In her recently published autobiography Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Jeanette Winterson writes, “Where you are born – what you are born into, the place, the history of that place, how that history mates with your own – stamps who you are, whatever the pundits of globalisation say.” For Winterson, it’s Manchester, the rawness of the world’s first industrial city. For me, it’s Sydney, that sprawling urban tart just up the road.
But what is it, this city where I came into being? What is the history that, as Winterson says, mates with me?
I was born and raised on Sydney’s North Shore, amongst towering gums and argyle apples, the screech of rainbow lorikeets never far away, and possums in the roof – one time a pint-sized sugar-glider landed on the handlebars of the mower. Summer weekends at Freshwater Beach, boogie-boarding with my older brothers, on the return home Midnight Oil’s first album screaming out of the car stereo. Going into the city to meet friends, hooking up in Oxford Street, which back then I figured was just another inner-city through-way. Regular family holidays up into the Blue Mountains, where I imagined that dinosaurs lurked just around the corner. Trips down to Bowral in the Southern Highlands to visit my mother’s parents; the house was barely furnished, which wouldn’t do these days, would it.
So, the way I think about it, I was – we were – always leaving, always getting out. And who could blame us? Despite the gloss and glam and glitter, Sydney has the darkest of hearts, a twisted soul. It’s a city formed on the hardship of convicts, the majority male, many professional criminals. Famine caused by frequently failed agriculture. Disease: small pox, chicken pox, venereal disease, measles; one of these wiped out 90 percent of the local Aboriginal people so that their bodies could be seen floating in the harbour.
It’s said that Sydney was to be called New Albion. Albion: that poetic nickname for Britain. It’s a name that may have been inspired by a story about the 50 daughters of Syria’s king, who all got married on the same day and murdered their husbands on their wedding night; as punishment, they were set adrift in a ship before landing at Britain where they shacked up with the locals.
Sydney: she sure does stamp me out.
And there are days when I wish she wouldn’t.
(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 2 June 2012.)