Vanessa Berry’s Mirror Sydney: An Atlas of Reflections

Vanessa Berry’s new book Mirror Sydney: An Atlas of Reflections (Giramondo, 2017) is a travel guidebook of sorts: writing on Sydney that outlines overlooked places far distant to the dazzling tourist promenades that appear in The Lonely Planet and other popular collections. But this highly rewarding collection of essays (with accompanying illustrations) also transcends the panegyrical tone of much city writing, managing to examine the confronting politics of urban space while also thoughtfully re-imagining the contemporary act of memoir-writing. As the title transparently intimates, this is a book that reflects in a philosophical sense as well as ‘through the looking glass’.

Right from the beginning, the book promises to move beyond the usual hyperbole associated with Australia’s most famous city:

In contrast to its most commonly celebrated description – a sunlit city of natural beauty, the harbour and beaches – the Sydney I know best is one of undercurrents and weird places, suburban mythologies and unusual details. These are the city’s marginalia, the overlooked and the odd, the hidden and enigmatic places.

Of course, to promise the unusual is the rule for nearly every guidebook: an assurance that by reading it you will see a somehow more authentic version of place than in the other books. The ‘commonly celebrated’ parts of Sydney that Berry notes are clearly linked to the iconic and tourist-friendly version of the city, whereas her alternative version suggests that we can examine the city through a local’s eyes. So, in this book we are shown perspectives of lesser-known places on Sydney’s suburban fringes such as Hornsby, Warragamba and Turramurra; sleepy shopping arcades in Penrith; an abandoned theme park in Lansvale and a 1970s floating restaurant slowly disintegrating in Snails Bay. What emerges in these deftly observed urban essays is far more than a simple description of urban space and reminiscence, but rather what is articulated could be called an ethics of travel in a postcolonial city: through notice of the overlooked pockets of space, as well as troubling histories, we are also shown a way for accounting for power and place in a rapidly changing post-industrial environment.

Mirror Sydney is a very different project than others interested in fetishising weird travel and tourism. For example, the US-based website and companion guidebook Atlas Obscura shares Berry’s interest in the bizarre and hidden (see their section on an obscure Sydney here), but it seems to be purely for the sake of novelty, discovery and traveller cred (and to this end, on the website you are encouraged to post a flag when you have visited the destination, and share it on social media). Instead, Mirror Sydney treads a delicate line between popular cultural studies and the popular travel genre, and rightly so, as this book is highly deserving of wider interest beyond niche academic audiences aware of Benjamin’s arcade project, Baudelaire’s Flâneur and the social science of Psychogeography. The book emerged from a PhD that Berry undertook at Macquarie University that drew upon such theoretical spatial enquiries, which saw the creation of a website of the same title that continues to be added to by the author, and is hence a great supplementary text to the book itself.

Berry often references Ruth Park’s 1973 non-fiction book The Companion Guide to Sydney as inspiration for her own urban writings, and writing previously on this book she has noted:

… walking the city Park negotiates a fundamental schism in urban experience: between the subjective and embodied, and the social, cultural, economic and political forces that define cities.

While Berry’s approach to examining Sydney is quite different from Park’s – for example, Berry does not imagine a walker coming with her in the narrative, and sometimes drives to her locations rather than walking through them – there is certainly a concern with this analysis of the range of socio-political problems that can impact cities and alter them irrevocably. Both books share an interest in illuminating space through history: both lived history and through historical research. Berry notes that Sydney is a recent invention, with a rich precolonial set of meanings from a range of Indigenous groups that still inform the landscape today.

While the book can be thought of as an example of psychogeography, Berry rarely invokes the concept of Guy Debord’s ‘Dérive’ or ‘drift’, a type of reflection that involves aimless wandering across city spaces to note its changing ambiances and atmospheres (one chapter that does do so is the one that follows Johnstons Creek through Annandale). Each short chapter of Mirror Sydney follows a parallel structure: each follows a literary-informed virtual tour that ends with a poignant reflection on the place’s current state, whether the object of interest has vanished already, or else its destruction is imminent. From the deconstructed retro-futuristic Monorail to the political 1980s murals of artist Carol Ruff, a cumulative effect of reading the book is a constant reprise on urban transience or else impending loss, and it poses both a poetic and profound way of thinking about issues of housing affordability and social disadvantage, that have become touchstones for national media discussions. Road construction projects such as WestConnex loom over Berry’s nostalgic landscapes, and we hear the background hum of gentrification that is transforming working-class suburbs such as Kurnell and Millers Point.

Finally, this book is a memoir, but here we do not find the conspiratorial and ‘tell-all’ tone that is characteristic of much recent autobiographical work that connects to the city. Berry has established herself as a memoirist: decades working as a DIY writer and zine producer has allowed her many opportunities for experimentation in writing about the self. Her previous books Strawberry Hills Forever and Ninety9 both utilise an introspective version of memoir. But in Mirror Sydney, there is clear distance drawn between Berry and the reader. Her remembrances here are not connected to a self-reflection on what she learns from experience. A contrast to this style is Lauren Elkin’s recent book Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London, which mixes scholarly research with deeply personal stories of a break-up in Tokyo, childhood in New York and youthful daring in Paris.

Here, Berry presents herself as variable and unknowable as the beloved urban spaces that she writes about. We are occasionally given a brief flash of memory, but it is as if watching a sudden firework explosion above the train window before sliding back into the underground, one of the real-life anecdotes that features in the book. So, perhaps it is also Berry who is the ‘mirror Sydney’ of the book title: and this is an exciting and original way to think about framing memoir in relation to the city.

Gemma Blackwood

Gemma Blackwood is a freelance writer and academic based in Darwin, Australia. She researches and writes on visual culture analysis and screen studies.

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