Magazine article The Spectator

I Am Woken by, the Song of the Kookaburra in This Ancient, Haunting Landscape

Magazine article The Spectator

I Am Woken by, the Song of the Kookaburra in This Ancient, Haunting Landscape

Article excerpt

Kookaburras don't really laugh, but I can see why the old song suggests it: a weird, taunting call, which does have a kind of dark comicality about it. And this is one of the sounds that wake me each morning in Hunters Hill -- where I find that The Spectator now has an Australian edition.

I'm staying in a lovely Victorian house in Sydney, built from huge blocks of the warm yellow sandstone that characterises many of the older residences here. This house dates from the 1880s and, apart from its size and generosity and the extent of its garden tumbling down towards the Harbour, it is almost indistinguishable from the grander sort of detached suburban houses that were being built in Britain, in places like Edinburgh, Cheltenham or Leamington Spa, around the same time.

Here the tree-lined street is called Glenview Crescent and houses have names like Glenrock and Glencairn. It is not, most emphatically not, modern Australia -- Hunters Hill is the oldest municipality on the continent (1861) -- but it's part of Australia nonetheless, and perhaps closer to its complicated heart than some commentary suggests.

I like this house: one of a number constructed hereabouts by a 19th-century property developer, to an exacting standard, and part of a high-class suburban development.

The stairs are lit by a full-length hall window with a stained-glass representation of a sailing ship as one of its panes; the marble-framed fireplaces, though hardly used, provide an English-style focus to high-ceilinged rooms with moulded margins and plaster roses; and some of the bedroom windows have sealed coloured glass window-lights in an abstract late-Victorian pattern.

It's spring here, and the weather's been cool and changeable, on some days almost English. This morning is rubbish-collection day and as I write a big lorry -- the service has been franchised by the local council to a private contractor -- is proceeding noisily along the road emptying the wheelie bins that householders have remembered to put out.

Today the Melbourne Cup will be run, a horse race which grips the national attention more completely even than our Grand National, and half Australia will be watching. On the ferry into Circular Quay I've seen young women, crested with fascinators and dressed up to the nines, going into town to watch the race at parties.

But still that bird, that kookaburra song that woke me: so ancient and so alien. It seemed to be reflected visually in the gnarled branches of the native trees that crouch almost impolitely among the more decorative imports from Asia and South America: the hot mauve jacarandas, the camellias and the flamboyant trees. And, with the kookaburra, the screech of some scarlet Eastern rosellas and the melodious, haunting call of the currawong bird.

Even the Australian magpies -- giants of the species, four times as big as ours -- have a chilling, unforgettable carolling song.

On Sunday we went to see Sydney's famous Sculpture by the Sea exhibition, an annual event. From Bondi Beach to Tamarama Bay there is an ocean walk of a mile or so on a path around the cliffs and coves. Along the walk have been installed -- temporarily, for the two weeks the exhibition runs -- more than 100 works of modern sculpture. Catalogues in hand, there were (I reckon) several thousand visitors ambling along the sometimes crowded walk. …

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