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).
This month, a special announcement: it’s the launch of the Mirror Sydney podcast, a collaboration between me and the audio producer and musician Lia Tsamoglou. You can listen to the first series, of six episodes, at the Mirror Sydney Podcast website, or subscribe on Apple Podcasts, or Spotify, or Google Podcasts as well as other podcast apps.
We started working on the podcast in earnest at the start of this year, with the bushfire smoke thick in the air, and put the finishing touches to it in the intense period of pandemic lockdown in March and April, as changes swirled around us, and the city went quiet. Recording the episodes became a way to travel beyond the confines of home and sink into the details of these places, some of them favourite and familiar, others places new to me. They were lots of fun to make! Lia did a magic job of transforming Mirror Sydney into audio and I hope you enjoy listening to them.
It’s a busy time in the world of Mirror Sydney, with the book newly released. Here are the talks and events I’ll be doing over the next few months, sharing stories from the book and the blog.
Until October 22nd, Mirror Sydney Maps, 55 Sydenham Road, Marrickville. An exhibition of original maps and illustrations from Mirror Sydney. Gallery is open Sat-Sun, 1-5pm.
October 14th, 12:30pm, Artspace Woolloomooloo: Reading at the Volume Book Art Fair. I’ll also be having a stall at the fair from Friday 13th – Sunday 15th, with copies of Mirror Sydney and a limited edition print from the book. More information on the fair here.
October 17th Sydney Launch of Mirror Sydney – Booked out, I’m sorry!
October 28th: Melbourne Launch of Mirror Sydney at Embiggen Books, 197-203 Lt Lonsdale Street.
November 1st, Mirror Sydney with Vanessa Berry, at the Sydney Mechanic School of Arts Library. 12:30 – 1:30pm, Mitchell Theatre.
November 4th, Writing Place in Fiction and Nonfiction, one-day writing course at the NSW Writer’s Centre.
November 28th, Mirror Sydney with Vanessa Berry at Cronulla Library, 6.30pm-7.30pm
December 5th, Mirror Sydney with Vanessa Berry at Rockdale Library, 6pm – 7pm.
I have some more events in the planning, too, and of course more stories to tell you, here on the blog and in person.
First up… Opening this week is an exhibition of the maps from the book of Mirror Sydney, at 55 Sydenham Road gallery in Marrickville. Come for a stroll past the Sydenham Reservoir, and drop by the opening, this Thursday, 5th October, 6-8pm, to see the maps of Parramatta Road, mystery structures, memorial stores, community noticeboards, and other urban and suburban curiousities that are featured in the book.
Then, on October 17th, is the book launch for Mirror Sydney, which will be held at one of my favourite central city landmarks: the CTA Building in Martin Place, in the subterranean bar. The book will be launched by Peter Doyle, of City of Shadows and The Big Whatever fame. BOOKED OUT I’m sorry!
I’ve dropped a few hints here and there, but with its release date coming soon, it’s time to announce that Mirror Sydney will be released as a book in October! Published by Giramondo, it’s an unconventional city atlas: a collection of essays and hand-drawn maps, based on this blog, telling some of the stories of Sydney’s lesser-known, hidden, secret and strange places and histories, charting the city’s atsmospheres, and celebrating its recent past.
There will be a launch in October, as well as some tours and other fun things, which I’ll announce as the time draws near. For now, I’ll run through some of the cover stars.
- Hotel Westend
The mustard expanse of the Hotel Westend’s side wall, with its promise of 100 suites, is like a sunrise amid the surrounding towers. The tall, skinny building with the tall skinny wild-west-style sign seems a portal into a past era of city hotels, the kind that have steak houses on the premises and boast wall-to-wall carpet as a special feature.
The Westend is currently a backpackers, but not for much longer: it was recently sold and is destined for refurbishment, including unfortunately “replacing the letters on the sign to reflect the new name”. This new name seems to be “Ibis Budget Sydney Central“. If the Westend sign must go, I can only hope for its replacement to be an animated neon sign of an ibis dipping its long beak into a rubbish bin.
2. Kenilworth Witches’ House
On the high ridge at the end of Johnston Street are the witches’ houses, the row of Victorian-era mansions that were built in the 1880s, designed by architect John Young. Kenilworth is the tallest and most immediately striking of the houses for its tall, central spire (like a witches’ hat – hence the name) and imperious position. It once had a twin, an identical house next door, that was demolished in 1967 and replaced by a block of red-brick flats. But Kenilworth still has two other companions: to the other side are twin houses with spires on the side, built for John Young’s daughters.
Kenilworth is a fantasy house with its tower and gargoyles, seemingly plucked from a gothic fairytale and transplanted into the Sydney suburbs. It’s a house for dreaming about, wondering what it would be like to peer out its high windows. I still imagine I live in it every time I go past, with my pet raven and library with red velvet curtains and ladders against the bookshelves. All cities need these dream houses, places for wishes and desires to be planted.
3. Fibro Houses
At the opposite end of the spectrum to the gothic mansion are the fibro houses of the south western suburbs. Built in profusion after the second world war, these houses were quickly and easily assembled, and were a haven for many families who had moved from the overcrowded inner-city, or come to Australia as post-war migrants. Although many have been demolished to be replaced by houses twice their size, many still remain, especially around Bankstown and its surrounding suburbs.
These houses are bittersweet: their pastel colours and heart-shaped decorations belying the toxic material from which they were fabricated. They are a manifestation of 1950s and 60s suburban idealism, their neat proportions aspiring to a similarly neat life within their walls. They’re humble houses but proud ones, each customised with different colour paint, or different types of plants in the garden, or house numbers accompanied by silhouettes of horses and carriages. Their pale, thin walls give them an appearance of lightness, of malleability: Patrick White described them in Tree of Man as “brittle in moonlight, soluble in dreams”.
They are a type of house I know well, for I live in one very similar, and know its moods well. Fiercely hot in summer, icy in winter, the walls feel thin like they’re made of cardboard. Mid-afternoon, when all is still outside, I look out the window and imagine the street as it would have been when the house was built in 1960, and the past seems almost graspable, just under the skin of the present.
As part of this year’s Australian Heritage Festival, I’ll be presenting a talk and slideshow about St Peters called “Post Industrial Playground”. It’s on May 10th at St Peters library, and is free, but please register here if you’d like to come along. I’ll be talking about St Peters’ recent past, with a focus on alternative culture: punx picnics, St Peters in pop culture, and weird scenes from Sydney Park. Of which there are many.
**UPDATE: Thank you to everyone who entered and shared their lost and found Sydney stories. I’ve drawn the prize from my top hat and have a winner – congratulations to Kristina!**
On April 1st I’m hosting the Sydney Lost and Found bus tour with Sydney Living Museums, in conjunction with the exhibition Demolished Sydney. It’s a mystery tour that starts in the city and heads south into the suburbs, travelling through time and stories as we go.
The tour is sold out, but I have a ticket to giveaway! To enter, leave a comment with your favourite lost, or rediscovered place in Sydney. Next Tuesday, I’ll draw the prize (at random using the names in a hat method). Good luck!
Details of the tour are here.
I’ll be speaking about Sydney, writing, and the urban environment on three occasions in November.
First, for those interested in the more academic side of what I do, I’ll be presenting a paper on urban ruins, Parramatta Road and the Midnight Star theatre at a research seminar at Macquarie Uni on Wednesday November 11th. It’s on from 3-5pm in the Faculty of Arts building, Y3A, in the Drama Studio (downstairs, room 187).
On Thursday November 19th I’ll be at the NSW Writers’ Centre, discussing one of my favourite topics – Weird Sydney, along with Peter Doyle, Chris Mikul, and Michael Wayne. It’s on from 6:30 at Garry Owen House in Callan Park, Rozelle, and more details can be found here.
And on Sunday November 29th, I’ll be at the Wollongong Writers’ Festival, speaking on a panel about non-fiction place writing. It’s at 12:30pm at the Wollongong City Art Gallery, and more details can be found here.
This October I’ll be leading two Sydney tours as part of the Groundwork exhibition curated by the New Landscapes Institute. They’re based on my map of Sydney Mystery Structures that will be exhibited in Groundwork. The map features some of the city’s more perplexing and obscure landmarks, of which there are many to choose from – but I will reveal more closer to the time.
The first of the tours, on Saturday October 3rd, is a city mystery structures tour: a journey past the grandiose, the bizarre and the banal alternative landmarks of the city. The next weekend, on Sunday October 11th, is a tour of Annandale’s aqueducts and their mysterious path through the parks and back streets of the suburb.
See the city the Mirror Sydney way! I’d love you to join me, you can book at the links above. Or if an exhibition opening is more your style, Groundwork opens on October 1st at Gaffa Gallery.
On February 11th I’ll be speaking at Sydney’s oldest library, the Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts at 280 Pitt Street. I’m the first speaker in the Writing Sydney series, hosted by Walter Mason, which will run throughout the year. I’ll be talking about some of my favourite Sydney places and stories, telling some of the tales behind the blog, and generally discussing all things curious about the city and suburbs.
The talk is free but you do need to book, which you can do at the event listing page on the Sydney Mechanic’s School of Arts website. I look forward to meeting some of you there, and the SMSA is an interesting place with a long history that’s well worth a visit.
For those who prefer the radiola, I also recently spoke with ABC radio about secret Sydney places, abandoned spaces, redevelopment, and exploring the suburbs. You can listen to the interview here.
New stories are coming soon, for now I wish you a happy 2015, dear readers. May your troubles be as the card below suggests.