The time has nearly come. Tomorrow they unveil the winner of the Awesome Tour of Sydney. I’m nervous just thinking about it, so in the meantime, I’m turning my focus to the sixth and final challenge: to create a visitor’s guide to Sydney.
Here was my brief:
“We’d like you to create a visitor’s guide for Sydney; it could be a city guide or a guide to a specific location, attraction or event, using knowledge gained from the last 5 Challenges for inspiration. As usual, the medium in which you present this will be entirely up to you – whether a Lonely Planet-style handbook, a spoof tourist-information video, or maybe the sort of post you might come across on a travel blog. You can choose as many or as few of the topics we’ve covered to base your guide on.”
We’ll start with a recap. The Awesome Tour of Sydney challenges have covered everything from sport to fashion to wildlife, and have given me an overview of a country that I can’t wait to visit. In the first week, I researched sport in Australia but ultimately found the discovery that hamsters are not allowed in the country irresistible, and created a hamster-themed pub game. Next up was a virtual tour through Sydney’s famous Paddington Markets, out of which I picked the components for an outfit I’d love to get my hands on. The third challenge centered on Sydney icons and landmarks; I chose to actually mould my body into the shape of Sydney Harbour. For the fourth challenge, I enlisted the help of a talented cartoonist to invent a new form of Sydney wildlife. And most recently, I voyaged to London in search of all things Sydney.
So now it’s time to bring everything together. And the only way I know how to do that is through books.
Yes. Books. See, I have this theory that the best way–maybe the only way–to really visit a place is to augment your experience with literature. This is something that means a lot to me. I might never have come to Oxford, where I now live, if I hadn’t read so much about the city in my Southern Californian childhood. The way we understand place is inextricably linked to what we read; we form guidebooks in our minds before we’ve even visited, cobble together images and ideas from wisps of poetry and funny lines of prose.
Because this competition has been virtual (even the awards ceremony tomorrow is going to occur online!), I’m going to take you on a literary tour of Sydney. And if I’m lucky enough to be sent to Sydney (fingers, toes, and all other extremities crossed!), you can bet I’ll be doing a lot of reading to prepare myself…
I start, as I always do when I want to get myself into the mood to travel, with one of my favourite authors, the brilliant Pico Iyer, who writes about Sydney in his 1993 book Falling Off the Map. “In the hour before nightfall, what Hollywood calls the “magic hour,” the buildings in Australia start to glow with an unearthly light, and the gold-touched clouds look like something Blake might have imagined in his highest moments,” Iyer begins, tantalizingly. But it’s a more complicated place than that; not all shimmery light and wide spectacular skies. “As the night begins to descend,” Iyer writes, “it seems as if the land is reclaiming itself, and Australia is more than ever a place emptied out of people, some dark, elemental presences awakened behind the placid surfaces of its newborn world.” Iyer paints a surrealists’ picture of the country, and particularly of Sydney. “The solitary skyscrapers in the city are huddled in an unprepossessing bunch beside the harbor; its Greenwich Village, Paddington, lies mostly along a single street; and its center of red-lit nightlife, Kings Cross, can be seen in a mere ten minutes. The sense of an uninhabited, an inchoate land continues through the suburbs,” he writes, suggesting a city both beautiful and strange, utterly foreign, despite a common language, to English or American eyes.
Next I open the pages, still sparkling with laughter, of Bill Bryson’s typically hilarious Down Under. “Without question, it is the harbour that makes Sydney. It’s not so much a harbour as a fjord, sixteen miles long and perfectly proportioned — big enough for grandeur, small enough to have a neighbourly air…It is endlessly and unbelievably beguiling,” Bryson writes–seemingly stunned into poetic reverence for the place. Bryson also informs readers that Captain Arthur Phillip, founder of Sydney, had “one other notable achievement” apart from founding the great city: “In 1814, he managed to die by falling from a wheelchair and out of an upstairs window.”
Having voyaged from the profound to the profoundly funny, I now turn my attentions to Peter Carey’s 30 Days in Sydney. Carey’s amazing portrayal–subtitled “A Wildly Distorted Account”, begins with an idea of home (Carey, originally from Melbourne, returns to Sydney after a decade in New York). “The past in Sydney is like this,” writes Carey, “both celebrated and denied, buried yet everywhere in evidence as in this Exhibit A, this irritating honorific Customer, which I set before Your Honour as, on this clear blue-skied morning, I come to claim a home.” Carey’s book is also about people, and friends, the human makeup of the city. He addresses the delicate topic of racism, of “Us and Them”, and concludes that “The peculiar history of Sydney has left us with two sets of underdogs in the cultural dynamic. Judging our ancestors’ behaviour with our ancestors’ values, we find their behaviour abhorrent. And if Jack and Sheridan and Kelvinator will, at every turn, consider where the Aboriginals walked, fished, burned, this is not simply romantic or even guilty talk, just white men finally learning about the country that they love.”
The country that they love: a beautiful country, a complicated one with that blue, gold, empty, grand, peculiar city of Sydney perched on its south-east edge. These are only three authors, of vastly different backgrounds and focuses, writing about one city; but any place that can inspire such deep consideration, such unabashed awe (when Bryson can write about a city for pages with scarcely a quip, you know there’s something impressive there) in the writers who have come before is a place I want to visit, and a place I want to reinterpret, in my own way, through words.
It’s up to you, now, and to luck. And in the meantime, as we wait for the results, I have one final favour to ask of you: that you provide a little feedback. What was your favourite challenge? Where would you most like to go, and what would you most like to do, in Sydney? What other thoughts do you have, about Sydney, about the blog, and about the Awesome Tour?
Thank you all for reading, for contributing with comments, ideas, drawings, laughs, and support. Thanks to the fantastic guys at 1000heads and Tourism New South Wales for coming up with this crazy idea, and then inviting me to be a part of it. And here’s hoping (please please please please!) that I’ll find myself wandering through Sydney in the not-too-distant future.