Even on an overcast day there’s a glimmer behind the clouds in Sydney – an underlying brightness which sends camera light meter readings skyrocketing; lumpen grey skies, but behind them the power of the southern sun. The city feels tropical, with palm trees and lianas in the quiet leafy streets around Potts Point echoing to the limpid calls of mynah birds, reminding me of India. Large black and white birds stalk about with beaks curved like scimitars: Australian white ibis – historically rare but increasing in urban areas of the east coast since the late 70s. Despite this, debate rages over whether they are a pest or a vulnerable species. Apparently they have periodically been culled in Sydney “due to their smell and at times obtrusive nature”. I must admit I hadn’t noticed the smell, but they are certainly curious birds, and will happily march up to you with an unblinking glare in the hope of food. They honk like discordant bassoons when disturbed, which is frequently. 12 hours from Melbourne on the train here, and it feels like another climate zone altogether. Toward evening columns of fruit bats fly overhead, into the city. Today’s high was 37 degrees C.
The city’s most iconic landmarks reveal themselves only gradually, in a series of tantalising glimpses – a brief view of girders through the canopy of trees assembles itself, upon rounding a bend, into the famous Harbour Bridge. A fragment of sweeping white curve, like the sail of a dhow, becomes recognisable as a corner of the Opera House. And suddenly there it is before you, dwarfed by the bridge from this angle, and yet somehow self-contained and in proportion. The city is surprisingly quiet for mid-morning on a weekday – no distant rumble of traffic, only the flat mechanical hammering echoing off the water from the naval dockyard at Wooloomooloo, where two gigantic warships merge into the grey background. The green and yellow Sydney ferries criss-cross the harbour waters, on the way to Manley on the north shore – so named, apparently, by a British naval officer in the 18th century who spotted a group of Aborigines on the shore and, admiring their physique, pronounced them “manly”. Yachts and assorted pleasure craft are moored along the jetty; loud laughter came from one, and I could hear London accents. The name of the yacht was “Job Done”. East End villains on the run? Bunch of city boys who made good on the stock market? Either way, here they were, living the dream, drinking on a yacht moored in Sydney harbour.
Oh, you’re from London. What do you think about all these Muslims then? I remember my sister – she died of overwork, bless her; all my family died of overwork. Not that I’m sorry! They were all experts in their field. Anyway – when she was the advisor to President Mitterrand, told him to isolate them all in neighbourhoods outside Paris. ‘Monsieur Le President, you merst keep zem in seclusion, to prevent their contamination of French society’. And I remember when I met the Governor General of Australia, Sir John Kerr – a very good friend of mine – I told him: ‘We should adopt the French solution here in Australia’. Of course, later when I was advising Tony Blair about Iraq – I didn’t think much of Blair actually; he wanted to be a war leader but hadn’t got the guts of Thatcher… although I’ll never forget her pushing back her chair at the cabinet meeting, standing up to her full height, and saying: “Sink the Belgrano!” Just like that! Ooh, she was cold. But Blair, when my report was published by Chatham House, denied all knowledge! Never trust the British – although my cockney cleaning lady, I always used to ask her opinion, because I knew she’d tell me the honest truth…”
Sure, I brought my bag in. We just got off a cruise ship this morning – Fidgy, Taheedy, Noo Zealand, and now Australia – and I figured what better way to celebrate arriving in Sydney than a concert in the famous Opera House. Well, the guy at the door says “Sir, you have to hand your bag in at the cloakroom.” So I told him: “Buddy, I got passports, ipad, ipod, imac, camera, everything in here! No way am I handing it in!” Well, he let me come in with it in the end. No, it’s fine – I’ll just rest it on my lap like this.
Well we bought a sailboat at home in Vancouver, and then we figured – right, honey? – that we’d better learn to sail it! So we sailed in the north-west a little, then this guy, old seadog kinda guy, he told us: “Whatever you paid for it, you’re gonna spend one quarter of that every year in maintenance.” And you know what? He was right! Right, honey? We spent four thousand dollars that first year, on berthing, wharfage, rollocking, keel hauling and whipcording. And it got too much. So we sold it and just took off around the world. We’ve done South America, then were in NZ for a year, but it got kinda expensive, so now we’re in Sydney to make money. And you know what? I’ve been offered four jobs since we got here! We think we’ll go to South East Asia next – maybe Bali, or Thailand. And then who knows?
King’s Cross used to have a reputation for seediness, but the decline of the sex industry, largely due to the rise of the internet, has had the unexpected effect of making the area more salubrious. There are still a few token clubs along the Darlinghurst Road, but they are side by side with budget travel agents offering the kind of group tours of Australia by bus that backpackers are drawn to, and of course backpacker hostels themselves. These vary considerably in quality and ambience, with some offering wild booze-fuelled nights out on the town in a kind of organised pub crawl, and others offering a quieter experience “for the older traveller”. As I seem to be increasingly in the latter category these days, I chose Eva’s Backpackers on Orwell Street, and am very glad I did so. My first night in Sydney was at the Sydney Central YHA, which, like every YHA I’ve stayed at in Australia, had superb facilities but a total lack of ambience. Central was 8 floors of card-operated rooms ranging from 12-bed dorms to hotel-standard doubles, a cinema, and it even had a swimming pool on the roof. Despite the name, there was no real centre to it – people sat in small isolated groups around a cavernous dining room, and occasionally interacted with each other in the elevators which were the only true communal space. Waking up in the morning it was necessary to take the elevator to the first floor kitchen, then descend again to ground level and head outside onto the street for a cigarette, which led to the curious sight of groups of bleary-eyed backpackers standing around in their pyjamas clutching cups of tea as they puffed away, while a steady stream of besuited office workers headed past them along the pavement into the city centre. Eva’s, in contrast, has a rooftop garden area with a view across the city – perfect for gathering one’s thoughts first thing in the morning.
Walking round the botanical gardens I realised I was fast approaching the Opera House, so decided to pop in to see if there were any concerts on. A harrassed-looking girl staffing the information desk, clearly a tourist herself who had picked up a job there – a job which would have been made a great deal easier if she was equipped with a mouse mat to enable her to use her computer properly – looked up forthcoming events and informed me that there was one the next day. “Mozart, Shoeman and Beathoven,” she intoned uncomprehendingly. Marvellous, I said. What pieces? She frowned at the screen, and said: “Piano conserto? That’s Shoeman. And Symphony number one for Beathoven.” As this excruciating conversation was going on, a Chinese woman who had been hovering at my elbow physically intersected herself between me and the desk. “How much tickets?” she bawled. The information girl, to her great credit, ignored her, and continued to tap away at her computer in an attempt to furnish me with a ticket. The Chinese woman tried again, louder: “Ticket! For Opera House!” The information girl addressed her firmly: “Madam, I am dealing with another customer. Please wait your turn.”
“Ha! Ha! Ha!” went the Chinese lady. I reached over her to proffer a $50 ($39 for the ticket, which was reasonable, and a $5 booking fee, which was not), and duly got my ticket.
Well, the concert was excellent. There was a French pianist for the “Shoeman”, and he was a little off – a few clangers, and not quite playing to the same tempo as the orchestra – but having got rid of him and settled into Beethoven’s 1st, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra rose to the occasion. An excellent connection between players and conductor, and they all appeared to be having great fun – many were grinning broadly at the end of the first movement, knowing they’d played it well. It was a little strange to go to a concert at 11 o’clock in the morning, and stranger still to emerge from it into 35 degree heat, blinking in the noonday glare, but a very nice experience. The concert hall itself was impressive – longer and narrower somehow than many London halls, but the acoustics were reasonable, if not quite up to the standard of the Barbican. Apparently the London Symphony Orchestra are playing next week, with Gergiev conducting. Prokofiev’s piano concerto and Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony – probably his most harrowing, with screaming strings and that relentless DSCH motif throughout. Heavy going. Unfortunately I won’t be here for it – I’ll be in the Blue Mountains, just west of Sydney. And after that, who knows?