Wild But Not So Distorted? Peter Carey’s 30 Days in Sydney

Carey, Peter. 30 Days in Sydney: A Wildly Distorted Account. New York: Bloomsbury, 2001.

DSCN1499 - Version 5As I said in my earlier post, 30 Days in Sydney is extremely entertaining. Covering the period when Carey, originally a Melburnian, returned from New York for a short visit to Sydney, the book introduces us to old friends and acquaintances from Carey’s earlier life: larger than life, idiosyncratic characters, whose names and descriptions he admits he changes. He describes them only briefly and then lets what they say reveal who they are. 30 Days in Sydney’s prose is colloquial, sometimes extremely so, conversational, real. Carey uses few quotation marks, so the shifts in first person narratives are sometimes a little confusing, but because so much is first person the reader feels highly and personally engaged with the speakers. And empathy is something Carey believes is characteristic of Sydney. For Carey, “Waltzing Matilda” is a far better national anthem than the official “Advance Australia Fair” because it “is not a song of triumph but of empathy. . . .It suits us” (224).

Evoking a city of sandstone, heat, sub-tropical vegetation, a city beset by wild fires on land and cyclones at sea, Carey speaks of a city where “the past continues to insist itself upon the present in ways that are dazzlingly and almost unbelievably clear” (5).

DSCN1499 - Version 5What we learn about Sydney’s history from the book leaves us with a sense of a place torn between a certain shame for its beginnings and a pride in what it has become. The convict past is not forgotten. Neither are the days of the Rum Corps. The early sufferings of the settlers are part of the fabric of the city and, Carey suggests, an explanation of why its residents are as they are.  One is indeed “tempted to imagine how the city might have formed, how its character would be different, if governor Phillip [the first governor] had settled where he had been instructed [in Botany Bay itself which is fertile rather than in what became Sydney which is not]” (6).

DSCN1499 - Version 5Resonating, too, at least with a reader who lives now in a country that was once British Colonies settled by those who saw the land as empty, is Carey’s revelation of the relationship between Australians descended from settlers and the indigenous population, the descendants of the 700,000 people who were living in Australia when Governor Phillip and his soldiers and convicts arrived, the people who left a twelve metre midden of shells on Bennelong point. The settlers burned the shells to make mortar, burned the evidence of what Carey’s friend Jack believes was “a complex, very religious civilisation. . . .the most ancient civilisation on earth” (49). Australia is not the only country where incomers have fought a “war of occupation, at the same time pretending that the land was not used, barely inhabited” (52).

DSCN1499 - Version 5While Carey is concerned that “the peculiar history of Sydney has left two sets of underdogs [the Aboriginals and the descendants of convicts]” (55), it isn’t this sense of inherited guilt or vicarious shame that stays with the reader. What stays with the reader are the vitality and resilience of the people Carey describes. Near the end of the book, Carey asks, “How can I hope to convey to any reader my idea of Sydney?” He goes on to say that he’s “seen nothing equal to it in the way of landlocked scenery, in the particular relationship between the races, in the easy tolerance of crime and corruption, in the familiar mingling you can witness on the footpath outside Bar Coluzzi any morning” (229).

DSCN1499 - Version 5His friend Jack persuades him to include one last story, the story of Jack’s rescue from the Pittwater River and the loss and reclamation of his red mahogany rudder. Jack had to “pay” the man who found his rudder in “the oldest currency of all,” which in Sydney is “A bottle of Inner Circle Rum” (248).

DSCN1499 - Version 5For Carey, “that’s the end of the story” (248). But perhaps not quite for the reader. This reader at any rate takes a few moments to relish for a little longer  the pleasure of Carey’s evocative, insightfully ironic prose. Carey claims that the twenty-six chapters of his book are a “Wildly Distorted Account.” Intensely personal perhaps, but not distorted. Carey describes Jack, Sheridan, and Kelvinator as men “finally learning about the country that they love” (56). But of more interest perhaps than the presentation of the individuals themselves, dynamic as they may be, is Carey’s meditation on the city itself: “Sydney . . . like no other place on earth, . . . defined not only by its painful and peculiar human history but also by the elements: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water ” (10).          DSCN1499 - Version 5

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