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John Birmingham in conversation with Stu Spence

Spence, S. ‘A Walk on the Dark Side’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 6.11.99

It's a drizzly, crappy arvo and John Birmingham, newly self appointed Sydney tour guide de noir is in his element. His striding R. M. Williams are on a mission. "This was just a disgusting dirt track– the toughest street in Sydney."

We are in Durands Alley. Well, it was called that back in 1850; nowadays it's Cunningham Street, a broken, dog-legged chasm in the city's black heart that snakes its way between a Club X, Sir Roden Cutler House and the Eros Theatre.

"The people living here back then basically made their living by filtering down into what is now Chinatown and mugging, occasionally murdering, and basically appropriating the goods of silly old cockies who'd come in from the country to drop off their wares, their pockets filled with cash."

Birmingham scans the backsides of the big, listless buildings that now line the tiny cutting. "All along here there used to be disgusting little houses all squashed in together, and because there was no sewerage or drainage, the locals used to just turf their swill and shit right out here into the street."

It's hard to imagine a Jetset or a Contiki whacking this little tour in one of its brochures. "It all ran downhill and gathered in a dip at the bottom. Where is that dip?"

John, do you really have to? Well, the answer to that question is not only a big fat yes, he does have to, but, yes and, 4 1/2 years have gone into writing about stuff just as grungy and dark for his new book, Leviathan, the Unauthorised Biography of Sydney. It's a creepy-crawly slither through Sydney's chequered past, from rebellions and riots to murders, blunders, bushfires, tsunamis and the plague. Not too many dodgy dramas escape Birmingham's beady eye.

"There is no way I could call it the definitive history of Sydney, because it's too dark, too violent, and too ghoulish," he says. "I just wanted to use the history to explain the city as it is now. You know you can trace a line back, if you choose to, from the 'cash for comment' radio scandal right back to the Rum Corps. It's the same forces at work."

Birmingham has by now worked out where the dirty dip in Durands Alley must.have been. "The locals would have a boxing match right here every Sunday," his boot X-ing the spot, "and they'd basically just beat the shit out of each other." It's such a stretch, imagining the alley's violent, squalid history, standing soberly alongside this successful author in what's now just a nondescript city byway.

There must be something left from that time, some link back to now, a stone step maybe, a bit of a wall, a name carved in something. Birmingham moves off, sadly resolute: "The shape…only the shape remains."

So how does the dude responsible for such deeply funny offerings as He Died With a Felafel In His Hand and The Tasmanian Babes Fiasco end up here?

Birmingham originally intended writing a glowing "celebration of living in 'the greatest city in the world' type affair. That did not happen. "I started out walking along the grand thoroughfares and ended up down in the backstreets, and I didn't find my way out for 4 1/2 years."

The drizzle is turning nasty, a cue for the Prince of Darkness to move off, chauffeured away into Surry Hills, Durands Alley left alone to its own bad dreams.

So then, what exactly turned Birmingham's story from a Sartor's Guide To Living Sydney to a Hearts of Darkness? Well, that'd be Jacques Arago, of course... You know? Jacques Arago? C'mon!

"I'd been reading a very old article in The Royal Historical Society Journal," Birmingham recalls, as if it were a biblical revelation, "and someone had translated Arago's journal. He was a Frenchman who turned up in 1819; this is toward the end of the [Governor Lachlan] Macquarie era when Macquarie and [architect Francis] Greenway had done an awful lot of work and the city looked really cool."

Arago, it seems, was tres impressed, thinking Sydney looked like a European provincial centre that had been there hundreds of years. He hopped off his ship and was promptly whisked up to Bellevue Hill for tea and bickies with some opulent merchant. The fat cat's daughter was in charge of afternoon's entertainment and had kindly rounded up a bunch of the surviving tribes ("those who hadn't been shot, or poisoned or driven off by plague") and slugged a bellyful of rum into them.

"Arago watches these Aborigines beat each other, basically to death for his entertainment. I'm sitting there reading this thinking, 'Get f---ed, no way!" and Arago is saying, "Yes way." It was reading this stuff that originally made me think there’s probably a lot more to about Sydney, other than the majesty of the Opera House and the magnificence of the Bridge. People who go to the Tower of London want to know where heads got cut off. It’s rubbish to say all they want to know is our marvellous cuisine and our multicultural triumph."

So Birmingham went at it, like a bitzer with a T-bone. "I was driven to do it. I needed to do it at the time..."

Yuppie pubs and poncy renovated terraces sail by in the late afternoon gloom. After so much research, prying and poking into Sydney's seamy past, how does Birmmgham look at the city now?

"It's like this stretch of road we’re on now, Foveaux St in Surry Hills." He excitedly winds down his window. "When I go through here, I can't help but wonder which of them were the brothels, which of them were the sly grog shops, which of them were visited by Chow Hayes and his mate Joey Hollobone (two serious underworld laddies) and which of them had gunshots coming out of them — basically all of them in the 1930s."

The Harbour Bridge is closing in. The rain has finally had its way with Sydney, shutting out the coathanger until it's only just visible. It's a sinister backdrop, kind of Alfred Hitchcock meets Max Dupain, but instead of Jimmy Stewart strangling Kim Novak in front of it, Birmingham is dipping his hands in ox blood.

Well, OK, it's strawberry topping but, hell, the story was going along so well, and ...

"The powerful have always had the blood on their hands in this town." The topping is starting to rivulet down his arms now. "They still do. Literally, 200 years ago; figuratively, now."

But doesn't Birmingham have his own bloodied hands (figuratively and literally) now that he's opened up Sydney's scarcely scabbed-over wounds? The topping is becoming a bloody nuisance but Birmingham, looking every inch the sicko serial killer, allows a wry grin to roll across? his lips like a Bondi breaker: "I guess so. I ripped them open and stuck my hand right in there."


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