Sydney is represented to its citizens and to the rest of the world as a postcard, an impressive, beautiful city, a desirable tourist destination.
But there has always been another Sydney not viewed so fondly by the city’s rulers, a radical Sydney they are intent on ‘disappearing’ beneath concrete and glass. In the arc of working-class suburbs to the south and west, menace and disaffection developed. From the early nineteenth century through to the late twentieth century these suburbs were large and explosive places of marginalised ideas, bohemian neighbourhoods, dissident politics and contentious action.
Through a series of snapshots of people, episodes, and places, Radical Sydney captures aspects of this ‘other’ Sydney, from the days of early settlement through to the late 1970s, from Governor Phillip’s head-hunting expedition to freeing protestors in the anti-conscription movement during the Vietnam War; and in between, resident action movements in Kings Cross, anarchists in Glebe, Gay Rights activism on Oxford Street, Black Power in Redfern.
In the mainstream of white masculine and middle-class history, the voices of Aboriginal fighters, convict poets, feminist journalists, democratic agitators, bohemian dreamers and revolutionaries are rarely heard. This book restores some of that clamour and disturbance to the history of the city.
While the subject of the book is Sydney, authors Irving and Cahill make clear in their ‘Introduction’ that the book has been written as a challenge to the mainstream consensus version of Australian history. The consensus version tends to sanitise the past to present a view of Australian history and society proceeding on the basis of cooperation and consensus, a past in which there is little significant political and/or social turbulence. The authors’ view of the Australian past, on the contrary, is one in which significant political and social ferment, dissent, turbulence are not strangers, nor occasional.
"It is only after reading Irving and Cahill’s book that one realises the extent to which political dissent in Australia has been tamed. I am all too conscious that any short review of this book will not do it justice. It’s just too full of delightful gems: rare historical photographs, anecdotes and tales of real working class heroes and heroines. And like any real labour history, 68 therein lies the book’s great power. This is not a book about a city but about the ordinary people who lived, worked and, importantly, agitated within it."
- Mulheron, Maurie, "Review - Radical Sydney: places, portraits and unruly episodes", Illawarra Unity - Journal of the Illawarra Branch of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, 10(1), 2010, 66-68.