Vanessa Berry is a writer and artist and a keen observer of the world. She writes about the urban environment and its myths and mysteries on the blog Mirror Sydney. Her hand drawn maps which record Sydney's memories and details have been exhibited at the Museum of Sydney and many artist-run galleries. She is the author of two books, the memoirs Ninety9 and Strawberry Hills Forever. Her writing life began in the 1990s in the DIY universe of zines, and she is one of Australia's best known zine makers. Her current zine series is I am a Camera. She teaches in English at the University of Sydney, and Media at Macquarie University, and is an occasional, and unusual, Sydney tour guide.
is In Wild Air
In world wars one and two, there was a tradition of soldiers giving their sweethearts brooches as remembrances, to show that they would remain in their thoughts while they were far away in battle. The styles of these brooches varied, but often they featured names, like this small mother-of-pearl and wire brooch that once belonged to Enid. I went into a deep reverie about it when I found it in an op shop, turning it over in my hand, trying to think of as many Enids as possible. I have never met an Enid in person, and indeed could only think of two: Enid Blyton, and Enid from Ghost World. Whoever the Enid was who was given this brooch I have no way of knowing, but sometimes I wear her name and try to imagine who she might have been.
Claire de Witt
Being a writer is like being a detective. It requires attention to detail, curiousity, the ability to draw connections between seemingly disparate elements, and obsessive persistence. As far as fictional detectives go, my favourite is Claire de Witt, the main character in a duo of novels by Sara Gran. Claire de Witt refers to herself as "the best detective in the world". On the book jacket for Claire De Witt and the Bohemian Highway she's described as "a cool blend of Nancy Drew and Sid Vicious", and as much as I love it that she's a punk detective, what I most love about the books is that they're about the importance of intuition and coincidence as much as hard evidence. I read her detection advice as writing advice, and find it works well, for example: "the detective's job is not to be perfectly reasonable. The detective's job is to follow the clues wherever they lead".
City of the Future
In writing about Sydney and its changing urban environment, I encounter a lot of "artist's impressions". These are usually of neatly rendered streets with high rise apartment buildings and street-level cafes, populated by generic humans caught mid-stride. When I see these, I wish they were more like 19th and 20th century future projections, pencil-drawn and featuring unusual hybrid methods of transport. One of the most prolific dreamers of Sydney's future was the industrial designer Charles Beauvais. He devised new methods of transport such as the "repellerplane", which "works on the principle of repelling the attraction of the earth" and the "land yacht - fitted with rear single compartment... electric steering gear operated by means of small dial, lounge seating, radio". All these transport methods might have had a chance to exist had his 1947-designed City of the Future come into being. A model of this city was displayed at that year's Royal Easter Show, showing Sydney residents a future high-rise city with planes that resembled giant moths, and hovercraft zoomed through the sky. As Beauvais wrote at the end of the description of his land yacht - "why not?".
One of the most persistent of my childhood memories is the sweet scent of the lead pencils that were stocked in the school's stationery cupboard. Finding them again became something of a mission for me: whenever I came across a pencil that was of a similar bright yellow colour, I sniffed it to see if it had the distinct, elusive scent. Well, many years passed and I sniffed many pencils, a habit which no doubt confused many a stationery store shop assistant. No luck - I'd almost given up hopes of finding out the pencils' identity, but it turned out that I just needed to be patient. I had to go a long way from home to finally discover these memory pencils, all the way to Prague, in fact. How a pencil manufactured in (then) Czechoslovakia made it to my primary school in Sydney in the 1980s, I do not know, but as soon as the smell of a display of Koh-i-noor Hardtmuth pencils wafted towards my nose I knew these were the ones. A Proustian swoon came over me: these were my madeleines. I was back in the school's stationery cupboard, staring into its riches. I bought up big in the Papírnictví shop that day.
At the time I was researching my PhD thesis, the hot philosophical movement was 'OOO', which stands for object-orientated ontology. This school of thought is based on the idea that non-human objects have their own agency and meaning outside of human existence. OOO had little to do with my thesis, which was about nonfiction urban literature, but its ideas attracted me and I enjoyed a diversion into thoughts of the nonhuman. My favourite book that came under this area was Vibrant Matter by Jane Bennett. In one section of the book she writes about "thing-power", the intrinsic vitality of material objects, through her observations of debris in a stormwater drain. Staring at a weird combination of objects - a dead rat, a plastic work glove, a mat of oak pollen, a plastic bottle cap and a stick of wood - she describes how, as she considered them, they "started to shimmer and spark" with their potential, their energetic vitality.
The Land of Giants
This year I'm travelling to Reykjavik for the NonfictioNOW writers' conference. As I have been planning what to do in my time in Iceland I've been calling to mind some of the places I only know about through pop music videos (Bjork on a black sand beach in Stonemilker, the icy landscapes in Echo and the Bunnymen's The Cutter). I then recalled an image of tall metal powerlines, the kind that carry electricity cables over vast distances, spanning a mountainous landscape. These powerlines were in the shape of human figures, so it looked like giants were walking over the land, carrying the electricity cables. I became excited about travelling to see these metal giants, until a search quickly revealed they existed as a proposal only, and haven't actually been constructed. The architectural group Choi and Shine designed them in 2008 for the ‘Icelandic High-Voltage Electrical Pylon International Design Competition’, and their image has been widely distributed ever since, as an example of the functional made beautiful.