Recapturing Charmian

In 1964, the Australian born writers Charmian Clift and George Johnson returned to Sydney with their three children after fifteen years abroad. Over the next five years, Clift would write more than 250 essays for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Melbourne Herald; her observations on life in Australia and how much it had changed in the years she was away. And the many ways in which it had not changed at all. Later, years after her death in 1969, many of those essays were collected in the books ‘Images in Aspic’ and ‘The World of Charmian Clift.’

‘Images in Aspic.’ What a perfect title to reflect her tangible frustration with Australian complacence. While Clift and her family had been living in an impoverished, post-war Europe, affluence had arrived in Australia, and she regularly bemoaned its stultifying effect on the free-wheeling, fearless, pioneering mentality of earlier, less prosperous generations, goading her apathetic countrymen into using their newfound wealth for cultural, emotional and intellectual exploration.

Clift may have been sharply observant in her critiquing of the average Australian, but she was also optimistically encouraging that we could rise above our middle-class apathy. Unlike fellow expatriate Germaine Greer, who has notoriously condemned Australia as ‘a huge rest home, where no unwelcome news is ever wafted on to the pages of the worst newspapers in the world’ and spent much of her life in Europe, Charmian came home, somewhat reluctantly perhaps, but with a relatively open mind.

I have recently returned to the town of my birth after almost thirty years abroad. I am delighted to be back, and look forward to putting down my bags for a while. And yet it has not been as easy as I had imagined. Four months down the track, and I still feel unsteady on my feet and unsure of my place and purpose here. I must also admit to succumbing to a lethargy I am finding difficult to shake. Not for me the rousing essays of an exile returned, but a hiatus in my ability to lift a pen and make even a mild observation on the changes that have been wrought upon our remote and pretty city over the past three decades. Not to mention the changes that have been wrought upon me! I know this city well. And yet I often feel like a total stranger. I swing between a desperate desire to settle down and an equally desperate desire to flee. The emotional roller-coaster ride is exhausting.

In my defense, I can only assume that Clift also had to spend her first months house hunting and job hunting and re-establishing her roots; that she too found the organization of all the day-to-day minutiae an exhausting mental challenge; that her piquant, pithy observations came later, once her body and mind had come to rest and she was able to take a good look around at her old environment reborn.

So, with this in mind, it is my new year’s resolution – albeit delivered a little late in the day as we sit upon the cusp of February – to closely observe this city of my childhood, to see how it has changed and how it has stayed the same. Unlike Clift, I have popped in for regular visits over the years, so it is not quite the leap of faith for me as it was for her. Nonetheless, I am noticing an almost daily clash of memory and reality.

There are so many new – and tall – buildings I don’t recognize in what was once an unusually low-level city. There is a ruinously expensive bus tunnel under the much-maligned park lands to save commuters a few precious minutes and three sets of traffic light. There is the on-going threat of a development planned for the North Adelaide Aquatic Centre to house the local football team and all its administration offices on public land. There is endless chaos at Darlington as the construction of an apparently urgent north-south corridor disrupts the traffic and the local inhabitants around Flinders Medical Centre. And there is that ever-creeping plague of suburbs crawling north and south combined with a tremendous amount of in-filling on the old, inner-city quarter acre blocks just to highlight how much the city is expanding. And were there always this many traffic lights?

And yet the familiar is still around to soothe ruffled feathers. Marion Vineyards, boasting a single hectare of grenache and shiraz vines planted in 1907, remains in rural juxtaposition between the traffic lights on busy Oaklands Road and the Marion swimming pool. In the heart of the city, the central market has been operating for a hundred and fifty years and is still a joy to the senses. The Botanic Gardens, the zoo, Rundle Mall, Cleland Reserve, all have been updated and upgraded, but in essence they have stayed the same as I remember them from my childhood.

There have also been some creative and fascinating new developments that have altered the skyline, enhancing the view and contrasting with the elegance of Victorian Adelaide. There is the Adelaide Oval, with its wondrous new curves to compliment the more angular 70s edges of the Festival Centre on the opposite bank of the River Torrens, while still boasting its historic score board, and retaining the view of Saint Peter’s Cathedral with its French Gothic silhouette. The extraordinary – and extraordinarily expensive – Royal Adelaide Hospital sits like a stack of huge shipping containers beside a giant cheese grater at the western end of North Terrace, providing an Alice Through the Looking Glass discordant reflection of the Victorian original now abandoned at the eastern end of town.

At ground level, beautiful wetlands have been created down the centre of the Old Port Road. There’s a 70 km path for pedestrians and cyclists along the Adelaide coastline, and another 30 km track along the length of the Torrens, from Athelstone to the sea. And all around the city limits, from Clare and the Barossa in the north through the Adelaide Hills to McLaren Vale, there is a veritable cornucopia of wineries a stone’s throw from the city.

I may not feel inclined to gush about all the changes I have seen, but I do plan to be more like Charmian than Germaine. And while Adelaide may not have the competitive vibe of Sydney or Melbourne, London or New York, why would we aspire to recreate our beautiful city in their images? Adelaide has been an elegant, tasteful, tree-lined city since Colonel Light first drew up plans for the new British settlement. And these days it purrs contentedly. It has a cultural agenda that punches well above its weight, and an abundance of gold star beaches, food and wines, wonderful rural landscapes and gorgeous gardens. All of which can be enjoyed at a much gentler pace than the frenetic cut and thrust of other larger cities. I think I am going to enjoy getting to know this elegant town a whole lot better!

*Two sculptures by James Hamilton, on display at Brighton Beach for the 2020 Patritti Brighton Jetty Sculptures. With thanks to the PBJS website for the image of ‘Equilibrium’ (the giraffe). ‘The Crown’ (or violin) – is my own photo.

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