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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.)

At a barbecue recently, one of those gloriously traditional Saturday-evening affairs where a dozen or so people sit around an outdoor table and drink beer and wine and eat bread and dip before – when someone can be bothered – the meat is eventually cooked, I was reintroduced to thyme.  Yes, thyme, the herb, not the ‘indefinite continued existence of the universe in the past, present and future’ as the Oxford Dictionary has it.  The host, a kind and gentle soul, did the honours; we’d arrived early so she showed us around her herb patch before other guests turned up.  The thyme in the centrally located terracotta pot immediately took my interest, because as a little boy and then as a not-so-little teenager it was my favourite plant in the whole wide world.

Back when I knew nothing about anything (though I still don’t, it has to be said) I enjoyed gardening very much.  I had my own plot at the rear of our North Shore home in Sydney.  The yard was terraced there and I was allowed the lower, partly hidden level, which had been a cricket pitch before my brothers moved out.  More a rock garden, I filled it with plants bought on sale from the local nursery or ‘borrowed’ from my mother’s beds or, more often, stolen from the bush over the road, which isn’t good, I know, but it’s the truth.  Thyme, however, was the beloved plant, because it’s one that’s impossible for a dreamy teenaged boy to kill.

I shared all this with the barbecue host, and then declared that I’d be sure to visit a nursery and buy myself a piece of thyme.  Which I did the next morning.  At home I pinched the leaves and put my thumb and forefinger to my nose – what a delicious, pungent smell and how, yes, it transported me back to that rock garden I had in Sydney.  So I potted up my new plant and put it pride of place on my own outdoor table.  It was like I’d reunited with an old friend, or had discovered a part of me that had been submerged by years of being someone I’m not.

Yesterday I did some research on Thymus vulgaris, the second part of the name not at all appropriate for such a cheery plant.  The ancient Egyptians used it for embalming, the Greeks liked bathing in it because it was thought to be a source of courage (I love that); in the European Middle Ages it was placed beneath pillows to ward off nightmares, which I’ll be sure to remember.  I learnt that thyme’s central element, thymol, is a key ingredient in toothpaste and mouthwash, that it can cure tinnea and ringworm, that it’s used to prevent mould in bee colonies (another image I adore), and, just to show that absolutely everything has a dark side, it is one of the 599 additives to cigarettes as it improves flavour and relaxes the trachea.

I’ve since dug out an old photograph of my little lower-level rock garden and just now Blue-tacked it on the wall in my writing room.  It’s so easy to imagine being that skinny, pimply young kid lost in a world of plants and soil.

It was – is – such a good world to be lost in.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 20 February 2010)

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