We Built This City

While I wrote my last post, about the rapid changes that occurred in the last century or so, and the amount of things my grandmother, born in 1899, would not recognise if she were still around now, (she died in 1989) – there was a story hovering just at the back of my memory. It was a short story that I read years ago, and it’s a pity I didn’t go and do some research between writing that post and this one, because I can’t tell you the name of the story, nor who wrote it. I can locate the anthology online, but can’t locate the name or author of the story. It’s been a public holiday here today so I couldn’t even go in person to a library to find the book it was in. To top it all off, the dog ate my homework.

What I can tell you is that it was included in a collection of short stories called Expressway, edited by Helen Daniel and published in 1989.

The anthology was named after the painting Cahill Expressway, by Australian Artist Jeffrey Smart, which in turn was named after the road that cuts through part of Sydney, newly built at the time that Smart depicted it in this painting in 1962.  Daniel invited 29 Australian writers to write a piece of fiction, using the painting as their inspiration.

The painting, which I probably shouldn’t depict here for copyright reasons, but which can be viewed at the National Gallery of Victoria website right here, is of a depressingly empty, urban landscape. Cahill Expressway sweeps through the painting, dividing the short, fat man standing alone at an underpass on one side of the road, from the multi-storey buildings up on the hill above him. Not a single car, or other person, populates the landscape, making it feel (to anyone who has actually been in densely-populated inner Sydney), as though it must be a depiction of the day after the apocalypse, which is about the only time you would find a parking space in the city.

Like many of Smart’s paintings of urban landscapes, Cahill Expressway portrays the loneliness and alienation of human existence within a city. Daniel chose this painting as the challenge for her authors, because the contrast between the landscape and the lonely figure invites the viewer to create a narrative.

From memory, the short story collection included all sorts of interpretations of what the possible narrative behind the picture might be, most involving a backstory to the “fat man” and why he came to be walking through that particular urban landscape, but one story was very different to the others. This story, the one I can’t tell you the name of, was set back in prehistoric days. The characters were a primitive tribe of hunters, who still enacted ritual sacrifices, and the main protagonist was about to be led up to an altar to be sacrificed, when a vision came to him. That vision was the scene depicted in Cahill Expressway. But as this character had never encountered a road, a multistorey building, a man wearing a suit, a light pole, a statue, or basically anything depicted in the painting (other than sky, and a human being), he could only interpret the scene from the perspective of someone living in caveman times.

I wish I could remember now what his interpretation was, as it would make this a far more interesting read for you, dear reader, but the point of this is that the writer of that short story made a creative leap from the modern urban scene depicted by Smart, to imagining what someone a few thousand years earlier would make of it.

Of course the painting itself depicted the changes that were occurring in Sydney at that time. Cahill Expressway was apparently the first freeway constructed in Australia, opening to traffic in 1958. Post-war Sydney was embracing modernity, and getting rid of the slums that had housed poor immigrants throughout the previous century. The freeway in Smart’s painting stands as a cold, bleak symbol for the modern city devoid of humanity. According to Wikipedia, the freeway was unpopular right from the start, with protesters describing it as “doggedly symmetrical, profoundly deadpan, severing the city from the water on a permanent basis”.

(A deadpan freeway? That makes me feel kind of affectionate towards the Cahill Expressway, as if it might have a personality, something like the Blackboard on Mr Squiggle. HURRY UP.) But I digress.

So, that story, the one I can’t tell you the name of, is the story I keep in the back of my mind when I think of the rapidity of change, and wonder what someone who lived in a different time period would think of what I’ve just said, done, or used. Would it all sound, or look, alien? Would even a single word sound familiar? Would the onlooker/listener grasp at the few words/objects they recognised, and, like the character in that story, make their own meaning out of it?

Of course they would, because that’s what we humans are hard-wired to do – try and construct meaning from seemingly random occurrences and events.

I’ve just downloaded a new operating system and upgraded the security software because I think I’ve got a virus, so you should probably unplug your iPod and your hardrive just to be safe.

Pop a cup of water in the microwave and a pod in the Nespresso machine can you? I’m on FB but I’ll BRB in a mo.

Hi honey – no don’t worry, I”m using Bluetooth – just taking the SUV out for a spin, but just wondering where the GPS is? 

Forget GPS systems and iPods, what would cavemen even make of our cars, our houses, our toilets, and our domesticated animals, never having seen such things?

It’s only the more recent time traveller, someone who was around in the past 50 years, like my grandmother, who would be able to at least figure out that the contraption I am sitting in is a car, although a car unlike any she ever saw in her lifetime, and focus instead on wondering WTF the tiny device is that I’m playing music on, and what on earth a GPS is.

Hi Nana, yeah, not much, just sitting here on my laptop writing a post on my blog, which I’m about to publish online. You?

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