Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Neat, tick. Tidy, tick. On the brink of death, tick
Cleanliness may be next to godliness but tidiness, I say, is the work of the devil. The relentless urge to tidy is one of the great scourges of modern times, all the more heinous for its innocent garb.
What begins slowly, with anodyne symptoms such as lawn-mowing and hedge-clipping can, if untreated, rapidly escalate to epidemic levels of syntheticism, over-restoration and horrible, box-ticking quality assurance. The final stages show a rampant and reckless disregard for authenticity, ending, all too often, in sterility, paralysis and death. There is no cure. The spores are always with us, lying dormant for years or even decades before once again raging like wildfire through the community. So it’s down to our old friend, Constant Vigilance.
Here in Sydney, a grave tidiness outbreak in the ’70s turned the city from a bustling provincial town, tinged with smoky bohemian, into a glassy, refrigerated CBD. In the ’90s it swept through the Cross, converting our best, charismatic guess at sin city into cleanskin yuppie land. Lately it has hit Bondi, a sacred homeland, deleting everything eccentric or picturesque, wiping every decrepit bagel shop and surfie dive for gold-chain Monte Carlo-ism. Now, the same symptomatology has struck the Rose Bay waterfront.
At first it was relatively minor. A rash of look-at-me pseudo-palaces jamming the leafy streets, busing in cleaners five days a week but otherwise fairly harmless. But then came the tree-poisoning, offing any unruly century-old pine or ficus that dared mess with the view, exposing the uglies. And now, the waterfront itself. There’s the proposed marina, blockading hectares of water under solid stacks of two- and three-storey plastic stink boats, serried along security gangways like McMansionville-on-sea. That’s bad enough. Now the war on the picturesque has hit the seawall, the promenade and the beach itself.
The eastern suburbs owe much of their charm to the picturesque’s long dominion there. Draped easily over the loose, sand-duney topography, the picturesque has encouraged a love of the informal and the untidy – informal and untidy nature, in particular, as a foil to the more formal ordering of culture.
Embodying what the 17th-century poet Robert Herrick eulogised as “a sweet disorder in the dress … a wild civility”, the picturesque is Western culture’s closest approach to the Japanese wabi sabi, a beauty that elevates what is organic, uncontrollable and indeterminate over more usual ideas of the perfect. Aligned with both the Romantic and the Gothic, the picturesque looks not for prettiness but for an intricate, intuitive nature-culture connect.
East-burbia’s loveliest parts are seductively thus. Take the winding, undulating streets of Woollahra or Darling Point: held within by a constant-yet-variable wall of stone, ivy and wrought iron; arcaded by vast, veiny, beardy, dewlappy figs; punctuated by mossy, impossible driveways; overgrown with jasmine and bougainvillea; pierced by sudden astonishing views.
Or take the encrustation of small boats – casual and many-hued, flung like pods or seashells in a just-above-high-waterline, throughout those eastern harbour beaches. As evidence of human-on-nature activity, barefoot and happily tolerated, it offered a rare inner-Sydney instance of an incremental, unregulated use. At Watsons Bay, where the dinghies rim the boardwalk like salt on a margarita glass, this picturesqueness is officially recognised.
Not in Rose Bay, though. Not any more. There, dinghies have always hung unapproved but unobtrusive on the seawall’s harbour face, or clustered under the casuarinas. Until, some weeks back, removal notices began to appear. Why? Because, back in 2005 the Government gave Woollahra council $50,000 to “improve” the promenade and $15,000 for “recreational boating improvements”. It was a program called Sharing Sydney Harbour.
And you can see the council’s point. Chaining the boats to the seawall caused spalling, they said. Destruction of a heritage item, tick. Getting them seaborne was “dangerous”. Council liability, tick. The boats on the beach were messy, they said. And in the way. Loss of amenity, tick. Needs tidying, tick.
But Sharing Sydney Harbour? Really? There are almost 300 swing moorings in Rose Bay. Most need dinghy access. Now, they’re not only threatened by the marina, which will move or remove many moorings and subject the rest to a constant wash and wake. Now, mooring-holders must either transport the dinghy on the roof-rack and hump it over the seawall (strictly for Schwarzeneggers), or endurance-row half a kilometre from the council’s ugly new stand-up galvo racks at the end of the beach, and pay for the privilege (double fees for non-Woollahrans). This will turn a row of maybe 200 metres into maybe 600 or, if the marina is built, up to 800, out and around McMansionville.
Which means they’ll end up using outboards, the world’s worst hydrocarbon polluters, dumping a quarter of their fuel in the water and slopping the rest onto the sand. Yay the council.
And the marina? To date, it has approval from three government departments and bodies: Environment, Primary Industries and Maritime. And it has (paid) “independent” consultants who claim to have “demonstrated … no adverse visual impact”. Leaving only Frank Sartor, with his infinitely baggy legislation, at the goal.
It is all dreadfully well-intentioned. But what with the marina and the tidy-minded, Rose Bay will vanish under straight lines of floating, polluting, motorised plastic. Tidy, but hideous. Revenge of the shinies.