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A look into Sydney's dark past and beautiful modern city


The Story of a City

By Geoffrey Moorhouse

Harcourt, $25

Reviewed by WILLIAM A. DAVIS

A veteran travel writer, Geoffrey Moorhouse is the author of 18 books including acclaimed profiles of New York and Calcutta. He knows how to nail a place down, to define and describe its essence. In Sydney's case, the essential fact is that Australia's oldest, largest and most interesting urban center is also one of the few remaining world-class cities still centered _ physically and psychologically _ on its harbor, the original reason for its existence.

"The harbor is the key to Sydney, its alpha and omega," Moorhouse asserts. "Other great harbors of the world do not generally so dominate the local psyche or, when occasionally they do, are not often held in such regard." In New York, he notes sniffily, you are barely aware of the harbor unless you visit the Statue of Liberty "or live in the borough of Staten Island."

Moorhouse begins with a lyrical description of what it's like to sail into Sydney Harbor, declaring "no anchorage in all the seven seas has ever been safer or more beguiling." The final pages find him heading out to sea _ leaving, with obvious regret, "the most beautiful working harbor in the world."

As he guides a reader around Sydney past and present, Moorhouse keeps circling back to the water's edge, even as he moves on to topics like industrial relations (Sydney's combative dockworkers are the shock troops of the Australian trade-union movement), urban sprawl (the city has grown around its harbor, not away from it), or cultural life (the landmark Sydney Opera House, which from some angles looks like a schooner under full sail, dominates the downtown waterfront).

Moorhouse's enthusiasm occasionally seems a bit excessive and his prose overripe _ "Sydney's heart slides into view, more stunningly beautiful at this distance than any modern city has a right to be" _ but clearly he's captivated not only by the city's superb natural setting but also by its unique history and feisty character. "Here is a place where people fight for what they've got and never, never back down."

The description of historical events and the explanations of the city's institutions and traditions are vivid and illuminating. The author is less successful in portraying the Sydneysiders themselves. We learn a lot about them in the abstract, but somehow the loud, cheery voices of the world's most affable, outgoing, and assertive city dwellers come through only faintly.

However, Moorhouse certainly has an eye for a telling image and a knack for digging up revealing factoids. In a city where just about every neighborhood has at least one football field and/or cricket pitch, there were until quite recently only a half-dozen or so public libraries. Moorhouse also takes a clear-eyed look at the city's dark side, including the near-extermination of the Aborigines who were the original inhabitants of the area, as well as homophobia, police corruption and the open racism that Asian immigrants, in particular, often face.

Among the interesting historical facts Moorhouse brings into focus is the role of the American Revolution in the founding of the city. Deprived of the American colonies as a dumping ground for undesirables, he observes, British prisons became dangerously overcrowded in the late 18th century. So the crown decided to transport excess convicts to Australia, even though practically nothing was known about the sub-continent other than that it existed. The first convict fleet arrived in 1788, and the first boatload of shackled prisoners stepped ashore near what is now the site of the Sydney Opera House.

Once embarrassed by its beginnings as the capital of a penal colony, Sydney now takes wry pride in the hardihood and achievements of the founding convict fathers and mothers, Moorhouse relates. The city even has a convict museum, housed in a handsome Georgian building designed by Australia's first professional architect _ a convicted forger.

Although he decribes the convict system as "essentially wicked," Moorhouse points out that some convict settlers ended up well-to-do, and virtually none chose to return to England after their sentences were up. Apparently then, as now, Sydney was easy to like and hard to leave.

This review originally appeared in the Boston Globe.

Boston Globe