Tuesday, 3 October 2006

Leviathan bookcover; VintageReview: Leviathan: the unauthorised biography of Sydney, John Birmingham (1999)

"History is never bloodless. Someone always gets hurt." This is taken from the book's afterword, where he outlines the approach and method he has used to write this interesting "history" of a city. Not just any city, but the premier city of the southern hemisphere. In these few words we get a basic idea of his attitude toward history, and the guiding principle that informs his approach to the task.

As a journalist, his instinct is to follow up on what seems important, to investigate in as much detail as possible the questionable, the suspect, the unpleasant, the noteworthy. "Perhaps I have written a black armband biography and have been unjustly selective in my choice of material," he goes on. Saying sorry may be part of the answer, but that's not enought for most people. It's also not enough for Birmingham himself, as he follows this with:

If I could take the ghost of Arthur Phillip on a tour of the city he founded, I'd want him to be proud. I'd take him to the highest towers and shout him the most expensive lunch. I'd tell him that all things considered, he'd done well. I'd say a free people now live where he pitched his camp so long ago. The city he helped raise is one of the finest in the world. ... I'd want him to know that it was all worth it.

It's not exceptional to find such a set of contradictory attitudes. We all share them. We all want to be proud of our history, and our achievements. But there's so much to not be proud of.

The knowledge that The Sydney Morning Herald was a bastion of conservatism is a bit of an eye opener. And Birmingham's coverage of the police corruption of the nineteen seventies is perfectly scandalous. As a history, as a piece of literary journalism, this book entertains while it informs. In trying to get to the bottom of things in a way that is "richer than a standard textbook and accessible to a much wider audience" he has succeeded.

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