When the living is easy

<em>Summer Special</em> - Peter Carey flies home to Australia after 27 years as a resident alien in

I despair of being able to convey to any reader my own idea of the beauty of Sydney Harbour, wrote Anthony Trollope. I have seen nothing equal to it in the way of landlocked scenery, nothing, second to it. Dublin Bay, the Bay of Spezia, New York and the Cove of Cork are all picturesquely fine. Bantry Bay, with the nooks of the sea running up to Glengarrif, is very lovely. But they are not the equal of Sydney either in shape, in colour, or in variety. I have never seen Naples, or Rio de Janeiro, or Lisbon - but from the description and pictures, I am led to think that none of them can possess such a world of loveliness of water as lies within Sydney Heads.

I could not see the harbour from the aisle seat of the Boeing 747 that brought me home from New York, and I squirmed and craned just like my broad-shouldered companions from Connecticut, each dressed in spectacular outfits tailored from the Stars and Stripes. Members of a martial arts team, they were so aflame about this journey, had been loudly excited since we left LA 13 hours before, that they had tested the powers of my Temazepam to the limits. It had taken two 15mg capsules and four glasses of red wine before I could finally sleep. Our conversations had been brief. I knew only that they wished to win some medals in Sydney. They knew that I lived in New York City. I am sure they had no idea that I was an Australian trying to get a glimpse of home.

Home? I did not come to live in Sydney until I was almost 40, and even then I carried in my baggage a typical Melbournian distrust of that vulgar crooked convict town. I rented a leaking ramshackle semi in Balmain because I knew that if my mother was correct, even if Sydney was just like Liberace, I could never be sorry to wake in the morning and look out on that harbour. This was in Wharf Road, Balmain, between Stannard's shipyard and the Caltex terminal. Balmain was an old working-class suburb with vanilla slices in the bakers' windows, bad restaurants, bleak beer-sour pubs patronised by dock workers, communists, crims, cops and the odd mythologiser who wistfully described its literary life to a reporter from Le Monde as "Le Ghetto de Balmain".

There were writers, yes, but in those years Balmain had a working waterfront and at the bottom of my neglected garden I could watch the low-riding brown work boats, oil tankers, container ships, and smell the fuel oil and watch the flying foxes swooping like Tolkien's Nazguls in the hot subtropical nights when Margot Hutcheson, who I lived with in those years, slept beside me on a mattress right on the harbour's edge. The oily iridescent dark throbbed with the sounds of ships' generators.

Now, 27 years later, a resident alien in the United States, I was making claim on the city 2,000 feet below. The video display showed Sydney only three miles distant, but the choppy Pacific was still obscured by low cloud, and when we finally broke through, I didn't know where I was. We could not take the perfect flight path I had dreamed of, one which would bring me straight into the familiar mouth of Sydney, between those two high yellow bluffs they call the Heads.

These bright yellow cliffs show the city's DNA - that is, it is a sandstone city, and sandstone shows everywhere among the black and khaki bush, in the convict buildings of old Sydney and in the retaining walls of all those steep harbourside streets. Sydney sandstone has many qualities. It is soft and easily worked (to the convicts, a sandstone was a man who cried and broke beneath the lash). It is also highly porous, and the first settlers would use it to filter water. When it rains in Sydney, which it does as dramatically as a Hong Kong monsoon, the water drains rapidly, leaving a thin dry topsoil from which the nutrients have long ago been leached. This in turn determines the unique flora which thrives here.

With nutrients so scarce, Tim Flannery writes, plants can't afford to lose leaves to herbivores. As a result, they defend their foliage with a deadly cocktail of toxins, and it's these toxins that give the bush its distinctive smell - the antiseptic aroma of the eucalypts and the pungent scent of the mint bush. When the leaves of such plants fall to the ground, the decomposers in the soil often find it difficult to digest them, for they are laden with poisons. The dead leaves thus lie on the rapidly draining sand until a very hot spell. Then, fanned by searing north winds, there is fire.

So the very perfume of the Sydney air is a consequence of sandstone. It is also sandstone that dictates the terms of human settlement. For 40,000 years, Aboriginal hunters and gatherers had known how to eat, to sometimes feast here, but the British who began their creeping invasion in 1788 had no clue of where they were. They set out to farm as they might in Kent or Surrey, and the sandstone nearly killed them for it. Starvation. That is what the yellow cliffs of Sydney spell if you wish to read them. But there is more, much more. This modern good-time city of beaches and restaurants, of sailing boats and boozy Friday nights, was formed by traumas that it cloaks so casually you might easily miss them. If you come from New York City, all you may notice is the apparent easiness of life, the lightness, the sense of a population forever on holiday. But there was a bitter war fought here upon and about this earth. The Eora tribe, who still thought of Sydney as their country, were given smallpox and fell like flies. Convicts were flogged. Convicts raped Eora women. Eora men trapped and murdered convicts. Two hundred years later, the past continues to insist itself upon the present in ways that are dazzlingly and almost unbelievably clear.

Of course, Captain Cook never recommended that anyone settle in Sydney Cove. It was Botany Bay, five miles to the south, that he promoted as a place of settlement, but Governor Phillip took one look at Botany Bay and declared it impossible. Within a week, he had inspected Sydney Harbour and set his human cargo ashore.

His Excellency, wrote Watkin Tench, seeing the state these poor objects [the convicts] were in, ordered a piece of ground to be enclosed, for the purposes of raising vegetables for them. The seeds that were sown upon this occasion, on first appearing above ground, looked promising and well, but soon withered away.

It is more than a little intriguing that some of the best vegetable gardens in Sydney can be found today at Botany Bay, and one is tempted to imagine how the city might have formed, how its character would be different, if Governor Phillip had settled where he had been instructed.

But Botany Bay was abandoned and, one feels in looking at it, punished for not being what Cook had promised. It became the place where everything and everyone who is not wanted - the dead, mad, criminal and merely indigenous - could be tucked away, safely out of sight. It is the back yard, the back door, the place where human shit is dumped. What better place to site an airport?

On the blue-skied summer morning I arrived in search of home, I skimmed low across the choppy waters of Botany Bay, and landed with a hard, unpleasant bump at Kingsford Smith Sydney International Airport.

Taken from 30 Days in Sydney by Peter Carey, published this month by Bloomsbury (£9.99)

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Ulster enters the endgame