By Louis Nowra

NewSouth 2022

ISBN: 9781742235929

RRP: $39.99 (PB)

Reviewed by Anne Henderson



The biography of a major global city such as Sydney is a monumental task. How to make it manageable, readable and accessible is the question. Louis Nowra, acclaimed playwright and author, gets it right before he begins – he sets boundaries that he explains in his “Author’s Note”. His biography of Australia’s foremost city will be accomplished in “three strands” – chronological history, spaces and places and through themes such as sandstone and water. His Sydney, Nowra writes, “is basically bounded by Chippendale, Redfern, Ultimo, Walsh Bay, the harbour, Surry Hills, Woolloomooloo and, of course, the Rocks.”

This is, for the most part, old Sydney and focused on the iconic aspects of the harbour town. A visit to Mortdale in Sydney’s southern suburbs – adjacent to Oatley on the Georges River – leaves Nowra “unnerved” by its empty side streets and plebian architecture. Perhaps there is a Sydney yet to explore. But – for now – the jaunt that is Nowra’s Sydney – A Biography is a delicious blend of warts and all historical reflection merged with the elements of Sydney’s soul, from sandstone and water to its impulses and drive to excel along with tales of achievers, dreamers, eccentrics, builders and battlers who have left their mark on the city.

It is a city of contrasts but not all desirable. Nowra does not dwell on the ugly but gives pointed references along the way. From early years there were the salubrious mansions of the rich on the sharply rising promontories of the harbour while in the back streets of the inner west, now redeemed suburbs like Darling Harbour, Pyrmont and the Rocks, slums bred street kids and housed their families in overcrowded ramshackle buildings surrounded by “the stench of factories and their chemically harmful outflows, boiling down works, stinky drains and leaking privies”.

For Nowra, who grew up in Melbourne, Sydney is brash where Melbourne is dour; Sydney is splashed with colour where Melbourne is ideologically constrained. In a chapter devoted to “The Cult of The Body”, Nowra analyses the works of Norman Lindsay, sculptor Rayner Hoff, Max Dupain and his wife Olive Cotton, Brett Whiteley and Richard Larter, along with the attitudes to sex in the work of William Dobell and Donald Friend and contrasts this with the “grim nocturnal Melbourne populated by grotesque wharves and leering sailors” of Albert Tucker. Writes Nowra:

What also became obvious to me was that this adoration of the human body and the worship of sun and sea verged on the pagan. For Sydney artists the siren call of paganism distinguished them from Melbourne artists.

In Nowra’s early chapters he traces how Sydney’s pragmatic character forged itself as the settlers, soldiers, convicts and Indigenous made a life together, notwithstanding the cultural and geographical challenges. British newcomers separated from the primness of England became accustomed, by necessity, to the nakedness of the native people living in their midst. The heat saw locals adapt their clothing – women choosing fabrics that were light and flimsy like muslin. Illegitimacy was more than common with half of the 1808 children in the colony in 1806 being born to unmarried women. Scarce in numbers and roughened by their convict experience, a vast number of women were uninhibited in sexual liaisons and prostitution was rampant. By 1813, a quarter of the Sydney population was under 12 in a community where children might attend school or walk the streets.

Nowra notes especially that Phillip was instructed to govern Sydney as a free town not a garrison town, a civilian government not a military administration – although the military was a huge presence with it vast barracks and its closeness to government. This almost chaotic start for Sydney, Nowra sees as the reason streets in modern Sydney can take unexpected routes, disappear in some cases or prove impractical as a city layout. George Street, he tells us, takes the route of an Aboriginal path. For all that, George Street quickly became a retailer’s vibrant hub, its narrow thoroughfare capturing the buzz of business unlike the wider much planned streets of Melbourne.

Nowra devotes a chapter to visions of Sydney to mark its first 60 years or so, revealing a prosperous colonial city – in spite of a hard hitting depression in 1842 – eager to take in new residents. Artist Joseph Fowles in his influential Sydney in 1848 captured in sketches and draughtsman-like drawings along with written descriptions how Sydney’s architecture and commercial heart had developed in a relatively short space of time. Nowra writes of the result in the case of George Street:

The details are extraordinary. Take for example the eastern side of George Street between numbers 432 and 376: “City Toy Bazaar”, ironmonger, wine merchant, importers and dealers, warehouse, steam coffee warehouse, tailor and draper, White Horse Tavern, harness makers and saddlers, solicitors, Robinsons warm vapour shower and medicated baths, and the Australian Drapers Association.

Visitors came from across the world to this colonial city of light and water at the edge of a vast continent. All were captured by the harbour – a working harbour that offered spectacular scenery in a close setting amid the hustle and bustle of maritime communications and trade. As Nowra describes it: “The harbour is an essential part of the city, its watery heart. … a playground of hedonistic activities, like sailing and swimming and recreational events like Sydney’s New Year’s Eve celebrations and the start of the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race. One scoop of land like Walsh Bay can contain a hub of high art, theatre, music and dance while looking across the harbour at the huge grinning face of Luna Park, a tribute to popular culture.”

In the one moment of the book where Nowra crosses the harbour to Sydney’s north, he visits the harbourside suburb of Clontarf. This cluster of middle class villas began as a pleasure ground for nineteenth Sydneysiders who came by ferry to enjoy recreations such as the dancing pavilion. It was also the place where a troubled Fenian, Henry O’Farrell, attempted to assassinate Queen Victoria’s son Prince Alfred as he attended a picnic on 12 March 1868. And, again, it made the headlines with the tragedy of the kidnapping and murder of schoolboy Graeme Thorne in July 1960. In 2022, Nowra notes that Clontarf had moved beyond pleasure ground or tragedy and become, like much of Sydney’s north shore, what Nowra describes as radiating a “self-satisfied Anglo gentility”.

The other essence of Sydney that Nowra celebrates is the sandstone – so warm and golden unlike Melbourne’s heavy bluestone. He sees the stone as Sydney building itself from itself. It touches architecture, streetscape, even the way plants push their way up from it. And down through it as with the tunnels under Hyde Park where ancient Moreton Bay figs have forced their roots through to the water of the underground springs and hang like “Gothic cobwebs”.

Nowra captures Sydney in all its splendour and excitement alongside its darker pursuits. The underworld of Abe Saffron, the upheavals of its development and the crime that went with it. The writers, artists, dynasty makers, the Packers, his favourite Kings Cross, Harry Seidler – as he puts it “remaking Sydney’s skyline” – and hundreds of other quirky, famous, eccentric, notable, tragic, worthy elements and characters that have made up Sydney.

Sydney – A Biography is packed with entertaining detail that is offered in multi-faceted slabs that are contained in such a way as to make the read a pleasurable dip-in-and-savour a chapter here and there. It’s a delight – even for a former Melburnian like me.

Anne Henderson is Deputy Director of The Sydney Institute and author of Menzies at War, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Award for Australian History.