Monday, March 8, 2010

Two paragraphs about Sydney

The late Kenneth Slessor, in his prose as much as in his poetry, probably came nearest to evoking the sheer pulchritude of Sydney harbour. But finally the place is too multifarious to be captured by the pen. Sydney is like Venice without the architecture, but with more of the sea: the merchant ships sail right into town. In Venice you never see big ships - they are all over at Mestre, the industrial sector. In Sydney big ships loom at the ends of city streets. They are parked all over the place, tied up to the countless wharves in the scores of inlets (‘You could hide a thousand ships of the line in here, a British admiral observed long ago) or just moored to a buoy in mid-harbour, riding high. At the International Terminal at Circular Quay, the liners in which my generation of the self-exiled left for Europe still tie up: from the Harbour Bridge you can look down at the farewell parties raging on their decks. Most important, the ferries are still on the harbour. Nothing like as frequent as they once were, but still there - the perfect way of getting to and from work.

- Clive James, 'Postcard from Sydney' (1976)

Yet it is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, specifically because it is Australian. That winding, nooky, islanded, bosky harbor thrillingly reminds one always that Sydney stands on the shore of an island totally unlike anywhere else on earth. The pale pure light of the Sydney winter seems to come straight from the bergs and ice mountains of Antarctica. The foliage of Sydney’s parks and gardens is queerly drooped and tangled, apparently antediluvian fig trees overshadow suburban streets, and the perpetual passing of the ships through the very heart of the city gives everything a tingling sense of remoteness. The water goes down the plug-hole the other way in Australia, and it really is possible to imagine, if you are a fancifully-minded visitor from the other hemisphere, that this metropolis is clinging upside-down to the bottom of the earth, so subtly antipodean, or perhaps marsupial, is the nature of the scene.
- Jan Morris, ‘Over the Bridge’ (1985)

Both descriptions suit the travel essay as distinct from the travel narrative. James makes regular reference to cultural figures/icons as a way into a more descriptive paradigm; his sentence structure is often based on ironic comparisons: “Venice without the architecture…”; he uses off-key metaphors to balance an everyday tone: ships “are parked all over the place”; there are lightly-handled historical references, bordering on the too-knowing; while the narrator is present but only just physically so - presence is implied rather than shown.

In the Morris, theme is the unifying element in the paragraph: Australianess defines Sydney; as a result, descriptive language and metaphors that are theme-based: Australian specialties like “marsupial”, “antipodean”, “remoteness”, “upside-down”; there is a heaviness of description based on the intensity of the visual experience: “winding, nooky, bosky”, “pale pure light”, “queerly drooped and tangled”; and, like James, the subtly-stated confession of the narrator’s p. of v.: “a fancifully-minded visitor from the other hemisphere”. There is less cultural referencing than in the James paragraph, again determined by the theme, which is the difference of Australia rather than understanding it in European terms.