A realization, reasonably early in life, and so far a useful one: I’m a provincial. No point pretending to any sophistication, and less point still in trying to adopt the pose that you’re not one of the tourists. It’s straight to the gift shop with me, along with everybody else. (Last weekend to get to the Gift Shop at the Museum of Contemporary Art I had to walk past Guan Wei’s angry and beautiful mural ‘Journey to Australia,’ particularly timely given the latest racist disgrace perpetuated by the ALP).
And what we small town people still get to wonder at is that giddying rush the metropolis offers:
Oh, blank confusion! true epitome
Of what the mighty City is herself,
To thousands upon thousands of her sons,
Living amid the same perpetual whirl
Of trivial objects, melted and reduced
To one identity, by differences
That have no law, no meaning, and no end--
Oppression, under which even highest minds
Must labour, whence the strongest are not free.
The bits Wordsworth hated – ‘anarchy and din’! – I love about the big city, and can love only because I don’t live in one. All the alienations of crowding, bustling trains, stress are felt, visiting, as the promise of another life.
So this wide-eyed provincial adores Sydney. It’s a city unlike anywhere else in Australasia – older patterns of European settlement are reflected in the twisting chaos of the inner city.
Sydney’s contradictions – ones that make it a very difficult place to live for working people – fascinate me, too. It is marked by an open kind of violence and, from street brawling to the menacing style the cops cultivate, this is a rough place and has always been. I feel an aggression in the atmosphere of the official city. They – the powerful - are used to getting their own way, and seem less concerned about being seen to force their way through. The poverty and harassed status of Aboriginal people on the streets still shocks me, and I remember the story of Juanita Neilsen murdered by the agents of developers in the 70s for her campaigning.
Wandering around the streets on your own too gives you a chance to think of all the struggles and stories of the workers’ movement in NSW, though, from the revolts around Lang to the New Left to the Green Bans.
I was in town for a conference last week. Gould’s Book Arcade doesn’t feel the same anymore after the death of its founder. Bob Gould was a veteran Trotskyist and campaigner on the Sydney Left. He didn’t know me at all but, whenever I went into his store and he heard my accent, would shout questions at me about New Zealand labour history and politics from all corners of the store. He was irascible and irrepressible. I came out of those arguments still convinced in my own positions, but more confident in it for the books I’d bought at the store. It’s just a bookstore now, but an extraordinary treasure of one. You need hours, and a budget prepared. (This visit’s purchases: two Simon Leys’ collections on China; Rothstein’s When Britain Invaded Soviet Russia; Turner’s Sydney’s Burning).
Just before I left on the Sunday I was able to join a rally condemning the ALP’s PNG ‘solution’ to the non-problem of refugees. It was a relief to be able to join a public condemnation of the policy, after spending a weekend becoming the more appalled the more I read in the paper. It was nice being able to march with old comrades and friends.
[My friend and comrade Alma, who was one of the chairs of the rally]
[John Percy has been a socialist activist in Sydney for over forty years]
A note on the text: It’s been almost five months since I posted anything up here. I had a plan, reasonable enough I thought at the start of the year, to blog more regularly and more in-depth; keep up my work at Overland; finish my General Strike book; play more of a role in editing and writing for Socialist Review…. Somewhere between March and now I realised this wasn’t going to work.
I’m going to keep this blog running, but will be writing in it more informally and loosely, more for jottings I’d like to put down and personal responses than for the longer essays I worked on last year.
Reviving an even longer-dormant project, I’ve put up some photos of Sydney food here.