Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Colours, Sounds and Smells of Australia

Yesterday I had to drive youngest down to Mittagong south west of Sydney to play hockey against Frensham. For those who are interested, you can find the remarkable story of Winifred West and the schools she founded here.

As I drove west along the expressway I noticed and welcomed the changing colours as the inland replaced the coastal strip. The grass became yellower and browner, the trees more olive.

We are all imprinted in ways we sometimes barely recognise by the sights, sounds, colours and smells of the immediate world in which we live and especially that in which we grew up.

Many years ago my grandfather addressing a meeting of NSW architects told them that God invented the country, man the city, while the devil invented the suburbs and built flats! This was a very particular view, but there is something to it.

I have a colleague who loves cities, their sights, sounds and especially smells. Just back from Hong Kong, he waxed lyrical about the city and its assorted smells. He loves crowded streets, the secret by-ways that you find, all the human variety of the big city. Crowds thrill him.

I, too, like cities. Like my colleague, I am fascinated by their infinite variety. I have also always been fascinated by the process of change within them. I accept that cities are a monument to man.

To me, the suburbs are not the city. As I drove west through miles of housing estates - the Sydney information sign now appears 60k down the highway - I thought of Los Angeles. To me, Los Angeles is the city you have when you are not having a city.

Now I am sure that there are many from LA who will rush to its defence. Yet when I first visited it with many dispersed points of call, a trip that required hours of driving across LA, I was struck by its non-descript urban sprawl, by the complete absence of any city centre, of the features that I thought of as city.

One weekend I hired a taxi and just told the driver to take me anywhere he thought was of interest. He thought he was in heaven, because it ended up a five hour trip. The next day some US colleagues took my colleague and I out for a very enjoyable day across LA. I found many things, the tar pits, Beverly Hills, Rodeo Drive, Venice, to be of interest. Yet it all just firmed up the view I had already formed about the place.

In saying all this, I am not knocking the suburbs.

Where I part company with my colleague who loves cities is that while I think that cities are great places to visit, I also think that that they are pretty awful places in which to live long term and especially bring up children. Those who love living in the suburbs and are very dismissive of city life all point to this.

To me, the best of all possible worlds would be something that combines city and country living.

I am an inland person. To me, the beach is something to visit on holidays, boring if one is forced to spend too much time there.

I love the sometimes subtle changes in the Australian country side associated with changing landforms, soils and climate. I love not just the natural landscape, but also the changes human occupation has imposed on the landscape. Here I part company with those who want to lock up the country as an unchanging preserve for mainly city visitors, who want to turn the country back to an idealised pristine version locked in time.

I also love the smells of the country. The crisp, cold smell of the Tablelands' air. The sometimes acrid smell of wood smoke. The smell of the gums. Rain on dirt.

There is a clarity to country light and also sounds lacking in the city. City visitors used to the constant background noise of the city, a noise that they tune out, are sometimes astonished at just how noisy the country can be. With the background noise removed, things like early morning bird song suddenly stand out. The sounds of trucks on a distant highway become very clear.

By contrast, I find that I cannot tune the city background noise out in the way that those born in the city can. At best, I can get used to it. Police sirens, garbage trucks, racing cars, alarms, the early morning start of buses, all intrude. My ears actually hurt, something I only really notice when the background noise is removed.

When I used to visit the city I enjoyed the noise, the bustle, the lights. I actually knew Sydney in particular very well, far better than most who lived there, because I used to explore the place.

On weekends I would sometimes drive for hundreds of miles, just exploring from the outer suburbs and rural outskirts through to all the lanes and byways of the inner city. I knew pubs, all the galleries, book stores, the places where different groups hung out, dozens of good eating places. To me, Sydney has become a much diminished place since I started living here.

Now I am the first to admit that circumstances change. When I first started coming to Sydney on a regular basis I was the age my daughters are now. They do some, not all, of the things that I used to do. This is very different from trying to combine work and family responsibilities while living in a place.

For the present, my dream of finding a way to combine city and country living must remain just that, a dream. But still, who says we can't dream?

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