Review: Tom Leeon Vanessa Berry

Eccentric Guides: Vanessa Berry’s Mirror Sydney

Vanessa Berry’s Mirror Sydney is an important contribution to a growing body of writing that takes cities and place as its central subjects. Berry started her Mirror Sydney blog in 2012 and since then she has been collecting experiences of Sydney, capturing the vitality of the city as it exists in the moment and in layers emerging and decaying through time.

In an email exchange I had with the author, Berry described Mirror Sydney as a collection of places rather than a guidebook. However, it’s hard to read the work and not think of the narrator as a guide to a hidden Sydney. It’s tempting to plan walks to obscure and interesting locations, to do as Berry does: to notice and to share.

Mirror Sydney is one of a range of different content formats to emerge from Berry’s explorations of the city, which also includes zines, blogs, walking tours, and guest talks. Berry’s twenty-year apprenticeship in zine making has also allowed her to capture the rhythms of a day and a place without transferring any of the attendant ennui to the reader. The work is an index of discrete episodes accumulated over time. The book is structured into four sections, Compass Points, Ruins and Recent Pasts, Mysteries, and Collections and Networks. These  each contain between eight and four chapters or subsections. There’s also an introduction and twenty-four beautifully reproduced illustrative maps.

Rebecca Solnit’s Infinite City: a San Francisco Atlas is a significant reference point for Berry. She quotes the book in an early entry on her blog in 2012, describing Solnit’s efforts ‘to calculate the potential number of personal maps that might exist for the city’. Solnit is broad-ranging in her list of things these maps might encompass: ‘areas of knowledge, rumours, fears, friendships, remembered histories and facts, alternate versions, desires, the map of everyday activity versus the map of occasional discovery, the past versus the present…’ Berry sees herself as part of this enterprise of perpetual map creation, noting that ‘the pleasure of life in a city is this multiplicity, and in reading others’ personal accounts of familiar places they are both recognisable and alien’.

Like Berry’s Instagram account @vanessaberryworld, Mirror Sydney appeals to the notion that people live inside worlds of their own making. This suggests both a certain comprehensiveness or completeness and a limitation: the globe is known in form but so are its borders. However, this is also a world post-globalisation: the great exhibitions of the colonial project have become abandoned variety stores and theme parks, the pathos of which comes from quaintness or the strange, instead of authority or splendour. As Berry writes of Magic Kingdom, a dilapidated amusement park in Lansvale, ‘[a]musement parks were dreamlike from their conception, and in their abandonment they provide a different kind of fun. To encounter the rusting rides, bright paint faded, is like climbing inside childhood memories or inside a dream.’ The grand dreams of the past are now fading fragments, mere rumours, which need a ragpicker or gossip like Berry to assemble and present them in a way that provokes new interest or curiosity.

Mirror Sydney is a resolutely eccentric account of the city, both in content and style. The places catalogued in the book are rarely found in canonical lists of Sydney sacred sights to which tourists are habitually advised to make their pilgrimages. Instead of visiting the real Harbour Bridge, Berry takes her reader to the Warwick Farm Harbour Bridge (an illustration of which appears on the front cover), a replica at the entrance to the Peter Warren automotive empire on the outskirts of Sydney. In Berry’s hands this isn’t just a bit of trivia. She uses the replica bridge to frame a compelling story about the relationship between the centre (commonly thought of as the harbour) and the sprawling peripheries of Sydney (the suburbs). ‘The Warwick Farm Harbour Bridge is not so much grand as incongruous’, writes Berry, ‘a reminder of the city in a place that feels far away from it.’ This description nicely encapsulates the virtual map articulated by Berry: a map where centre and periphery are not considered either in opposition to each other or in a hierarchy. Instead, each is a portal to the other, and the city a warped fabric of unlikely entries and exits.

Berry’s book is a collection of the kinds of things a person may not notice, even after walking past them countless times. Things that become illuminated in their strangeness against a background of routine: the everyday walk that appears evacuated from all possibility of newness, then for some reason, on one particular occasion, a bizarre feature becomes conspicuous, like a ghost sign, an oddly shaped tree, a relic of industry, an entire suburb that flashes past on the train. It’s a perspective on the city that only comes through a sophisticated practice of active observation, and a reminder the urban environment contains far more information, far more meaning, than it is possible to capture in a single glance. This excess of information is what makes guides to places important. Even in familiar places there is too much for our perceptual faculties to take in.

Guidebooks can bring worlds into shape and reignite the sense of excitement that comes with the realisation there are worlds out there to discover. This was made apparent to me when Ian Nairn completely changed the way I conceived and interacted with the city of London.

Nairn was a British architecture critic who wrote Nairns London (1966), a work Gavin Stamp described as ‘one of the most evocative books ever written about a city’. He died in 1983, but lives on in series of remarkable texts about architecture and place, and a number of television documentaries for the BBC, including Nairn At Large (1969), Nairn’s Europe (1970) Nairn Across Britain (1972) Nairn’s Journeys (1971-1978).

I discovered Nairns London on a trip to the city in 2014. I was meant to be following in the footsteps of W.G. Sebald, another author for whom place was a central concern. And while Sebald has inspired his own pilgrimages and even wrote a travelogue, for my current purposes his work—specifically Austerlitz (2001), the most London-centric of his books—was muddied by other themes, narrative conceits and most importantly, there wasn’t enough London in it.

I didn’t want the regular Lonely Planet experience though. The more genre specific books, such as Guide to the Architecture of London (Jones and Woodward) wouldn’t do either. The precedent I had in mind was the guidebook to clubs and bars I took on my first trip to London — the title of which I now sadly forget. What I was imagining wasn’t the original book as I found it on the shelf, but something which reactivated that sense of adolescent excitement about a previously hidden world that was now open to discovery.

My fantasy guidebook would be like an encyclopaedia of the city, filtered through a subject who felt deeply about the places it described. Like Berry’s work, it would provide a practical means of situating myself in the city, combined with feeling driven insight, which enlarges the scope of knowledge and makes it something with warped and particular kinds of importance.

Nairns London didn’t fit perfectly into the void of my nostalgia about the lost guidebook to clubs and bars — my lost adolescence. But it changed the way I saw London and perhaps any city forever. The mode of Nairn’s prose is hyperbolic aesthetic judgement – combined with impressive technical and historical knowledge of architecture and place. In reading his work it is obvious that places and buildings are important to him and he does justice to this sense of importance by creating descriptions adequate to the feeling:

Nothing is fuzzy, but everything has an incredible depth and compassion combined with brilliance. It is the spirit exactly of Manet’s Bar at the Folies Bergère. It sees and feels everything, yet you are thrown back on your resources, enriched.

This is a description of a pub, the Red Lion, but it could be a cathedral.

Nairn describes Richmond, a Thames-side village on the periphery of London, as ‘funny, louche, subtle’. The central character of a novel could be built around a fragment such as this. He is equally good at evoking character when he is less impressed. The entry for 12 Langford Place reads:

Sheer horror: a Francis Bacon shriek in these affluent, uncomplicated surroundings at the end of Abby Road, it looks like a normal St John’s Wood villa pickled in embalming fluid by some mad doctor. Two very pinched gables, and a bay window like the carapace of a science fiction insect. There is something far beyond architectural wildness here, even Victorian wildness. The design radiates malevolence as unforgettably as Iago.

Descriptions of such condensed richness are the norm throughout the book. Sometimes, like when I convinced my travelling partner to accompany me to the ‘delightful to walk through’ Highbury Quadrant, seeing the real thing is accompanied by grades of disappointment in comparison to what Nairn’s descriptions conjure in the imagination. Sometimes the tone of his writing guides perception such that otherwise unremarkable details become remarkable. Sometimes the buildings and places have changed too significantly to be recognised or have disappeared, which was sadly the case when I’d made a significant detour across the city to discover the ‘splendid’ Lodge Road Power Station had been razed and rebuilt.

An Antipodean Reflection

Until Mirror Sydney, Sydney has perhaps lacked an equivalent to Nairns London. A book at once idiosyncratic and resolutely about a city, which drives the reader to search and discover. There are works of literary non-fiction that seek to capture the sense of place peculiar to the Sydney–such as Delia Falconer’s Sydney and Peter Carey’s About 30 Days in Sydney– and there are specialist guides focused on different users or themes, including children (Aspen 1977), bargain shoppers (Megard 1981), the disabled (Cooper 1994) food shops (Dunlop 1988), street names (Fitzgerald 1995), cycling (Bruce 2004), Indigenous history (Hinkson 2010) and numerous architecture guides. Yet these works either lack the sense of literariness that sets them apart from mere information (in the case of the latter, specialist guides), or are less guidebooks than personal reflections on place (in the case of the former). Ruth Park’s Companion Guide to Sydney, of which Berry is an admirer, seems the best precedent.

Nairn’s London and Mirror Sydney are both motivated by three interlinked characteristics: the effort to find and successfully communicate the essence or character of a series of places, a compendium structure, and the explicit place given to subjectivity. As Nairn revealingly hesitates in the preface to his book: ‘Whether this grandiose programme has achieved anything more than a collection of subjective maunderings, I am not sure.’ The ‘grandiose’ ambitions of a comprehensive catalogue are thus tempered by the stated limitations and eccentricity of a personal account.

Mirror Sydney and Nairn’s London share these features, however, there are subtle distinctions that make reading the two works very different experiences. Nairn’s admission of the limitations of his subjective viewpoint doesn’t diminish the authoritativeness with which he express his viewpoints on place. For Berry, such limitations are a constitutive part of her aesthetic. As she notes in the book’s introduction, ‘the Sydney I know is one of undercurrents and weird places, suburban mythologies and unusual details’. While Nairn’s work might be regarded as retro in its preference for premodern buildings and old boozers (there are more than thirty in the book), it’s retro for the sake of delimiting a new, albeit pluralist, paradigm for what does and doesn’t work in architectural and landscape aesthetics, not in its resistance to authoritative accounts of taste in general.

Berry is far less likely than Nairn to attribute profound transformative power to her surrounds. She might be pleased, charmed, disappointed, or note an ‘eerie beauty’ – but is rarely moved to condemn or praise emphatically. Even when discussing the ugliest buildings in Sydney, as she does in one chapter, the emotional force that might move the author to declare this building is ugly is absent from Berry’s work. She is more concerned with the discourse and debate around ugliness and the less forceful emotional capacity of uglinesses to interest rather than disgust.

Illustration from Mirror Sydney by Venessa Berry

Berry’s writing is also distinct from Nairn’s in its use of personal reflection and episodic structure. In Nairn’s work, entries for each place are chunked into far shorter passages of between roughly two and five hundred words, which are motivated by allusive, poetically rich aesthetic evaluation and swift, memorable caricatures. By contrast, Berry’s work is structured by an episodic rather than evaluative intent. The book is an enlargement and diversification of missions – like her effort to visit all of the St Vincent de Paul Op shops in Sydney – combined with incidental details, history and personal reflections. Berry collects these places rather than evaluating them. Whether or not a place is worth a visit as some version of a set of comparable places is secondary to the vocation of exploring, documenting and sharing secret insights into what otherwise go unnoticed.

The internet has allowed the familiar yet alien perspectives of other city users to become easily and widely shared in the form of photographs and writing. People have always kept records of place. Now these records can be shared more widely and quickly than ever before. Instagram has an active and diverse community of users (of which Berry and I are both part) preoccupied with alternative views of Australian cities (see: @lord_fry, @the_coburg_plan, @the_northern_delights, @innerwest, @sublurb, @redbrick sydney, @urban_schnapps, @ezekieldyer, @gritpix, @oncewereshops, @housesofsydney, @theaustralianugliness @kirstenseale, @matte_rochford). Blogs such as Spitalfields Life, Newtown to North Melbourne, Melbourne Circle, Vanishing New York, Places Cities Encounters The Australian Ugliness and 150 Great Things about the Underground, make public everyday records of human life, viewed through the prism of a specific location or theme.

The next chapter for city curators is the push to monetise such expertise through online platforms. There is a growing proliferation of niche, lifestyle or character-driven experiences supposedly providing tourists access to the essence of the places they visit. For example, Airbnb Experiences is a new service offered by the global share economy platform allowing users to sell and buy idiosyncratic experiences of place: ‘laugh your way through the Louvre,’ ‘explore the city through architectural design,’ ‘go through a circuit workout with a local in the museum garden,’ ‘cruise around the city and get filmed,’ have ‘a moveable feast through the LGBTQ history of Downtown LA,’ or ‘learn to lead dogs in Berlin’s beautiful forest’.

If, as Berry suggests, the pleasure of life in a city is about encounters with other views, then the virtual city being built on the internet is a significant utility. Yet this pleasure remains contingent on the all-important sense of strangeness that needs to accompany the familiar. Increased access to other narratives means the forces of taste harmonisation can easily govern the proliferation of niche ‘experiences’. And so there is yet no substitute for a curiosity exercised over a long duration and virtuoso storytelling techniques. These are what you will find in abundance should you enter Mirror Sydney or Nairns London.

Works cited

Ashley, Bruce. Cycling around Sydney: the complete guide to Sydney’s best rides, Sydney: Bicycle New South Wales, 2004.
Aspen, Alison. A child’s guide to Sydney, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1977.
Berry, Vanessa. Mirror Sydney, Sydney: Giramondo, 2017.
Carey, Peter. 30 days in Sydney: a wildly distorted account, London : Bloomsbury, 2001.
Cooper, Ian J. A guide to Sydney for travellers with disabilities, North Bellingen, N.S.W.: Barrier-Free Travel and Ostapen Pty. Ltd.,1994.
Dunlop, Lisa. A taste of Sydney: a guide to Sydney’s speciality food shops, Sydney: John Ferguson, 1988.
Falconer, Delia. Sydney, Sydney: UNSW Press, 2010.
Fitzgerald, Shirley. Sydney’s streets: a guide to Sydney City street names, Sydney : Sydney City Council, 1995.
Hickson, Melinda. Aboriginal Sydney: a guide to important places of the past and present, Canberra, ACT : Aboriginal Studies Press, 2010.
Megard, Margaret. The bargain shopper’s guide to Sydney, Surry Hills, N.S.W.: Horan, Wall & Walker, 1981.
Nairn, Ian. Nairn’s London. London: Penguin, 2014.
Park, Ruth. The companion guide to Sydney, Sydney: Collins, 1973.
Solnit, Rebecca. Infinite City: a San Francisco Atlas, Oakland, California: Univ of California Press, 2010.
Sebald, W. G. Austerlitz, trans. Anthea Bell. New York: Penguin, 2001.