By Kerryn GoldsworthyNon-fiction UNSW Press
Adelaide aims to capture and convey the soul of the place, like its predecessors in New South’s impressive Cities series. The book is more biography than history, though plenty of the latter is woven throughout. Kerryn Goldsworthy reaches well beyond herself to tell the broader story of her city (or, as even the locals call it, ‘town’), but weaves her own engagement into the fabric of the book, seamlessly blending the personal and the public.
Goldsworthy says her approach was meditative and conversational – this was ‘a heart book’. This is a reflection on memory and place, drawing on images, both iconic and personal, as touchstones for the themes in the book – and indeed, to provide its structure.
Each of the book’s nine chapters takes an object as its theme: a map, a painting, a statue, a rotunda, a bucket of peaches, a photograph of three children (the abducted Beaumonts), 1970s Premier Don Dunstan’s pink shorts, a frog cake and a concert ticket. It’s a highly literary (and idiosyncratic) approach that works beautifully to anchor the book and to provide a base for exploring the cultural, social and political underpinnings of this seemingly sedate city, notorious for its corresponding dark side.
Adelaide is a unique, thoughtful and deeply felt book that pays tribute to the author’s home town, with nuance, intelligence and a solidly researched backbone.
This portrait of Adelaide takes a series of places and objects as cues for an extended essay on the city’s layers of history and the tensions between the planned, orderly progress and the dark secrets. The author has a deep familiarity with the place, as well as its literary imagination. Working from her own relationship with the city, as well as the time she spent away from it, Goldsworthy conveys her deep affection for this city on the plain. Both residents and visitors will find new understanding of its past and present.
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‘Real life was elsewhere,’ is how Paul Kelly explained leaving Adelaide. But perhaps what he was seeking wasn’t real life at all, but myth – the stories that give a place its essence. Adelaide is our least mythologised city – except as dull, which is both cause and result of so many of its creative young people responding to that urge to leave. It is, in a sense, a miniature Australia, anxiously peripheral.
But under the surface propriety, Adelaide has stories of its own, ‘if you know where to look’. As Kerryn Goldsworthy points out in the thoughtful introduction to her memoir of Adelaide, a city is ‘a museum of memory’ – an agglomerate of stories, experiences, physical memories, losses and lessons.
To describe a city is then to perform a feat of great compression and selectiveness. This book looks at Adelaide through the lenses of a handful of objects: a painting, a statue, a bucket of peaches – tracing these objects’ provenance and context but also her own personal responses to them and the stories with which they have become associated. As one of Australia’s most respected writers and critics (who grew up in Adelaide, left, and returned), Goldsworthy has a wealth of skill and personal experience on which to draw.
With her sharp eye for irony, Goldsworthy is often wry: pointing out the hypocrisies at Proclamation Day, or the juxtaposition of city emblems with beats, or renaming Victoria Square, Adelaide’s geographical centre and the first place in the world to raise the Aboriginal flag, as ‘Empty Gesture Square’. But she is at her warmest with her own memories. The images that linger are those inflected with nostalgia: her grandfather sharing an abundance of summer peaches with his working-class neighbours in the 1950s, or a close call at Glenelg the summer of the disappearance of the Beaumont children, still the murder capital’s most famous haunting story.
Some of the art-historical analyses are less vivid, but with Goldsworthy’s clarity and intellectual curiosity, the social observations they bring are always illuminating. The result is a layered walk through a city, meandering but never distracted. It’s a city that may at times seem sedated – in 1978, Redgum sang ‘it looks like everybody must have died’ – but Adelaide brings the place to sensuous life.
Although the contemporary city has much to offer, this memoir remains largely historical, drawing from the city’s very earliest beginnings and interrogating some of its mythical figures, from Colonel William Light to Dame Roma Mitchell to former Premier Don Dunstan (the latter in a chapter entitled ‘The Pink Shorts’). Pivotal characters in Adelaide’s past are represented here in their fully faceted humanity. In amidst these yarns, we find observations on the nature of history, memory, authenticity, cities and the body.
As someone who’s started seeing Adelaide quite recently – from the safe distance of the neighbouring countryside, I like to say we’re dating – each of these chapters is a glimpse into a room, into a neighbourhood or a story that enchants, intrigues and entices. In the pleasure of this book’s company, the city’s doors swing open, inviting further exploration.
Perhaps Adelaide is too sensible to be quite mythical – it aspires to decency, quality of life, good public transport, excellent food and wine, progressive social policies. But through Goldsworthy’s eyes, it is a city deeply beloved as a site of real life. If a place becomes its stories, then this contribution to the New South Books series also makes a generous contribution to the vitality of its subject.
Jennifer Mills blogs regularly for Overland and at her own blog, Walking and Falling. She is the author of two novels, The Diamond Anchor and Gone, and most recently, the short-story collection The Rest is Weight.
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