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The Glory of Sydney

The building and the politicians defeated Utzon. He resigned halfway through, in 1966, and limped back home. Finished by a government architect, the opera house was opened by the queen in 1973. Utzon refused to attend, and he has never been back to Sydney since. But he remains an absent hero, a sacrificial victim of national philistinism. There is a move afoot to invite him back for the Olympic games, though it seems quite unlikely that the aging Dane will accept.

The opera house turned out to be a spectacular civic investment. It put Sydney on the map, and the city is still crazy about it. People think of the opera house less as a building to enter than as a totem or symbol to enjoy, the biggest site-specific sculpture in the world. Its terraced steps are to Sydney what the Scala di Spagna is to Rome, though with zero sleaze rating: a place to stroll, hang out, relax, in a majestic civic space. For Sydney is one of the most genuinely civil cities on earth; its citizens keep to standards of public behavior that simply no longer exist in large American cities. On the opera house steps, in the adjacent botanic gardens (a fascinating "green museum" of Australian nature, not to be missed), in the streets or by the beaches, nobody will beg, hassle you, play a boom box or bother you in any way, much less mug you.

If You Look Straight out from Circular Quay, past the opera house, you see a building on a little island: Fort Denison, built at the time of the Crimean War, when the local authorities were seized by the loony idea that the Russians might invade Sydney. But if Fort Denison's military history was nil, the symbolic power of the rock under it is considerable. In earlier colonial days it was known as Pinchgut, and on it "desperate" convicts were hanged and "refractory" ones were marooned until the sun broiled them into obedience.

Circular Quay is where the English colony started, the place where in January 1788 the seven hundred or so men, women and children, our dazed and unwilling pioneers, were rowed ashore from the first fleet. These convicts and guards were the first of about 160,000 British who would be exiled to Australia over the next eighty years. If America began as the Puritans' holy experiment, Australia began as a jail whose core was Sydney. Who were our first criminal forebears?Mostly small-time offenders against the draconic English property laws. They had stolen ribbons from shops, lead from roofs, cheeses from pantries and cucumbers from gardens. They had forged documents and put citizens in fear. In age they ranged from a nine-year-old chimney sweep (theft) to an eighty-two-year-old woman (perjury). They had only one thing in common: They had been caught and turned into the guinea pigs of a bizarre social experiment whose outcome nobody, from the Crown to the courts, could predict. "Thieves, robbers and villains / They'll send 'em away / To become a new people at Botany Bay."

There isn't much convict blood left in modern Australia, because there has been so much immigration since. Probably no more than 250,000 people in Sydney can trace direct descent from Irish or English felons, but that's enough to support a sizeable flock of genealogists, all searching for genuine horse thieves in family trees. (When I was a kid, convict ancestors were considered blots, and hidden. Today, everybody wants one.)

But one can't help sensing that traits were passed down the cultural line. The Australian accent slurs "Sydney" into "Sinny," and that's what its reputation has been since the town got on its feet, unlike staid Melbourne orAdelaide: a Barbary Shore, a seaborne Mahogany full of swifties, hoons, lairs and Flash Jacks living in symbiosis with crooked cops.

The place most redolent of convictry is Dawes Point, the spit of land on the west side of Circular Quay on which the southern pylons of the bridge are planted. The area just south is known, because of its sandstone ledges, as the Rocks. Today it's a warren of pleasant sandstone houses and reconditioned dock stores, containing bookstores, excellent restaurants, some of the city's best hotels and perhaps a few too many shops selling mass-produced didgeridoos, stuffed-toy wallabies and other tourist kitsch. But traces of convict days are inscribed in its stones, particularly on the Argyle Cut--a huge tunnel hewn by gang labor through rock to link the docks west of Dawes Point to Circular Quay--on whose high walls innumerable picks have left their marks. One hundred fifty years ago the Rocks was a hive of foul shanties and shebeens selling colonial "rum"--the name for any kind of distilled liquor--laced with additives like tobacco juice to give it bite. In the 1830s some four gallons of rum were drunk each year for every man, woman and child in Sydney, few of whom thought it was the best town in the world then. Pitched battles with razors and bricks between rival gangs or "pushes" of toughs, known as "larrikins," gave the Rocks a still worse reputation right through to the 1920s and beyond; yet larrikinism is a component of their character that Sydneysiders still fondly invoke. It meant disrespect for authority, cynicism about the rules, a screw-you attitude toward the high and mighty. It survives everywhere, even in parliamentary rhetoric, as in the utterances of Australia's recent Labor Prime Minister, Paul Keating, on the subject of his pet peeve, the Conservative leader John Howard, who runs the country today: "I will do Howard and I will do him slowly. He is the classic nondeliverer of Australian politics. He is the one person who cannot cut the mustard. The game is too hard for him. Lurking in his chest is not a heart for the political fight, but a split pea. I am not like [John Howard]. I did not slither out of the cabinet room like a mangy maggot." Saltier stuff than the drone of American congressmen.


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