What's All This Then?

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What's All This Then?

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by John Birmingham

Field-Tested by Jez Heywood

in Melbourne and Sydney, Australia

Anyone from Australia — or with more than a passing knowledge of the culture — will be familiar with the rivalry between Melbourne and Sydney, the two largest metropolitan centres. Sport, culture, the weather, you name it: endless arguments ensue about which city does it better. So when John Birmingham’s unofficial, warts-and-all biography of Sydney, Leviathan, was published in 1999, I, a born, bred and proud Melburnian, picked it up the first chance I got. Primarily because I was a fan of Birmingham’s Australian gonzo style, but also because it promised to peel back the mask of sunshine and glamour that Sydney hides behind. And I got what I wanted: Birmingham uncovered tales of corruption, avarice and stupidity that I devoured with a smug, self-satisfied Melburnian grin.

Eight years later however, I was feeling stagnant and, with uncharacteristic spontaneity, I decided to pack up my things and move to Sydney. Between apartment and job hunting, during a particularly cold winter, I re-visited Leviathan as a introduction to my new city.

Big mistake.

The ghosts of the distant past leapt from Leviathan’s pages and hid around every corner. Inept politicians became a day-to-day reality. Sydney’s main thoroughfare, George Street, meandering along the lines of a colonial livestock track from 200 years ago, became somewhere I would find myself closely acquainted with. I discovered that property developers still run wild, erecting edifices that do nothing but serve themselves; more than once I’ve found myself going out of my way to avoid sites where once-grand Victorian buildings made way for ugly office blocks. And by merely choosing a suburb to live in (that, incidentally, has a minor role in the book as the setting for a hilariously unsuccessful attempt at starting a neo-Nazi political party), I inadvertently took sides in yet another, even older, rivalry: east versus west (of the CBD) and north versus south (of the harbour). Which, like most things in Sydney, is all about money.

I quickly realised I’d made a huge mistake.

After two years here, I'm still — and always will be — a transplanted Melburnian. Sydney is a place where I live, but it will never be home. I get lost with alarming frequency and compare the two cities on a daily basis. I find myself gazing wistfully at old photos showing a much more handsome city. And I’ve uncovered other stories of a now-lost culture that are just as disheartening, like the Royal George Hotel: from the ’40s to the ’60s, the home of the Sydney Push, a ragged bunch of left-wing intellectuals, it’s now one of a number of places — all owned by the same rich kid — where the aspiring-to-be-sophisticated champagne and cocaine set go to be seen.

Leviathan hasn’t left my bookshelf since that last read, but when the time comes to move on — and it definitely will — it will be the first book I open when I get to wherever it is that I’m going, to remind me of what I’ve left behind.

Jez Heywood is a graphic designer, photographer and writer. His first attempt at self-publishing, a collection of music writing, is in the works. As is a website. In the meantime, you can see his photography here. He currently lives in Sydney but pines for Melbourne.

Buy Leviathan