City dreaming

White man got no dreaming
Him go ’nother way
White man him go different.
Him got road belong himself.

THESE WORDS, SPOKEN by an old Aboriginal man to the anthropologist WEH Stanner more than six decades ago, still resonate in the Australian imagination. There is pity in the speaker’s words and wistfulness in Stanner’s as he recalls them. In following his own road, the white man has missed a better way: the mysterious Aboriginal man’s knowledge he called ‘Dreaming’. Dreaming, Stanner explains in his famous essay of the same name, is not just a mythical world located in a distant past, but a living force that operates in the here and now. It defies the pervasive binaries of Western thought –present/past, nature/culture, sacred/profane – testifying instead to a deep ‘abidingness’ manifest in the intimate relationship between Indigenous people and their land. ‘No English words are good enough to give a sense of the link between an Aboriginal group and its homeland,’ Stanner later wrote in The Dreaming and Other Essays (Black Inc., 2009).[1] The Dreaming expresses a belonging beyond the white man’s ability to understand or attain.

The white man had his own dreams, of course, but they were different. He dreamt of great cities rising from the earth or – as in the final book of his Bible – descending from heaven. These dreams were located in the future, or perhaps in a mythic past, but they were not timeless, like the Aborigines’. When the British first settled the land, Erasmus Darwin dreamt of the ‘tall spires and dome-capped towers’ that would one day rise on the shores of Botany Bay. At the high noon of Empire, homesick colonists sang of building a ‘New Jerusalem’ in ‘England’s green and pleasant land’. Even in my own youth we prayed, in the words of another popular hymn, that ‘our country’s cities’ should be ‘cleansed from the deeds of darkness – Cities of Light’. Like the founders of New England, who imagined Boston, in the biblical metaphor, as a City on a Hill, Australia’s city dreamers yearned to rise above the land, not simply to abide in it. They not only dreamed, but they believed that their dreams could come true.

The dreamers – artists and scientists, engineers and planners, nationalists and cosmopolitans – were heirs to a long tradition in Western thought. From the Hebrew Bible and the Greek philosophers, through the ‘Heavenly City’ of St Augustine to the nineteenth-century utopians, they imagined the good society as a city. It was there that human creativity reached its peak and political action found its noblest expression. ‘Building cities is far the most difficult, complex and majestic thing that men do,’ declared Gough Whitlam in 1968, echoing the ideals of city dreamers from Pericles and Cicero to Lewis Mumford and Jane Jacobs.[2]

Dreaming inspired hope and gave direction to the dreamers’ efforts for human betterment. ‘If you don’t have a dream/How you gonna have a dream come true?’ the song ‘Happy Talk’ from South Pacific asked. Because most dreams don’t actually come true, the dreamers were often left lamenting the gap between the ideal and the real. Paradoxically, the closer the dream came to reality, the more unreal it often seemed. The rise of ‘Marvellous Melbourne’ from ‘wilderness’ to proud metropolis in only fifty years left its citizens dazed with disbelief. The cantata composed for the city’s biggest birthday party, the 1888 Centennial Exhibition, posed the rhetorical question:


Where the spotted snake crawled by the stream

See the spires of the great city gleam,

Is it all but the dream of a dream?


The white man had seemingly triumphed yet he remained ill at ease. He had possessed the land, and built his cities, but he was not yet at home.[3]

In 1943 the young Manning Clark, who had recently returned to Australia, posed a profound question. ‘Civilised life with us is artificial,’ he wrote. ‘We must ask the dreadful question: do we belong here?’ Civilised life – the life of the city – seemed foreign, not indigenous; shallow-rooted, not primordial. Clark was echoing the long line of colonial observers who viewed Australia’s cities as ‘plagiarisms’ of their European originals. In a poem written about the same time, Clark’s contemporary AD Hope had dismissed Australia’s ‘five cities’ as the habitation of ‘second-hand Europeans [pullulating] timidly on the edge of alien shores’. Clark knew that he did not belong there, in the Europe he had recently fled. It was not that Australia still belonged to the Aborigines either, although the way in which they had been dispossessed troubled him. At the root of his question was the belief that the soul of a people comes from a homeland with its age-old tradition of songs and stories. How could Australia, a recently settled, culturally derivative, and largely urban society, have a soul without such a deep connection to the soil? When Stanner, another of Clark’s contemporaries, wistfully described the Dreaming, such thoughts may not have been far from his mind.

WHEN CLARK POSED his dreadful question, some of his friends, members of the Communist Party inspired by Stalin’s revival of Russian folk culture, were busily collecting the songs and stories of the swagmen and shearers of the Australian Bush, the nearest they could find to an Australian folk culture. In the poems and stories of Henry Lawson and Joseph Furphy, they found traces of a binding national myth: the code of mateship.[4] Russel Ward’s book The Australian Legend (OUP, 1958) is the classic statement of that idea. The folklorists were often city people and their bush myth was a product of urban as well as rural influences. Clark sympathised with their enterprise but doubted its worth. ‘The myth of mateyness is not enough,’ he decided. ‘Do we need a prophet to preach a new myth, or a sage to convince us to accept things as they are?’[5]

The bush myth dies hard, but it dies all the same. Long after most Australians had left the farms and small towns for the big cities, they continued to look inland, across the Divide, towards the ‘true’ or ‘real’ Australia. Its charm increased with distance, both geographical and temporal. In his recent elegy for The Bush (Penguin, 2014), historian Don Watson writes: ‘The less joined we are to the bush in reality, the less stake we have in it; and the less knowledge and feeling for it we have, the stronger the myth must be.’[6] To the perennial question of national character, there is only one answer: ‘the bush is where it came from.’

There is surely something sad and immature about a country whose sustaining myth is apparently so detached from the centre of its creative life, whose heart is so detached from its mind. For Watson, distance is what makes the bush mythic, and the greater the distance the greater will be its hold on the national imagination. Yet myths are supposed to idealise some aspects of our better selves, and to offer a vision of what we might seek to become. Watson recognises this disconnect between rural myth and urban reality, but seems unable to resolve it. Whatever virtues Australian city-dwellers may have, he argues, they share with other city people; so they cannot be truly Australian virtues. But then neither, he must surely concede, is mateship uniquely Australian. It is simply the local name for what the French called ‘fraternity’. Because the Australian bush may be a distinctive place, it does not mean that those who inhabit it must be so too – unless we mean the people who have inhabited it from time immemorial, the people of the Dreaming. Meanwhile, we devalue some valuable qualities – such as energy, creativity, intellectual curiosity, cultural diversity, community and political imagination – that are fostered by city life.

CLARK’S DREADFUL QUESTION – Do we belong here? – has continued to reverberate in the national imagination. In 1980, the art historian Bernard Smith linked ‘the recency of our historical society’ with the troubling moral legacy of Aboriginal dispossession. With some distinguished contemporaries, including Stanner, the poet Judith Wright and great public servant Nugget Coombs, he advocated a Makaratta or treaty. By making peace with the original inhabitants of the land, they suggested, white Australia would begin a process of cultural reconciliation. ‘The gap is not unbridgeable. Black and White alike in this country have every right to hope for a fruitful convergence of the two cultures.’[7] Reconciliation would connect the white man with a primordial past and encourage a more profound understanding of the land he took from the black. There was an implied covenant in the Makaratta: the promise of a new belonging from a new beginning.

While the cultural gap might not be unbridgeable, it was, to say the least, very wide. Bernard Smith wrote as an art historian, aware of the fruitful convergences prefigured in the art of Margaret Preston and the writings of the Jindyworobaks, and soon to flourish even more brilliantly in the marriage between European abstractionism and the painters of the Western Desert. How wide and deep such convergences could be, between peoples whose origins and historical trajectories were so different, was still to be seen, but the moral imperative of reconciliation tended to override any doubts.

Always within the reconciliation movement was the promise that, by imaginatively entering the ‘deep time’ of the Aboriginal past, Australians of European descent might escape the curse of their ‘recency’. As scholarly evidence of the antiquity and richness of the Aboriginal past grew, the perspective of Australian historians began to change. ‘Australians, more conscious now of their indigenous natural and human history, no longer find their country represented as a footnote to empire,’ said Tom Griffiths. ‘The revolutionary and recent discovery of an Australian human history in deep time is at the heart of new ecological and human narratives.’[8] Deep time, he suggests, is a concept that subverts standard progressive understandings of the Australian past, one closer to Aboriginal concepts of the Dreamtime. ‘Deep time, like the Dreamtime, extends the human story into a non-human realm…it approaches that poetic relationship to the past captured in settler characterisations of Aboriginal cosmology as “the Dreaming”.’[9]

Inspired by this vision, Australians have begun to re-read their landscape, including their cityscapes, for evidence of its deep history. In The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia (Allen & Unwin, 2011), Bill Gammage shows that the continent was not a terra nullius, but a country consciously shaped by its first inhabitants. The grasslands were not laid out ‘like parks’, ready-made for sheep, by divine decree, but were moulded by the Aboriginal people whose age-old practice of ‘firestick farming’ stimulated the growth of pasture and the increase of game. It ‘looked so green and fresh that…I thought it was cultivated ground’, one of Melbourne’s founders John Lancey remarked when he first glimpsed the land John Batman selected as ‘the place for a village’.[10] The cities were meeting places for Aborigines long before Europeans made them prime real estate. Learning to read the land, seeing it through Aboriginal eyes, Gammage concludes is a now an ecological, as well as spiritual, imperative: ‘If we are to survive, let alone feel at home, we must begin to understand our country. If we succeed, one day we might become Australian.’ Here, again, is the implied covenant: a new belonging from a new beginning.

There was once a time, others suggest, when the land on which the cities rose was happily shared. Two popular accounts of early Sydney, Inga Clendinnen’s Dancing with Strangers (Text, 2003) and Kate Grenville’s The Lieutenant (Text, 2008), re-create such Edenic moments, visions of a concord soon to pass but which, they hint, may yet be restored. ‘We are more like each other than any other people,’ Clendinnen writes hopefully. ‘Here, in this place, I think we are all Australians now.’[11] Grace Karskens’ splendid history of early Sydney, The Colony (Allen & Unwin, 2009), portrays the first white settlement as a ‘soft colony’ where Aborigines and settlers shared territory, cohabiting and intermingling until disease and competition for land drove them apart. The sites most coveted by Europeans, near water or on higher ground, were often those also prized by Aborigines – and hence became sites of conflict. ‘Modem suburbs were built over battlefields,’ she writes.[12]

THE SUBURBS WERE not battlefields only, but hunting grounds and playgrounds. Growing up in Essendon, a lower-middle-class suburb on Melbourne’s north-western edge, I often played in nearby Lincoln Park. A five-acre triangular paddock bounded by eucalypts and pine trees, it had been a Crown reserve since the 1840s. So little did locals care for the place, however, that by the 1890s it had become a dumping ground for night soil. A modest ‘beautification scheme’ begun by the council in the 1920s was aborted by vandalism and neglect. By the time we played there thirty years later, its swings and seesaws were broken, its asphalt basketball courts were crumbling, and its uncut grass was littered with broken bottles.[13]

Yet Lincoln Park had once been a beautiful and sacred place. Its light sandy soil – a feature of the district – had nourished tall red gums and bracken undergrowth, a source of fruit and game for the Aborigines who met there for play and ceremony. ‘I have gathered many a tin of manna on that reserve, also what is known as yams with the yellow flower and they were very abundant and nice to eat,’ a pioneer of the district, George Bishop, recalled in 1908. Aborigines once came from as far afield as Ballarat (the Wathaurung) and Bendigo (the Dja Dja Wurrung). After erecting a dark backdrop of boughs, they made two large bonfires in preparation for their dancing. ‘They always dance by firelight and no moon,’ Bishop noted. We children had no idea, as we danced in the darkness around our Empire Day bonfires, that we were treading in their footsteps.[14] A future archaeologist excavating the park might find deposits of carbon from their fires and ours. I now look at Lincoln Park in a new light. Could the colonial surveyors who reserved it for public purposes have been quietly acknowledging a longer history than their own?

White Australians now seek to re-inscribe the Dreaming on their cities, rescuing them from the curse of recency. In colonial times, Aboriginal place names were erased and replaced by European ones, although Aboriginal street names became more popular from the 1920s onwards.[15] Melbourne’s Moomba, founded in 1954, took an Aboriginal (or pseudo-Aboriginal) name for a festival in which Aborigines were conspicuous by their absence. From the 1990s, however, Aboriginal words, motifs, ceremonies and stories were often incorporated in public art, architecture, urban design and ceremonial life, and Aborigines have assumed a more prominent role in interpreting them. Their aim is not simply to acknowledge the trespass, but to inspire another kind of (shared) Dreaming.

Visitors to Sydney can now accompany Aboriginal elder Margaret Campbell on the Rocks Dreaming Aboriginal Heritage Tour to discover ‘how this place we now know as Sydney continues to weave the Dreamtime Southern X text into its modern, built-up environment’.[16] In Melbourne, you can purchase a guidebook, Meyer Eidelson’s Melbourne Dreaming (Aboriginal Studies Press, 1997), identifying sites and landscapes of the Wurundjeri people. In Perth, an Aboriginal guide teaches you about the local plants that can be used for food and medicine, and relates ‘the ancient Dreamtime story of the Noongar people’.

The word ‘Dreaming’ has become the brand for an ‘authentic’ tourist experience shaped by several convergent ideas: antiquity (the fifty thousand years of pre-European residence), ecological balance (bush tucker and living off the land) and reconciliation (the invitation to ‘experience’ or participate in Aboriginal culture). Its appeal lies as much in the tourists’ longings for a personal engagement with the First Peoples of the land, and their sense of deep time and ecological harmony, as in the anthropological and historical veracity of what they learn.

SINCE 2005, ABORIGINAL football champion Michael Long has led an annual walk from the City of Melbourne to the Melbourne Cricket Ground. The custom began after he returned from a six hundred kilometre trek from Melbourne to Canberra (‘The Long Walk’) designed to focus the attention of the nation on the plight of Aboriginal people. This shorter walk invites all to join in the symbolic journey of reconciliation. The walkers assemble on Birrarung Marr, a riverside park evoking the pre-European landscape on the eastern edge of the city centre. Older Melburnians remembered this place as the ‘Yarra Bank’, a speakers’ corner where Communists and Catholics, freethinkers and flat-earthers battled for the minds and souls of their listeners. A sign still marks ‘Speaker’s Corner’, at the eastern end of Birrarung Marr, but the stone mounds from which Sunday afternoon orators once declaimed now stand like mysterious relics of an unknown past.

From the park Long leads his followers along an elevated walkway towards the MCG. Their destination, Dreamtime at the ’G, a football match honouring the contribution of Indigenous players to a game many believe they invented. It begins with a smoking ceremony and a welcome to country by Aboriginal elder Joy Murphy. In a city where sport is a religion, the ’G draws worshippers as no other cathedral or shrine. It creates communitas, that rare, evanescent feeling of togetherness that people experience at moments of high celebration. Bringing Dreamtime to the ’G endows a game with a significance rivalling the most cherished of national myths. ‘Anzac Day is a very spiritual day for this country, there is no doubt about that,’ legendary coach Kevin Sheedy explains. ‘But this [Dreamtime at the ’G] is about building a country…the people who were here first, and the people who have come since.’[17]

Nearby on the city’s eastern edge is Federation Square, the culmination of another dream, Melbourne’s century-long search for a square. Surveyor Robert Hoddle, who laid out its famous grid in the 1830s, proposed a public square on a site near the present State Library but nothing came of it. Later generations of planners, artists, newspaper proprietors and civic idealists vainly echoed his plea. They were heirs to a classical European tradition, in which the public square – the historical descendant of the Greek agora and the Roman forum – was the symbolic centre of the political community. This was where citizens assembled to celebrate or mourn, debate and protest. The city’s search for a square was a measure of its attachment to the liberal ideals of civic attachment and civil debate. It was the physical manifestation of what Jurgen Habermas dubbed the ‘bourgeois public sphere’. Only in the early 1980s, however, did Melbourne finally get its own City Square, a cramped little rectangle opposite the town hall, with a water wall and a statue of the ill-fated transcontinental explorers Burke and Wills.[18] On 26 January 1988, I was there as a member of Melbourne’s Bicentenary Committee, when Aboriginal protestors advanced down Swanston Street carrying banners to remind us that ‘White Australia has Black History’. The place will always be associated, in my memory at least, with the mixed emotions of that moment.

Federation Square was conceived in its aftermath and opened twelve years later in the mood of reconciliation inspired by the Mabo and Wik judgements. It challenges the legacy of British colonialism, so visible everywhere else in what is still a very Victorian city. Fed Square, as the locals call it, is not a square at all but a zigzag of ‘cascading and interlocking spaces’. The Kimberley sandstone of its sloping pavement brings the warmth of the Australian inland to a city of grey skies and solid bluestone foundations. No statues of national heroes surround it. The only artwork incorporated in the complex, Paul Carter’s Nearamnew (the word is an amalgam of English and Aboriginal words), is a postcolonial anti-monument, a ‘ground pattern’ of ‘deliberately entangled and multilayered texts’ etched into the pavement of the square itself. Each layer, Carter explains, evokes a distinct but overlapping story or ‘vision’ of the place, from the ‘makers’, ‘colonists’ and ‘migrants’ to the ‘ferrymen’ and ‘visitors’ of later days. It is a ‘federal dreaming’, reproducing the loose seasonal gatherings of Aboriginal groups in pre-colonial times, and foreshadowing the ‘new forms of community’ they may inspire. ‘It’s really a poem about belonging,’ he explains.[19]

HOW DO WE belong to the city? How do we belong to the land? These are the interlinked questions that shape city dreamings like Carter’s. One answer is in the symbolism of the city square. The agora, forum and square are the classic sites of civic belonging. Here we belong to the city through association with our fellow citizens. Under ‘late capitalism’, however, Carter suggests, such public spaces have become privatised while the grand narratives that inspired liberal democracy have reached a sad termination. ‘Nearamnew does not advocate a nostalgic return to an imagined golden age of public space,’ he insists.[20] Its nine interwoven ‘visions’ present no narrative of ‘nation-making events’ and acknowledge only one national hero, the federal father, Alfred Deakin. There is nothing here – nothing specific or intelligible at any rate – to remind citizens of the history of Australian democracy. No statue of George Higinbotham or Peter Lalor. No reminder of the Women’s Suffrage Petition or the Vietnam Moratorium. It is as though the site has been stripped bare of all reference to the settlers’ dreams, razed to a historical ground zero.

Ironically, Alfred Deakin, the one figure Carter acknowledges, personified the very ideals he wishes to de-centre. Like his fellow federationists, Deakin had a powerful sense of history. He believed that Australia was destined by Providence to be a nation.[21] The Christians, secular liberals, nationalists, communists, socialists, feminists, environmentalists and internationalists whose voices resounded in the public spaces of the twentieth-century city also believed that history was on their side. By century’s end, after two great wars and the fall of communism, that confidence had ebbed. Carter’s Nearamnew was conceived in a mood of fin-de-siècle uncertainty. In returning to the Dreaming of the first inhabitants, he sought a new kind of civic belonging, one rooted in deep time and sacred place.

YET, IF THE golden age of public space has passed, a visitor to Federation Square would hardly know it. ‘Federation Square is not just the heart of Melbourne – it is the heartbeat,’ say its managers. More than ten million people a year come to celebrate, mingle, laugh, mourn, debate and protest. Four out of five Melburnians agree that it is the ‘major focal point of the city’. The Edge, a glass-walled theatre, hosts regular conversations about the future of the city. On the sloping sandstone of the square, the discontented – students, trade unionists, Friends of the ABC – voice their grievances. Invisible minorities – Tamils and Kurds, Hazaras and Iraqi Christians – become visible. Patriots wanting to stop illegal immigrants clash with humanitarians seeking to welcome asylum seekers. Federation Square is managed by a private company, of which the state government is the only shareholder. It runs at a modest profit, yet, as historian Seamus O’Hanlon argues, it has successfully resisted excessive privatisation and commercialisation. It remains a ‘people’s square’.[22] Even in an electronic age, when ideas and opinions travel instantly across limitless space, the public square – the place where speaker and audience meet face to face – remains a powerful symbol of civic belonging.

Brisbane has Anzac Square, Adelaide has Victoria Square, Perth has Forrest Place, Canberra has the Forecourt of Parliament House. Almost alone among the Australian capitals cities Sydney, the oldest, has no acknowledged central civic place. It is not as though the idea had never occurred to anyone. Inspired by his visits to Lisbon and Rio de Janiero, the city’s founder Arthur Phillip imagined a great public square overlooking Sydney Cove. The convict architect Francis Howard Greenway later proposed a public square outside St Andrew’s Cathedral.[23] Perhaps the governors of a convict colony were loath to provide facilities for public demonstrations. By the time the convicts disappeared, the insatiable demand for land and buildings on the crowded peninsula had killed the dream of a public square. When supporters of the Anti-Transportation League protested in Barracks Square off George Street in 1850, the square itself had already been marked for subdivision and sale to private investors.[24] Plans for other city squares have surfaced over the years – Walter Burley Griffin revived Phillip’s plan for a square facing Circular Quay without winning official approval. Hyde Park and the Domain, the traditional sites of political protest, seldom draw crowds anymore. The pedestrianisation of streets once given over to commercial activity, like Martin Place, has created new sites for spontaneous rallies and demonstrations, but so far no single place has emerged as the acknowledged ceremonial centre of the city.[25]

Sydneysiders now look to the landscape, and especially their glorious harbour, for their sense of belonging. For over thirty years I used to stay at the Palisade, a run-down hotel on Miller’s Point offering some of the cheapest rooms and best views in the city. Now the view is rapidly changing. Recently refurbished, the Palisade is now a trendy destination. The long loading platform of the old Darling Harbour container terminal has gone. So have the retired wharfies, living until recently in nearby flats and houses. The eighty-seven metre Harbour Control Tower is slated for demolition, condemned as an architectural monstrosity and impediment to the realisation of a grander vision: the Barangaroo Reserve, a 5.7 hectare re-creation of the pre-European shoreline.[26] ‘Using innovative, industry-first technology, a concrete container terminal has been imaginatively reborn as a naturalistic rocky outcrop, sensitively landscaped with more than seventy-five native trees and shrubs,’ its designers declare.[27] Barangaroo is named after the quarrelsome consort of Bennelong, Governor Phillip’s friend, whose name has long been attached to the eastern shoreline of Sydney Cove. She was a ‘stormy soul’, according to Inga Clendinnen.[28] Now she is honoured by Aboriginal leaders, like Land Council member Ann Weldon, as a role model – ‘an incredible woman who stood up for her rights’.[29] By attaching her name to the western headland, the city has reclaimed a place that was ‘spiritually significant for generations of Indigenous women’.

Winning it back was a triumph for the self-appointed keeper of the Sydney’s conscience, Paul Keating. As a fifteen-year-old schoolboy, Keating had watched as the old finger wharves were demolished to make way for the ‘ugly’ container terminal, and dreamt of restoring the pre-European shoreline. At Redfern in 1992 he had famously declared: ‘We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life.’ In erasing Sydney’s industrial sins and restoring its shoreline to something like its pristine state, Keating has symbolically reversed that primal act of dispossession. ‘It was lost to us,’ he says, ‘and now it’s coming alive.’ Asked by Premier Mike Baird what lessons he draws from the project, Keating replies, ‘Imagination…This came out of dreaming.’ ‘And dreams can come true,’ Baird agrees.[30]

From the Palisade, you can now observe the glaring contrast between the rocky headland viewed by the first Europeans and the global city rising all around it. Dwarfing the Palisade and the old Harbour Control tower will be the gleaming 275-metre spire of James Packer’s Crown Casino. Packer is a city dreamer too. He is the proprietor of Macau’s City of Dreams, a trouble-prone venture into the lucrative Asian gaming and entertainment business. Crown Casino will realise his latest dream, to make Sydney into ‘a Monte Carlo type of destination for Chinese and Asian high-wealth tourists’.[31] Not everyone shares his vision. ‘Does Australia really want to be seen as a fly-in country for high rollers?’ a friendly American asks incredulously.[32] While hungry for a slice of the Asian economic miracle, even the descendants of the Rum Corps may worry that something Indigenous is being lost.

It is the feeling of artificiality, of a confected rather than organic sense of connection to the past, which troubles me about places like Barangaroo. In order to restore the pre-European past, other pasts have had to be erased. We are left with a re-created ‘naturalistic’ landscape and a meretricious contemporary one, and nothing in between.

City Dreaming can be a powerful antidote to the arrogance of the white man’s dreams. It inspires a stronger sense of ecological responsibility to the land. It opens the way to a deeper kind of belonging. But it cannot altogether replace the grand narratives we have inherited from our European forebears. ‘The acceptance of deep time also means the end of history as a narrative of the struggle for a better world,’ Paul Gillen writes.[33] ‘History ceases to be a story, and disintegrates into myriad stories with no unifying centre.’ While Dreaming may remind us of our responsibilities to country, only reason and its dented dreams of progress will deliver us from the consequences of our neglect. As Dipesh Chakrabarty notes, faced with the environmental challenges of our time, we need the Enlightenment belief in reason more than ever.[34] So too do we need the forms of civic belonging and political action symbolised by the city square.

Does the Aboriginal sense of belonging, grounded in deep time and an intimate relationship with the land, put all other forms of attachment in the shade? Or does it deepen our understanding of how we depend on each other and the land? Sometimes I exchange my car for a bicycle and go back to country. On sunny days, I follow the cycle path that winds along the Yarra, Melbourne’s ancient river, from the city towards the hills. Often regarded with contempt, the Yarra was, and remains, the city’s lifeblood. Most of the water we drink still comes from its headwaters. The river and its tributaries shaped the mental map of the first inhabitants, the Wurundjeri, as indelibly as the grid of streets and freeways shapes our own. In tracing its course, I am returning to the source.

Downstream, the river flows between freeways and skyscrapers. But upstream, beyond Burnley, the view abruptly changes. The steep tree-lined banks now screen the river from offices, factories and apartment towers hiding only metres away. For much of its course, it is a secret river, unseen and ignored by the millions of Melburnians who follow and cross it every day. Here and there, city officials have erected signs to remind passers-by of its hidden past. Near Richmond, I pass an ancient tree carved in pre-European times by the Wurundjeri. I cross the Merri Creek just above Dight’s Falls, the highest point reached by explorer Charles Grimes in 1803, close to Abbotsford Convent where Catholic nuns set fallen girls to laundry duty. Further on, where the river winds under the brow of a lovely hill, I approach the old village of Heidelberg, named in 1839 by a settler nostalgic for the famous German university town. Now, on the spots where the Heidelberg School painters erected their easels, I can compare the vista with replicas of the iconic landscapes of Roberts, Streeton and McCubbin. Banyule, the Gothic homestead erected by the overlander Joseph Hawdon, looks down on a billabong where the Wurundjeri people gathered to fish from time immemorial. At the junction between the Yarra and Diamond Creek, I pass a sign welcoming me to Barak Bushlands, once ‘hunting and gathering grounds of the Wurundjeri clan’, now reclaimed by Nillumbik Shire from the market gardens that occupied them for more than a century. My path along the river reveals a hybrid history, both black and white, ancient and modern, secular and religious, rural and urban. As I cycle, my connection with my city and its country is illuminated, strengthened, deepened, renewed.

On other days, I cycle downriver, from the suburbs to the city. At the end of my ride, I pause for coffee and reflection beside Princes Bridge, just under Federation Square. In 1850, my great-great-grandmother Jane Hewett, a widow, and her eight children crossed the river on an earlier Princes Bridge, after walking from their emigrant ship, the Culloden moored at Sandridge. That crossing is part of my Dreaming, a threshold in the history of my family, as it has been for countless generations of Wurundjeri people. In Federation Square I mingle with the crowds of tourists, visitors and locals, and perhaps catch a glimpse of an ethnic festival or a political demonstration. I seldom meet anyone I know, yet there is something about the spirit of the place that claims me. Here I am a citizen as well as a resident, a member of a community that is sometimes memorably real as well as virtual, visible as well as imaginary.

I am an Australian and a city-dweller by birth, upbringing and choice. Belonging to country, belonging to the city; deep time and calendar time; the river valley and the square: they are different, but complementary, facets of an authentic contemporary Australian urbanism. Without the first, our lives are too shallow; without the second they lack purpose. Together they may just possibly enable us to belong here.




[1] WEH Stanner (1953) ‘The Dreaming.’ and (1968) ‘The Boyer Lectures: After the Dreaming.’  in Robert Manne, ed. (2009) The Dreaming and Other Essays (1st ed) Black Inc: Melbourne, pp. 57–72, 206–7.

[2] EG Whitlam (1968), 'Walter Burley Griffin Memorial Lecture: Responsibilities for Urban and Regional Development.' Canberra.

[3] WH Allen (1888) 'Inaugural Prize Poem for the Opening of the Centennial International Exhibition.' in Graeme Davison (2004) The Rise and Fall of Marvellous Melbourne. Carlton, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, p. 209.

[4] Graeme Davison (2012) ‘Rethinking the Australian Legend.’ Australian Historical Studies. 43.3, pp. 429–451.

[5] Manning Clark (1943) ‘A Letter to Tom Collins.’ in Manning Clark (1980) Occasional Writings and Speeches. Melbourne: Fontana/Collins, p. 93.

[6] Don Watson (2014) The Bush: Travels in the Heart of Australia. Melbourne: Penguin, p. 117.

[7] Bernard Smith (1980) 'The Boyer Lectures: The Spectre of Truganini.'  Sydney: ABC Books, pp. 50–52.

[8] Tom Griffiths (2001) ‘Deep Time and Australian History.’ History Today. 51.11, p. 20; also see Tom Griffiths (2015) ‘Environmental History, Australian Style.' Australian Historical Studies. 46.2, pp. 157–173.

[9] Tom Griffiths (2000) ‘Travelling in Deep Time: La Longue Durée.' Australian Humanities Review. Issue 18, June-August.

[10] Bill Gammage (2011) The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, p. 263.

[11] Inga Clendinnen (2003) Dancing with Strangers. Melbourne: Text Publishing, p. 288.

[12] Grace Karskens (2009) The Colony: A History of Early Sydney. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, p. 449.

[13] The Argus, 10 January 1892; The Argus, 23 December 1924.

[14] George Bishop (1908) 'Memoirs of George Gregor Bishop, 1908, RHSV, VF 34.' in: Fred Cahir (2014) ‘Finding Indigenous History in the RHSV Collections.' Victorian Historical Journal. 85.1, p. 23.

[15] Graeme Davison (2013) ‘City of Signs.’ in Clusters: Exploring the Stories and Patterns Behind Melbourne Street Names. City Gallery, Melbourne: 30 April to 30 July 2013. Exhibition catalogue.

[16], [accessed 20 October 2015].

[17]  The Age. 6 July, 2005; Compare Bain Attwood (2009) Possession: Batman’s Treaty and the Matter of History. Miegunyah Press Series, Issue 15. Melbourne: Miegunyah Press, pp. 313–320.

[18] Jenny Williams (1992) ‘The Search for a Square.’ in Graeme Davison and Andrew May (eds) (2009) Melbourne Centre Stage: The Corporation of Melbourne 1842–1992. Victorian Historical Journal. 63, pp. 50-63.

[19] Federation Square Nearamnew Brochure,

[20] Mythform: the Making of Nearamnew. National Gallery of Victoria, 28 Jun–7 Sep, 2003. Exhibition catalogue, p. 115.

[21] Compare John Hirst (2000) Sentimental Nation: The Making of the Australian Commonwealth. South Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

[22] Seamus O’Hanlon (2010) Federation Square Melbourne: The First Ten Years. Clayton: Monash University Publishing, pp. 56–7, 66–9.

[23] Alan Frost (1987) Arthur Phillip: His Voyaging. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, p. 200; Eric Ervin (1974) Sydney As It Might Have Been. Sydney: Alpha Books, pp. 44–6.

[24] Peter Cochrane (2006) Colonial Ambition; Foundations of Australian Democracy. Carlton: Melbourne University Press, pp. 240–247.

[25] Robert Freestone (2007) Designing Australia’s Cities: Culture, Commerce and the City Beautiful, 1900-1930. Sydney: UNSW Press, 165-186.


[27] [accessed 6 August 2015.]

[28] Clendinnen, p. 143.

[29] ‘Barangaroo Park a throwback to pre-colonial times’, ABC News, 26 July 2015,

[30] ‘Paul Keating's boyhood dream realised as Barangaroo Reserve opens in Sydney.’ The Guardian, 22 August 2015,

[31] Matthew Benns (2014) 'James Packer’s $2b Barangaroo development vision to help make Sydney a truly global city.' Daily Telegraph, 28 February 2014.

[32] Jonathan Englert (2013) [Accessed 10 November 2015.]

[33] Paul Gillen (2001) ‘A response to Tom Griffiths.’ Australian Humanities Review.

[34] Dipesh Chakrabarty (2009) ‘The Climate of History: Four Theses.’ Critical Inquiry. 35, pp. 2111-12.

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