On 10 July 2013 I arrived in Sydney for the third time in six months. My comings and goings coincided with frequent changes in Prime Minister. Julia Gillard was deposed by the returning Kevin Rudd at the end of June, Gillard having pushed him from the throne three years previously; he’d soon lose the general election to Liberal Tony Abbott. Three PMs in three months. Was this a banana republic after all?
My new employers – which in itself felt weird, having been self-employed for a while – had found me temporary accommodation in Darling Point, in what I soon came to understand to be the Eastern Suburbs. ‘Suburb’ in Sydney does not mean somewhere like Croydon or Mill Hill in London; it means anywhere which is more than 200 yards away from the city centre. The Eastern Suburbs is the posh end of town, and Darling Point is a particularly plush, harbour-hugging peninsula.
I was greeted at the door of the apartment – despite it being only about 6am – but the jolly Jono, who was as helpful as could be, without being intrusive. He set the tone for Sydneysiders as a whole – welcoming, accepting, polite, open. The sun rose over Double Bay, the boats bobbed about, birds tweeted and I went for a nap.
Over the next few weeks I grew accustomed to looking out from the terrace at the gorgeous bays all around, and travelling to and from work by ferry: an eight minute journey of such beauty I had to pinch myself to believe it was real. There is no point in staring at your iPhones and BlackBerries, ladies and gentlemen. Put them away and look out of the window. You are travelling along the most astonishingly beautiful waterway in the world. Drink it in. You are blessed. These are ancient waters with a million stories to tell. The sun is always shining. Wake up and listen!
I’ve done no end of travelling but other than being away from 1990-91 on my first mid-life crisis trip, there was always a return flight booked and I didn’t have to work. Culture, beach, wildlife, sunshine: usual recipe. Sydney had always been a holiday destination; now it had become something different.
The most beautiful harbour in the world is home to the most beautiful building in the world, and that rather impressive bridge; double top everything. The climate is near-perfect, the Botanic Gardens a divine, extraordinary sanctuary. The pace of life is calm and the quality exceptional. The lucky country, indeed. After a few months I moved to Woolloomooloo, not least of all because it has eight Os and scans well to the tune of Metal Guru. It’s just on the edge of the Gardens, through which I walk each morning to the museum on Circular Quay.
I’d not appreciated before the degree to which Sydney’s historic harbour is emblematic of the shocking legacy of European colonisation: the settlement was established from a base at Circular Quay and the first consistent contact between the British and indigenous people happened here. It is said that when the First Fleet made its way round the harbour and the Brits came ashore, the Gadigal people thought that they were just visitors, as others had visited before them. But they stayed, and so began the catastrophic collision between native and colonialist. To this day, the country which became known as Australia has not resolved this conflict. As recently as this month Prime Minister Abbott referred to Australia as having been ‘unsettled’ prior to 1788. In a stroke he forgot that Aboriginal Australians are the world’s oldest continual race, dating back perhaps 50,000 years. Other than the re-naming of the land upon which the Sydney Opera House sits as Bennelong Point, a visitor would have no idea whatsoever that this land had been inhabited by non-Europeans before 1788, that it belongs to the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. The irony is that the original name for Bennelong Point was actually Warrang, meaning ‘scars in the back’. Bennelong was not a Gadigal, rather a Wangal. See more here. Aboriginal culture at Sydney Cove (formerly Warrane) has been reduced to a couple of men busking with didgeridoos. Are there any historical reminders, you wonder? The Quay’s pavements contain markers for the former shape of the shoreline in 1788 and 1844, and – absurdly – plaques to honour European Australian writers such as Clive James, but that, matey, is your lot. It is a scar upon us all.
I don’t know why but I am far more interested in local history than, say, the history of British Kings and Queens or the repeal of the Corn Laws. I’m eating my way through Australian history books, novels, non-fiction, pretty much anything which comes my way. Somehow the land has connected with me and despite living on the 14th floor I feel very close to it. Perhaps it is because I do not sense any true nationhood here; perhaps it’s because its European history is still so young and around here, at least, its ancient history is almost hidden. Perhaps it’s because it is so like being in England, albeit an England we don’t really have any more, and because so many people here are British or descended from the British, but have adapted to their adopted land. Suffice to say it fills my thoughts and I have become a slightly different person this past year.
More to follow in part III.