Sydney

“This music crept by me upon the waters”
And along the Strand, up Queen Victoria Street.
O City city, I can sometimes hear
Beside a public bar in Lower Thames Street,
The pleasant whining of a mandoline
And a clatter and a chatter from within
Where fishmen lounge at noon: where the walls
Of Magnus Martyr hold
Inexplicable splendour of Ionian white and gold.

TS Eliot, The Waste Land

I shall not want Honour in Heaven
For I shall meet Sir Philip Sidney
And have talk with Coriolanus
And other heroes of that kidney.

TS Eliot, A Cooking Egg

Ye’ll nevah pye full praihce agin! Min’s! Lydie’s! Children’s clothing! Bahgains gahloah!

Prerecorded announcement, Global Brands Outlet, King’s Cross, Sydney [sic] Australia

On the Australian entry form, there is no place to indicate my exact purpose in coming to Sydney: to basically sniff about, admiring public monuments and sites of historical interest, visiting art galleries and museums, investigating second-hand bookshops (there being almost none in Hong Kong), sketching and painting, and writing online, and off. The closest acceptable, preprinted purpose was “visiting friends”.

But since 1972, when I visited London for the first time, I have found these trips quite inexpensive and gratifying. I was concerned about the strength of the Australian dollar, which today is at 98% of parity with the United States dollar: but I realized once here this is an illusion, since books are cheaper, food is at parity, and the only thing missing are truly vile guest-houses as found in Hong Kong and available by the hour for purposes which can be well imagined.

What you have to watch for is of course the foreign exchange shops. The jolly swagman at the Kingsford aerodrome said that of course, his mission in life was to relieve the incoming tourists of their money with a risible exchange rate, and, of course, banks and FXen downtown would be cheaper. He then proceeded to give me a lower than usual rate. I subsequently discovered I have access to my accounts on ATMs, and there’s a fixed charge but a low FX rate.

The egalitarian friendliness of Australians is most refreshing. I was so exhausted by the time I arrived at Kingsford that I checked into a basic airport hotel. The waiter who served my dinner gave me sage counsel about saving money after i expressed by astonishment at the three dollar Cokes in the vending machine, relating the costs to a study of how much it costs to buy a Big Mac around the world in terms of how many minutes or hours it would take to buy the burger working minimum age.

I then realized he wasn’t about to carry the dinner for me up to my room. Very good, thinks I: gave me a matey feeling to do it myself.

The service efficient but unhurried, un-hag-ridden. There was a lack of anxiety.

The next morning I went on a run, being careful to wear Oakland Athletics board shorts and an I Love Shenzen golf shirt instead of my usual abbreviated shorts and toplessness, which, I thought, might unnecessarily alarm the locals. In that getup I looked signally old but in a new city one needs to look normal and not fright the horses.

The neighborhood was industrial with a railway, a pro-or-anti immigration billboard. The day was grey threatening a penetrating and rather cold drizzle which started later on. The houses were in an old, simple Australian style: rather small, possibly only kitchen, sitting room, and bedroom (as recently as the 1960s the loo was out back even when not in the Outback).

A way of life thought civilized but not lavish, yet not Puritan because of the bounties of nature and the sun that I may not see this week.

A bunch of guys sitting around having breakfast in a sort of garage, all dressed in dark suits, like the Blues Brothers or Reservoir Dogs, very sinister until I realized they were airport limo drivers.

No kangaroos, and I shall not endeavor to see one. Travel is utterly debased when it becomes tourism, where you spend money and get up early to make appointments to be shown a ‘Roo, a Moose, an Elephant, a dead Indian, or Caliban:

“A strange fish! Were I in England now, as once I was, and had but this fish painted, not a holiday fool there but would give a piece of silver: there would this monster make a man; any strange beast there makes a man: when they will not give a doit to relieve a lame
beggar, they will lazy out ten to see a dead Indian.”

(Shakespeare, the Tempest)

The only way to “see” a Moose is to actually experience The Idea of the Moose. I was hiking several years ago in Harriman State Park in Idaho, solitary as so often (but not always), and came eyeball to eyeball with an enormous Moose, of seven feet in height and with an equal antler span.

The Moose gazed at me for a heartbeat, and then gave a rather dismissive snort, turned, walked into his Moosey ecodrome (low lying swamp land with delicious leaves located where he could reach them), turned, and gave another snort. I replied with my own snort, and there was at that moment an inter-species understanding. The Moose’s action had declared, “this is my territory”, and my snort and walk-past declared “this is mine, and salaam aleikum, to you, Bullwinkle.”

This is how I would need to meet a Kangaroo. That old gas-bag Heidegger said it well: the Lion in the Zoo (a German invention?) is not a real Lion. The Marching Penguins are a fable and not real Penguins, desperate to reproduce.

The group tourist is a harmless enough sort, people need structure unless they’ve read a lot about where they’ve gone. I am no expert on Australia but had prepared for and taught a class in its history.

But the romantically noble, Paul Bowles sort of solitary adventurer’s dark side is indeed nothing more than Shakespeare’s “holiday fool” if he for a moment uses anything like a cruise or makes an appointment with a Kangaroo.

Today, I explored King’s Cross, Darlington, and downtown Sydney. Now, there are a lot of boozers in King’s Cross, both in the sense of drunk chaps and in the sense of establishments catering to drunk chaps. But there are also lovely secondhand bookshops which to me make the neighborhood, for Hong Kong has none…only the Pet Shelter on Lamma Island (which sells used books for its noble and eleemosynary efforts with abandoned animals) and my friend Nick the Bookman, a gentleman on Lamma Island who sells books on the street.

There’s also Bob Woodward’s el Aleiman Fountain and many good restaurants.

The drunk chap factor is real. In the cafe in which I write, there’s no rest room, and I was directed to “Vegas” next door…chock full of punters, boozers and bemused females. “In and out like a dose of salts”, as George Macdonald’s Adjudant advises Lt McNeill in the McAuslan stories: I adopted an expression midway between James Bond and an altar boy, and went in to do my business. Over the trench pisser was an ever so well meaning Government warning, which attempted a false bonhomie: “Don’t let a mate walk home drunk”.

This was asking for trouble, of course. The most printable, scrawled emendation was “let him crawl home”.

I walked from King’s Cross only to Darling Harbour in the gathering cold drizzle. Old cities of the former Empire always make me feel like a character out of Aldous Huxley’s prewar novels…most of them about some young middle aged, utterly Sensitive, widely Cultured Englishman, often named Edward, bullied at school, attractive to women but often disappointing them, cruelly.

Who through reading becomes the Idea of Empire when his school-fellows become the lower-case ideas of successful bankers who lose everything in the fall of Singapore. But the Idea once realized, like the Great American Disaster (a most amusing name for a chain of American-style restaurants and sadly, very sadly, what my country may be turning into), is too big.

It’s like playing with toy soldiers and imagining oneself (like a hero out of a somewhat forgotten Wells novel, The Bulpington of Blup) to be a cross between Wellington and Shakeseare, only to meet Real Life and its horsemen: physical combat with larger boys at schools, sex, marriage, toil and the grave (with perhaps Churchill’s “drink, sodomy and the lash” thrown in for good measure).

The Empire nothing more than a vast administered world which we only fancy can be anything other than an infernal machine. Yet Sebastian Barnack, in Time Must Have a Stop, persists in composing (quite surprisingly good) poetry and to dream.

Behold, this dreamer cometh.

The Victorian architecture of Sydney’s downtown beggars photography. I could have taken any number of snapshots but I don’t want to add to the gajillions of photos that now exist in this digital world. I’d rather have the ability to put into words what it is like to be a bit chilled in a gathering rain, to be alone and for this reason not so infernally “co-dependent”, and to suddenly see what you’ve only seen in a book, in its Edwardian or Victorian physicality.

As I passed St Mary’s, the Catholic cathedral in the park, on my way to downtown, a large wedding was just ending. The bride was a bit disappointing in the looks department. I went in to say a prayer for my father, and a walkabout. There was an excellent modern Mary Magdalene opposite a John the Baptist and a stunning modern but realistic Madonna and Child by an Australian artist. Unfortunately, the name of the artist was not posted.

Madonna and Child. All mothers…the very secret of why we bother to reproduce in the first place. My wife had me photograph her with our infant son, merely to document the cleanliness of our flat when we moved. But she became unconsciously a mediaeval statue, thrusting a thin hip out for my son to stand on, in the polaroid.

Edward G. Nilges, “After the Hungarian Master, Louvre”, June 2008: pencil, pen, coloured pencils and computer enhancement

As I returned to my hotel, the colors save one faded. The green trees became black in the dark, but the King’s Cross subway station, an extraordinary fountain and the cathedral were molten gold.

Coda, a Low Postscript on Tobacco

As I returned to King’s Cross, I realized that tobacco here is a ghost, the unlamented consort and complement of booze. I have long been puzzled about tobacco (being one hell of a nicotine fiend).

I realized, walking along, that wait a minute. Tobacco and booze are the real ontology, the missing link. I was running in 2000 in San Francisco when I came upon a guy smoking outside a bar with a glass of beer. I asked him why he was smoking outside a bar with a glass of beer, and he said San Francisco had a new law: no smoking in bars.

Wow, I thought as I ran on. Great reason for Paddy O’Hooligan here, that’s me when drunk, to stay out of bars, for what sense is there in stepping up to a bar, in Chicago or Sydney, and loudly ordering a schooner of beer and a shot of whiskey with which to make a “depth charge” (the whiskey in dropped in the beer) without immediately being able to light up a Marlboro in Chicago, or a John Player in the former Empire. I ask you.

The tobacco talks to the booze. It admonishes it. And…perhaps the hysteria against tobacco, especially noticeable in Australia, has created the hyper-boozing which has only been a feature of urban life for about ten years. Perhaps if a chap cannot smoke he just drinks more. Perhaps a woman is only a woman, but a good cigar is a smoke, in Kipling’s immortal words, and it is a reminder, to the subconscious drowned in alcohol, of the working world, which used to feature a lot of smoking in offices and, when safe, in factories and on board ships.

Perhaps tobacco groaned a reminder? I’m not certain. But only ten years ago, in King’s Cross, I’d have smelled its delightful smell when unsmoked and seen lovely pipes in shop windows. Today, one only sees a white sepulchre, a cabinet marked with a grim warning to the unregenerate Sot.

I was however glad to see that Nicotine Gum here is plentiful and cheap as prawns were for the Yonghi Bonghi Bo, for I am still unrecovered, using this medicinal gum exclusively.

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One Response to “Sydney”

  1. spinoza1111 Says:

    Lord Sydney,
    Sir Phillip Sydney,
    And all Heroes of that Kidney
    Say it’s Y and NOT an I
    Down under in Australia
    And when you post it wrong in New South Wales
    Blokes and coves and coots and frails
    Shall indulge themselves in great whacking Gales
    Of Laughter ever After.

    My apologies for misspelling the name of the city. The post has been corrected.

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