VANESSA BERRY Mirror Sydney. Reviewed by Tom Patterson
A series of delightful anecdotes about Sydney
Vanessa Berry sets out her brief in Mirror Sydney early. This book is a description of Sydney that doesn’t seek to describe its ‘natural beauty’ but instead focuses on the ‘marginalia, the overlooked and the odd’. To appreciate the ‘weird places, suburban mythologies and unusual details’. To find a ‘shadow Sydney’. It’s an interesting idea, which Berry pursues through a series of journeys traversing the Cumberland Plain up into the Blue Mountains, from pre-history to the present. These journeys are often personal, so that the ‘histories and the memories’ of Sydney, and also of Berry, are woven together.
Berry punctuates her writing with a series of hand-drawn maps. Maps are always abstract, and Berry is not looking for precision or scale. Her maps serve as illustrations of what is in the text. Often there are only a few cursory lines to mark roads or coast, and then they are filled with buildings or events or animals. They’re tea-towel maps, the sort of thing you get at amusement parks. Perhaps they’re kitsch, but there is tenderness and warmth in the careful blue etchings.
The connection with amusement parks is no coincidence. Berry loves them, or rather she loves their ruins. The now defunct Magic Kingdom in Lansvale, for one:
At the foot of the slide is a pile of plastic bread delivery trays, used in place of mats to ride down the slide by those who come to visit the park after dark. The Kingdom has never ceased to be a playground for some […] and to climb to the top of it at night and look out across the darkness below is to become the Magic Kingdom’s royalty.
Showing ruins as places of contemplation and artistic merit is not a new idea, but the convention is one of stone. It takes a certain amount of style to demonstrate the romantic power of crumbling fibro and Besser brick.
Berry has a kind eye for the ugly. This extends beyond the merely scruffy to buildings that, through a combination of geometry, material and location, create something arrestingly unattractive:
The mystery of ugly places is in their making us contemplate how they came into being, what kind of ideals they represent, or what kind of processes might have caused them to be the way they are. Sydney’s ugliest buildings are enigmas, around which dreams and desires for the city swirl.
There is something endearing about Berry weighing up the merits of one unsightly place over another. This is a particularly interesting idea for Sydney, because the backdrop for all this ugliness is just so beautiful. One of the most astonishing things about Sydney is that it is still gorgeous, even after all we have done to it.
This book is an enjoyable read, in part, due to Berry’s humour. The tone is light and she doesn’t take herself too seriously. There are some wonderfully funny details throughout the text, including a memorial built in 1870 at Kurnell to mark Captain Cook’s landing:
It has a funereal look to it, surrounded by a low sandstone fence like a family plot in a graveyard. Set into the path leading to the obelisk are the words Warra warra wai – go away – documented as the first words spoken by the Gweagal People to Cook and his crew.
This is one of the little details of Sydney Berry presents that need to be more widely known. It tells us something real about who we are and where we have come from. Apart from anything else, it’s as darkly humorous as honouring Harold Holt with a swimming pool.
Berry makes no curatorial claim beyond searching for the ‘overlooked and the odd’, and seeks no understanding beyond describing the ‘imprints of past times and future dreams’. The product of this dreaming is a book of delightful anecdotes,but what is lacking is an analysis of why these places have come to be what they are. It’s a pity, because it makes the stories a little disjointed. By not grappling with questions of cause and effect, Berry misses the opportunity for narrative drive. But the big criticism of this book can also be levelled at most history and travel writing: that it describes places well but not people. And it is people that make places, and make Sydney, come alive.
Mirror Sydney starts with an explanation, but it finishes with an image. The final scene is of Berry riding the train over the Harbour Bridge on New Year’s Eve. There is almost no one in the carriage, and as the train leaves the tunnel north of Wynyard, ‘The smoke and sparks of the fireworks surround us. They explode and sizzle in clusters of colour.’ It’s an exhilarating Sydney moment, one that reminds us, amid the beauty, the heat, the forgotten places, the ugliness and the madness, why we love it.
Vanessa Berry Mirror Sydney Giramondo 2017 PB 320pp $39.95
Tom Patterson lives in Sydney.
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