City of hope

The Birth of Sydney: the story of Britain's arrival in the Antipodes

Edited and introduced by Tim

Few cities have changed more dramatically in the past half-century than Sydney, that municipal Beckham of the south. It has been transformed ethnically by its mighty tide of Latin and Asian immigrants. It has flowered in world esteem and self-satisfaction. It has developed architecturally almost beyond recognition. It has even swapped presiding icons - the charismatic Opera House generally represents it now, not the stolid old Harbour Bridge.

At the same time, it seems to me, no city has remained more startlingly true to its original genius loci - which, in Sydney's case, sprang out of a demanding but magnificent site, mysterious and elusive indigenes, a half-criminal, half-military founding fatherhood, and the peculiar magic of a place which, to its first European settlers, was as weird as the moon itself. To my mind this extraordinary mixture of the arcane, the lovely, the dubious, the fateful and the opportunist remains, two centuries later, the governing allure of this ever-alluring metropolis.

Tim Flannery's The Birth of Sydney is an anthology of 18th- and 19th-century writing, Captain Cook to Mark Twain, which vividly illustrates the progress of the city during its first century, but perfectly fulfils (for me, anyway) my own conviction that the more the place has changed, the more it has stayed the same. Here are the hideous brutalities of the original convict settlements, which really are things of the past, but here, too, is the exhilarating rejection of authority or convention, the snobbery and the pretension, the fun, the chutzpah and the malice that are still such recognisable strands of the Sydney ethos.

You want strangeness, now as then? The channel-billed cuckoos so astonishing to the people of the First Fleet still fly like pterodactyls over Sydney, and the rabbity bandicoots that the convicts cooked breed to this day around North Head (breed so fast indeed, Flannery tells us, that baby bandicoots still at their mother's paps are sometimes pregnant themselves). At least until the 1970s, spotted marsupials called eastern quolls frequented the posh outhouses of Vaucluse; if you are fool enough to eat one of the big fruitbats of the Sydney dusk, I was once told, their frightful smell will be transmuted into the smell of your own sweat.

Have you ever noticed the wistful, other-worldly softness sometimes apparent in the eyes of Sydney Aboriginals? How's this, then, for the very first response of an Englishman (Lieutenant Philip King, 1788) to an encounter with the indigenes: "We asked them the name of a number of articles, which they told us, and repeated our words, and had already learnt so much English as to express their want for anything by putting their finger on it, gently looking me in the face, and saying 'No?'"

Snobbery? It is endemic to this city, even now that the worst of the cultural cringe and the monarchist sycophancy has faded, and in 1827, if we are to believe the farmer-surgeon Peter Cunningham, "the pride and dignified hauteur of some of our ultra-aristocracy far eclipse those of the nobility in England". When a ship's captain of his acquaintance ventured to ask a perfectly innocuous question of a Sydney lawyer, that small-town jurist recoiled "as if a toad had tumbled in his path".

The people may have changed ethnically, but still we readily believe John Turnbull when he writes of Australian-born Europeans, at the turn of the 19th century, that their dispositions were "quick and volatile, and their loquacity such as might render them a proverb". Don't we know it, and don't we believe him implicitly, too, when he tells us that the most profitable callings in Sydney in 1802 were pub-keeping and the law.

Oh, it is all here, large as life and just as brilliant - the scams and the posturing, the squalor, the merriment, the heartbreaking beauty and above all, perhaps, the astonishing resolution which has made Sydney one of the world's most optimistic cities. From the start, this fascinating book makes clear enough, Sydney was a winner. Its purposes might be dreadful, its circumstances daunting, its populace a mixed bag indeed, but from its earliest years its accomplishments were extraordinary.

Flannery reproduces a map by Lieutenant William Bradley of the First Fleet. It is exquisitely drawn, meticulously delineates the layout of the settlement (government offices, convicts' tents, officers' quarters, hospital, bakehouse, blacksmiths, wells, vegetable gardens, observatory and all), charts the depth of offshore waters and was produced just 35 days after the original Sydney landfall. "We were completely astounded," wrote the French naturalist Francois Peron when he arrived four years later, "at the flourishing state in which we found this singular and distant establishment."

Yet for generations, well into our own time, Sydneysiders remained habitual subjects of English mockery and contempt. No wonder they can be testy still. They are no longer ashamed of their convict predecessors, they are well aware of their city's contemporary brilliance, but believe me, it is prudent not to criticise them - still less make fun of them. The genius loci can be spiteful still, and if today's citizenry had its way I myself would probably long ago have suffered a punishment for perjury practised by the Sydney judiciary in the 1790s - namely to be pelted with rotten eggs in the pillory, with my ears nailed to the woodwork.

Jan Morris's A Writer's World: travels 1950-2000 is published by Faber and Faber in September