The Literature of Cities

January 10, 2012

For a while after I moved to Melbourne, I would sometimes notice the wilderness intruding on the cityscape and immediately I’d feel an urge to preserve the sight in a photograph. A gargantuan gumtree might strangle a street corner, or a palm might spring up between two sets of train tracks, or a pine might peek over a fence at the dead end of a laneway, and in each instance I’d find myself impelled to take a picture. I didn’t set out with camera in hand to hunt down these sorts of sights. I went about my business as usual and looked up every so often to find them in my way, a dash of green against steel and glass, as if waiting there for someone to spy them through the ruckus of human activity that otherwise left them occluded. I’d pull out my cellphone and snap a photo and then I’d set off again. I didn’t know where it came from, this impulse to preserve what I saw; I only knew that on some level I felt an affection for the urban green.

When I saw the green sneaking back into spaces from which it had been expunged, a part of me wanted to cheer it on and even to see it triumph. I enjoyed the thought of watching it slowly reclaim a city whose urgent cosmopolitanism, undisturbed by the wilderness, struck me then and strikes me now as complacent and somehow presumptuous. More than any other city I’ve ever known, Melbourne is exceedingly pampered — the unruliness of the natural world has been arrested and landscaped into submission — and yet in my bones I feel a resistance to such a pampered aesthetic and a reflexive attraction to almost anything that disrupts it. Only recently, however, did I begin to see the source of what I feel towards the city when the Christmas and New Year period gave me some time to read two long meditations on life in Australia’s capital cities.

In late 2009, UNSW’s NewSouth imprint kicked off a series of book-length exercises in psychogeography with Peter Timms’ In Search of Hobart. Hobart developed from a simple concept. Timms would wander around his adoptive hometown and remark on its history and its people to sketch out, in words, a portrait of its character. He would note its distinguishing features — its layout, its landmarks — and he’d tell the stories behind them. The result was a disquieting and often melancholy work in which figures from the city’s past rose up to haunt and exert an influence over its present-day population. The book invited readers to embark on a prosaic meander through the city in the company of a guide, erudite yet unassuming, who felt no obligation to depersonalise his tour and no pressure to cast the city in only the best possible light. In early 2010, NewSouth followed Hobart with Matthew Condon’s Brisbane, and then, in late 2010 and early 2011, the NewSouth series soared to new heights with Delia Falconer’s Sydney and Sophie Cunningham’s Melbourne.

Falconer and Cunningham have both penned books every bit as erudite and disquieting as Hobart. On the whole, I’m inclined to say I prefer Sydney to Melbourne — partly because I think Falconer is one of Australia’s very best contemporary writers; partly because Sydney is more or less where I grew up — although I’d also say that to read either one without reading the other is to impoverish the two of them. They overlap, they align, they interlock. They converse together to enrich one another. They are complementary works that each reflect and refract the insights of their counterpart; and, as such, I found that they jointly struck at the heart of what might’ve led me, a Sydneysider in Melbourne, to take those pictures of the urban green. Or, more specifically, I found that Cunningham identified what might’ve led me, in Melbourne, to notice the urban green in the first place while Falconer, as a fellow Sydneysider, gave voice to the instincts that impelled me to preserve it in photographs.

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Click the cover to listen to an interview with Delia Falconer on ABC Radio.

Falconer paints Sydney as almost literally an urban jungle, a metropolis that runs ragged at the edges and rugged underfoot. “Studded with remnant bush and national parks, crossed by rivers and gleaming ocean inlets, it is hard to pinpoint, exactly, where the city begins and ends,” she writes. “[S]andstone [i]s a kind of base note, an ever-present reminder of [Sydney's] Georgian beginnings and more ancient past… [and] water, which penetrates the city with bright fingers, filters constantly through its foundations, and weighs down the air.” “[T]he mysteriously porous nature of [the] sandstone,” she adds, “means [that], after heavy rain, even when the air is still steaming, the ground is quickly grainy and dry. It is possible, in a single walk, to smell rotting fig and leaf mould, and the tea-like scent of eucalyptus leaves cooking on the sandy earth.”

The rot of something or other, especially the rot of vibrant foliage whose season has drawn to an end, is a ubiquitous feature of Falconer’s Sydney. Jacaranda trees in full bloom “appear unreal, as if you have suddenly developed the ability to see ultraviolet,” until “their ferny leaves crowd through, and the flowers brown and rot upon the ground.” Moreover, “they [have been] planted foolishly, or perhaps sadistically, beside public swimming pools, to the peril of the bare-footed, since the fallen flowers are home to drunken bees.” No other city, Falconer suggests, “is so under the spell of natural beauty, but so addicted to the ugly as a kind of talisman against it. It would be hard to find another as vigorous and dreamy, as full of fecund life yet on the verge of decay.”

“In fact,” she continues, the city’s natural surroundings can be “so strong, and so moody, that it is often hard for the human side to get a look-in. When it does, it has to compete with all this natural life.” Sometimes it emerges victorious, of course, as in the burial of the Tank Stream, the freshwater flow that ran down into Sydney Cove from Hyde Park before it was cemented into a stormwater channel. “But the Tank Stream,” writes Falconer,

is only the best known of the thwarted waterways that continue to agitate across the city. The whole of metropolitan Sydney is built on the great bed of a prehistoric floodplain. Look at any piece of sandstone in situ, with its sloping ripple lines, and the high end of each line will point south, marking its ancient course toward the sea. The rock acts as a giant filter, so that after heavy rain the city’s surface may dry quickly, but its soft cliffs and stairways continue to weep; it is hard to overestimate the impression those walls at the back of The Rocks and around Walsh Bay made on me as a child, with their mossy extrusions, like running snot. Even now, these tiny natural waterfalls thrill me.

Most of the demarcations between the city’s postcodes also mark the courses of the ghost creeks that once rilled across the surface of its sandstone. Look at a map of our suburbs, and you are looking at a vanished topography of streams. These still long to be active, as owners of houses built in their vanquished beds soon find out when it rains, as the old watercourses rise to clog drains and well up through walls.

As Falconer describes it, the city of Sydney has been built upon land that doesn’t want to be built upon. The civilising processes of the city are frequently undermined, and sometimes thwarted, by the unruliness of its natural surroundings. Unlike Melbourne, Sydney rests on a site that does not readily yield to landscaping, and Falconer is quick to note that the comfort-controlled southern city is therefore more conducive to a calmer, more complacent lifestyle:

In Melbourne, that flat, planned city, you can construct a perfectly ordered existence for yourself. There are starched tablecloths in the cafes; transport is predictable; you can even park in town. More than likely, the same pubs you have been visiting for years are relatively untouched by renovation, the same crowd greyer and paunchier beneath their short-sleeved shirts and little hats. The weather may be miserable, but it is more often neutral. It doesn’t matter anyway, as many of the city’s entertainments — and it still has a vital centre — are reliably indoors. People stay, their friends stay, in the same places. Melburnians structure their lives around the real possibility of satisfaction. In fact, if any new restaurant or pub is mooted, it can cause distress.

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Click the cover to listen to an interview with Sophie Cunningham on ABC Radio.

That’s not an attempt to be glib or provocative, although it might read that way when excerpted. Falconer knows what she’s writing about — she lived in Melbourne for a decade before she returned to Sydney a decade ago — and her survey of Melbourne here aligns with the urban village charted by Sophie Cunningham. “With the exception of seven years spent in Sydney,” Cunningham writes, “I’ve lived in Melbourne my entire life. It feels like a small town to me, though in reality it no longer is. … [I]f my ashes were scattered in the Carlton Gardens you could mount an argument for a life lived as narrowly as that of any 18th-century English village girl. About 2 square kilometres would cover it.” She has been a regular at the Standard Hotel in Fitzroy, her local, since the 1980s. She spent the summers of 2006 and 2007 working at a bookstore on Fitzroy’s Brunswick Street, a street that Falconer singles out to contrast its “quiet hush” with the cacophony of Sydney, and she now lives just one street over from there. Aside from accepting a job that swept her up to Sydney for those seven years, Cunningham’s efforts to step outside her comfort zone involve not much more than attending Monash University instead of Melbourne University and briefly making a home on the south side of the Yarra River. “The only strange thing,” she says, “is that this isn’t, really, such an unusual Melbourne story.”

It’d be wrong to suggest that Cunningham’s Melbourne remains entirely untouched by unruly natural forces. On the contrary, her book opens with the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009 and chronicles the twelve months between that disaster and the end of the decade-long drought in 2010. She begins with a beautiful but unsettling recollection of the suffering of the city in the summertime heat. “[O]n Saturday 7 February,” she writes, “the temperature rose to 47 degrees Celsius in our street. … That day, which came to be known as Black Saturday, capped off two weeks of above 30- and often above 40-degree temperatures. In the hot weeks of build-up, railway lines buckled, overloaded buses broke down. … Over in the Carlton Gardens, possums fell, dead, out of trees… [and b]irds dropped out of the sky.” With several outer suburbs of Melbourne reduced to soot and ash that day, Cunningham’s book finds the city shocked and terrorised by a devastating demonstration of just what nature, untamed, can do.

As the book unfolds, however, Cunningham unearths the history of a city that has been developed, over a century and a half, on the twin assumptions that nature exists to be tamed and conquered and that the right combination of persistence and know-how will easily get the job done. Writing of Albert Park Lake, for instance, she reveals that “this sometimes beautiful, strangely shallow lake is a remnant of the South Swamp, an enormous salt lagoon that formed a part of the delta where the Yarra met the sea. As a consequence it kept on flooding the entire area now known as South Melbourne and St Kilda until it was sealed up in the late 1880s and from 1890 filled with freshwater drained from the Yarra.” Then, visiting Federation Square in the city, she descends the staircase on the southern side and arrives on the banks of the Yarra itself. “It’s an erratic river,” she writes:

One day its flow [might be] slow and sluggish — it’s been as low as 17 million litres a day — but during times of flood up to 97,000 million litres has coursed through its beds… push[ing] out into tributaries and marshlands. This contraction and expansion is as regular as a long, slow heartbeat. It’s what made fertile the broad flat plains that Melbourne is built on. As Kristin Otto wrote in Yarra, ‘A time-lapsed, Bunjil-eyed view of the river over tens, hundreds, thousands of years would show a living thing expanding (flood) and contracting (drought), changing beds, looping cutoffs and billabongs running faster or slower, in different unpredictable patterns.’

Cunningham takes note of the “landscap[ed] area around the river bank, now known as Birrarung Marr,” and then she discusses the way the river has been treated by the expanding city as the tendrils of train lines and freeways have lashed out over the plains:

It is symptomatic of Melbourne’s attitude towards the Yarra that shifting a waterway that had been cutting its way through volcanic rock for over 300 million years was seen as more straightforward than diverting an as-yet-unbuilt freeway. Several powerful eruptions, the most recent 800,000 years ago, had failed to destroy the river — they’d simply forced it to embed its course all over again. Something of the stubbornness and recalcitrance of the river’s spirit is captured in a Wurundjeri version of its creation, in which its beds are formed by the heels of a young boy who is being dragged along the ground by an angry old man. After white settlement the river kept fighting, and there were notable floods in Melbourne in 1839, 1848, 1863, 1891, 1934, 1972, and 1989. Elizabeth Street, the lowest point of the CBD, is still particularly susceptible to flooding. In its early years water coursed through it at such speed that humans and horses were drowned. In 1972 flood waters rose to the heights of the awnings of buildings. Water always finds its level, it seems. This regular flooding was a direct result of the profound lack of understanding about how water moved through the land before it was developed.

Yet there was no weakening of the assumption that nature exists to be tamed and conquered, and, even though Melbourne faced many of the same flooding problems that Delia Falconer finds in Sydney, Melbourne’s engineers solved those problems with decidedly more success:

If you open a Melway street directory from the late sixties it’s the creek lines that are overlaid with broken lines, signifying the possibility of development, and nowadays almost all Melbourne’s freeways trace the path of a creek run underground. … Why is it that the rivers were rerouted and the creeks sacrificed to make way for these freeways? According to Merri Creek activist Ann McGregor, they were ‘the line of least resistance.’ There was no need to buy up or knock down houses to allow the freeway to go through. It also solved the problem of Melbourne’s pesky waterways and their tendency to flood. In 1974, serious flooding damaged swathes of residential areas and water management was becoming a political issue. Rather than discourage people from living in flood-prone areas — often some of the most beautiful spots — it was easier to concrete up the creeks. That way [the] engineers could estimate what volumes of water a creek could accommodate, and they could have some semblance of control over the water’s movement.

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So: two cities were founded on two different terrains in two different climates, and they have since ameliorated the intemperance of their natural surroundings with different degrees of success. This scenario breeds a temptation to look at each city’s relationship with its wilderness beyond and, from that, to extrapolate the characteristics of its inhabitants and even the character of each city itself. Falconer and Cunningham both submit to that temptation in their own ways, although Falconer’s submission is easily the more overt and the more spectacular.

As above, Falconer draws a line between the “perfectly ordered existence” of many Melburnians and the “flat, planned” character of the city. Because the land has been forced to accommodate human activity, because it has been shaped to leave human affairs undisturbed, Melbourne radiates a sense that the wilderness occupies a place apart from, and subordinate to, the civilisation of the city. Nature is kept at a safe remove from urban life, and, where it exists in the urban environment, it exists largely in an ethos of managerial orderliness. At one point, Cunningham implicitly reinforces this view of her city. Her closest encounter with the wilderness occurs only when Bruce McGregor, husband of the Merri Creek activist Ann McGregor, brings the urban wildlife to her notice. “In the Melbourne area,” says McGregor,

we get migratory birds that are involved with four migration patterns, maybe five. One of the patterns is northern Australia to southern Australia — these are birds like reed warblers. … [P]eople might go to the Merri Creek and think, oh, there’s nothing here, but the reed warblers nest there in the summer half year.  Then we get birds that migrate from Tasmania… [and] birds that are altitudinal migrants… [and] birds that are erratic in their movements depending on the food. … Cockatoos and honeyeaters. As there’s been a drought in country Victoria for years they’ve tended to hang around southern Victoria and Melbourne because there’s food, and we’ve been planting trees for thirty years now so they have somewhere to forage.

“When Bruce spoke like that,” Cunningham writes, “I saw that the air above the city is full of purposeful movement. The places we think of as empty are not.” Yet the urban wildlife remains distant, up there more than down here, and even then its presence, its return from a diaspora, is partly the result of that ethos of managerial orderliness. The birds of the Merri Creek have a place to forage again because the McGregors have spent decades recreating it for them.

Melbourne, in short, is notably devoid of what Falconer calls the “feral.” In my reading of Sydney, I counted ten uses of the word “feral” to describe aspects of life in her city. Often the word applies to the encroachment of the wilderness on the urban environment — banana trees are “feral,” jacaranda trees possess a “feral vigour,” lantana is “a noxious feral pest,” “bats and possums leave feral scent markings on the trees,” and the city’s outskirts are home to “feral cats, dogs and goats” — although, over time, it colours Falconer’s evident affection for the people around her. Sydney is populated, on the one hand, by “wowsers” with “sober habits,” and, on the other hand, by “the feral masses.” Its intellectual climate is spearheaded by “the most feral, interesting thinkers,” and the city itself, as Falconer sees it, is characterised by a “perverse love of the mad and feral” and “an attachment to the feral, undisciplined and harsh.”

In Sydney, there’s no way to efface or escape from the feral. Some people, like the wowsers, despise it and try desperately to guard themselves against it or to bludgeon it into conformity with their straightlaced dispositions. Falconer gives due coverage to their resentment of the uncouth and their hostility towards difference. Other people, however, do what they can to come to terms with the feral and move on from there. They acknowledge its grotesquerie and its challenge to human superiority, and then they develop a communal character, a way of being together in the world, founded on that acknowledgement:

Sydney is allergic to earnestness, and this has many causes. Perhaps because of the higgledy-piggledy organisation of the early city that made social divisions hard to enforce, the peanut gallery has always been installed closer to the centre of our public life than in any other Australian city. It is there in the delight the 1803 Sydney Gazette took in relating undignified accidents, and all the way through to the pre-tabloid days of the Sydney Morning Herald, whose back page used to run an annual survey on which streets were the most polluted by dog shit (I lived on two of the top three: Arundel Street, in Forest Lodge and Abercrombie Street, in Chippendale). Perhaps because the city started life in the less hide-bound eighteenth century it has had an abiding affection for the carnivalesque over the pious. … The piecemeal, busy nature of our spaces also lends itself to loudness; no quiet hush on the footpaths here, like cloudy Brunswick Street, Fitzroy.

The carnivalesque trumps the pious, yes, and Falconer’s sly, self-deprecating glee at having lived on two of Sydney’s top three shit-stained streets — and at noticing, earlier, that the “mossy extrusions” on Sydney’s sandstone resemble “running snot” — offers a demonstration of the very attitude she discusses. Then she hits her stride, and she hits the nail on the head:

It is Sydney’s wild mix of the stunning and unplanned, of glitz and rot… that gives it its very distinct cultural and intellectual life. In Sydney we are shaped spiritually by damp abrasion and the democracy of grit. The sublime and ridiculous are never far apart. Our pleasures, though at their best beyond compare, are rarely unalloyed with disappointment. There is a high chance at a sunny outdoor cafe that a bogong moth will dive bomb your perfect cappuccino; or, as happened to me quite recently, it will drown in the cheese on your focaccia, and you will be relieved, at least, as you stop yourself from taking a bite just in time, that the black antennae are not pubic hair. A simple downpour will bring the roads to a standstill, or you will find yourself jammed on the F3 with everyone else heading north for Christmas, even while the dry bush to either side of you thrums with joyful heat, and the bays below turn into tender mirrors. As a result, Sydney may be impatient, pushy, volatile, aggressive — but it is rarely righteous, because it is never surprised. … Imperfection and making do are part of our aesthetic.

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I read those words with a gut-level thrill that still hasn’t faded away. I’ve never seen anyone so clearly express what it feels like to be in that city and to carry a part of it inside you wherever else you might go. It’s the riff on the pubic hair that I love the most. For a Sydneysider, the disgust at finding a moth in your sandwich really would be followed by a vivid consideration of worse, more carnivalesque scenarios. That’s something I tried to express on this blog last year, after I attended a panel discussion on the work of Patrick White at the Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing, and Ideas. White’s worldview, I wrote, “manifests in a tension, throughout all of [his] novels, between grotesque carnality and humanistic charity.” What I meant was that his characters repeatedly seek some sort of emotional release or fulfilment, or even a spiritual transcendence, by embracing and revelling in physical and moral muck. What I meant was what Falconer puts succinctly: “[t]he sublime and the ridiculous are never far apart.” You can glimpse that worldview, too, in the fragment from Sydney I posted last month.

What I didn’t say when I wrote about White — or what I said in an early draft of that post before I deleted the remark — was that the aspect of his work that appeals to me the most is his ability to bring life to a worldview essentially identical to my own. I like inhabiting an environment that refuses to yield to human demands and that undermines the human striving for order and comfort. I like inhabiting an environment that confronts me with continual reminders of my own smallness and animality, and the smallness and animality of all human beings. From time to time, in conversation, I also like offering those same reminders to other people who too easily avoid them — a characteristic vice, I guess, that tends to raise eyebrows amongst friends in Melbourne but rarely elicits more than a shrug of the shoulders in Sydney.

The differing structures of Melbourne and Sydney bear out the different worldviews these cities engender. Cunningham covers the twelve months between Black Saturday and the end of the drought by splitting her book into five sections: “Summer,” “Autumn,” “Winter,” “Spring,” and “Summer” again. Unruly natural forces attack the civilised city, but the book insists on the renewed strength of civilisation as the seasonal structure corrals uncontrollable events into a foreordained, linear, orderly sequence which concludes with the ebbing away of the conditions that caused the bushfires. Falconer, on the other hand, splits her book into five sections that veer, haphazardly, from the evanescent to the tactile — “Ghosting,” “Dreaming,” “Living,” “Sweating,” “Showing Off” — and allow her to explore Sydney through a range of vignettes whose structure is too associative to be foreordained, too digressive to obtain linearity, too chaotic to satisfy any yearning for orderliness.

Being in the world, as Falconer’s five sections suggest, is an experience both visceral and transient. Melbourne will often allow you to forget that, but Sydney never does. Perhaps that’s why there persists an attraction to decay and detritus, to fallibility and failure, among some of us who come from up north. To outsiders, of course, that attraction can seem abrasive or callous, but really, beneath the surface, it’s the wellspring for an idiosyncratic regional humanism. Keep an eye out often enough for decay, fallibility, and all the rest, and you’ll find it impossible to avoid the realisation that people everywhere are inescapably united by our being held hostage to unruly bodies in an unruly world. Patrick White put it better than I can. “Some critics complain that my characters are always farting,” he once wrote. “Well, we [all] do, don’t we? Fart. [Even] nuns fart according to tradition and pâtisserie. I have actually heard one.”

Those words touch the bedrock of what you learn from living in Sydney: that there’s a certain satisfaction to be drawn from seeing the pretenses of propriety, decorum, and civilisation undermined and gnawed away at the edges by the very things — the natural things — that have been vanquished so that the pretense might stand. In a small way, I was reminded of that in Melbourne when I stumbled upon the urban green. Those sights struck a resonance with something I felt deep inside, something perhaps invested in me by my years in a place in which it cannot be ignored, and that’s why I felt that impulse to preserve what I saw in photographs. Cunningham helped me to better understand that through an exploration of Melbourne that illuminates what I think are its most coarse characteristics, and Falconer helped me to better appreciate it by articulating it more clearly than anyone else has ever done.

2 Responses to “The Literature of Cities”

  1. Vicki said

    A very enjoyable article. Some points I mused upon as I read the article: who is a Sydneysider? Are people who live in suburban Sydney having a different reaction to Sydney? How do we explain the tendency to tame the environment as you head to the north western suburbs- houses so large that they appear to touch each other in ways reminiscent of the terrace houses of the nineteenth and early twentieth century? Where does the migrant story fit in each of the city stories you have explored? Anyway, love your work- I bit of thinking after a barbecue at the beach.

  2. Vicki said

    Sorry about the grammar- a bit of thinking is what I meant.

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