The Harbour. By Scott Bevan. Published by Simon & Schuster.
I was born in the shadow of the Harbour Bridge and the glare of Luna Park. For more than 80 years, my family had a house in Milson’s Point that looked out at the bridge and across the harbour to the city and around to McMahon’s Point and Lavender Bay. Unfortunately, I took all that for granted. It just seemed normal that as kids we could fish off the wharf and explore Lavender Bay and surrounds in a rowing boat. But like anyone who grew up on Sydney Harbour, it will always be part of me and my very being.
As Scott Bevan points out, many of us think we know Sydney Harbour, but it was not until I read his book that I realized how much I didn’t know about it. He calls the harbour “a city’s heart” and “a country’s soul” and he undertakes his soul-searching in a kayak called Pulbah Raider. In what to anyone else may seem like an impossible venture, he kayaks around the harbour from the Silverwater Bridge on the Parramatta River, along the northern shore, including the Lane Cove River, Middle Head and the Spit, out to the North Head, across to the South Head and back along the southern shore.
On the way he explores the history, the myths and the peculiarities of this fascinating body of water and meets up with some intriguing and colourful characters, sometimes by arrangement but often serendipitously, as he paddles his kayak into all the bays and beaches around the shores. As you might imagine this was not done in a day and took some time with Bevan including some fascinating detail and background that requires not just his insightful observation but some careful research.
At over 600 pages, this book is as big as the harbour itself, but it has to be to do justice to the story of Sydney Harbour and the changes that have taken place since European settlement. It has gone from pristine water under the guardianship of the Aboriginal inhabitants to a working harbour, heavily polluted by toxic chemicals to one whose shores are now crowded with rich people’s mansions and whose bays are full of their pleasure craft.
However, as Bevan points out, the water is now much cleaner and clearer and officially you can safely eat any fish caught east of the Harbour Bridge. Surprisingly though, it still has a working element and he includes the stories of many of those who work on and around it, from the boat builders to the maritime clean-up crews.
World Champion Sculler
Fittingly, Bevan starts and finishes his journey at the Henry Searle Memorial, which few people have seen or even heard of, but where a plaque proclaims that Henry Searle was “Champion Sculler of the World 1888-89”. At that time, sculling was a major sport in Australia and 30,000 spectators crammed the banks of the Parramatta River to see Searle capture the title from the then World Champion, Peter Kemp.
Searle defeated all comers in Australia and then England, but when returning from his triumphs there, he contracted typhoid and, on his return to Australia, died at the age of 23. Some 170,000 mourners lined the route of his funeral procession to Circular Quay and the eulogies and memorials continued long after his death. Who remembers this hero of the harbour today?
You may, however, recognize the names, past and present, of many other famous characters that figure in the story of the harbour. You could be surprised to know that people such as Julian Ashton, Henry Lawson, Kenneth Slessor, Lloyd Rees, Peter Finch, Dawn Fraser, Russel Crowe, and Brett and Wendy Whiteley, as well as David Bowie are but only a few of those characters. Considering his depictions of Sydney and the harbour, Ken Done’s appearance in the book may not be a surprise as he invites Bevan to take a break from his kayak journey, spend the night and explore the wonders and beauty of his longtime home at Chinaman’s Beach.
Sydney Harbour has also been visited and wondered at by world famous writers such as Mark Twain and Joseph Conrad, who described it as “one of the finest, most beautiful, vast, and safe bays the sun has ever shone upon”. Our own poet Kenneth Slessor was both inspired by the harbour and intrigued by its mysteries and ‘midnight waters’. His poem Five Bells, a eulogy to his friend Joe Lynch who drowned in the harbour, remains a classic of modern Australian poetry and a haunting reminder of the machinations of time and tide.
Some of the best stories in the book concern the people who are largely unknown and unheralded, but who could be described as the guardians and caretakers of the harbour. These are people such as Michael Stevens who in 2011, disturbed by the amount of rubbish washing up on the beach at Berrys Bay, started picking it up and by 2017 had collected 16,517 litres of glass, wood, plastic and other junk. He was joined in his efforts by other locals, forming a volunteer organization called HarbourCare which now has the support of the North Sydney Council.
Michael is not the only one who Bevan meets, caring for the harbour in this way. Just like Henry Searle, these are the new heroes of the harbour. The problem is that rubbish just keeps coming and you can only hope that in time people may become more careful and considerate, especially after reading this book.
If you’ve ever wondered about the strange names of places around the harbour, such as Slaughterhouse Bay, Goat Island or Hen and Chicken Bay, or the stories behind Pinchgut or the Japanese submarine attack, then the answers to all your questions are in this book.
Scott Bevan’s journalistic talent and experience make it, I believe, what will become the definitive account of the harbour’s history and ethos. What comes through more than anything in this book is Bevan’s fascination and love of Sydney Harbour, a love that he gives superb expression to and generously shares with us.
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