Returning to Rome


As we leave Siracusa, the train runs by a massive refinery, deserted, a labyrinth of pipes and smokestacks. Then a town, Augusta, surrounded by lowlands and rusting boats in the sea. The train tracks reach the coast and the view gets wealthier. A spit leads from a little beach to a tiny island, with a winding path up to a scenic stone house. Only two weeks ago, on our way down, there were people everywhere, covering the beach, the spit, the causeway. Today it’s cooler, and the few people on the beach huddle into jackets. The summer is over.

There is a woman sitting directly opposite me. She has grey curly hair that springs out from her head, a long face with an aristocratic nose. I wonder if she is a contessa. We had seen a contessa in Rome at a restaurant we were eating in. The owner had taken a phone call then raised his eyebrows. He had put the phone down then hissed out to his staff, ‘The contessa is coming’. My limited Italian grasped the word ‘contessa’ and the meaning from the sudden transformation of the sleepy restaurant into a hive of anxious table adjusting and cutlery shining. The room stilled as the owner opened the door to a woman whose demeanour, clothes and jewellery screamed ‘contessa’. Her entourage consisted of a grey-haired man in an impeccable suit, and three teenagers in expensively dressed-down jeans and t-shirts. The teenagers spoke French but she insisted that they try to speak Italian. I had to force myself to take my eyes off her.

The woman opposite me has much less jewellery than the contessa, but it’s still a lot for a train journey. There are rings on most of her fingers and three or four gold necklaces hanging against her neck, the finer ones wound around the chunkier ones. When she catches my eye and smiles I realise I’ve been staring, trying to disentangle the gold chains. She had smiled at me earlier when the man with the coffee cart came by and Philip asked if I wanted anything. I must have grimaced in reply. The train had left soon after dawn and I had only just managed to swallow a little tub of sweet yogurt before we were out of the hotel, standing on the street among the sweeping and the water rushing in the gutters, then getting into a taxi. The coffee cart man looked at us, bored, and Philip said, ‘It’s Italy! It’s probably ok!’ I said, ‘Oh no, it’s not that – I just don’t want one.’ And he said, ‘You won’t get anything else today.’ I had just shaken my head then, annoyed by his insistence. The woman had looked up from her book and given me a strange smile, along with an assessing look, conspiratorial even, that took in everything from the bags under my eyes to the shiny new wedding band on my finger. I had smiled back and quickly looked away. But this time she catches me staring at her, at those jangling, twining chains. I have to smile back and hold it, and search my sleepy brain for any word of greeting in Italian. Her eyes become searching, and again she gives me that look. It’s as if she’s looking right into me, into my bra suddenly two sizes too small, my queasy stomach, my instant irritation with everything. I have nowhere to hide from that look of hers and am almost unsurprised when she pats her tummy, and breaks into a wider smile. She nods and pats her tummy again. Philip looks up from his book. He must have felt me squirming. I can’t outright deny her what she knows, but I’m not going to admit it either. I shrug, and keep smiling, then go out to the corridor, making my way past Philip, frowning, and the three sets of Italian knees. I go down to the toilet, not yet evil. I need a place to think. Again.

I stay in the little room with the only slightly sticky floor until someone knocks and I have to head back to the carriage. I walk slowly down the corridor with its view of the other side of the tracks – rocks and scrubby hills.

Philip has his eyes shut, his head leaning against the back of his seat. The gold-chain woman glances at me, then reaches out a protective hand as the train lurches and I fall backwards. ‘Attenzione!’ she says kindly. Philip opens one eyelid then shuts it again. I rearrange myself to stare out the window.

Outside the train, two people pull a beachtowel tight around their shoulders while a toddler plays on the black sand. The toddler points to the train. A man sits on a black rock high above the sea, fishing.

At Messina our train drives onto the ferry. We know what to do this time, and go up to the deck. Today there is no need to peer into corridors and behind doors. We go straight to the bar to buy our arancini, and take them outside to watch Sicily disappear into the haze. Just two weeks ago we had entered the port, pointing and exclaiming, entranced by its sheltering arm, its tall plinth and golden statue.

The young man from our carriage huddles nearby over a power point, trying to charge his phone. Philip looks out beyond the ferry’s railings and says quietly, ‘What was all that about? The tummy patting?’ He looks sideways at me, shyly. His eyes open wide and vulnerable. His lips soften, and a grin he can’t control starts to fill his face. A grain of rice on his lip wobbles. I pity him and his easy, gooey hope full of sunshine and roses and cherubs.

‘I’m a bit late. It’s probably nothing. I don’t know why she did that’, I say in a rush. ‘I don’t know how she could tell’, I add reluctantly.

‘That’s very exciting’, Philip says, taking my hand. ‘That’s happened quickly.’

‘Too quickly’, I say. He’s still smiling, not picking up on my very unexcited face. ‘I’m not ready’, I have to say, staring at him until he understands.

The announcement is made to return to the train and we go back down the steep metal stairs into the hold, gripping the salty, thick-painted handrail. A passenger talks to a workman as we wait for the train to move. For the workman it’s all commonplace, the train broken into two pieces, the section from Palermo joined onto our carriages, the shunting.

A sixth person has joined our compartment, so it’s full now. There’s nowhere for his bag. I shrug like an Italian. It’s so full that when one person changes how they’ve crossed their legs we all have to reposition ourselves.

Outside, grape vine terraces rise up the steep hillsides. A large pink panther has been given new life, reassigned from being a toy to a scarecrow. Flashing past the window there’s an orange house, then a lemon yellow house with a lime green wall. They both have washing lines strung across their yards, clothes flapping so hard I can almost hear them. We run through a small town full of shabby apartment blocks bristling with TV antennas and satellite dishes. The clothes are more sombre here, still and silent on lines strung along the edges of balconies. I think about how very not ready I am. I’m not ready to give up on the recent promise of promotion at work, or the steady hours of concentration. The more I stare at the washing lines and the fences and the TV antennas, the more I see that a baby would mean me, not him, constantly tending the washing line and the kitchen sink, zombie-like for lack of sleep and always covered with clinging hands.

The olive nets are stretched out on the ground under the trees. Two weeks ago they were still bundled up. Even the rivers look organised, reshaped, in this intense countryside. Near Scapri the train runs in a narrow band between sharp mountains and the sea. There’s a completely abandoned hill town, its broken walls forming curlicues against the sky. Every mountain looks like the one we looked at from our agriturismo near Bosco, which now feels like an eternity ago, a different world where we sat on the balcony, loved up and drowsy, watching their little dog Palmyra stand on guard. He would sit lionlike on the edge of the patio, looking out into the olive trees, down the hill. On our last night he sat as usual, listening to the bells of the goats and the other dogs barking around the hills. Then he let out a gruff bark himself, and sat upright, his skinny front legs straight and tall, his skew ears at their odd angles, his curled tail flat on the ground. He surveyed his domain more keenly, then suddenly he was off, running down the hill barking sharp warning yips. When it was nearly dark I saw a small tan and black dog running through the olives. I expected to hear Palmyra’s indignant barks at this intruder but instead he appeared running happily behind, his white coat shining in the gloom.

Philip nudges me and stands up, pointing with his eyes towards the corridor. The gold-chain woman keeps her eyes on her book and moves her knees to one side so I can stand, and we both shuffle out.

Philip walks down the corridor a little then leans on the steel bar in front of the windows and hisses, ‘You said that very quickly. That it wasn’t going to happen.’

‘This time! Not this time!’ I reply.

His face is like a stranger’s. I barely recognise him. His cheeks are hollow, his eyes wet and gaunt. Even his forehead is higher, as if his hair has receded in this one afternoon. I look for the man I loved. What did he look like? I feel like reaching into my pocket to check the photo on my phone.

‘You weren’t going to tell me, were you? You were going to deal with it … you were going to just make that decision …’

‘No!’ I lie indignantly. ‘No!’

Our voices are fogging up the window. A little girl out in the corridor with her father peers up at us with frank interest.

Philip turns away impatiently and walks back to our carriage. He folds his arms and slaps at one unlucky elbow with his hand as he waits for me to go in first. I wriggle in between the knees, saying ‘Scusi! Scusi!’ and Philip tunnels through behind, head down.

Outside there is a river, wide, rocky, shallow but fast. No-one else looks out the window. Across from me the gold-chain woman reads an analysis of the Divine Comedy. Next to her a man reads Stephen King and next to him the young man who has whinged ever since he got on stabs at some game on his phone, twisting and exhaling loudly. He struck up a conversation with the woman next to Philip when he got on. When she came back from her first break he leaned over and they whispered together about it before he too went out, bringing back to the carriage the dirty smell of cigarette.

The train stops for 15 endless minutes in Naples, Philip’s hand avoiding mine. The Stephen King man stands up, forcing our knees together for one burning moment. The young whinging man is replaced by a man with a laptop who sits and bashes the keys as he waits for his internet connection. I read the same page of my book over and over until the train jolts forward and the platform recedes.

Outside, a pink house shines through the early dusk. Another hour to go until we get to Rome.

We had started in Rome, full of romance and relief, the wedding over, the honeymoon begun. Out of the pale blue late Sunday afternoon sky came the sound of musicians starting up in Campo dei Fiori with a medley of old hits for accordion and violin. The rich smell of truffle oil drifted out into the streets. Then the bells started pealing, random clanging filling the air. We stayed where we were in Piazza Farnese, leaning into each other with our hands clasped, fingers pulsing, idly watching a group of children playing soccer. Half a dozen boys and a wild little girl, half the size of the boys and twice as determined. When the boys wandered off she stayed in the square, practising her kicks, bouncing the ball off the front, the back, the side of her shoe, off her knees in the high-stepping fashion of a team in training. A woman called out and she called back. ‘Maa-ma!’, in that particular Italian child way, the inflexion rising on the Maa. Not yet! It’s not time to go in yet! She stood pleading, then ran off, bouncing the ball and kicking.

Fields and grapevines gave way to darkness, then streetlights and lines of cars in tangled streets as we arrived in Rome. I didn’t see the gold-chain woman leave the carriage. She must have gone when we were struggling with our bags. Her part in our lives was over. We got off the train, left the terminus and stood in the queue for a taxi. We were driven to our hotel and we found our room, stood on a tiny balcony looking out at the alleyway beneath us and a ragged tip of the Colosseum beyond and we breathed again, and pretended that nothing had happened. Then that pretence grew in our hearts and displaced nights of love on balconies. It brought us restlessness, and jagged barbs that tore holes in the fabric of our newly-promised life.


Rear window


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While the latest news is that Sydney’s housing prices are falling and construction figures are in decline, we’re all living with the past frenzy of building projects. Like many, our foreground has recently been shortened by a new block of flats. They’ve cut out our view of the park’s spreading fig trees, leaving us with only the greenery gleaned from a neighbour whose escapee pot plants make a bid for the sun in the patch of ground next to the wheelie bins. Asthma weed grows where it can, and agapanthus line the street. One of those weedy vines with white flowers and choko-like fruit full of seeds completes the picture.

For over a year while they built those flats a crane loomed large, its movements slow and stealthy, until the night when the street was closed off and workers climbed around it like fireflies, their torches flickering as they dismantled the structure. In the morning it was gone, and I couldn’t understand the empty space I was looking at.

Now the view from our bedroom window is like Rear Window. Tonight the top flat is lit up so we can see an extravagantly furnished balcony. Large glass doors open and shut as people walk between there and the low-slung couches of the lounge room. I watch for drug deals, or a woman who waits for her sailor.

We saw a version of Rear Window at this year’s Sydney Film Festival – Number 37. Made in South Africa, it places the action in a rundown neighbourhood of flapping garbage and empty corridors where people keep their heads down. More violent, more complex, more visceral than the original, its leads are a woman who can’t be supressed and a man who watches his neighbours from an apartment with a wall the colour of blood.

The Sydney Film Festival has been running since 1954, and since 1974 it has been based at the State Theatre. Held in winter, it’s a time of dark cold evenings, the wind whipping along George St as you rush to a 6pm session. Queues form along Market St, waiting for the foyer doors to open, and cars splash water from the gutters onto the unsuspecting unlucky.

The first time I went to the film festival it was with a true believer with her thermos and sandwiches. We sat in the theatre all day, watching films from Argentina and Romania and Mexico and Spain as the auditorium got fuggier with damp clothes and the occasional curry or egg sandwich introduced from the outer world. My friend had walked up to and through the foyer briskly, leaving me to goggle at the mirrors, the filigree gold lace doors, the gothic reliefs, the terrazzo floor – everywhere gold, every surface embroidered, embellished. She hurried on past the sweeping marble staircase and columns then into the auditorium with its massive chandelier and plush seats. The dome, the statues, the clock – not a straight line or a plain corner anywhere. I stared, starstruck.

Jacaranda time

This bowing down to the jacaranda. These tales of streets of jacarandas created from seedlings given to women by their midwives after giving birth. What is this adoration, this worship, this myth-making?

You do know they’re not native to Australia? That they’re an import from South America. In Brisbane they’re seen as an ‘invasive species’ and regulated under the Natural Assets Local Law (but, such is the strength of their mystique, feature as the image on the link to the section about street trees on the same website[1]). In Sydney they’re not classified as a weed but you’re advised not to grow them near the bush, as they can spread and crowd out native plants.

I see them from the ferry, a haze of purple between greener trees. As a child I associated them with the blue rinse of my schoolfriends’ mothers. They still retain that irksome taint of the suburbs, where the best you could do to liven up the awful grind through life was to cover incipient grey hairs with blue dye, or put on an annual show of short-lived purple blooms, doomed to fall in the first shower of rain and lie deep and slushy, tripping up every unsuspecting passerby who will slide on the discarded, slippery muck.

The flowers that fall daintily to the ground on a sunny day are even more dangerous. You walk down the path in your bare feet and tread on a dazed bee crawling out of the long bell of the bloom. Your winter-tender feet meet a sharp sting of bee on the warm spring path. You’re hopping, the bee is dying. The jacaranda, I’m sure, is laughing. It etches another notch on its trunk.


Cemeteries and skeletons


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I imagine for everyone there’s a place where the air compresses with the weight of collected memory. A street or suburb or dirt track where a child’s eyes saw the days go by, horribly long, frustratingly swift. For me those places lie in Burwood and Strathfield.

Driving through those streets that I no longer know, trying to get to Rookwood cemetery – blocked off by highways new to me but probably 20 years old – I find myself driving down the street where I lived until I was 10. I didn’t intend to drive down there, through that storm of tiny long-gone moments. The drivers around me knew the streets better, knew when to take the inside lane, when to slow for a turn, but they didn’t know the landscape as I did. I saw a place invisible to them. I could barely see what was there, my eyes expecting children on their bikes and scooters, our old fence, our tiny Morris Minor in the driveway, the white stucco on the house that, unaccountably, I hated. And yes, the street is narrower, the houses smaller, all the dimensions of the place are reduced.

The cemetery is also changed, so neat and trimmed. I remember a wild place, of fallen headstones and rampant grasses, a place I would reach by bike to ride around and feel the emptiness. Now it is tamed and signposted, the roads all smooth and the various denominations carefully separate.  I drive past a sign indicating the War Graves section, then the Muslim section, where large shrubs and small trees turn a cemetery into a garden. Three men with clipped beards walk back to a car. Paying their respects. My turn-off comes soon after, and I have to find the right set of people in this sombre time, where gatherings of mourners mill around with heavy, soft faces.

Historically, the dead don’t rest in peace in Sydney. The first cemetery that we know of was created in 1792.

In the early days of Sydney’s settlement, most European settlers died and were buried within a mile of their place of arrival. The exact location of these first burial grounds is unknown. The large number of deaths after the arrival of the second fleet in 1790 made finding a suitable site at a distance from the settlement a matter of urgency.[1]

The site chosen, at the corner of George and Druitt Streets, was used between 1792 and 1820. In 1869 when that site was required for the new Town Hall, the remains of those whose graves were uncovered by construction were transferred to Rookwood. Subsequent excavation around the Town Hall has revealed that this exercise was far from thorough, with the discovery of many more tombstones, graves, coffins and skeletons.[i]

When the Old Burial Ground was closed, the Devonshire Street cemetery was established, but this in turn was officially closed in 1888 so that the main train terminus could be extended from Redfern to Central. Relatives were informed that they could move the remains of their loved ones to a place of their choosing. The unclaimed bodies, and their headstones, were removed to Botany Bay in 1901. But again, not every grave was relocated and last week the entire country heard of the discovery of bones – believed to be from the old Devonshire Street cemetery – during excavation work for the ill-fated Sydney light rail project.






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I have been thinking about immigration. About the immigration of by-the-wind sailors, violet snails and the blue stalked barnacle. They have all been landing on our shores, washed up on Newport Beach, and noted by a friend of mine. By-the-wind sailors (Velella velella), violet snails (Janthina janthina) and blue stalked barnacles (Lepas fascicularis) all live at the surface of the water (the sailors have a sail, set either to port or starboard[1]; the snails keep afloat by ‘secreting a raft of mucus bubbles’[2]; the barnacles manufacture a ‘foamy float’[3]), their fate determined by the wind. The fate of the blue stalked barnacle is also determined by the by-the-wind sailors, on which they feed.

While the wind is blowing snails and barnacles ashore at Newport, other immigrants are spreading through our suburbs. The koel and the channel-billed cuckoo arrived some weeks ago, the koel’s eerie early-morning cry[4] laying a sheen of dread over the backyards and street trees, the channel-billed cuckoo screeching with impunity[5]. They both fly south to Australia for the summer, from New Guinea and Indonesia, and fly back at the beginning of autumn. Their chicks, who have been raised by unhappy host birds, leave a little later but return here in spring.

I watch a pair of magpies attempt to chase an implacable channel-billed cuckoo away from their nest, the whole episode conducted with a clack of beaks and a great deal of flurrying of branches. The cuckoo might be trying to lay an egg, or to feed on the eggs or baby birds already in the nest. Either way, it infuriates me. The grey butcherbird, a bird that lives in Australia all the time, is also described as ‘an aggressive predator’[6] and will eat smaller birds as well. But its song is my favourite, and even when I see it sitting on the gutter of our building, essentially licking its lips while the noisy miners fuss around their depleted nest, I watch it adoringly and wait for it to sing[7].

Am I displaying a hard-wired antipathy towards migrants in my favouritism for the butcherbird? If so, why is my day so enriched by talking to the man at the fruit shop who tells me he was born in Cyprus and has lived here since he was seven, how he loves Australia but also goes back to visit family in Cyprus whenever he can. He’s going back for a wedding in January, when there will be snow on the ground. Or the man at the stall where I buy hummus and falafel and beetroot dip who tells me that he came out here from Syria 16 years ago. He didn’t speak English so although he didn’t want to just stay in one area he had to get jobs where he could speak Arabic. Now that he’s selling his dips, which was his profession in Syria, he’s learnt English and he can talk to everyone.

My life is enriched by a picnic yesterday with an Australian woman who is now making her life in France, with a French husband. It’s enriched by the thought that at the end of the year I will see my nephew – whose parents were Australian but who was born in Northern Ireland – marry a woman in a traditional ceremony in Hong Kong in her parents’ village. Their son, born in London, has great-grandparents born in Australia, China and France.

Our borders are porous, for people as well as for violet snails, blue stalked barnacles and koels. There’s no point pretending otherwise.









The storm hits


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The storm hit our part of Sydney on Saturday evening just before 6pm. We were in the car, a fragile bubble of dry in a liquefied world. The air was viscous. Stabs of lightning coincided with claps of shuddering thunder. Trees shed leaves and branches. The traffic lights flashed on amber. Roads became rivulets, impassable in their lowest sections.

The political storm hit about an hour later. The electorate of Wentworth had fallen, taken by an independent after representation by a conservative party for its entire existence. The person after whom the electorate was named would have been shattered by the political implications of this result – while he was often described as a ‘radical’ during his lifetime, that ‘radicalism’ took the form of fighting for Australian emancipation from British rule, with the intention that the power would be held solely by those with property and wealth. Nevertheless, given the discrimination he and his wife suffered for failing to conform to the prim standards of the day, and his reported propensity for passion and drama, I wonder if part of him may have been intrigued by this victory of a person whose most recent claim to public fame has been in championing same-sex marriage.

Established at Federation in 1901, the electorate was named after William Charles Wentworth, the eldest son of D’Arcy Wentworth. D’Arcy had arrived in the colony in 1790 on the Neptune with the NSW Corps, a free man acquitted of highway robbery on four occasions between 1787 and 1789. Wentworth had trained as a surgeon, and was sent first to Norfolk Island. He did very well for himself there as constable, acting superintendent of convicts and acting assistant-surgeon, and with a series of grants of land, on which he raised swine and goats and grew wheat and maize. He and Catherine Crowley, a convict, had formed a liaison while on the Neptune and their first three children, William, D’Arcy and John, were born at Norfolk Island (William was born while they were waiting to land in 1790). In 1796 the family was sent to Sydney. Wentworth was appointed assistant-surgeon by Governor Hunter and once again proceeded to accumulate wealth through grants of land, official appointments and trade.

In 1800 Catherine Crowley died. D’Arcy Wentworth went on to have a further eight children with Ann Lawes, the last one (D’Arcy Charles) arriving in 1828 after his father’s death.

William Charles Wentworth had been sent to school in England to become a ‘young gentleman’. He became a barrister, and wealthy in his own right, but his standing in the tight world of Sydney society was affected by his father’s past. William Charles trod in his father’s footsteps when he became involved with his client Sarah Cox, who had brought an action for breach of promise of marriage against a sea captain. Sarah was the first daughter of convicts Francis Cox and Fanny Morton[i]. While many convicts didn’t marry, this couple couldn’t marry because Francis would have been committing bigamy. He had a wife and four children in England.

Sarah and William’s first child, Thomasine, was born in 1825 and they went on to have another nine children together. They married in 1829, a month before their third child was born. Despite the marriage, Sarah continued to be seen as tainted, both as the daughter of convicts and as Wentworth’s mistress, and was shunned by the local gentry. When Thomasine married in 1844, her husband, Thomas Fisher, shocked the family by forbidding his wife to see her parents, not wanting his own fortunes to be affected by association with them. It was not until 1862 that the Wentworths, after a period of high-spending life abroad in England and Europe, felt able to hold their first ball in Sydney, with guests including the governor and his wife and other leading lights.

William Charles Wentworth died in 1873 and was given a state funeral, the first in the colony. His funeral procession was observed by as many as 70,000 mourners who lined the streets. His coffin was placed in a vault at the family’s beloved Vaucluse House. In death, he had finally arrived.

Sarah, still travelling the world to see her children and grandchildren to the end, died in Eastbourne, England, in 1880. She was buried there in a simple grave, with no monument.



[i]Liston, C. 1998. Sarah Wentworth: Mistress of Vaucluse. Historic Houses Trust NSW.

The Opera House


Many years ago I struggled over French philosophers and terms like ‘metonym’. The example to explain it was always something about fleets and ships and I would get lost in images of looming grey warships parked at Garden Island, their war navigation technology twirling and twisting over their decks. Correct me if I’m still wrong, but my understanding of metonym is that it is where you use one word to represent something to which it is related. Two images vie in my mind for metonym of the week. One is the sight of cockatoos in a bottlebrush, systematically, wilfully, wastefully stripping the tree of its luxuriant flowers, nipping off each branch and letting the flowers drop to a blood-red mass on the road below. The other – and maybe it is in essence saying the same thing in its metonymy – is the Opera House.

It has been a week of outrage over the pimping of the Opera House to the horse racing industry and Alan Jones. It may be seen as a drama worthy of an opera house, but is so much more distressing than entertaining, from the current prime minister proclaiming the Opera House ‘Sydney’s biggest billboard’ to Alan Jones, a radio commentator, suggesting he can ask the premier to sack a public servant – and everything in between.

The silver lining in this cloud is the avalanche of letters to the Sydney Morning Herald. Apart from the couple in support – parroting the parrots with their ‘take a chill pill’ line – a quieter form of bullying that dismisses an opposing opinion by implying the speaker is hysterical – many of the rest point out the differences between this current use of the sails and previous uses. I’ve seen it blue, and pink; covered in paisley patterns and butterflies; I’ve seen it with ‘No War’ gallantly painted on its sails, the red paint dripping. I came to my first viewing of the projections for Vivid unwittingly, sitting at the Opera Bar after a film, startled to see swirling colours where I was used to seeing white.

I’ve seen the Opera House as the backdrop to an opera (walking along dark paths overhung with trees, our way lit by fairy lights, the Botanic Gardens as I’ve never seen them before, I emerge into a clearing with an amphitheatre of seats, the set out in the cove and beyond, the Opera House, ready to dissolve into the background as Egypt is conjured on the stage and the fruit bats flap lazily overhead); I’ve sat in the opera hall for opera and the concert hall for concerts (these days we have the seats at the front, so close you can see the conductor’s baton and singers’ sweat – our approach is navigated, along the smooth path in the forecourt that becomes evident within the more gappy, bumpy pavers, up the lift then through the green room, where people uncostumed eat meat pies and chicken wraps); I’ve sat on those steps and watched concerts and ‘events’ (a car, smashed by a boulder; a bath filled with milk; Tim Minchin’s mad energy); I see it dissolving in rain or glistening with sun every time I take the ferry. Its sails tell me where I am on the harbour. It has, without me realising, become a part of my life.

But back to metonyms. My favourite letter was the shortest, from Barbara Simmons of Mirador. It reads in full, ‘Oh Sydney: all fur coat and no knickers.’


Labour Day


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On this public holiday, Labour Day or Eight-hour Day, we should be singing the songs of the workers. Songs like The Eight-hours System, a little history lesson in its own right, ending with the rousing stanza:

Eight hours to sleep in midnight deep.
Eight hours of toil a day:
Eight hours to rove in learning’s grove.
For pleasure and for play.

Or something more recent, like The Eight-Hour Day, which just seems to become more and more relevant.

But no, we spent the day at the Manly Jazz Festival, listening to songs of a different ilk. It was good to be in Manly, with the sun on my face and a light breeze blowing, as I’ve just read the section of Grace Karskens’ essential book, The Colony, in which she talks of the naming of Manly Cove. The core of the story is well known – as Governor Phillip entered Port Jackson, seeking an alternative to Botany Bay for the settlement, his boat was approached by about twenty Aboriginal men who Phillip found to be so ‘manly’ that he called the place ‘Manly Cove’. Those men would have called it Kay-ye-my but Phillip failed to ask the men about this.

In passing near a point of land in this harbour, the boats were perceived by a number of the natives, twenty of whom waded into the water unarmed, received what was offered them, and examined the boat with a curiosity which impressed a higher idea of them than any former accounts of their manners had suggested. This confidence, and manly behaviour, induced Governor Phillip, who was highly pleased with it, the give the place the name of Manly Cove.[1]

Two years later, Manly Cove was the place of an important interaction between the Aboriginal people and the British. The story started with a whale. In July 1790, four British men in a small boat came upon a whale in the harbour, ‘… (for the first time since we have been here) …spouting and dashing about in their usual manner. This monstrous creature, either through being mischievous or playful, no sooner espied the boat then he pursued and never left her till he had overturned and sent her to the bottom.’[2]Three of the four men drowned (the fourth was ‘sadly affected, and indeed disordered’) and the whale was subsequently pursued and harpooned. It died of its wounds and washed up in Manly Cove.

In September, a small party of British, accompanied by Nanbaree, an Aboriginal boy adopted by the colony’s surgeon, John White, when he was orphaned by the smallpox, landed at Manly Cove, intending to walk to Broken Bay. They came across a large group of Aboriginal people, including Bennelong, feasting on the remains of the whale. The two groups met without incident, and as the British were leaving they were given ‘three or four great junks of the whale … the largest of which Bennelong expressly requested might be offered, in his name, to the governor.’ Phillip was nearby, at South Head, and on hearing the news ‘procured all the firearms which could be mustered there, consisting of four muskets and a pistol’ and set out for Manly Cove.

According to Watkin Tench (an officer of the First Fleet commissioned by a publisher before his departure for Botany Bay to write an account of the voyage) this second boat was also well received by the feasters, and Phillip was conversing with Bennelong when ‘a native with a spear in his hand came forward, and stopped at the distance of between twenty and thirty yards from the place where the governor, Mr Collins, Lieutenant Waterhouse and a seaman stood.’ Phillip threw down the knife that he wore on his belt – an act which he understood to be one of peace – and walked towards the man, but the Aboriginal man – Wileemarin – threw his spear, wounding Phillip in the shoulder. [3]

This incident is the subject of much analysis by Inga Clendinnen, the author of the other essential book on early Sydney – Dancing with Strangers. She argues, very persuasively, that this spearing was a ritual act, ‘where Phillip would face a single spear-throw in penance for his and his people’s many offences’.[4]She conjectures that Wileemarin would have expected Phillip to deflect it, as Aboriginal warriors would have done, and was confused by Phillip approaching him rather than standing his ground in order to evade it.

I wonder if the timing of this ritual act may be explained by the arrival of the Second Fleet in June 1790. This was a disaster for all involved, with hundreds dying during the voyage and hundreds more sick and dying landed at Sydney. If the Aboriginal people hadn’t been worried by the ‘many offences’ of the British up until then, how would they have felt on seeing this new group of settlers?

[1]The Voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay, 1789

[2]Daniel Southwell, 27 July 1790, quoted in The birth of Sydney, Tim Flannery, Text Publishing, 1999, p104.

[3]Watkin Tench, 7 September 1790, quoted in The birth of Sydney, Tim Flannery, Text Publishing, 1999, p107.

[4]Inga Clendinnen, Dancing with Strangers, Text Publishing, 2003, p124.

The Freedom Ride


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A friend recently blogged about a book for young adults titled Freedom Ride, so it seems only proper to blog myself about the Freedom Ride that it’s referring to. And given that the Freedom Ride started at Sydney University, which is located on 128 acres of the Grose Farm site, this also follows neatly from my previous blog about ‘Grose’s Hill’.

In 1854 Edmund Blackett was appointed architect for the university, with James Barnet his Clerk of Works. Work began on the main building in 1855, and lessons commenced in the unfinished building in 1857.

The two storey sandstone building features high quality carved Gothic Revival style decorative details and tracery, coats of arms and medallions. The sandstone is thought to originate from Pyrmont but it is possible that quarrying occurred in front of the east range forming the terrace. The roofs are clad with Welsh Slate. The east range largely retains its original interiors with fine carved cedar joinery (also Gothic Revival in style), massive timber staircases, marble and timber floors and plastered walls. Externally the Great Hall is crenellated with a corner turret to the north east. The eastern gable has central stained glass window with carved tracery, as does the western facade.[i]

Outside that main building 110 years later, on 12 February 1965, 29 students boarded a bus that travelled to Orange, Wellington, Dubbo, Gulargambone, Walgett, Collarenebri, Moree, Boggabilla, Goodiwindi, Warwick, Tenterfield, Inverell, back to Moree, Glen Innes, Grafton, Coffs Harbour, Bowraville, Kempsey, Taree and Newcastle. The bus had a banner along its side saying ‘Student Action for Aborigines’,[ii]and it became known as the Freedom Ride. In the two weeks of the tour the students surveyed people on the stations, reserves and shanty towns along the way about health, housing, racism, education.

Wellington was the first stop on the Freedom Ride. Ann Curthoys and others went to the settlement outside the town.

We got a tremendous shock. We really had no idea until this moment what it was we were protesting about. Here it was, the utmost poverty in our well-off First World industrialised country.[iii]

She started to write a diary. On that first night she wrote:

Interviewed about ten tin shacks of people. Most of us found the questionnaires unsuitable. Houses of tin, mud floors, very over-crowded, kids had eye diseases, had to cart water (very unhealthy) from river. People fairly easy to talk to, kids quite friendly. General picture of extreme poverty but not a great deal of social discrimination.[iv]

Despite that last statement, the combined surveys showed that:

When asked for examples of discrimination, the answers included ‘up to twelve months ago not allowed in pubs’, ‘Courthouse Hotel’, ‘hotels, shops’, ‘employment’, ‘putting them out of town’ and ‘won’t let them live in town even if can afford [it]’.[v]

They filmed an Aboriginal man going into the Courthouse Hotel – he is served, but possibly only because of the students’ presence. Then Charles Perkins is sent into the same hotel, ‘and there was some discussion between the barmaid and the publican before they served him’.[vi]

This was the pattern for the tour. Surveys, feeling out the town’s reactions, then sometimes demonstrations – outside segregated swimming pools and picture theatres, pubs and cafes. They received increasing levels of local, national and international attention and burst the bubble of apathy that surrounded the treatment of Aboriginal people. Aboriginal people in many of the towns visited gained strength from the students’ visit, forming groups to maintain the momentum that had been started. Although criticised at the time for ‘just stirring up trouble’, many of the students on the bus returned to the towns again and again, to assist in particular demonstrations, forming strong bonds with the Aboriginal inhabitants of the towns.

[i] 170 Register Report: 4726003: MAIN QUAD / EAST RANGE AND GREAT HALL

[ii]Ann Curthoys. Freedom ride: a freedom rider remembers. Allen & Unwin, 2002.

[iii]Ann Curthoys. Freedom ride: a freedom rider remembers. Allen & Unwin, 2002 p71

[iv]Ann Curthoys. Freedom ride: a freedom rider remembers. Allen & Unwin, 2002 p72

[v]Ann Curthoys. Freedom ride: a freedom rider remembers. Allen & Unwin, 2002 p72

[vi]Ann Curthoys. Freedom ride: a freedom rider remembers. Allen & Unwin, 2002 p73

Grose’s Hill


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‘Sydney from Paroquet Hill, Parramatta Road. From Grose’s Hill’ by Edward Charles Close (once attributed to Sophia Campbell) is a watercolour painted around 1820 showing the view from a partially fenced paddock over a landscape that appears to be recovering from bushfire – thin trunks of eucalypts with bushy remnants at their tops; low shrubs at their base; a fallen tree with blackened trunk and brown leaves. In the distance are two windmills – one on Observatory Hill, and one closer to the military barracks (now Wynyard). Sydney’s first windmill wasn’t built until 1797, Governor Hunter bringing the parts with him from England in 1795. The windmill was built where Sydney Observatory now stands, but can’t be the one in this painting as it was, by 1820, no longer in use, having lost its top and sails and left only with its stone tower. This painting probably shows the wooden windmill that was built in 1803 or 1804 on the southern side of Observatory Hill – the third mill built. The other mill in the painting is probably the Military Windmill, finished in 1802 and given over to military use in 1814.[i]How do I know so much about windmills? A few weeks after interviewing Mona Brand I found a book called Old Sydney Windmillsby her husband, Len Fox, in a second-hand shop. I bought it for the joy of the synchronicity before seeing how useful it was.

The distant straggling town, with the newly built Hyde Park Barracks and Rum Hospital dominating, is similar in two paintings by Joseph Lycett. They are painted from the same spot, but dated one year later. They show a green rolling hill with a picturesque wooden fence – bucolic, compared to Close’s more believable sparse bush. There are four windmills in one (Mitchell Library ML 55) but at least seven in the other (National Library of Australia RNK Accn. T 1631) – two at Miller’s Point, the same two as in Close’s painting, two where the Conservatorium now stands, and one at Darlinghurst.

Now when you stand on Grose’s Hill you’re standing in front of the Great Hall at the University of Sydney. When I look out and try to see Hyde Park Barracks my view is blocked by massive fig trees, and a cluster of tall buildings beyond. I have to go to the ninth floor of Fisher Library and peer through the narrow slits of windows to see where I am. I see the Anzac Bridge and Rozelle Bay and Pyrmont. The glimpse of water in Edward Close’s painting must have been Blackwattle Bay, when it came right up to Bay Street. He’s looking across the ridge of Pyrmont, the city in the centre of the painting and North Head an unexpected feature in the distance. I can see the fall of the land in front of me to the water, the ridge of the city, and the plateau of the northern suburbs that reaches to Middle Head. I can’t see North Head, but from the windows on the other side of the building I can see Botany Bay, its blue waters deep and glistening from this distance, its damaged seagrasses and degraded shoreline invisible.


[i]Old Sydney Windmills, Len Fox. Self-published 1978.