Eora culture of this city can often rise up and catch you by surprise. But it was as if the animation of this image also captured something intuited by the original artists; that there is a spiritually affecting quality about the very ancient geography and nature of this place. I tracked Solness—who is non-indigenous, but seeks permission from artworks’ cultural guardians when he can find them—and interviewed him at the North Bondi Golf Course. This was a very ‘Sydney’ location, in that there is a stunning view out over the Pacific, a golf course and sewage works—all in proximity of a large slab of sandstone covered with different but abundant carvings. Solness explained his method, which is to set his camera on a tripod on a long exposure, then, wearing black, to draw around the edges with a pen light at the end of a black pole. At the very end of our interview he said to me, ‘I think of this process as ghosting.’ The word ghosting kept turning around in my head; I liked the very suggestive way that Solness saw himself as the ‘ghost’, not the Eora culture. And then, as I was playing with beginnings, I came up with my opening—my favourite story about Sydney is that many of its jacarandas were seedlings given to mothers who had had their babies at a north shore hospital. I wrote about the robust, yet weirdly ethereal, presence of these flowers, and then realised how well ‘Ghosting’ might suit this chapter as a title.
This was a liberating moment, as I had already decided that I would like to range over the entirety of Sydney’s history, picking and choosing my stories, but that I also wanted to move in a loosely chronological order through some of my own memories. By having chapters that wound themselves around gerundive titles (‘Dreaming’, ‘Living’, ‘Sweating’, ‘Showing Off’) I was able to do three things at once: tell the city’s history, tell my own, but also organise each around a theme or mood. I realised that this was the best form for me to celebrate but stay in control of Sydney’s volatility and size. The structure made the point formally that I was writing my own version of the city, and that by concentrating on five of the city’s ‘moods’, I was not trying to write something exhaustive.
What elements of the cities revealed themselves?
Matthew Condon: I lived away from Brisbane for almost twenty years and returned a few years ago to a place that was at once recognisable and not. I felt completely alien to the city and in many ways writing Brisbane was, I understand with hindsight, a way of writing myself back into the city of my birth. I came away from the manuscript feeling attached to the city again. I used the opportunity in the writing to revisit many of the stories and myths I had heard and remembered from childhood. I deliberately drilled down into the indigenous history of the city, and also looked in depth at the early settlement and its function as a penal colony. The aggression of Brisbane interested me, founded as it was on violence. I wanted to see if violence is in the DNA of a city; how that might have shaped, and continued to shape, the city’s inhabitants. My investigations revealed a plethora of eccentric, quixotic characters throughout the city’s history. One of the abiding themes of the book, however, is this disregard for history and the past and especially lessons learnt from the past. I describe the city as ‘a book without an index’, and once you view Brisbane’s history through this lens, it’s possible to see how the disregard for not just historic buildings and objects but also historic fact is a generational casualty in Brisbane.
Kerryn Goldsworthy: One of Adelaide’s founding fathers, Robert Gouger, was already in a vague way one of my local heroes, but the more I found out about him the more I liked him and the more interesting and tragic his life started to look. I spent a blissful two or three hours in the Rare Books room at the Adelaide University library reading his journals, including the time he was nearly shipwrecked off South America on his way home to England after having just lost both his wife and his little boy and then been sacked from his job as colonial secretary, and felt I really got to know him.
I also found out an awful lot more about Colonel Light, who is Adelaide’s main historical hero, and about various other historical figures. I already knew that the Victorian era was nothing like the way it is conventionally thought of, and that they were wild colonial times with incredibly brave and energetic people in them, but seeing that being fleshed out in the stories of individual colonial Adelaideans was fascinating.
But there were more abstract things, such as the tension in Adelaide between straight lines and curved ones, both in the literal sense of mapmaking and in the more metaphorical sense of the ‘straight and narrow’ versus the ‘crooked’, or of an awareness of the dark side of moral rectitude, which is of course repression. I got a very strong sense while I was researching the book of there being some sort of invisible relationship between these things, as though the very straightness of Adelaide streets created a deep desire to break out into wild behaviour.
Peter Timms: There were so many elements in my case. To be honest, I didn’t know a lot about Hobart when I started, having lived here less than ten years. I’d read histories, of which there are many, but my personal experience of the city was very limited. So the book was a way of familiarising myself. What most surprised me was the extent of disadvantage in Hobart. I’d read the statistics, but hadn’t really experienced it. One tends to stick to the areas one knows, which, in my case, were the relatively well-off suburbs of Sandy Bay, Battery Point, West Hobart and North Hobart. I just drove past the poorer areas without really taking much notice. Researching the book meant spending some time in these neighbourhoods, wandering around, going to garage sales and open houses, engaging people in conversation. It was an eye-opener.
Delia Falconer: This is a tricky question. Over the years I have planned, researched and started a number of novels about Sydney. So when I accepted this commission and began writing, I wasn’t in the position of needing to do a lot of new research. Instead, I saw it as an opportunity to find a shape for many stories that had perhaps not had enough juice in them to sustain full-length novels or, conversely, to distil elements of large, personally invested narratives that had refused to conform to the shape of a novel. And this small book proved (eventually!) to be the perfect form. So for me the writing was more about exorcism than a revelation.
However, there were two things that really surprised me. One was that my sixties and seventies childhood had taken place in one of the more conservative moments in the city’s history. I have always joked with another childhood friend about being ‘culturally Protestant’, but it was only in writing Sydney that I realised quite how this moment fitted into a longer history of the city’s periodic waxing and waning between wild diversity and moral restriction.
Second, I was struck very forcefully by historian Grace Karskens’ work on the make up of the early English population of this city. I loved her description of how many convicts, unlike their Georgian captors, could be more accurately thought of as citizens of a pre-industrial age: many rural or working-class prisoners were steeped in pre-modern patterns of time and behaviour (a distrust of government, a cyclical and seasonal sense of time and consequent patterns of rest and work). This had never occurred to me before. Not only did Sydney’s indigenous history long predate colonisation; the colonisers’ history (or histories) had deep roots before 1788. This captured an instinctive sense of antipathy I had always felt towards the snobbish European truism that we were (and still are) such a ‘young’ and callow city. There is still a lingering sense in Sydney not only of the Georgian but also the pre-Georgian. Karskens’ observation not only gave me the language in which to understand a particularly ornery, iconoclastic quality I think is still intrinsic to Sydney’s sensibility (though I fear swiftly disappearing now), which is particularly individualistic and scathing of authority. It also allowed me to see our entire history as a city as a dialectical tension between the modernist cleaner-uppers and a pre-modern, anti-authoritarian streak.
Another question for the writers. Was there anything they wanted NOT to write about? And how did they decide what to leave out?
Matthew Condon: The greatest dilemma with the book was what to put in and what to leave out. Once I made the editorial decision not to try to write a definitive Brisbane, it allowed me to breathe enough to at least write one version of that city. This is an interesting axiom that I have no doubt underscores the entire cities series. The subjects of the books, by their nature, are constantly evolving. I could look at Brisbane in ten years time and see a completely different city altogether. My book too is from the perspective of myself at a certain time in my life. That, one would hope, will change over time as well. I have received feedback from readers who have said they wept with recognition of the childhood elements in the book, and from others who did not see the contemporary city in the same way as I did.
Kerryn Goldsworthy: After giving it a lot of thought, I made a considered decision not to put any emphasis on the sociological aspects of Adelaide’s depressed outer northern suburbs, which was the crucible of the so-called Bodies in the Barrels serial murders and which is an ongoing problem in a post-industrial landscape where the whole city of Elizabeth, the centre of that region, was established in the first instance specifically as an industrial base in the 1950s.
The main reason for that decision was that I think the people who live there get quite stigmatised enough without any help from me. And in any case it’s not really that kind of book. I have tried throughout to maintain an awareness of various social justice issues in Adelaide and how they get played out, and that’s woven into the different chapters in different ways.
I also haven’t gone into much detail about the Aboriginal history of Adelaide and South Australia, partly because there are issues of appropriation and protocol involved, though again I’ve tried to maintain an awareness of Aboriginal presence throughout.
I was in five or six minds about writing a chapter on Don Dunstan’s pink shorts, since the man himself was so very much more than that, but I got talked into it and eventually found a way to use it as a way of talking about Dunstan’s achievements, as well as the whole Dunstan phenomenon.
Delia Falconer: I asked this question of the other writers because this was quite an issue for me in writing Sydney. In one way I felt very lucky. Sydney’s colonial history had been so written about that I felt that this was ground I didn’t need to cover. Or, if I did, I could concentrate on the small picture (for example, young First Fleet lieutenant Ralph Clark’s dreams) rather than needing to paint the broader outlines.
On the other hand, one difficulty intrinsic to this project was that Sydney is such an international tourist destination, filled with icons that are recognised around the world. In a sense, the more these are photographed and celebrated, the less local meaning they hold. I had a very strong feeling that I didn’t want to spend too much time, if any, writing about the Harbour Bridge or Opera House, for example.
My sense was that Sydney quite likes to hide itself behind these clichés, almost as a way of secreting away its inner life. And it was this inner life, beneath the facade, that I wanted to explore. This decision led to an interesting line of thought, which was that Sydneysiders’ relationship to the city’s natural beauty and easy access to leisure read differently from inside than outside. That is, while Sydney’s enjoyment of sun and surf is seen as mindless by those who don’t live here, it can have a quite spiritual dimension for those who do. The difference between Sydney and other capital cities is that the physical intrudes most strongly, through our volatile climate, our humidity, our remnant bush: even if you want to live a life of the mind you can’t be a pure metaphysician here.
Conversely, talk to any enthusiastic surfer or swimmer for more than a few minutes, and you will find a quite deep and often very thoughtful response to the environment. And I realise I’ve also just answered my next question:
Was there a particular ‘idea’ outsiders might have about their city that the other writers were aware of, and wanted to confirm, deny or complicate?
Peter Timms: Hobartians tend to be preoccupied with what others think about them. It’s the state pastime. So I devoted a whole chapter to this. There are feelings of defensiveness about being the smallest and poorest capital, and anxiety about being seen to be second rate, and, at the same time, a sort of overweaning self-confidence that says we are superior to everyone else and won’t abide any criticism. The perception of Tasmania that I was most keen to debunk, however, was that of the Gothic otherland, the misty island of gloom and violence. It’s a literary conceit that has little bearing on contemporary reality. A lot of people here are heartily sick of books about cannibalistic convicts and Aboriginal massacres, particularly those written by outsiders with little knowledge of the place.
Matt Condon: The commonality of people’s remembrances of Brisbane, or their Brisbane, is how expatriates all lean towards this childhood Eden. It is a place that, at a distance, can I think be over-remembered. The vegetation is always lusher; the light always fantastic; the innocence overwhelming. There is something about Brisbane and the hold it takes on its children. It’s as if, for a moment, it offered perfection. And I think Brisbane-born people spend a lifetime trying to get back to that moment. It is what makes the city an at times nostalgic and melancholic place. I can’t help but think that the systematic destruction of its fine historic buildings also is part of this—that if we hold onto these places, these little Edens, the city will stop, or turn to salt, and never move forward again. We hate that which we most love about the place.
I am really interested in the difference between riverine and harbour cities. How does geography affect the structure of each book?
Matthew Condon: Early in Brisbane I quote David Malouf on the landscape of the city compared to, say, Sydney or Melbourne. He says in Melbourne the mind can move outward, to the horizon. But in Brisbane, a city that, certainly near the CBD, has steep, unpredictable escarpments, gullies and ridges, you can expect ‘drama’ and a new view at every turn. The Brisbane River, too, as it squiggles through the city, is utterly disorienting. It can throw your perspective. I write that it is a river that almost deliberately attempts to make you lost. And as we experienced in January this year, it can be devastating and deadly. Even Brisbane residents tend to forget that the city is built on
a flood plain. In January, after the river roared through the city and left it caked in grey mud, it had the effect of scouring off all the city’s bright and flashy baubles, and left it very much like it must have been in the early years of settlement—dreary, dull, irredeemable. It exposed the city’s true self. This reinforced in my mind that much about Brisbane is, and has always been, temporary.
Peter Timms: Hobart is both riverine and harbour, with high mountains to boot. It is a small city dominated by its natural environment. Geography affects everything: from the weather to public transport and building codes. Therefore, it became one of the main themes of my book. Reading it now, I’m surprised at the amount of attention I give to the natural environment—the mountain, the weather, auroras, the marine environment, wildlife in the suburbs and so on—although it seems about right.
Delia Falconer: I asked this question of the other authors because when I read Matt’s Brisbane, in particular, I was struck by a little stab of envy during his childhood sections—there was something about the river, it seemed to me, that allowed him such a close and intimate relationship with his city. It was almost as if the river enclosed or enfolded his childhood in some gentler way than a harbour. I know Melbourne, where I lived for ten years, has a large bay, but because I lived on the northern side of the city, I always thought of it as much more of a riverine city. It seemed to me that the Yarra gave the city a calmer, less volatile pace. And more: rivers strike me as intrinsically secretive compared to harbours. This was always emphasised for me by my inability to work out which side of the Yarra I was on. And in Adelaide, at festival time, I have always loved the way evenings out tend to pull, at their conclusion, towards the Torrens; that somehow you always find yourself wandering along this hushed, winding vein of water. I always missed Sydney Harbour terribly in Melbourne, especially the sense of its dramatic tidal rhythms. So I was very pleasantly surprised in Sophie’s Melbourne to see her write lovingly about the tidal and seasonal rhythms of the Yarra. Perhaps it’s more the case that you have to have spent a very good portion of your life in a city in order to adjust your life to its rhythms, to become fully sensitive to them.
Did everyone feel differently about their city having completed the book?
Sophie Cunningham: Writing Melbourne forced me to look at my city with a tourist’s eye, which I found useful in terms of getting perspective on the place. I now feel I have a better sense of how an outsider might see it—what they would enjoy and be perplexed by.
Do I feel differently about Melbourne now I’ve written Melbourne? Yes, absolutely. I feel that I see more when I look at it; that I have a clearer sense of how the past has informed the present, particularly our Aboriginal past. I understand how central water is to the city—it’s always been a case of too much or too little and that constant battle has particularly impacted on the Yarra River, the city’s lifeblood.
Peter Timms: Yes. I felt I had established myself here, become a Hobartian. I’d filled in some of the gaps in my knowledge and I now feel that I have gained a greater depth of understanding.
Delia Falconer: Writing this book has made me more aware that Sydney has always been a place of extremes, and reminded me of the terrific beauty that always exists in counterbalance to its brute side. It also made me aware that much as I often complain about Sydney, and talk of living somewhere else, this place has shaped me.
Paul, what sort of tone are you thinking of adopting when you come to write Canberra?
Paul Daley: I am attracted to the use of the first-person narrative. I have used the first-person sparingly (initially, most reluctantly) in other narrative non-fiction books; it’s a technique that best suits me, I’ve found, if I’m trying to take my readers on a journey of discovery through time and history and, most importantly, place. And all of my books have been weighted by place.
The genesis of my research for this project really rests with some archival digging over the past two years, apropos of very little, really, except that I felt compelled to keep prying. Canberra is arguably the subject of greater misconception, mistrust and even contempt than any other Australian city. But this has—unfairly, in my view—given rise to a cliché that it is also historically benign, boring, intellectually linear and, well, a waste of time—a city of dull civic memorials and roundabouts. Canberra’s history, while younger than much of colonial Australia’s, is no less dramatically, compellingly human and gritty than that of Melbourne, Sydney or Brisbane.
Nothing at this stage is off-limits, including Canberra’s claustrophobic social insularity and NIMBY outlook, the uncomfortable cohabitation of wealth and extreme poverty, and the dominance of political culture.