Thursday, January 5, 2023

Sydney - A Biography by Louis Nowra. Book Review


Sydney, A Biography
by Australian writer, playwright, screenwriter and librettist Louis Nowra.  
Published by NewSouth Publishing, University of New South Wales Press, Sydney 2022.

Reviewed by Frank McKone

A pot-pourri of a book: an eclectic collection of pecadillos, full of fascinating anecdotes.  Sydney: born in 1788, still growing up in 2022, with touches of maturity and little sign of premonitions of old age.  Louis Nowra is a playwright: here we read his observations and background research for his characterisation of the protagonist, in late pregnancy named romantically Albion; but pragmatically named at birth, on Gadigal land, after an absent progenitor, Lord Sydney.

And what a complex character Sydney is!  

So what is Sydney really like, when we delve into ‘their’ transgender nature, their motivations and their self-understanding?  Do we find consistency in a sense of personal development – a positive drama; perhaps even a romantic enjoyable comedy?  Or, as many literary commentators say of theatrical characters, do they struggle with unresolvable internal conflicts – often never recognised except by others in sympathy or enmity – which turn their life’s drama into tragedy?

Will the author, like the best of dramatists, avoid pushing his view down our throats, but provide us with scenes strategically put together so that we, the readers, come to a new understanding – perhaps of more than just this character, but even of our own lives?

Here’s one episode, a short scene from one of the 49 chapters.  You will see that Nowra is writing in plain style, without literary flourishes.  Yet his work is all about storytelling and letting each story do its own thing.  This one is in the chapter called Undercurrents, beginning with his creating the TV series about Bondi Beach, The Last Resort.  He writes “The 30-part series wasn’t a success (though it was big in Malaysia), but I learned to like Bondi….[even though] the area became known as Bondi Badlands.”

But Sydney’s beaches have had another side as sites of religious fervour.  In 1924 the Star Amphitheatre opened at Balmoral Beach.  It was constructed by the Order of the Star in the East, founded by the president of the Theosophical Society, Annie Besant.  The amphitheatre was intended as a platform for lectures by the mystic Krishnamurti.

At this point I must confess feeling part of Louis Nowra’s Sydney.  A one time girlfriend’s family in Sydney belonged to the Theosophical Society and she left to attend Krishnamurti’s ashram in India in the early 1960s.

An urban legend persists that it was built in order to watch Christ’s second coming, when he would walk through Sydney Heads.  The crumbling amphitheatre was demolished in 1951.

In January 2003 one of Sydney’s most popular beaches, Coogee, a favourite party zone for backpackers, became a site of religious veneration.  One day, a man was looking out of his front window when he suddenly noticed an apparition of the Virgin Mary at the end of a wooden safety fence.  He called his friends to have a look.  By the next day, word had spread, and several hundred people flocked to the park.  Soon the crowds swelled to several thousand a day, especially in the late afternoon when the apparition materialised.  As the Sydney Morning Herald reported:

Some wept, others sang, most prayed.  Scores more hiked up the cliff path 

to touch and kiss the post which had been transformed into something like a shrine.  

Pictures of the Virgin, rosary beads and flowers were piled up around the 

whitewashed fence.  Most agreed they could discern the shape of a veiled figure.

The rational explanation was that the vision was an unlikely combination of the fence’s design and colour, late afternoon shadow, and a small rise that changed the angle at the end of the railing.  Even so, the Catholic Church didn’t know how to react, with the Sydney Archdiocese issuing an anodyne message:’If people are experiencing a sense of peace by being there, then it is a good thing.’  Ten days after the Virgin Mary arrived vandals destroyed the fence where she had appeared, disappointing thousands of believers.  The fence was quickly rebuilt but with a slight alteration to the original design.  Although the Virgin Mary hasn’t returned, a tiny garden has been planted to mark the spot and people still come to pray.

Louis Nowra, a Melbournite, first saw Sydney and was “stunned and speechless” viewing the harbour while driving over the Harbour Bridge in his father’s truck, at the age of nine.  “‘It’s fantastic, isn’t it?’ exclaimed my elated father.”  Only five years before that, I, arriving from London at the age of 14, was equally amazed entering the harbour on the immigrant ship Otranto, through the Heads, tugboats guiding us under the Harbour Bridge to Pyrmont Wharf 13.   

As Nowra turns 72 and I a month later turn 82, his almost 500-page ‘Biography’ of Sydney reveals the fantastic nature not only of what you see, but of the many surprising aspects of the city’s character hidden in history.

In the end, he writes, I turn my attention back to the water.  It is a beguiling sight.  Today the air and the light of the intense blue sky and how it plays with the water seems magical.  It’s like one great act of affirmation, an open heart that invites you to take Sydney personally.  And I do.

And now I do too.  Because now I see, as Nowra quotes the author Peter Corris as saying, that Sydney – Australia, indeed the whole human world – has “its beauty, atmosphere and culture providing a spectacular contrast to its underbelly of poverty, corruption and vulgarity.”  And racism, I would add; though I would call it ‘ethnicism’ since we are all members of the only human race left on Earth.

But la commedia is not quite yet finita.  Is humankind’s a drama of positivity or tragedy?  Sydney says, I think, it might go either way.  

Frank McKone’s reviews of productions of plays by Louis Nowra – The Incorruptible (1996), Summer of the Aliens (1999), Cosi (1998, 2001, 2019, 2021), Radiance (2015) and The Golden Age (2016) – are available at