Kookaburras don’t really laugh, but I can see why the old song suggests it: a weird, taunting call, which does have a kind of dark comicality about it. And this is one of the sounds that wake me each morning in Hunters Hill — where I find that The Spectator now has an Australian edition.
I’m staying in a lovely Victorian house in Sydney, built from huge blocks of the warm yellow sandstone that characterises many of the older residences here. This house dates from the 1880s and, apart from its size and generosity and the extent of its garden tumbling down towards the Harbour, it is almost indistinguishable from the grander sort of detached suburban houses that were being built in Britain, in places like Edinburgh, Cheltenham or Leamington Spa, around the same time.
Here the tree-lined street is called Glenview Crescent and houses have names like Glenrock and Glencairn. It is not, most emphatically not, modern Australia — Hunters Hill is the oldest municipality on the continent (1861) — but it’s part of Australia nonetheless, and perhaps closer to its complicated heart than some commentary suggests.
I like this house: one of a number constructed hereabouts by a 19th-century property developer, to an exacting standard, and part of a high-class suburban development. The stairs are lit by a full-length hall window with a stained-glass representation of a sailing ship as one of its panes; the marble-framed fireplaces, though hardly used, provide an English-style focus to high-ceilinged rooms with moulded margins and plaster roses; and some of the bedroom windows have sealed coloured glass window-lights in an abstract late-Victorian pattern.
It’s spring here, and the weather’s been cool and changeable, on some days almost English. This morning is rubbish-collection day and as I write a big lorry — the service has been franchised by the local council to a private contractor — is proceeding noisily along the road emptying the wheelie bins that householders have remembered to put out. Today the Melbourne Cup will be run, a horse race which grips the national attention more completely even than our Grand National, and half Australia will be watching. On the ferry into Circular Quay I’ve seen young women, crested with fascinators and dressed up to the nines, going into town to watch the race at parties.
But still that bird, that kookaburra song that woke me: so ancient and so alien. It seemed to be reflected visually in the gnarled branches of the native trees that crouch almost impolitely among the more decorative imports from Asia and South America: the hot mauve jacarandas, the camellias and the flamboyant trees. And, with the kookaburra, the screech of some scarlet Eastern rosellas and the melodious, haunting call of the currawong bird. Even the Australian magpies — giants of the species, four times as big as ours — have a chilling, unforgettable carolling song.
On Sunday we went to see Sydney’s famous Sculpture by the Sea exhibition, an annual event. From Bondi Beach to Tamarama Bay there is an ocean walk of a mile or so on a path around the cliffs and coves. Along the walk have been installed — temporarily, for the two weeks the exhibition runs — more than 100 works of modern sculpture. Catalogues in hand, there were (I reckon) several thousand visitors ambling along the sometimes crowded walk. Lovers hand in hand, whole families, art enthusiasts, art ignoramuses, holiday-makers old and young, day-trippers, fathers carrying babies, a few foreign tourists, but mostly Australians, rich and poor, jostled, lingered, discussed the works of art and stared. I’d like to think an outdoor modern sculpture exhibition in Britain would attract something like this attention, but it’s unlikely.
As is the way for most of us with much modern art (especially conceptual art), the majority of the exhibits left me cold or struck me as meretricious or silly; but there can have been few visitors who did not (as I did) light upon a handful of exhibits that pleased the eye or gripped the imagination. What I shall remember most, however, was the strange relationship between the foreign objects which had been installed temporarily in an ancient landscape, and the landscape itself. Consulting our catalogues and studying each artificial thing with dutiful attention, we all (I overheard a number of visitors saying the same) found ourselves looking with new eyes at the natural things, part of the continent, which surrounded them.
Exhibit 1, a section of mild steel tube half-buried in the soil, was momentarily diverting — until you raised your eyes to the rock face beside the path. Pale, sea-scoured, streaked with yellows and browns, it had the appearance of sculpted soap, incredibly beautiful. A piece of cedar carved by its sculptor into a whippy ice-cream whirl was clever; but a dead, black, crooked branch sticking cruelly from the salt-bushes by the sea — a stick to which I’d never otherwise have given a second glance — seemed now to deserve my interest too.
I liked exhibit 4, a brightly painted plaster-and-enamel man with a pale blue suitcase — but on the rocks nearby was a big green fern, like toothed hart’s-tongue, which I’ve never seen before. Exhibit 16, called ‘Butterfly Effect’, consisted of three lilac-tinged shards of aluminium and was making some kind of a statement about solar energy generation; but the deep purple trumpets of convolvulus calling from their green nest made a statement about solar energy too. The flat steel wolf-dogs with gaps you could see through were ingenious; but through the gaps you could see a carpet of small purple flowers flowing — cascading — over the pale rock.
We admired a Japanese work, ‘Harmony with the Breeze’, which delicately balanced filigree wings of steel and titanium on artful pivots so that they flapped with slow grace in the breeze. But the Australian magpie perching amid the grey-green leaves and white bottle-brush flowers of a small native banksia tree nearby stole the show with his dark colours and darker song.
And we returned to Glenview Crescent after a happily remembered day. But those impermanent sculptures will fade in my memory. The scoured rock, the flowing floral carpet and that cruel beak and evil eye will not.
Tomorrow those birds — the carolling magpie, the gurgling kookaburra, the haunting currawong and the angry screech of the rosella — will wake me again. Like those skulls, memento mori, in the corners of a late-mediaeval paintings, these alien songs, memento exsilii, tease from an almost European garden. Remember where you are, they sing. How they must have taunted the first settlers.