The Contrast of Beauty and Vulgarity

The Contrast of Beauty and Vulgarity

Review: Sydney: A Biography, Louis Nowra, Newsouth

Sydney Harbour: A History, Ian Hoskins, Newsouth

Books continue to be published about the history of Sydney because the story is a fascinating collision of, as Louis Nowra writes, the rush of the new and the reminders of its past, and the contrast between its naturally beautiful setting and the clamorous human tendency to ambition and vulgarity.

Hoskins’ welcome paperback update of a 2009 book emphasises Sydney’s world-class, romantic waterway – the attribute that sustained Indigenous people and attracted European interlopers. Explorers and colonists called it the finest in the world, but they soon found the soil poor and the availability of seafood seasonal, threatening the colony and bringing them into violent conflict with locals.

The harbour is a drowned valley; sea levels rose relatively recently, in geological terms, and evidence of early Indigenous occupation is now under the water, though there are plenty of rock carvings around the harbour, including that uncovered from under a carpark at Balls Head in 2008. Stretches of shoreline belonged to particular tribes, but it seems the islands were shared. European settlement has seen much argument over who owns the harbour. There is always disagreement over where it begins and ends, and lust over its possession.

Indigenous people sheltered under sandstone overhangs but the newer arrivals blasted, chiselled and remodelled ‘as they saw fit’ to provide building materials and access. Old photos of Lavender Bay and Cremorne show how much the landscape has been softened for buildings. Construction of the docks around Darling Harbour and its associated industries made it noisy and smelly, the original shoreline barely distinguishable.

In the 1820s the government had recognised the need for reserving the waterfront – land that might later be required for defence – in the midst of land grabs by those whose names would later grace the landscape – Milsons, Pipers. By the late 1800s posterity-minded residents wanted public harbourside to remain so. (While views and parks were prized, the water itself steadily became more and more polluted.)

In 1895 there were plans for a coal mine at Bradleys Head, thankfully rejected. This was the first time, Hoskins notes, that in the legal battle public beauty was favoured over the demands of private enterprise. But as has often been the case, the East was prioritised over the West – Balmain got the coal mine. (Nowra too writes of the difference between east and west, a demarcation that has persisted since the earliest days of the colony, when convicts were placed west of the Tank Stream, and officers east.)

There has always been a push for developing and homogenising the waterfront. The 1970s saw an unlikely alliance between building unions and residents of the Rocks to save the historic precinct (though recently it has been slowly gentrified). This came after the ‘vandalism’ that occurred with the building of the southern approach to the Bridge earlier in the century. Eclecticism has, after-all, been part of Sydney’s charm, contrary to the arrogant architect Harry Seidler, who thought better planning and wholesale modernising would make better use of the harbourside land. His Blues Point tower is the result, and, says Hoskins, it showed how tall buildings can blight the harbour for all but those who actually live in the buildings. Barangaroo is just the latest in long history of contested waterfront, bullying wealth and political clout, with egotistic towers being foisted on the public. Nowra is impressed by James Packer’s vulgar monument, Hoskins less so.

Big personalities thread their way through both books. There’s Bennelong, the governors, Thomas Mort, a significant businessman, whose statue sits in the often-overlooked green triangle of Macquarie Park, who established a wool market in 1800s and helped turn Sydney into a booming city from an overstuffed jail. There is John Piper, who gives his name to Sydney’s most exclusive bit of real estate and whose story is typically Sydney: boom, hubris, mismanagement, bust.

Architects feature prominently and often controversially. Along with Seidler, the celebrated Francis Greenway (whose work was the exception in Seidler’s hatred of anything old) was prickly and a thorn in governors’ sides. He died broke and forgotten, much like Peter Hall, who took over the design of the Opera House when Jorn Utzon returned to Denmark in a huff. James Barnet is as responsible for anyone for the look of Victorian Sydney, says Nowra, designing the GPO, Museum, State Library and Customs House. In a typically Sydney story, he was caught up in controversy over the sculptures on the GPO façade, commissioned and executed in a then-more-modern style.

The playwright Nowra writes about theatres and the mid-century boom that featured highly popular dance clubs (and roller-skating rinks) run by Jim Bendrodt and Azzalin Romano, names now also largely forgotten. Not forgotten are celebrities of the Sydney Push, a literary group influenced by philosophy professor John Anderson, himself influenced by Nietzsche, and containing Robert Hughes, Germaine Greer, Clive James and Barry Humphries (who, to his credit, later recognised the Push as a bunch of wordy poseurs). They did much to push (pardon the pun) a secular individualism, a characteristic much noted of Sydney’s residents.

While churches were a huge social focus in the nineteenth century, and in the 1950s and 1960s Sydney was criticised for its wowserism, there is contrast with its hedonism and downright criminality, whether that be of gangs or corrupt police and politicians. Nowra’s chapter on prostitution and King’s Cross doesn’t exactly help dispel Sydney’s tawdry reputation.

Then there is Sydneysiders’ propensity to flaunting bodies, especially at the beach. Beaches are the other side of Sydney’s love of water, but are more egalitarian, even if recently beach culture has been marred by race riots. There is a history of conflict between admiration for healthy bodies in an outdoor setting and a desire to restrict such display. Norman Lindsay, a flagrant admirer of bodies (and who Robert Hughes described as a perpetual ‘adolescent’), approvingly thought of Sydney as a great place for paganism. In the art of Brett Whiteley the harbour and female nudes are almost synonymous.

There is some irony then in the fact that on New Year’s Eve 1999 Sydney, known for its tinselled focus on the here and now, chose to celebrate, by lighting up the word ‘Eternity’ on the Bridge, a reformed alcoholic’s graffitied Christian evangelism.

Nick Mattiske blogs on books at and is the illustrator of Thoughts That Feel So Big.


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