Mirror Sydney by Vanessa Berry: review

Mirror Sydney by Vanessa Berry (Giramondo)
Review by Nick Gadd

One of the most beautiful and dreamlike books I have encountered in a long time is Mirror Sydney by Vanessa Berry. Sydney is usually noted for a certain kind of dramatic (or brash) beauty involving the harbour, Opera House, and bronzed bodies on sandy beaches; Berry’s Sydney is a very different place.

She celebrates the beauty and strangeness of places that most people would ignore or dismiss: decrepit suburban shopping arcades, crumbling murals, extinct playgrounds, abandoned theme parks. Some readers will be familiar with Berry’s tastes from her wonderful blog, also called Mirror Sydney, a collection of writings and photographs of  “overlooked, forgotten, secret or unusual places” in the Sydney suburbs. We are fortunate that we can now also enter Berry’s world through this collection of essays, with the added bonus of  exquisite illustrations and maps by Berry.



This writer has a taste for mysteries, and thanks to an exceptionally well-developed sense of curiosity she is adept at finding them. In ‘Fine weather at South Head’, she discovers a postcard in an antique shop, addressed to a ‘Miss Bury’ in 1906 from her correspondent ‘H.A.B.’. The card has a picture of ‘Breakers on rocks at Coogee’ and a suggestion that the recipient “take a run out to this place”. More than a century later, the 21st century Ms Berry accepts the invitation. She writes: “Ever since buying the cards I’d kept them on my desk, scrutinising them for long enough that I felt H.A.B.’s directive applied to me too … The day had arrived for me to take up H.A.B.’s suggestion.”

Keen to find the place on the postcard, and to connect in some way with the elusive H.A.B. and Miss Bury, she visits South Head and explores in the tracks of the long-gone couple. What follows is a  journey through time as well as space: wandering along the coastal path, Berry ponders on geology, reflects on the Indigenous and colonial histories of the area, spots the remains of military installations, comes across evidence of recent love affairs in the form of engraved padlocks, and finds time to consider the history of bathing attire (in particular the ‘bathing costume protests’ of 1907, when men marched on Bondi beach wearing women’s underwear).  The various time periods seem to coexist alongside each other, the time-travelling narrator slipping easily from one to the next. All this, triggered by a single postcard. The piece ends touchingly with a modern-day couple on the beach writing their initials in the sand, only to see them swept away by the tide.

Whatever topic she is writing about – among other things, there are sections on lost property, elephants, ghostsigns, tunnels and community notice boards  – a sense of loss and decay suffuses Berry’s work, as she seeks to recover stories of things and places that have sunk out of general awareness. In ‘Magic Kingdom’ she takes an unofficial tour of a spooky abandoned amusement park, whose bankrupt owners have left behind “the giant slide, a giant concrete shoe, a few buildings, and the ghosts.” The tone of her writing is sometimes nostalgic, but Berry is interested in much more than nostalgia: she engages with the history and meaning of these places, and links them to her own memories in affecting prose.  She writes: “Abandoned industrial sites, while often dramatic in their scale, still contain traces of their past usefulness. Amusement parks were dreamlike from their conception … to encounter the rusting rides, bright paint faded, is like climbing inside childhood memories or inside a dream.” These days, she finds, nature has reclaimed the Magic Kingdom: “Saplings grow through the holes in the rotting stage. A heron roosts on Mother Hubbard’s shoe.” Again, the inevitable decline of things is emphasised.

Since the whole of Sydney is in a sense a giant amusement park, there is a vast amount of material to explore. Like other psychogeographers, Walter Benjamin for example, Berry is a great list-maker. Everything in a shop window must be ennumerated: “a pair of satin high heels, a feng shui pack including CDs and a booklet, a home laminator, a set of wine goblets, ex-rental VHS tapes.” The famous Marie Louise hair salon (later a ‘memorial store’ kept open as an unofficial museum) contains “curtained mirrors and trays of rollers … pink and mauve capes and bottles of blue rinse … pink clocks … vinyl chairs and vases … pink towels and bottles of Fanci-Full hair rinse.” A lost property office, we learn, contains vinyl records by Nana Mouskouri, Tchaikovsky, Val Doonigan, Transvision Vamp and Phil Collins. There is a feeling of the writer desperately trying to record everything in a noble but ultimately unwinnable contest with time.

Berry’s astonishing memory and powers of noticing underpin Mirror Sydney, and her  affection for the city’s lesser-known charms is evident in every line.  Clearly, from an early age she was alert to quirky features of the suburban landscape: “Places like the pyramid house taught me early that mysterious places were everywhere, there for the noticing, even in the quietest suburbs.” As a result she is always on the lookout for neglected gems.  A moment that epitomises the whole book occurs when she discovers “a giant set of Olympic rings, tall and wide as a house” at the entrance to a scrap yard near a Hungry Jack’s.  These were indeed the Olympic rings that garlanded Martin Place in the year 2000, Berry tells us. One could think of few greater symbols of the city’s global ambitions than the Olympic rings – but now, of course, Sydney has moved on and chucked them out, much like Mother Hubbard’s shoe. This makes them perfect material – once famous, now lost, in disrepair, with a great story behind them, and close to a suburban retail outlet. It’s classic Berry.

Anyone who has lived in or knows Sydney will enjoy what they encounter in this book; anyone with an interest in psychogeography, of the academic or literary variety, should obviously snap it up. But the appeal of Mirror Sydney goes beyond that. It is really a book about noticing and appreciating. To Berry, nothing is boring, and mystery is everywhere. Wherever your home is, you will benefit from holding up a mirror to it the way that Vanessa Berry has done in Mirror Sydney.

Mirror Sydney by Vanessa Berry at Giramondo Press