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AustraliPeter Bishop at Garabitan Peter Bishop— writer, scholar, traveler and jazz buff—is a fascinating guy. Currently an Associate Professor in Communication & Cultural Studies at the University of South Australia (UniSA) in Adelaide, Peter is also the author of Bridge (Reaktion Books). Don’t be swayed by the plain title, lacking even the article of Hart Crane gave us; inside,  Bishop offers a thrillingly multi-layered examination of bridges which combines rigorous intellect, keen perception and a plainspoken vigor I consider characteristically Australian. There is, of course, a good deal of New York content but Bishop’s view is world-wide and ecumenical— even the Vermont Street Viaduct makes an appearance, a pretty impressive feat when few folks in Brooklyn even know about it.

hands up For those who first fell in love with Australia via Dennis Hopper’s portrayal of Mad Dog Morgan (1976), Bishop’s work is a revelation. In his own way, I’d place his work right there with such idiosyncratic glories of Australian culture as the diverse rock sounds of the Saints, the Go-Betweens, Feedtime and  the Triffids (whose 1986 masterpiece, In The Pines, was recorded in a sheep shearing shack in Ravensthorpe!) and the Sydney-set crime novels of Peter Doyle. Don’t let his place in the academy fool ya’ll: Bishop is a dinkum dong daddy from Adelaide indeed. Among his other works, I’ve not read Bishop’s An Archetypal Constable: National Identity & The Geography of Nostalgia (1995) but the title alone thrills me; if I ever make it to Australia, I hope we can drive around listening to the Modern Jazz Quartet’s The Sheriff (1964) and talk about it.

not jeff bridgesUntil that time, and in the name of total disclosure, Peter and I share only the same publisher, Reaktion Books; also two of my color photographs are among the 127 illustrations in Bridge. Rest assured, should any great fortune befall us from this interview, Peter and I would be delighted to take any concerned readers out to lunch  with the proceeds. I hear Adelaide has some excellent Indonesian restaurants so what the hell, let’s hope for the best!

Brian Berger: You begin in a surprising but welcome way, recalling Sonny Rollins’ practice routine on the Williamsburg Bridge, which opened in 1903. How did you become a jazz fan and what’s Australia’s relationship to the music?

Peter Bishop: My taste in music is eclectic and jazz is a crucial part of this mix. I was introduced to jazz by a friend, as a teenager back in the mid-60s. Coltrane, Miles Davis, Hawkins, Monk, Mingus, Charlie Parker, Modern Jazz Quartet – that kind of jazz and some early Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton. Opening up to that world was something great. Those classics – generally American – are still my stock listening. I can’t say too much about Australia’s relationship to jazz except that all kinds of Jazz have a good following here.


going in

Brian: One of my favorite musicians is the late guitarist and composer, John Fahey, one of whose albums was recorded in Australia, Live In Tasmania (1981). An earlier song of his was called “The Singing Bridge of Memphis, Tennessee,” a music concrete piece on Yellow Princess (1969). What is it about bridges and music do you think?

Peter: I must chase up Fahey’s piece. I think bridges, more than most structures, are dynamic compositions. They are in a continual state of performance and movement. Tension, harmony, rhythm are all playing off with and against each other. Like music, a whole range of spaces/pauses are integral to a bridge, not just what’s there but what’s not there, at least not in terms of something physically tangible.

Brian: The opening to Ralph Bakshi’s 1975 anti-racist blaxploitation satire Coonskin begins— after a langorously drawled “fuck you”— with a character voiced by Pulitzer Prize winning black playwright Charles Gordone saying “Now I’m gonna give you an example— I heard 350 of you white folks committed suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge and out of the 350, there was only two that was niggers—and one of them was pushed!” Are there any other spans that are notable for their suicides and are there any historically famous bridge suicides you discovered working on this book?

Peter: Yes, Golden Gate of course, but also London’s old Waterloo Bridge seemed to attract suicides. I don’t know the statistics but certainly young women have been most often mentioned and portrayed in painting (and maybe cinema). This could be due to the oppressiveness of their situation back in the first half of the 20th century or perhaps male artists of the time just had a macabre fascination with the death of young women. I don’t know of any famous suicides from bridges but its an interesting question. I’d love to have an answer.

Brian: The Verrazano Bridge is well known internationally from Saturday Night Fever and the New York City marathon; you mention the original naming controversy but one little fact Verrazano boosters didn’t publicize was that the Italian explorer had a kidnapped Indian boy amid his crew, probably grabbed from today’s Virginia or Maryland coast. What part do bridges play historically in imperialism?

the wine dark sea?Peter: That’s really interesting about Verrazano Bridge— just shows that there are always more stories about bridges. That’s one of their great features. Bridges, both big and small, have been fundamental instruments of power, conquest and domination for a very long time. They aren’t all like that of course but imperialism from Roman times and probably much earlier has used, even depended on bridges. All the great empires (maybe not that of the Mongols) used bridges in order to expand, control and basically stitch up the bits that made up their empire. I give plenty of examples, ancient and modern, in my book.

Brian: Brooklyn is fascinated by Australia, perhaps to an unhealthy degree: your food, your landscapes, your flora and fauna, your men and women, and now your bridges. Tell me about the your favorite Australian span and also the West Gate Bridge Collapse? New York’s most notable bridge collapse was similar, when a neglected part of the West Side elevated highway collapsed in 1973; a truck and a car fell to street below but amazingly, there were no serious injuries. Are bridges doomed to fail, eventually?

Burt CreekPeter: Favorite Australian spans? Sydney has to be up there but I’m actually drawn to fairly obscure and insignificant bridges. I mention a couple in my book – Burt Creek Bridge on the rail through the centre of Australia. Its nothing special structurally or aesthetically but its location makes it special to me. Morialta Creek bridge in Adelaide is one of those that 99% of people driving over it wouldn’t even know its there but they would if something happened to it. I like the graffiti underneath. In fact I’m drawn to the underside of bridges – both physical and metaphorical. Its an interesting space. On a larger scale Glebe bridge in Sydney is aesthetically great. I’m also drawn to bridges that are in a state of disrepair – abandoned bridges that hint at forgotten projects – plenty of these in the Australian Outback. Yes, like all empires, all bridges are doomed to fail. Hopefully their failure isn’t a disaster and people get a warning. Maintaining bridges is a massive task and problem. Even just inspecting them is a huge task in places like the US or even Australia. People are drawn to the construction of a new bridge but not much interest is usually shown in repairs. Interestingly, construction is the most dangerous time for a bridge to collapse as the structure is not yet completed. The strength of a bridge depends on the integration of all its essential bits. The Westgate collapse was one of this type. The stresses on various parts of a bridge during construction are very different to those once it has been completed. With a stone bridge for example, everything is perilous until the final stone is in place. Music can be like that, especially jazz.

up & overBrian: What are your top five (or ten) bridges, historically, aesthetically? Use any criteria you like. Likewise, a similar list bound by artistic qualities, i.e. a structures use in art, music, literature. Off the top of my head, my favorite NYC spans are the Willis Avenue Bridge between Harlem and the Bronx; the Carroll Street Bridge over the Gowanus Canal; the Marine Parkway Bridge from Brooklyn to the Rockaways; the Vermont Street Viaduct; the freight train bridge over Spuyten Devil in upper Manhattan; the Hell Gate Bridge and any freight or LIRR bridge and underpass in Queens with graffiti under it.

Peter: Not another list! OK, I’ll bite the bullet but stick to fairly well-known big ones:

• Firth of Forth rail bridge in Scotland (just its shear industrial hulkiness, although like Golden Gate its best when one end disappears into the mist);

• Millau Viaduct in the South of France (the way it frames its location and is just so bloody high);

• Brooklyn (it has been so comprehensively sung); Mostar (its aesthetics, history, sense of place and symbolism;

• Tower Bridge in London (so excessive and it scared me as a kid); Garabit Viaduct in central France (Like a horizontal Eiffel Tower and a great colour);

• Michigan Avenue Bridge in Chicago (just so early modernist and integrated into the skyscrapers and so low-slung its almost invisible); Dartford Crossing near London (but only on really gloomy very wet days around twilight when it broods malevolently);

• Williamsburg (because of Sonny Rollins).

There are some pretty amazing big new spans around the world from Greece to Hong Kong and Japan. The one suggested over the Bering Strait from Alaska to Siberia hasn’t been designed but in my imagination its one of my favourites. The San Francisco-Oakland Bridge as reconfigured in William Gibson’s novel Virtual Light is pretty amazing too.

Brian: Anything your working on dow there in Australia that your fans in New York can look forward to?

Peter: I have fans? Anywhere? In New York?

Brian: Absolutely, mate!


Selected Peter Bishop Bibliography

Bridge (Reaktion Books, 2008)
An Archetypal Constable: National Identity & The Geography of Nostalgia (Athlone Press, 1995)
Dreams of Power: Tibetan Religion & The Western Imagination (Athlone Press, 1991)
The Greening of Psychology: the Vegetable World in Myth, Dream & Healing (Spring Publications, 1991)
The Myth of Shangri-La: Tibet, Travel Writing & The Western Creation of Sacred Landscape (Athlone Press, 1989)

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