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Published: March 30th 2010
Christine O'Loughlin's 'Cultural rubble' (1993) Go on say it; you’ve missed me. It’s alright; I've missed you too.
- the outside wall of the Ian Potter Centre for Art - University of Melbourne
For a few reasons this blog entry has taken forever to write; Firstly I’m not really ‘travelling’ at the moment, so a certain purpose to write is missing. Connected to that is Australia doesn’t feel like a 'foreign' country to me - it's less exciting than say Borneo or Vietnam. Thirdly, I don’t know if I’m actually saying anything of worth or originality - I may simply be repeating hackneyed expressions of yet another backpacker. Maybe because - travel writing is flawed by ‘post-colonial sensitivities, by travels, commonness, by globalisation, and by journalistic encroachments.’ - according to some bloke called John Cassan at least.
To cure my lethargy I read a lot of travel books and somewhat influenced by them (acerbic and hyper-honest VS Naipaul in India, acerbic and captious Paul Theroux in Africa and the Journal of Travel Writing). Acerbic is what I'm aiming for it seems. I subsequently made an effort to produce a more honest, fluid, well-thought out piece of travel writing. Of course, I then re-read some of my earliest blogs from Burma and saw how much fun they were and how irreverent I was. In
Stencil art: Fitzroy
contrast, my exercise in 'serious travel writing' was dry and sombre - and not nearly as much fun. So in conclusion this is a combined effort of sloth and self-conscious writing.
Long before I began this global travel odyssey thing - Melbourne was already decided upon: “Sydney’s just like any other big city - head to Melbourne instead”
so said the stranger a few years ago on the Night Bus along the Uxbridge Road.
Once I got here other Australians praised Melbourne, describing it as “multicultural”, a great place for food and “more cultural than Sydney”. Indeed the city almost defined itself by “not being Sydney” - which I gathered lived up its own arse
. A cultured friend of mine from Brisbane even described Melbourne as “the closest thing Australia has to London”. Supercilious me - what could reach mighty London’s high standards? Wasn’t everything “awesome” to Australians? Didn’t all Aussies make empty boasts because of their cultural inferiority? Most alarmingly of all didn’t ‘banal conversationalist’ travel-writer Bill Bryson absolutely ‘adore’ Melbourne?
Well firstly, Melbourne is an interesting place historically
- no really, it is! First founded in 1835 (47 years after the European
our coffee table
books, guides, coffee, sea shells
settlement of Australia) by settlers from Van Diemen's Land - so importantly (to some Australians) it doesn’t have that ‘convict stain’
. The early settlement was originally known as "Bearbrass” but was renamed "Melbourne" in 1837, in honour of William Lamb - British prime minister and the 2nd Viscount Melbourne (who resided in the village of Melbourne in Derbyshire). Melbourne was officially declared a city by Queen Victoria in 1847 and in 1851 it became the capital city of the newly created colony of Victoria. During the Victorian gold rush of the 1850s, it was transformed into one of the world's largest and wealthiest cities where it was known by the sobriquet “Marvellous Melbourne”
- first coined by a visiting London journalist back in 1885:
“A really astonishing city, with broad streets full of handsome shops and crowded with bustling well-dressed people'. The 1850s gold rush had brought a 'residuum' of 'real live men' that had 'made Melbourne what she is, magnificent and marvelous”.
What Melbourne lacks in blockbuster sights such as Sydney Harbour Bridge it makes up for in culture and European style. I found it to be immediately to my taste - and familiar; the 19th Century Anglican brick
Kids and punks
Sydney Rd Street Party : Brunswick Music Festival
churches; the Oxbridge-style colleges and architecture of the nearby University of Melbourne; the classical and elegant Customs House; the grand parliament building of Victoria and the State Library of Victoria; the World Heritage listed Melbourne Exhibition Buildings of 1880 and of course all of those English street names: Lonsdale, Victoria, Queen, William, Swanston, Elizabeth - and the clever way for finding your way around: King-William-Queen-Elizabeth.
On Collins Street there’s much elegance on display and has therefore earned its nickname the ‘Paris end’ with its gentleman’s clubs such as the Melbourne Club (1838) and the Melbourne Athenaeum (1839) set amidst 19th Century buildings as well as the stylish fashion boutiques.
Then there are the Laneways - a celebrated warren of alleys that are full of cafes, restaurants and boutiques - a delightful reminder of a real old world city. People sat outside restaurants in the Italian enclave of Lygon Street
with its dozens of Italian/Greek restaurants - the Italian looking Melburnians and their families dressed for promenade; an atmosphere that genuinely reminded me of street scenes in Italian cities such as Trieste and Catania. The art galleries too, the Ian Potter Centre and the National Gallery of Victoria (national
and international sites) all make for a good day out.
Then I noticed the civic memorials; the Shrine of Remembrance dedicated to Australia's involvement in the world wars, the grand statue in honour of British Imperial hero General Gordon (Gordon's death was mourned throughout the British Empire. So great was the Australian public's response that a fund to produce a copy of Thornycroft's London monument for Melbourne was heavily oversubscribed. Perhaps due to over-subscription, Thornycroft produced the four reliefs on the limestone base, which are not found on the London statue. Although Gordon did not set foot on Australian soil, the monument is of great historical importance as his death prompted the dispatch of the first Australian troops overseas, a regiment from NSW.)
On the Sydney Road in my neighbourhood I rather self-consciously approached the half-hidden memorial of a lone soldier at ease with his rifle. Inscribed on it were the words: "Lest we forget. Erected by the citizens of Brunswick to perpetuate the noble deeds of our Brunswick boys who fought for the Empire in the South African War 1899-1902 and to honor".
I was only faintly aware of Australia’s role in British war against the Boers (now called Afrikaners) in the bitter war fought from 1899 to 1902. But as it so happens, 16,000 Australian troops were sent to South Africa and almost a quarter from Victoria, where some 228 Victorians were killed. These forgotten memorials of which there are many here is a forgotten reminder of Australia’s demonstration of loyalty to the Empire.
I’d arrived back in Melbourne after 3 weeks in Tasmania. It was now the summer months of sunny days and flip-flops and
Gig: Penny Black pub
...during Brunswick Festival
which has now softly moved into early autumn months with its warm - yet cool days. I was staying with ‘C’, an American from San Francisco whom I’d met on a orang-utan safari in Borneo. Not only was she the same age as me (within days) but also had a nice apartment in the up-and-coming area of Brunswick. I now had my own bed (and room) - and I’ve been here months now. To put this fantastic arrangement in to some perspective - the city’s average weekly room rate is $170 (140 quid). We have eventually come to an arrangement where I can stay for as long as I like, and I pay her some rent - a very good rate compared to what is out there.
To enhance this arrangement even further - I’m also living in a location described as up-and-coming: the “inner city suburb” of Brunswick:
The diverse and sometimes radical atmosphere of the area, together with relatively cheap housing, has attracted writers and artists. Brunswick has featured in several books including Death in Brunswick by Boyd Oxlade and Stiff by Shane Maloney.
A sample of the high street nearest to me reveals four nearby churches on one junction of which one includes an Asylum Seeker drop-in centre and next to that is a belly dancing studio. Across Sydney Road there are Middle Eastern and Vietnamese restaurants, tastefully stocked bookshops (my favourite
is Brunswick Bound Bookstore
), small cafes, vintage clothes shops, garage sales, and cool-looking people. Yes, it’s all pretentious but I’ve been starved of fashion and the artistic which was not overly present in Brisbane; I’ve passed so many interesting people in the streets here and being a self-confessed London- type I feel qualified to pass comment that Melburnians are a fashionable and trendy lot and more importantly they seem intent on wanting to be too.
Brunswick’s pubs tend to be old mid 19th Century brick affairs and this is a welcome change from Brisbane. They are grotty, highly decorative, atmospheric, and most of all, popular. From the ironically bare and grotty to the chic and arty, places called The Brunswick Hotel
, The Retreat Hotel
, Brunswick Green
, The Penny Black
The cafes are all about the coffee, oh and looking hip too. C’s a self-confessed coffee hound so we regularly spend a Saturday afternoon by walking to a recommended café somewhere and trying out its coffee. I now know what’s good and what isn’t, but I’m still baffled by the coffee lingo, for example, ‘flat white’, ‘short black’ (Espresso), ‘long black’
. K’s favourite stop for a coffee is tucked away a few streets away from us,
Boer War Memorial
Sydney Road, Brunswick
unconventional neo-industrial interior and with great coffee - Toby's Estate
. Super-friendly service and with a menu that had baked beans on toast on it (!!!). Up on Sydney Road is my regular stop which only has a “Lily” coffee sign outside and so that’s what we call it. Its real name is the Green Refectory
a very cramped café-deli serviced by the bohemian coolios who all look like they are in a band or starting one. (Check the photo of its courtyard.
)If I order something; like a focaccia
, “breakfast stack”, a burger; a coffee; a bruschetta
or a quiche or a cake or a big huge gourmet hamburger, or a vegetarian soup my accent isn’t even blinked at; yes, it’s that
cool. And when that food arrives on my table it is fun, fresh and organic. I’m surrounded by artists, or rather people dressed like artists. There is a higher cause here it seems, art, fashion, good food and even better coffee.
The women of Melbourne are often very pretty; slim and with great legs, and even greater ‘amplitudes’. I’m not quite sure why so many wear Roman-style sandals - Spartacus-chic
. Up here in the little Bohemia of Brunswick
the vintage retro look is all the rage. I keep passing people here clothed with long narrow shorts, the skinny fit check shirts, 50’s cut t-shirts, skinny jeans and Ray Bans
for the men and glamorous pin-up hair styles (including handkerchiefs rolled up as head-wear), rolled up jeans, and their tattoos of recklessly exotic pin-ups a la
Amy Whitehouse. It’s a mix-up of beatnik and 1940s doll. I admire with elements of envy and fear.
In comparison I look like shit. The crotch of my sole pair of jeans is thin bare and my t-shirts have holes in them and my stylish footwear consists of a pair of smelly jogging trainers and beat-up flats. I simply don’t have the clothes or the money to dress up to London or Melbourne standards. I’m sick of the backpacker clobber but I am marooned in a city of sartorial delights. I am a Londoner with an identity crisis. I long for a Paul Smith multi - coloured striped shirt with some decent loafers and maybe wearing a pair of corduroys.
But I am sorting myself out though. My mum would have a riot here there are so many charity shops (called
op shops) and in my area alone there are the following: Brotherhood of St Laurence, St Vincent de Paul, Salvation Army, Savers, and Christ Church Opportunity Shop. The Savers one is like a warehouse of clothes and it’s busy I can tell you - I’m not sure if it is the fact that retro vintage clothes are so marked up to be too expensive or that Melburnians just love a good rummage or are cheap bastards. Either way, it’s a great and cheap way to get a wardrobe.
First, self loathing - now envy - of all those people on bicycles. I roll my eyes at the fashion victims on fixed-wheel bikes, the shaved sides, converse shoes, skinny jeans, elaborately coloured bicycles and wheels (secretly wanting to partake in the fashion parade but not wanting to put the effort in required). And I sneer at the Lycra - Tour de France
wannabes on their $3,000 dollar racing bikes. I think back to Amsterdam and Copenhagen where riding a bike is not a statement of who you are or what you want to be but simply an unthinking mode of transport. Melbourne is very much suited to cycling; it’s
less busy for one and mostly flat, ideal for all cyclists and so I deeply miss my own bicycle back home.
Any city worth its salt has to have some kind of music scene. I’d heard that Melbourne had a ‘vibrant’ live music scene and since I’d been starved of live music this year, I was up for exploring. The decent British and international acts costing around 50 dollars a ticket meant I didn’t have much of an option. I should also admit that I’m no fan of Aussie music or any of its pub-band variants - I’d listened to Paul Kelly, Nick Cave and Crowded House - lightweight would be my conclusion. The way I see it more decent bands have come out of Wales - a country 18 times smaller than Australia (AC-DC don’t count as Aussie either - they’re Scottish-Aussie) than this place. But what intrigued me was how nearly every pub I passed had bands playing nearly every night. “Quality not quantity” I said to myself and yet I still wanted to take advantage of my time here; I wanted to be proved wrong.
I looked at the Melbourne listings from Last.fm
well as the local music rags made from recycled newspaper and written in tiny smudgy print. What stood out that week was a local band called The Basics
who were recording a best-of live album at the hip Northcote Social Club
. This novelty decided it and of course everyone else was thinking the same thing because tickets were sold out. So not one to give in quickly I got on e-Bay and bought two off a woman who couldn’t make it. Friday night we got a taxi out to the club and inside we wrote our names on a big black board (the album’s cover art). In the large back room of a pub The only songs I recall were covers of Neil Young (Old Man) and Sting’s Roxanne and a Cream medley, including Sunshine Of Your Love, Cocaine and Crossroads.
That said, I’ve had some really good nights out in the city - a regular of mine the Carlton Hotel for instance which has three floors of bars, the lowest one is dark red and dimly lit with high back booths and stuffed animals of a safari, the middle is some decks outside and the highest bar is
on the roof surrounded by palm trees and the city’s high rises. Fitzroy has lots of bars and pubs with character that play good music! Amazing! Brunswick too! The Laneways with its bars are poky and make you want to explore - the unknown is the great thrill in any city, and I don’t think it will be extinguished any time soon.
Melbourne has surprised me: here are some words I’ve come that I’ve come to identify with:
"Living in Melbourne suits me very well. In a few minutes I can be in the centre of the city with all the bustle of up-to-the-minute commerce. In a few minutes I can be in parkland. Traffic and transport and all the business of city living are very manageable. I feel very safe. My neighbours and those I meet out walking always have a smile and a greeting. I have all the latest distractions when I want them: theatre, music, cinema and exhibitions. And most importantly Melbourne offers easy and affordable access to some of the freshest and most diverse food in the world."
Oh, and living in Melbourne the old Aussie bashing joke simply isn’t true:
Q: What is the difference between Australia and yoghurt?
A: Yoghurt has culture
Travel book I’m reading: Fresh Air Fiend
by Paul Theroux (2000)
“...the very things that stimulate writing are frequently obstacles to the writing process. Travel is a great stimulant as I said; but it is hell to write while you are travelling.” p. 18
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