But still its main industry, excitingly, seemed display. The overflow crowds at the Festival often sat outside under a blinding sun, listening to talk on the Iraq War or the future of globalism on loudspeakers as they sipped their white wine by the water, the sun burning on the blue and the TVs in the distance announcing that this was the first day of winter. The shops along the promenade at Manly Beach, a fifteen-minute water-ride away, crackled with the uniquely Aussie sound of The Barking Frog, next to Burger Me, with Chocolate By the Bald Man at the wharf nearby. “This is a very sexy city,” an English exile told me my first night in town, perhaps implicitly telling me why she had joined herself to what can sometimes seem a city of grateful exiles (“Paradise, until the immigrants came in,” as a Chinese cab-driver who had come here after Tiananmen Square told me). As she spoke, I remembered how one of my most vivid images of Sydney from Australia’s Bicentenary Year was of a couple openly giving and receiving sexual favours in the central, genteel tropicalism of the Royal Botanical Gardens.
Now those same gardens advertised an exhibition of orchids and “Carniverous Plants” with the title “Sex and Death.” Every other street seemed to fly rainbow flags. Its very brazenness and outwardness appeared to be the way that Sydney would answer the enduring question of how it would become a city of importance without losing its habitual irreverence–how, in effect, it would get to work and claim real ambition and success while still telling itself that it wasn’t trying too hard and its main investment was in irony. The “tall poppy syndrome,” whereby getting too big for your boots is the worst crime of all, has always been the guarantor of the country’s–and the city’s–laid-back ease, and of the inner resentment that comes from being seen as only a faroff, good-time parenthesis by the rest of the world.
I’m not convinced that Sydney will ever really become a city of the book, made for the indoors, introspective world of novels, though of course the place constantly produces more than its share of great writers. Right at the heart of the tourist area of Circular Quay, the city has placed plaques on the ground, the Down Under equivalent of the stars on Hollywood Boulevard, to celebrate and recall all the writers (not film-directors, movie-stars, architects or style consultants) who have carried its distinctive voice (of intelligent subversiveness) around the globe: Robert Hughes, Clive James, Peter Carey, Germaine Greer. The only trouble with that roll-call of world-class literary talents is that two of them have written all their lives in London, the other two in New York.
Yet as the crowds poured in for reading after panel, forsaking the cool blondes and chic glass restaurants all around to hear Richard Ford, Lionel Shriver and Mohsin Hamid, as the Scotch writer Andrew O’Hagan began the Festival with a soaring address about the power of the word that evoked the Australia some of his ancestors had escaped to as a “blue heaven of the imagination,” and as the Lord Mayor herself, in the ageless, self-mocking way of Oz, officially opened what she called the “carbon-neutral Writers’ Festival” by calling her home “something of the Paris Hilton of cities–shallow, self-absorbed, famous for being famous” (at least as the rest of the world sees it), I found myself less able to resist the city’s particular gift for making indoors pleasures outdoors, democratic, sunlit ones.
By now the Writers’ Festival is the third largest in the world, bringing in more than 65,000 people to enjoy more than 320 panels and more than 420 writers, many of us coming from the far corners of the earth. At my first session there, I found myself in a second-floor acting space on a wharf, in a room full of windows through which the setting sun picked out gold in the skyscrapers and the entire audience (while talking of Joan Didion) could savour what I had found to be the greatest pleasure of them all in Sydney, the light show put on by the southern sun every day between 4:00 and 5:00 p.m. in tropical winter. The streets outside brought together several centuries with their old imperial buildings, their abundant parks, their convicts’ museums and the transparent white blocks–like the Icebergs Club in Bondi–that offer swimming-pools just above the beach. Robert De Niro may not have made an in-person appearance, but one event in the Readers’ and Writers’ Festival featured a new movie starring Aussie hunk Eric Bana. And the writer that many of us were keenest to hear was, in fact, that very English star of the American screen–colleague of Scorsese, Coppola and Altman–Richard E. Grant, talking, in the most polished tones of imperial Britain, of his adventures among the crowned heads and covered tails of Hollywood.