Thursday, December 01, 2011

Elizabeth Farrelly, and the ancient suburban craft of iWaffle ...

(Above: the sweet village of Parramatta in 1820, found here).

To paraphrase Raymond Chandler, if brains were elastic, Perry wouldn’t have enough to make suspenders for a parakeet.

Thank you Maureen O'Dowd (here).

It's always good to get the day under way with a zinger.

It's certainly better than the art of the waffle, fully on view in Elizabeth Farrelly's piece Grubby hub could yet be urban butterfly. It takes a particular skill with a waffle iron to get from the absurd statement:

It's why Australians have no word besides ''suburb'' for ''the area where I live''.

to this one:

Underpinning all this is the universal rule for a lovable town ...

in relation to the city of Parramatta.

From 'no other word beside suburb' to 'lovable town' in a single leap and a bound.

Writing as we do in the neighbourhood of Camperdown, or should that be the lovable village of Camperdown, it's as if the entire Clover Moore concept of Sydney as a city of villages has been a waste of time these past few years.

I work to celebrate our unique villages and neighbourhoods, building on what we love about our area, while ensuring its special characteristics are preserved. (thank you Clover).

Who can forget Paul Keating brooding about it?

"She thinks it is a city of villages, she is for low-rise, sandal-wearing, muesli-chewing, bike-riding pedestrians without any idea of the metropolitan quality of the city or what Sydney would lose if Barangaroo were to fail." (Angry Paul Keating lashes out at Clover Moore).

And in any case, what does it matter if 'suburb' were the only word to describe an urban conglomerate or conurbation? It's a perfectly useful word, and not as if a cluster of urban dwellings in a vicinity needs the range of words regarding snow and ice as used by the Central Alaskan Yupik.

I know, I know, that's an urban or perhaps a suburban myth too, unless you consider the valiant effort by Anthony C. Woodbury in Counting Eskimo words for snow: A citizen's guide.

Back to Farrelly, lathering up a storm of rhetoric:

Now that downtown is a place to live, we even describe it as a suburb, not as precinct, borough or neighbourhood. What suburb are you in - ''city''?

Poor Clover Moore. Poor Sydney. Not that the pond has ever heard the centre of Sydney described as a suburb.

There might be a rhetorical flourish - I'm heading into town or the centre - or a post-Batman ironic modernist moment - I'm heading into the metropolis, or into Gotham or perhaps Dante's seventh ring of hell - or even I'm catching the train into the Quay, but I think I'll go visit Sydney suburb just doesn't compute.

When you get to this level of idle abuse of the English language - waffle for the sake of waffle - you immediately begin to suspect the thesis and the writer.

Sure enough, as she goes about the business of considering Parramatta as a city, Farrelly starts off with a non-sequitur:

Australians don't really get cities. We may be the world's most highly urbanised country but in some far pasture of our collective mind, we still think the best human is a distant one, a red ute-shaped cloud at the far end of a dirt road. Our national mythology still has corks around its hat.

Only when you read Farrelly, though amazingly cork hats do have their very own wiki:

In modern times the cork hat is virtually never seen and is little more than a novelty item.

A national mythology as a novelty item!

When the pond is making a rhetorical point about the city versus the bush, it favours the line our national mythology still harks back to the days of flypaper:

But where is all this heading, you ask, and it seems Australia, one of the most heavily urbanised countries in the world has entirely misunderstood that cities are attractive places in which to live:

To enjoy the process, and to succeed in it, we must make the city an object of desire.

And it seems the best way to make a city an object of desire is to be able to see each others' nighties, and have direct line of sight to the neighbours indulging in a barbecue orgy, and never ever whinging about the noise coming from the pub next door to your smart city flat (apologies to the loon playing loudly on the horn at the party a few doors down last night, and the intemperate burst of the 1812 Overture in response).

Yes, we must get with the Manhattan agenda:

In Manhattan, from the back of their apartments and brownstones, entire city blocks can watch each other deal coke, write bad novels, play flute, water geraniums and practise downward-facing dog. Yet the sky does not fall. It is possible to live and breathe and be productive with strangers in your cone of vision.

Except perhaps when the junkies actually land inside the premises, as Farrelly explained in Drug War:

Razor wire is your first response. Uzis on the bloody parapets, and let them be bloody, though whether as deterrent or DNA extractor it's hard to say. Let the bleeder bleed. Bugger the carpet. You feel violated in your sense of home.

Then, the marginally subtler options: CCTV, back-to-base alarm, steel grilles, steel spikes, sharpened. Poisoned, possibly. Dobermans, many and various, of the cruelly unfed persuasion. Burglar beware.

I keed, I keed. The piece was a poingant plea to leave off the bars, and allow junkies access as required.

The real point is that New Yorkers do in fact value their privacy, head off to the Hamptons for a break, or live in a diversity of lifestyles, if you count all the boroughs rather than just Manhattan, plenty of it richly suburban.

But where are we heading?

Well around this point the lingering suspicion that Farrelly is delivering waffle for the sake of waffle, as she keeps banging on about New York lifestyles:

Possible at least in New Amsterdam. But here in New Holland, beauty is still nature - flowers, animals and landscape, some mix of Margaret Olley, John Olsen and Dame Edna.

Now that's just pure, confused and confusing pretension. One might as well couple Robin Boyd, Peter Sculthorpe and Prada Clutch. But do go on:

This half-baked pastoralism has thrown our cities to the dogs. Over the past half-century Parramatta has done it all; demolition, road-widening, laneway loss, heritage destruction, mirror glass, windswept plazas, river-culverting, sculpture-strewing, out-of-town black-box retail, rampant mallisation.

Yes, yes, but New York has done it all too, from the Grand Concourse to the Bronx expressway tearing the borough in half and creating fertile ground for riots ... not to mention the malls of Brooklyn:

From the Atlantic Center Mall to Kings Plaza Mall and Bay Ridge's Century 21, Brooklyn is filled with shopping malls to satisfy all of your shopping desires. (here)

And let's not forget Fulton Mall.

But let's not worry about the malls.

Where are we heading, what's in store for Parramatta as it takes on the example of the big apple?

...what if Steve Jobs had turned his design-mind from phones and computers so sexy we want a new one every five minutes to cities? What would make an example of Parramatta as Australia's first iCity?

Uh huh. It's just another example of iWaffle, iGibberish, and trendy iSpeak of iDeas. Actually the Apple Steve Jobs left behind thinks that bringing in the lawyers is the best way to limit competition, restrict alternatives, kill rivals, and otherwise restrain trade, and at last someone has told them it's not on (Samsung tablet ban lifted - warning forced ad at end of link).

And when we've done that and called in the lawyers, what is the urban vision of which we speak?

After that they could de-mall and declutter Church Street to make a proper central square; rediscover the river's transport potential (even if it means dredging), line it with activity from cafes to farmers' markets and incentivise intense, zero-carbon mixed-use in the grid.

Ye ancient loaves and fishes. Remember all that stuff about dealing coke, writing bad novels, playing the flute (out of tune), watering geraniums and doing the downward facing dog?

What's the urban vision become?

Farmers' markets and cafes ...

Will they sell Margaret Olley flowers and a Dame Edna latte?

Sad to say, writing about architecture, urban design and the structuring of the cities in which we live has been in short supply in Australia for decades, and routinely Elizabeth Farrelly does it a disservice, whether dredging up ancient stereotypes, recycling cutting edging stereotypes, or simply delivering vapid ideas in vapid prose with an abundance of vapid metaphors.

By column's end, the one feeling is of relief, and the knowledge that whatever happens to Parramatta or Sydney, most of it is unlikely to involve Farrelly's nostrums.

To paraphrase Maureen O'Dowd paraphrasing Raymond Chandler, if waffle was elastic, Farrelly would have enough to make suspenders for a thousand parakeets.

(Below: sock it to me New York, with your expressionist Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, anti-suburban visions, and never mind Macy's flagship store in Herald Square).


  1. Pity about the waffle because urban planning in Australia is abysmal.

    Even with that, to have a real city you need a critical mass of population - and even in the biggest cities here the population density isn't high enough apart from some isolated pockets.

    The newest suburbs around here don't even have footpaths - not that there would be any point since the nearest shop is 10 minutes away by car at least.

    Although with rising energy prices the planners had better get their act together, cut the corruption and make some inventive long term decisions otherwise it's going to become a shit country to live in.

  2. And surely that's partly because when it comes to holding village/town city planners, politicians, councils, state governments and architects to account, the mainstream media tends to go missing in action ...

  3. Farrelly is such a pretentious blatherer with so little content that I wonder that she has been able to get all these column inches. I skip most of her stuff, uttering gentle but exasperated moans. There must be someone out there who can write better, more succinctly and have real content. Where is her own red pen, and where are those of the SMH editors? I'd rather stare at blank space than read her twaddle.

  4. PS: word verification was airrible. Seems apt and a worthy addition to the language. Disseminate!

  5. There's little doubt Farrelly is an airrible writer with airrible views that reflect an airy, risible, even horrible disdain for the reasonable reader ...
    Portmanteau rulez!


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