Monday, 29 January 2018

Book review: City Dreamers, Graeme Davison (2016)

Subtitled ambitiously, ‘The urban imagination in Australia’, Davison’s book ends by asking some very expansive questions:
How do we belong to the city? How do we belong to the land? 
Do we now have the chance to assimilate our culture within the Dreaming of the original inhabitants of the continent, whose history goes back 65,000 years, and there find answers to the enervating questions that blight the existences of city dwellers everywhere? Are the questions thrown up by the existential dread that has tasked the best minds of every age better answered through recourse to an originary mythology? Do we allay the feelings of fear and loathing implicit in the modern lived experience by reconciling our culture with that of the Aborigines and by turning once more, like them, to the deep past?

Davison asks big questions, and it is refreshing to be challenged as a reader in this way. We all need to think about where we sit in the scale of creation as Australians, if only to answer urgent questions that seem to come with regularity from overseas. The French seem to have a love of Aboriginal art, for example.

But otherwise Davison’s book deals in questions that come naturally to us. What it means to be Australian has always centred to a degree on the issue of many people living together in close proximity in cities. Even the Bush myths invented by ‘Bulletin’ journalists such as Henry Lawson around the turn of the twentieth century had their roots in the city of Sydney and what it meant to live there and in places like it. Questions that we still ask ourselves – such as: what is the point of all this? – were pressing for people living in the cities of Australia in earlier days as well.

One aspect of these debates was the rise of the suburbs as civic leaders and politicians discussed the various downsides of life lived in close proximity by large numbers of people. The ‘Bulletin’ writers were all against the migration of Chinese to the colonies, for one thing, and they were on the vanguard in that case because the White Australia Policy was the first piece of legislation passed in the federal Parliament in 1901.

There was also the idea that the “Anglo-Saxon race” was in danger of degeneracy due to city life. Fears about hollow-chested, sallow-complexioned “larrikins” who smoked and drank and raised a ruckus outside public bars were expressed repeatedly in the public sphere. Such youths were compared unfavourably with straight-limbed, tall youths who were apparently emerging out of the countryside, even though there seems to have been little basis in fact for such concerns.

The narrative was compelling and had its own logic. In the wake of the Boer War – which the colonies enthusiastically participated in – the Boy Scouts were set up in Britain and Australia quickly adopted the measure itself in an effort to safeguard the health of its children.

Even the houses with their attached small gardens that started to spring up in distant locales reached by train at suburban stations were built fronting regular streets because of fears that congested, pokey little streets and culs-de-sac full of derelict houses were responsible for poor education and health outcomes. It sounds odd to put it this way but we do well to remember that the causes of contagions such as typhoid and cholera were only identified as being raw sewage and associated polluted water sources in the second half of the 19th century. Before that such diseases were thought to come from “miasmas” and from bad odours.

Absolutists in the eugenics debate that animated the communal meditation on body culture recommended sterilising the poor and unfit and such views were only finally laid to rest by WWII and the Nazi menace once it was finally overpowered. No-one it appears thought to ascribe blame to the real cause of disadvantage: which was and still is poverty linked to economic inequality.

Davison also looks at debates around the appropriate models to adopt for Australian cities, with some in our communities even as far back as the second half of the 19th century proposing European, Mediterranean-style civic centres with their squares and loggias to complement Australia’s warm climate. Initially touted as attractive by Bohemian writers in places like Sydney and Melbourne this solution to the problem of city life eventually emerged organically due to the immigration policies instituted at the national level after WWII. Higher density housing also became less contentious after the war due to improved construction techniques using concrete and the availability of (what are considered now to be) essential services such as hot-and-cold-running water, indoor toilets, electric lighting, and electric lifts.

The author also looks at the role of the automobile in cities in Australia, and he has a chapter dedicated to the matter of Canberra. As a planned city and the capital of the nation, Canberra has always been a special case and its symbolic meaning has been as much discussed as the efficiency and effectiveness of its dormitory suburbs.

Attempts to enable better, more salubrious and healthier lives lived in close proximity to one another resulted in a series of decisions by community leaders, business people and politicians that led to the establishment of communities that we still inhabit to this day. Despite misgivings expressed by many in the second half of the 20th century about the uniformity and blandness of the Australian suburb, this solution to city living has stood the test of time remarkably well. Davison mentions in the book also the rise of the “trendies” in the 1980s in Australia – urban sophisticates who wanted to live close to the CBD – but he has written a separate book on the topic, ‘Trendyville: The Battle for Australia’s Inner Cities’ (2015), which looks like it’s worth a look.

So cities are still changing as the country’s economy shifts to meet the exigencies of the modern age. This is an interesting book although it goes a bit fast at times. This need for speed seems to me to be implicit in the method of the professional historian. Journalists are used to going a bit slower because their primary audience is always the general public, whereas academics don’t just write trade publications but also refereed papers for a specialist audience of scholarly peers.

It’s a matter of pace. Davison sometimes falls prey to doggedly following the logic of the rhetorical style of the dissertation, and you can be left straining with the effort required to keep up with him. You are sometimes left feeling a bit lost, like a pup abandoned the week after Christmas on the open road when mum and dad decide you are really a bit of a handful.

He is also prone to using the highly-Latinate vocabulary of the cloister. Here is one example of the contagion of Latinate vocabulary in the book:
In European capitals, the process of memorialisation had occurred slowly, over several centuries, as successive generations inscribed their own singular contributions on the palimpsest of memory. When Lord Holford surveyed the void in Canberra’s Parliamentary Zone in 1965 he wisely observed that such empty spaces represented an opportunity for the future, as much as an embarrassment to the present.
Here is another:
Adelaide, with its generous perimeter of parkland, was a partial exception which one historian, Tony Denholm, has compared, a little fancifully, to bastides, the towns created by thirteenth-century feudal lords as agrarian colonies and military strongholds in remote or disputed territories. But if they were similar in form, it was perhaps because they were shaped by similar functions, and not because the founders of South Australia had consulted the town plans of medieval France.
And another:
Relatively few colonial Australians had first-hand experience of continental European cities. Their images of the European city were largely gleaned from literature. The London of Dickens, Thackeray and Sala was their primary reference point, but the Paris of Victor Hugo, Balzac, Paul de Kock and Eugene Sue was perhaps the second most important influence, especially among the self-conscious literary Bohemians who were among the most influential interpreters of the colonial city.
These examples were taken from a small part of the book about three-quarters of the way through. In each case, the conclusion must be that on the whole you have been well served by the author. He is being accurate in his word choice, always plumping for the term that most precisely conveys the needed meaning. But there is yet the merest, lingering doubt as to whether a few more of the rugged, Germanic words our forefathers preferred to use when expressing their hatred of something untoward might have been advisedly added to the mix. “Copulate” doesn’t have the same connotations as its common Germanic analogue, neither does “penis” necessarily have the quite same meaning in regular parlance as other common words for the same thing. I trust you get my drift. I just get tired of pointing this stuff out.

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