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The Past | The Previous

geoffrey moorhouse, sydney, the story of a city.

i'm not sure where this book sits on the history of sydney, but it's certainly written with a confident hand, and an attention to detail, though his continual fixation on the harbour is a bit bizarre. i myself don't think about it that much, but i suppose he is right: what else is the defining image of the city?

of special note, moorhouse writes that the aborigines were basically passive to the first fleet when they arrived. (though there was spearing and such.) found a book today by henry reynolds called the other side of the frontier which says that this commonly held belief was, in fact, quite wrong.

anyhow, divided into chapters:

chapter one: one of the finest harbours in the world.

pretty much a first chapter--drift on in through the heads, which seems to be the popular way to approach sydney, as it echoes peter carey's start of 30 days in sydney: a wildly distorted account. ferries, bridge, rocks, all that sort of thing. it also sets the area in which moorhouse thinks of sydney, and which ends at leichhardt, though parramatta and penrith do get a mention. but it seems that anywhere beyond leichhardt is placed into that giant sprawl of the suburbs, where moorhouse admits that over half the population lives. the first chapter covers the arrival of the first fleet, with the usual bit about botany bay being useless.

chapter two: in the beginning...

this is pretty much the arrival from the aboriginal point of view. where he discusses that they were mainly passive, thinking the ships and people on board to be ghosts, the returned dead or so. you know, the savage fear type of deal. the numbers i quoted earlier come from this point too, and some local koori people of fame are mentioned, including the fellow who had his head sent to arthur phillip by the aborigines themselves, to prove that he was dead.

chapter three: the last melting pot.

john birmingham's leviathan starts with a vietnamese man fleeing at the end of the war, to come to australia, and the hardship he and his family and friends endured at sea. moorhouse relates a story similar, except this man was from a well to do section, bought his ship, bought a shitload of american dollars and gold bars and fled, coming to australia only when america turned them down. the distinction between the two is interesting, and, as moorhouse notes, the first experience was more the norm than the one he tells. but here moorhouse talks about immigration, the lifting of the white australia policy so that the population would expand, though he doesn't go much into detail of the things that bought about the white only policy. again, birmingham's book, which spends dozens of pages telling you things like such, is a good place to dig some of the information.

moorhouse claims that here is the last chance for a giant melting pot of a city, as he doesn't see where it will be happening again. (i believe he is referring to all of australia.)

chapter four: merinos, shipping and botany bay.

john maccarthur, that first of the corrupt australian business men, who robbed from the poor to give to himself (heh, sorry, my own amusement here) is the mainstay of this chapter, as it was he--according to moorhouse--who was basically responsible for the bringing in of the merino, and using it as something to trade to london. ties he set up in his first exile, which i believe was for shooting someone. maccarthur was also the man who bought in rum and used this to increase his landholding, creating a nation of poor sods addicted to it in the beginning that they would take rum for payment over cash, and give up small bits of their land when they needed more. maccarthur was also responsible for the ousting of bligh, i think it was (all these names, man, i hate names) and he spent the final years of his life as a certified nut.

anyhow, this chapter: sydney trade and such.

chapter five: a haven, a battle and endless suburbs.

this chapter really isn't about the suburbs, though there is some of it. is this the chapter where he mentions the first political killing, out in fairfield? (i work in fairfield. it's a nice place with a strong asian community, but starting from here to cabramatta is the new blacktown stretch, of drugs and gangs, which, when i was growing up, i believe was found in blacktown.) he talks about the battle for wooloomoolroo, which i may have spelt wrong there, but also which birmingham goes into more detail about, and also details, quite well, the rise of the builders union, which were born out in kellyville, when a committee of women approached some of the workers into pulling out on a job for a reason i've forgotten now. the battle in this chapter is the 'loo battle (short for the misspelling) and is the rise of union and big business and private individuals clashing over stuff.

chapter six: have fun sport!

what book that is a history of sydney would be complete without mentioning surfing, football, gambling, and how all these are considered more important than the arts? well, actually, birmingham's leviathan for one. and peter carey's doesn't spend time with it, either, but it gets a mentioned. birmingham mentions bondi beach and a big stone and how waves can be dangerous, and that's pretty much it. moorhouse gives the australian sport world a look into here, demonstrating the origins of the class distinctions between rugby league and union.

chapter seven: mardi gras and tall poppies.

there is a long history of sydney people chopping down people who become too big. moorhouse tells about one fellow who put the sydney orchestra on the world map being portrayed as a pornographic deviant for reasons that are not really known, and also talks about the mardi gras, which aren't so terribly interlinked except in the floats. there is a history of anti homosexuality here, which apparently arose from a prison in sydney, which was--mind failing--on a small island in the harbour? maybe, but any rate, it was a prison full of guys with nowhere to go and nothing to do and no one to regulate their behaviour, and this is where all the nasty whispers of homosexuality began in the colonial days, continuing right up until the sixties when the first parade was. and for a bit of time beyond that.

chapter eight: warts and all.

there is a quote in this chapter about sydney being one of the most corrupt cities ont he planet, or something to that affect. it talks about the middle of the twentieth century, which were the corrupt years, i suspect, and the arrival of the wood police commission. which, of course, had something like a thousand cops in sydney leave their job, and three hundred and forty or so of them face trial. this is couple with the general positive attitude that is there for people who screw the government, and the whole 'never rat on your friends' kind of thing. good and bad and all that stuff. you know, i should have written these things down as i went.

chapter nine: politics, too.

i really thought there would be more about wentworth here. but no, he gets a couple of mentions, and then basically moorhouse spends a bit of time discussion the labor and liberal camps, though not the political system overly (which he says mirrors the british system). there is no discussion of the keating years and their push for asia, nor john howard and his attachment to america. he does talk about the union movements, but overall, it's a bit of a lacking chapter.

chapter ten: the one day.

a whole chapter for anzac day and what good soldiers australians make. the only real bits of a patriotism that will be found here, and moorhouse gives it this spin: it's the day when regular folk, every day folk, can stand up and be recognised. it is also, he says, the day when australia and new zealand became countries in their own right. there is nothing to stepping up to the world platform by getting people killed...

i prefer peter carey's version of this day. i'll dig that up in a bit, i think.

chapter eleven: uptown, downtown...

this is basically a look into the change of the skyline in sydney. the rise of buildings, the destruction of the GPO building, and the line of apartments down on the rocks that blocks the view of the opera house and such.

chapter twelve: ...downstream.

this is moorhouse's final comments on sydney. on the people who live here and the diversity. again, he seems kind of fixated on the harbour, and all the ships and such going in and out, but it's hardly a new fixation at this point in his book. when in doubt look to the harbour, he says.