For folks from elsewhere, the name “Sydney” may conjure up images of sandy beaches or the Opera House, or
those under the spell of the Latvian media might envision an Australia ravaged by fires, floods, storms and unbearable heat. But their mind’s eye probably wouldn’t see almost Mediterranean street
scenes like those pictured here.
But they are indeed from the oldest corner of my native city. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been rediscovering Sydney after a long absence - not exactly with fresh eyes but at least with surprised ones - and I want to tell you a little about this place under the baking sun.
To cut a very long history painfully short, aboriginal people lived here undisturbed for 30,000 years, until in 1788 they received uninvited visitors - ships from England bearing convicts and their jailers. This disease-infested, starving and doubtless foul-smelling rabble founded a colony and began building a town on the shores of Sydney Harbour
They gave the site of the first settlement a peculiar name, The Rocks. A fitting one, since with much sweat and blood they carved roads through the local stone and built churches, houses, warehouses and much else of value which is still around today.
For many years my dad worked for an engineering firm in The Rocks, and I got to know the area a bit as an
office boy there during school holidays. On the one hand, it’s a boisterous tourist trap with Sydney’s liveliest pubs, whose patrons seem more at ease than elsewhere in the city, imbibing an
atmosphere created by generations of sailors, wharfies, soldiers, prostitutes, thieves and smugglers letting off steam accumulated in hard-scrabble lives. On one building there’s a plaque
commemorating Latvian revolutionaries who used to gather there before the First World War.
But there are also quiet, narrow streets with delightful, wrought-iron balconied houses. The local sandstone serenely glimmers in the sunlight, and keeps the occupants of the houses cool. The Rocks is one of the few places in this huge metropolis where you get a sense of history, which is extremely valuable at a time when a vast construction boom is transforming swathes of Sydney into ever higher and more faceless skyscraper canyons. The Rocks also faced this prospect in the seventies, until bless them, bolshie unions insisted that heritage was more important than mere $/m2. And thank God they did, because today this is a haven from a nervous dissonance and alienation hovering over the rest of the city.
The history of The Rocks is replete with tales of murders, robberies and hangings. But there’s a remarkable streak of human endurance and optimism too, as more than a few of the tempest tossed souls thrown ashore here found their feet again. The classic example is Francis Greenway, who was transported for forgery before becoming the colony’s first architect, a profession at which he was so talented his face later adorned Aussie banknotes. And that’s one of the things I love about the Australian ethos – no matter what kind of a lowlife you may be, there is hope for you yet.