The Sydney of Gentle and Fierce

My new book, which has just been released, Gentle and Fierce, is a memoir that reflects on animals, place, and memory. Although it’s not as location-focussed as Mirror Sydney, much of it takes place in Sydney, and so I thought I’d take you on a short tour of a few of the Sydney places that appear in the book.

1. Devonshire Street Tunnel

The tunnel is fluorescent-lit and green-brown in tone, and walking through it I always feel as if I’m in a race with myself, zigzagging between the other walkers. I used to measure my journeys along it by the painted murals – the spaceman, the circus, the boy swimming – but, in the mid-2000s they were removed and replaced by soft-focus digital art featuring trains, that neither drew my attention nor stuck in my memory.

The tunnel invariably resounds with footsteps and the overlapping strains of buskers, echoing off the grubby tiles, but I have an affection for it. Rarely do I think about the rail lines that extend above it, even though often I’ve just alighted from a train that travelled over them; the tunnel completely seals me into its atmosphere of grime and haste. In Gentle and Fierce it appears twice, near the start and near the end, as if it marks either side of a journey.

2. Goolay’yari/ Cooks River

Which I walk along at least every week ordinarily, and more often now that we’re in lockdown. Unlike the tunnel, the river’s atmosphere is expansive, as it reflects the sky and the tide rises and falls.

A few days ago I watched the pelicans, the goolay’yari of the Dreaming story that gives the river its name. A row of them were asleep on the boom that stretches out into the river to capture the bottles and floating trash. One pelican turned to peer up at the bridge above, watching with its cartoon eye, before looking back to the water, which was moving swiftly, flowing west. In the centre of the river a moorhen swam against the flow of the tide, paddling hard and barely advancing, but continuing to swim regardless.

3. Suburban Houses

Gentle and Fierce moves through a series of houses, many of them my childhood houses: small square mid-twentieth century houses of middle-ring suburbia. Many of these particular houses have been demolished by now, but they have a firm hold in my memory, and in my dreams. And even if the houses I lived in don’t exist anymore, there are plenty like them around, similar if not the same. L-shape, blinds over the windows like eyelids, a patch of front lawn, flowers whose yearly blooms mark the passing of time.

4. Mahon Pool

My favourite ocean pool, Mahon pool was cut into the rocks to the north of Maroubra Beach in 1935. Low and square amid the sandstone outcrops, it becomes gradually visible as you descend the stairs from the park above, and I can never predict exactly how it’s going to be: low and glassy, high and sloshy, busy with kids or with only a few solitary lap-swimmers fighting the cold and the waves.

In Gentle and Fierce I write about the magpies that live on the headland, which sometimes come up to me when I sit on the particular rock at the side of the pool that is my favourite. They’re more interested in my brioche than my notebooks, where I write about the moment they stand around me, singing.

If you’re interested in Gentle and Fierce, there’s a website with some more of the stories behind the making of it here, and it’s out in bookstores (I did manage to visit it on the new release shelf in Berkelouw, just before lockdown started).

9 Comments on “The Sydney of Gentle and Fierce”

  1. Natalie Singh says:

    congratulations on the new book!

  2. Billy Bob says:

    Great to see a new book out. I have picked up ‘Ninety9’ and am using it as a distraction from the news, even though I’m no longer in Sydney.

    We are on the same wavelength with Ratcat. Out of all the music I acquired as a 5-6 year old, the Tingles EP was by far the best and most inspired choice. I have always associated the band with Pyrmont and Ultimo and now I know why! I also watched ‘Rage’ religiously, preferring it over the Saturday morning cartoons.

    The cassingles were purchased at Brash’s, on shopping trips with my mother. The Brash’s saga could be another story for Mirror Sydney.

    Unfortunately I also had ‘Ice Ice Baby’ and ‘Achy Breaky Heart’ in my collection…

    • Vanessa Berry says:

      Thanks Billy Bob and good to hear Ninety9 has struck a chord – ah Brashs, I remember it well, where you could buy a cassingle and a piano!

      • Billy Bob says:

        Very much enjoyed the paean to community radio too! (I am a presenter myself, on Braidwood FM).

      • Vanessa Berry says:

        Excellent! I still love community radio and am glad it endures.

      • Billy Bob says:

        Though I think Melbourne has the best community radio scene in the country. 3RRR and 3PBS, plus many good suburban ones (similar to 2RRR and 2RDJ). Now just about every one of these stations streams. Rather than killing community radio, the Internet has actually been good in expanding our audience.

  3. Jennifer says:

    A new book? Congratulations! Straight onto my reading list.

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