Thomas Keneally Reflects on Sydney, Australia

Sydney remakes the waves of new immigrants seeking its shores. Trent Parke / Magnum Photos

It has always been a perverse delight of mine that Sydney is the only major city that was founded as a purpose-designed penal settlement. Unlike New England, Sydney was not settled by the redeemed but by the fallen. These were minor hapless or habitual criminals—with a strong salting of political prisoners—sent from 1788 onward to this place, which was the length of a planet removed from Britain. At the start of 1788 the Eora-speaking Aboriginal inhabitants of what would become Sydney lived in an ancestral zone whose variations and landscape were ritually maintained. By the end of January, the Martians had arrived, and they were not the most elevated of Martians.

The fact that Britain intended Sydney as its Siberia somehow runs in delightful counterpoint to the city I live in and considerably enjoy. The old face of the penal settlement is not immediately obvious here—except perhaps in a certain raffishness about the city, its liking for the outdoors, its hedonism. The narrow streets of the inner city are an echo of the penal town as well—by 1810 Gov. Lachlan Macquarie, a Scot gratefully remembered for preventing the growth of an underclass made up of convicts and their children, gave up on trying to widen the streets.

But the penal era is here most overtly in the buildings in Macquarie Street designed by the convict architect Francis Greenway in the 1810s. Poor Greenway forged an architecture contract as a means of getting a loan out of a bank—a modest crime beside the largely unpunished ones of the global financial crisis. The Georgian clarity of his sandstone buildings is charming. He built the Convict Barracks, which became a clearing depot not only for convicts, but for famine orphans sent from Ireland in the late 1840s and for servant-girl immigrants. He designed the Colonial Mint, the old Supreme Court building, St. James’ Church, and an enormous lighthouse on Sydney South Head. His works are acts of grace in a city now largely populated by the standard modernist buildings found in any city on earth. But the glass and steel are often interrupted by sandstone buildings of the colonial period, sandstone having a chummier tone than the authoritative granite seen elsewhere on earth.

A sense of heritage set in just in time for us Sydneysiders (as natives of the city are called) to save the old pubs, shops, and buildings of the Victorian era in the area always known as the Rocks. The Rocks were the site of the first convict camp and were slums when I was a child. Now they’ve become a little too commercial and colonial-twee. The Rocks and its great arched bridge face the Opera House across Sydney Cove like a Dickensian parish facing the modern sublime. The combination goes well. And in any case, the harbor is everything. It redeems the architecturally banal and enhances the adventurous and the beautiful. Sydney people are willing to let the blatant charm of the harbor distract the world from all their errors of taste.

And there hasn’t always been lack of taste. I live at a beach named Manly at the northern end of the harbor. The 11-kilometer trip here is one of the finest ferry rides I’ve taken on this earth, and what becomes apparent from the deck of the ferry is how much bushland remains around the foreshores of Sydney harbor. It’s not hard to go for bushwalks in the coastal suburbs, in many of which there are national parks. In a city of frenzied developers, much has been left to stand.

The Sydney and Australia I was a kid in was largely an enclave of Celts and Anglos, with the narrowness of taste and outlook that involves. In my boyhood the Greeks and Italians and other Europeans were beginning to arrive en masse. The diversity of the Sydney population now is astounding, involving Sudanese, Iraqis, Indians, and Chinese. Indeed, mainland China is (we hope) our best buddy, Beijing is our lodestar, and please, nobody mention human rights. But it seems to me the esprit of Sydney has not altered much in my lifetime. It is as if the harbor and the place own us rather than the other way around. As if in the end it has made us rather than our making it. It might be a young city. But it retains in its fabric that primordial capacity to change anyone who arrives.

Thomas Keneally is the Booker-winning author of Schindler’s Ark and, most recently, Three Famines: Starvation and Politics.