Impossible the Next

Harbour Bridge

Having already taken you on several journeys this side of the harbour and that, it would be remiss of me not to say a few words about the history of the structure which both divides and unites Sydney: the Harbour Bridge. ‘The Coathanger’, as it is known, is an enormous steel arched bridge, punctuated by sandstone pylons at either end which in fact bear none of the weight, the ingenious structure of the arch doing all the work to hold each other and the roadway beneath up.

If you see any photos of the construction of the bridge it is very easy to visually understand how it was built: each half was constructed simultaneously from each shore, meeting exactly halfway in the middle. Just at the point that each half appeared to float precariously, unsuspended, they met just in time to prop up its twin from the other side. Would it shock you to know that those building the bridge actually had no idea they would meet the opposite half in the middle?

The way it happened was that the state government did not trust the citizens of north and south to cooperate in the construction of a bridge. They believed the fastest way to build the bridge was to harness the natural enmity between the citizens on either side, and to speed the construction along with a competition. The government told builders on each side that they had to race to construct a bridge, in its entirety, before builders on the other side. They then leaked plans of the best design of bridge to both sides so that their constructions would be identical and symmetrical when they met in the middle. All well and good so far.

But the bureaucrats in the government knew that the ruse of a competition would fall over, so to speak, very quickly when builders from each side could plainly see the identical construction reaching back out to them from the other side. So they devised a way for each group of builders, those on the north and south, to build their own end totally oblivious to the construction opposite. They told them that they had erected a mirror in the middle of the harbour so that each side could not copy the design of the other.

Now, it’s best not to question how builders and engineers that were entrusted to realise such a fantastically complicated structure were so uncritical as to not question by what means this giant mirror was supposedly erected in the middle of the harbour. It seemed improbable, but when they began their feverish constructions, they saw reflected back from the other shore an identical construction with identical workers. Believing that only they had the plans to the bridge, the builders were forced to conclude that this was merely their own reflection.

Day by day, and month by month, they watched their exciting progress, both on the steel scaffolding that they physically stood on, but also reflected in the mirror image across the harbour where identical progress was being made. They wondered what fantastic structure was lurking beyond the mirror, and this inspired them to even faster and more furious construction. When a worker tragically lost his footing and plummeted to his death, as frequently happened, it seemed that invariably that also happened on the other side too: they thought it was only the image of their grief that was doubled, when in actual fact the lie about the mirror had halved the amount of grief they would have felt if only they’d known another worker on the other side had also perished.

This deception, of course, had a natural end point. Sometime in 1932 each group of workers reached the apex of the arch. It was a most disconcerting experience for the workers. They were at such close quarters to their counterparts they could see that their doppelgangers’ hammer-strikes were out of time with their own. They assumed the altitude or the dizzying possibility of reaching the mirror was playing tricks with them. But eventually they could reach out and touch the workers opposite, and the steel beams of the north made connection not with cold reflective glass, but with an identical steel structure from the south. A wall that had never existed between them came tumbling down, and the arch of the bridge was complete.

Now the trick that had been played caused quite a scandal. Was the government right to believe its citizens would be so belligerent to refuse to cooperate with their neighbours? Did they need to resort to this lie? And what of all the workers who had perished because the government had insisted on such haste in construction? The workers from both north and south quickly united in indignation. They refused to complete the job, but the government already had another group standing by to finish the roadway off. Sydney had its new Harbour Bridge, delivered in half the time promised.

Now unlike many of these histories, which I have revealed here for the first time, this story is known by many Sydneysiders. And the story of the bridge’s construction divides the citizens of Sydney almost as starkly as the harbour itself. There are some who believe that the end of building this new bridge justified the means because the city desperately needed to be connected at all costs. These citizens vote with their feet, crossing the bridge upwards of five or six times a day. They are the types who likely live in the north, but have family and friends on the south side, who might commute to the south for work, but come back for a meeting in North Sydney in the early afternoon; they might prefer dinner in Kirribilli on the north side, but then retreat back to Surry Hills on the south side for a cocktail.

But as usual in a city as large and complex as Sydney, opinion is not homogenous. There are roughly equal numbers of those who believe that the bridge could only have been constructed by trickery because, in fact, the two halves of the city ought never to have been joined together. These types generally live in the south (most usually the Eastern Suburbs), and seek to right the wrongs of history by studiously ignoring the other side of the city. They are quite happy to maintain contact with friends and relatives in far-off New York or London, but lose all contact with those that move to the north side of Sydney. They boast about how long a stretch they can go without venturing north, and develop new units of time and distance to exaggerate the distance between the known and unknown universe. But no community is an island and, eventually, some event in the life of every Sydneysider demands that they cross the bridge at least once.

Occasionally Sydneysiders of both stripes like to pretend that the two halves really are cut off, in order to test their opinion either that the two halves are entirely dispensable or indispensible. To do this they have to orchestrate elaborate excuses to close the bridge. In recent years these have included: laying fake grass across the entire surface of the roadway to have morning tea on the bridge; a marathon or fun-run, or anything involving vigorous exercise and charity; even the presence of world leaders for an Asia Pacific conference, which required security motorcades to shut the bridge every time a President left his spectacles in the hotel.

Of course there are other ways to cross the harbour: a tunnel from north to south-east; another bridge a bit further west which changes its name every few years just to get some attention; and, of course, the ferry. And even when all these are shut by some confluence of traffic accidents and bad weather, nobody can pretend to live in one half of the twin cities. There are too many reminders that the two halves are symbiotic: businesses to be found on both sides of the harbour; an already diarised promise to visit a relative on the other side sometime next week; the skyline of the office buildings reminding you of your daily commute.

So whether they cross it daily or yearly, the Harbour Bridge stands as a stark reminder to Sydneysiders that their lives are too interwoven to ever be free of the other half. It’s a bit like a giant steel wedding band stuck around a fattened middle-age finger, reminding north and south that they are together forever and never to part.