Cities are great subjects for literary non-fiction – most Australians live in them – but, when it comes to writing about cities, they are usually given the guidebook treatment, rather than prompting memorable pieces of writing. So the inspiration for this series was literary, not some pointy-headed urge to make a grand statement about Australia’s cities.
Cities are so often labelled cosmopolitan, or global, or one of the world’s ‘most liveable’, as if they’re part of a huge marketing exercise in which we’re all implicated. But what does this mean for those of us quietly going about our lives on the ground? While people may read local histories, or dispassionate general histories about where they live, we rarely get the chance to read about our own cities in a way that resonates with our own experience and resurrects memories.
Fiction does this beautifully. And, while there is some really superb non-fiction writing about place, it tends to be about nature. So I wanted to ask some of our best novelists and writers to write non-fiction about the cities they lived in – or have adopted – in a way that would evoke intense sense memories for people who are familiar with them and give those who aren’t a sense of what it’s like to live in Brisbane or Adelaide or wherever.
There are some other well-known series where famous writers have tackled Paris or Prague, but they’re usually not locals. They’re temporary visitors. I wanted writers who have a stake in a city to write about it, which is why we first billed them as ‘travel books where no-one leaves home’.
I think the idea really started percolating in my mind when I read something on Kerryn Goldsworthy’s blog about a visit to Adelaide’s Central Market. I felt I was there; it gave me such a visceral sense of what it was like to be someone going about their business in a city thousands of miles away from me in Sydney.
It was fun thinking about who might write the books and publishing them has been the most gratifying experience of my career. Thankfully readers have thought so too: the series has been a critical and a commercial success.
Here’s the list of books published in the city series, in order of publication:
Hobart by Peter Timms, with an introduction by Robert Dessaix, updated in 2012 with MONA
Brisbane by Matthew Condon
Sydney by Delia Falconer
Melbourne by Sophie Cunningham
Adelaide by Kerryn Goldsworthy
Canberra by Paul Daley
Alice Springs by Eleanor Hogan
Perth by David Whish-Wilson
Darwin by Tess Lea
Praise for the City Series:
Canberra – Ian Warden, The Canberra Times:
As well as Canberra, I've read some of the previous five books in this series of portraits of Australian cities, of which I think Daley's becomes the seventh. So far the NewSouth series of these eccentric, pictureless, small (but well-muscled) books has brought us essays about Hobart, Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Alice Springs. The five, including Canberra, that I've read make a very stimulating quintet. The series, bless its volumes' eccentric covers (sepia-toned photographs), encourages us to delight in Australian diversities.
For example, his (Daley’s) narration of the history of the place, and of the city erected on it, is done with flair and aplomb, making Canberra among other things the best concise, broad-brush Canberra history yet. One major joy of the book is the way in which he gives Canberra's NINTBYs, who may be the world's nastiest and most unforgivable of their kind, some very hard slaps. It would be good if all of Canberra turned into one big book club and read Canberra, so as to be able to natter about it, be stimulated by it and fight duels over it. The book is unique. Because Canberra is such a young city, it has never had a soliloquy like this written about it before.
Sydney – Louis Nowra, The Australian:
Her (Falconer’s) arguments about the sombre undercurrents of Sydney are more delicate than I can give here, but she has succeeded in doing something no other writer has achieved in writing about Sydney: she has given it a melancholic and spectral seriousness that for far too long has been hidden under tinsel and fairy lights. In other words, she has given the city a unique, mythic dimension. This is a brilliant book. If I were to recommend a book about Sydney to anyone, it would be this one.
Brisbane – Phil Brown, The Brisbane News:
If you were visiting Brisbane for the first time, there would be no better primer than this engaging little hardback by a well-known local author and journalist.
Melbourne – Waleed Aly, The Sunday Age:
This all came to mind as I read Sophie Cunningham's Melbourne. It's a clever book. An admirable response to the impossible task of writing about a city its history, its present, its characters, its stories, its politics and its personal meaning in a single, accessible volume when any one of these themes should take several. Cunningham is communicating this city's soul as though it's a person, full of contradictions but with an essential character.
Adelaide – James Bradley, The Sydney Morning Herald:
For in many ways, Goldsworthy's impressively subtle and even-handed book is both a product of and a tribute to those same contradictions, demanding readers look beyond Adelaide's often deceptive surfaces and understand the hidden currents that have shaped its deeply idiosyncratic culture. Like its predecessors in NewSouth's cities series, Goldsworthy's book is as much personal essay as public document, a reflection on memory and place exploring the complex bonds that tie us to the places we call home, the profusion of images and sensations and memories that constitute our understanding, not just of where we came from, but of who we are.
Hobart – Mark Thomas, The Canberra Times:
Three years ago, in 2009, Peter Timms published In Search of Hobart. Now his musings and reflections about Australia’s oddest city, one where sedate Georgian elegance has been beautifully if inadvertently preserved, have been reconsidered, reappraised and updated. They fit tidily and aptly into what is now a consistently charming, intellectually consequent series on Australia’s capitals.
Alice Springs – Jennifer Mills, The Sydney Morning Herald:
This book has much of that urgency in it, and a depth of questioning that gives it substance. Reading it is uncomfortable, certainly, but Alice Springs is a refreshingly honest portrayal of a town that sits in a very uncomfortable place, at the intersection of road and rail, river and mountain, black and white, and life and death.
Perth – Richard King, The Australian:
What he has written is a book on Perth that attains at times to the status of poetry. Indeed, so rich and lyrical is Perth, so acute in its insights and adept in its composition, that (G K) Chesterton’s paradox would appear well-founded.
Darwin – Margaret Smith, The Sydney Morning Herald:
Tess Lea's book on her home town ... delves into the fabric, colours, history, geography and lifestyles of this "frontier" town with great insight and vivid descriptions.