Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 10, 2017

Mirror Sydney (2017), by Vanessa Berry

Most of the reviews I’ve seen of Vanessa Berry’s Mirror Sydney are written by Sydneysiders, or by people familiar with the city if not the alternative city she evokes.  Bradley Garrett at the SMH is a recent arrival from London, so for him the book offers an opportunity to explore his new home.  Louis Nowra in The (paywalled) Australian finds the book Proustian; Tom Patterson at The Newtown Review of Books is unabashed about the homage to the city he loves.

But what if the reader isn’t a Sydneysider?  What does the book have to offer someone not familiar with the city?

I think what it offers is a different way of looking at the built environment.  Berry is a rebellious flaneur, presenting ragtag and piecemeal suburban Sydney, most often in dingy and abandoned places off the beaten track.  She’s interested in the recent past in suburban ‘ruins’ where change and development swamp, but don’t entirely obliterate, what was there before.  She finds these places disruptive…

Think of everything that makes up a city like Sydney.  The land underlying it, the hills and valleys and waterways, then the buildings and the infrastructure, the roads and the railways.  Then the living beings which animate the urban scene, the people, the animals, the trees.  Then think of the details in between, all the layers, all the particulars, intricate and ever-changing.

This is a practically impossible exercise.  Cities are complex entities, made up of details in unlimited abundance.  (p.209)

It’s these details that explain why the book is illustrated with hand-drawings for each chapter, not exactly maps, but not collages either.  (You get a sense of them from the cover design).  Taking photos simply wouldn’t work.  The book celebrates its idiosyncratic focus with highly selective images for each chapter.  The reader begins to see with Vanessa Barry’s eye.

In a chapter titled ‘Magic Kingdom’ she seeks out Sydney’s old Luna Park; its failed Reptile Park and African Lion Safari; the King’s Cross Wax Works and a Sea World that only lasted four years.

Abandoned places bring about dystopian fantasies, the sensation of picking over fragments of something long vanished.  The weirdness of abandoned theme parks makes them particularly enticing.  Empty houses are still domestic even when they’re in ruins.  Abandoned industrial sites, while often dramatic in scale, still contain traces of their past usefulness.  Amusement parks were dreamlike from their inception, 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. (p.83-4)

In the chapter about Bankstown, she writes about its central role in Sydney’s defences during WW2, noting that it used to be called ‘Yankstown’ because of all the US servicemen based there.  But it’s what she writes about its development as a suburb afterwards that interests me:

Before the war it had been a mixture of urban and rural land, but with the pressures of population growth – between 1940 and 1960 the population grew threefold – there was a boom in house construction and the suburban streets of Bankstown took shape. This was the heyday of the fibro cottage.  Thousands of such houses were constructed on bald blocks of newly subdivided land. Fibro – thin sheeting made from fibrous asbestos and cement – was a cheap, versatile building material.  A timber frame could be quickly clad in sheets of fibro, and a house swiftly assembled.

[…] I pass by some of these postwar houses. […] These fibro houses, like members of an expansive family, have gone on to different fates.  Some are as neat as the day they were built, their pale walls bright in the sunlight, a perfect lawn in front.  Others are surrounded by dismantled cars, their gardens unruly.  In the 1960s these streets had a regular appearance, row after row of small white houses.  Now this uniformity is gone.  Cottages sit alongside the brick McMansions that are slowly replacing them.

This suburban scene is one of aspirations, new and old.  The McMansions reflect a preoccupation with size and prestige, but the cottages they replaced were no less proudly thought of.  In the 1950s and 1960s these cottages were the first home many people had owned.  They symbolised a new, safe, suburban life, relief from run-down homes in the inner-city or from wartime unrest.  Their details have been for some the comforting, the others the alien, features of a new landscape.  (p.177)

That’s a changing landscape that could be duplicated in Melbourne, and perhaps in other cities as well.

Mirror Sydney has made me think about changes in my local built environment in a different way.  There used to be a small shopping centre called Thrift Park within walking distance of my place.  It was opened in 1958 after heated objections from local residents.  Like the shops in the chapter called ‘Penrith Arcades Project, Thrift Park was an arcade hosting all kinds of interesting shops: a scrapbooking supplier that ran classes helping unartistic people like me to make beautiful memory books; a gemstone shop that didn’t cater to loopy New Age fantasy cures; a bakery where I used to buy the best-ever fresh scones to contribute to birthday morning teas at work; a pet shop with a really knowledgeable owner who just loved talking about dogs; a cranky butcher who objected to selling cheap cuts of meat, as I discovered when I wanted to try a Chinese recipe for ‘red beef’.  Contrary to the cheery reassurances from the developers, these idiosyncrasies are all gone: now the centre is dominated by a large supermarket, and the usual suspects: Baker’s Delight and other chains.  (But the coffee’s better, I’ll give them that!)

The other big change in my local area is going on all over Melbourne because of the Level Crossing Removal Project.  My strip shopping centre is going to be revamped around the new station and its plaza and the council is taking the opportunity to jazz up the entire area with planning for new residential and retail developments, improved parking and traffic management and so on.  And – unlike the Thrift Park development – the community is being asked what it wants.  We’ve been able to comment on plans and designs, make suggestions about what to do with the heritage-listed old railway station, and attend public meetings if we’re really keen.  #FingersCrossed It looks as if it’s going to be an improvement.

If I’d read Mirror Sydney beforehand, I would have made sure that my local historical society had documented what was lost at Thrift Park, and I’m going to contact them to check that it’s being done for the level crossing works.  Because although I don’t share Berry’s enthusiasm for dingy old places, I’m interested in the urban history they represent.  That’s what makes this such an interesting book.

Author: Vanessa Berry
Title: Mirror Sydney
Publisher: Giramondo, 2017
ISBN: 9781925336252
Review copy courtesy of Giramondo.

Available from Fishpond: Mirror Sydney: An Atlas of Reflections



  1. That’s a good point about documenting our present and our grandchildren’s past. I think about it often, not just Granddad’s sheds of upright logs and thatch roofs, but suburbs like Rivervale, WA where I live now, or most of outer Sydney, 3 BR fibros built immediately after the war (on 1000m blocks – remember them!) and now largely disappeared.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I really wish I’d done something like a photo essay of my own street before the McMansions invaded. We have two now, not as bad as in the surrounding streets but they are oh! so out of place! Our whole suburb is immediate postwar housing, mostly with State Savings Bank designs, and what little I know of the stories of that era is fascinating. I loved the way, for instance, that when I first came here there were hibiscus, hydrangeas and geraniums in every other garden because everybody shared their cuttings.
    But I don’t have the camera or the photo skills to do it properly. I should have taken better photos of my own house before we renovated too. I did it in a rush, one night after school when the light wasn’t very good, and I didn’t capture the detail as I should have. Not that I’m nostalgic for the old house, ours is now perfectly tailored for the two of us and we love it, but it would be nice to have better before-and-after photos.
    I guess the thing is that we don’t recognise that the immediate past, with the passage of time, is going to become heritage. Houses for sale in my suburb now get badged with the label ‘period detail’ or ‘heritage features’ which would have had us rolling on the floor with laughter when I came here in the 1970s. Back then, ‘heritage features’ were only found in Victorian era Carlton and South Melbourne. Still, I can’t see myself ever being nostalgic for McMansions…


  3. I’ve never been to Australia, let alone Sydney, so it’s interesting to get this perspective on an urban process that’s probably universal: the decline and decay that accompanies ‘progress’. This book sounds very like the psychogeography of the likes of Iain Sinclair; I wrote about this over the recent years when I was teaching a module on Sense of Place, which included ecocriticism – a branch of lit-cultural criticism that takes an interest in texts of this type. I’ve written about flâneurs a few times at the blog, too; they fascinate me, as they did Walter Benjamin (and Baudelaire before him, of course, and Poe, Dickens, etc. etc.)
    Meanwhile in my city a whole new ‘estate’ (misnomer) is being thrown up on agricultural land previously designated Green Belt (i.e. protected from ‘development’). A roadside verge that was a deep band of daffodils for over a mile every spring has been bulldozed up and tarmac-ed.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi, I’ve never heard of Iain Sinclair, (though Berry mentions Walter Benjamin) nor psychogeography either till I read this book so once again my reading has given me more trails to follow, what fun!
      Re the daffodils, one of my most lovely memories of England is of being somewhere with my parents and turning a corner to see a long narrow glade of naturalised bluebells. I was very small so it was a long, long time before I was able to identify what they were and for years I thought I had imagined it – until I stumbled on a photo online! It would be heartbreaking to lose something like that.


      • Sinclair tends, IMO, to over-write, but he’s made a niche in writing about his neck of London and the urban environment. The layers of lived experience that are traceable in the surviving signs, like graffiti, ruins. He looks at the waste lands in a way Eliot couldn’t have dreamed of. I reviewed a book by a guy called Coverley who wrote the first definitive study of psychogeography – from Blake to Sinclair.


        • IT sounds fascinating. Some world weary travellers say that all cities are the same, but they’re not, not at all!


          • Ah, I’m one of those – in a way. I reckon cities are all the same in one sense while of course they are not at all in another. It’s the ways they are – the crowdedness, the busy-ness, the bigness – that makes me run for the villages and small towns. But first, I try to spend a few days sussing out their uniqueness – the bits of the Berlin Wall in Berlin, the Gaudi buildings and parks in Barcelona, and so on.

            When the institution where I worked before I retired had a major extension done to what was a heritage building, a staff member took photographs of the process – but then we were an archive and documenting history is what we were (are) about.

            I took photos of our garden for many years to show the changes – and love to look back on them – but have done it less frequently in the last 5 years or so. Must get back to it.

            Anyhow, all this is to say this sounds like an interesting book, and I love how it resulted in your telling the story of the unromantically named Thrift Park!

            Liked by 1 person

            • I guess it is unromantic, but it’s of its era, isn’t it? No one would name a shopping centre Thrift Park today, it would be Shoppers Heaven or Consumers Choice or something like that. Thriftiness isn’t a virtue any more…


  4. Thanks for this review – as an ex-Sydney reader my first reaction to Mirror Sydney was one of nostalgia – I looked to see whether my old stomping grounds got a mention – but like you, after a while I started looking at my current built environment and noticed change everywhere – the abandoned 1940s furniture store (Future Daydream Furniture – open 7 days) now losing it’s verandah and heading for collapse, the ghost sign of the Galley Milk bar still in full sail, revealed when they removed a facade – makes me more determined to get out there with camera and notepad. (BTW I think they’ve sold out of the first print run – my Christmas gifts are on back order)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Gosh, sold out already, but I’m not surprised. It is a perfect Christmas gift, and as I say, not just for Sydney people.


  5. Love the sound of this. I’m always fascinated by old photographs of places I know. Every summer at Red Hill Market on the Mornington Peninsula, there’s a stall that has a huge collection of old photos of ‘high streets’ around Melbourne and other landmarks – I could stand there looking all day.


    • I wish someone would do a Melbourne version of it…


  6. […] Mirror Sydney, by Vanessa Berry, see my review […]


  7. […] Mirror Sydney, Vanessa Berry (Giramondo Publishing, Giramondo Publishing Company), see my review […]


  8. […] Vanessa Berry for Mirror Sydney (Giramondo Publishing), see my review  […]


  9. […] Vanessa Berry for Mirror Sydney (Giramondo Publishing), see my review  […]


  10. […] Mirror Sydney, by Vanessa Berry […]


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