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SYNECDOCHE SEANNA VAN HELTEN The train delivers us cleanly. Our host had said the top deck made the best viewfinder. She has to doff her magazine every time, a commuter’s mark of respect. It is a fitting carriage: modernity’s chariot terminating at the site of its leisure. Saturday doers nudge the turnstiles. Sublime is right, but a complex descriptor: there is the architect’s gift of course but crowds too have always made me conscious of infinity. A couple asks a stranger to foster their camera, directs him to just fit in as much building as you can. The lens levels not at their bodies but through, a compass divining its version of proof. If you bought a postcard here, bought several, you would recognise the pose, not quite instinctively – rote learning is not quite wisdom.

But you know the candent carapace with or without the Sydney scrawl, despite the sunset having weakened to a greenish canker. Or maybe that card arrived once rolled up with the gas bills and beneath an inky stamp was that familiar recline, a theme varied, hawked world-wide in school-books and gazettes. The city’s autograph blanched by cheap inks: moon moulds in silhouette, parted cockatoo crest. Up close, angles are just angles. Whites differ. Forced to look, it’s impossible to see anything but parts for the whole. The clouds are filmy sacs, slowly ballooning. The shells become shelter when rain bursts.












Circumnavigation William McBride Where we disembark, the train station’s walls have been cut away at eye-level, revealing a composition of world-renown. A clutch of cumulus clouds riveted, top-left, complements a dazzling blue sky. Sydney’s glare has contracted my pupils to reptilian dots, but I move closer, stopping to tip my hat to the view. It returns my gaze and coos across the bay, insouciant: “Here I am.” Blooming with the untainted white of chemical reactions, the clouds do not move until you’ve looked away. In submission to a peevish crowd who’ve seen it all before, I make my way down the escalators and onto the promenade. At ground level the train arrivals merge with the thousands of boat people, docked from distant lands, and we all dissolve into the denizen-cocktail of Sydney Cove. I should have worn a hat. Lost in the crowds are indefatigable streetperformer entrepreneurs. An Aboriginal didgeridoo-trance act thumps its constant beat: CDs for sale, or just a photograph taken with the real thing. A metallic man doesn’t quite gleam. The human statue’s arms beckon wildly at shy children, compelling their parents into pics first, coins later. A grown man who dances with a life-sized doll has branded his own name on his act, offering a clue that the absurdity he peddles has been long-since trodden

into dust. As they tango on and on and on and on, a hefty elderly lady, staggering by in a forward stoop, bellows to her old-ish daughter: “I thought it was a REAL GIRL!!” Tacking forward, past seafood restaurants and upmarket Australiana shops, the Guylian Café bobs into view. With its polished granite décor, unchanged since a mid-90s heyday, Guylian’s HQ feels either fixed in time, or out of it: perpetuallymelting chocolate shells. Pooped grey nomads line the final approach, decked out in determinedly practical attire of comfort, light shades and ventilation; sentries on individuated seats that splay out like flower petals, they must twist stiff spines in order to maintain eye contact during the debrief. “Did that man just take our photograph?” As with all icons, seen mediated – on post cards, TV tourism packages, or corporate logos – or from afar, the Opera House looks a little exposed this close up. Grandeur desires its correct measure of scale and distance. As a child I believed its texture to be the bendy grey-white of glossy cardboard, or like the snipped wooden Paddle Pop sticks a Grade 6 classmate used to make her prize-winning Opera House miniature. Up close, cordially introduced, I pause, teetering, before the stairs whose expanse can lend the impression of isolation in a space that replenishes its pilgrim legions every waking hour.

Crawling in and out of every crevice, the unceasing swarm of a public with their digital cameras dutifully proliferate the scene, sending digital parcels off to distant lands, marking off a tourist’s checklist. “Look at the ship!” Across the water the parodically enormous cruise ship, “Sapphire Princess,” is docked at the Rocks, bringing Sydney Cove to brimful. “You went on a boat, but not that boat?” Passing by, a girl of about eight is clarifying family folklore, and her clean, enunciated Australian accent – the fresh diction of childhood – contrasts her grandmother’s soupy Mediterranean cadence. “Yes. It was different. You couldn’t fly so easily then. We went on boats with two thousand people.”

At the end of our circumnavigation, the obligatory gesture of coda seems to be to mount the stairs and touch the gleaming tiles. Two types, one smoother than the other, yellowed with age or off-white by design, march upwards in endless lines of binary. At a middle-distance the combined effect is mosaic. I raise uncovered eyes, my gaze skidding up the steep, curved surface, and squint into the glare of sun refracted. A bucket of glass shards has been spilt; the sun’s intensity scatters unevenly across the tiles. And beyond, the cumuli have frayed into wisps spread out across the sky.

My friend and I have lost the third in our group. We phone to track him down: ‘I’m at the front.’ Which front? ‘The harbour side.’ It’s all harbour side! We stalk one another clockwise around the building like cyclists in a velodrome, though our pace is languorous and the hour stretches on.

A young man with a video camera walks up behind me and touches the same tiles as I move away, speaking calmly as he records: his family and friends’ own foreign correspondent. He wears lurid board-shorts, according to local custom, and the multi-khaki ‘hiking’ boots favoured by freshmen back-packers the world over. Local and universal, mis-matched and alert, here he is anonymous and far from home.

We circle to starboard, thankful for the shade and hush of the granite foundations. Peering over the railings – at thigh-height they are retro-low – into the precious-stone blues and greens of the Pacific, long strands of kelp can be seen floating serenely from the building’s base: an aesthetic flourish, the sub-aquatic adornments of a famous moored ship.

Making our break for the station, the first spoonfuls of rain begin to fall. From the platform, I watch an ancient drama unfold across the harbour. The water and sky have reset to a steely grey-blue, and the sweet, peaty tang, so strong with Australian rains, wafts up the escalator. When the train embarks, it is to the crack of an axe splitting ancient, felled timber in the sky.


One Hour Opera  

Mobile Impressions of an Icon

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