Culturally in tune with Melbourne

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May 16th 2010
Published: May 16th 2010
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“Isn’t Melbourne supposed to be boring?” asked my eldest sister over the phone from England. It’s true that visitors don’t seem to stay more than a few days at a time - which I suspect is due to the lack of block-buster sights of say Sydney with its harbour and bridge. I didn’t have high expectations of Melbourne myself, as a self-confessed culture vulture - I had assumed that the diversity (I promise to use that term only once) of everything my London offered would be missing here; whether it be the lively and historic pub crawls, block-buster art exhibitions, film festivals, gigs, markets, walks or talks. So, armed with a Lonely Planet Guide to Melbourne (which by the way is the home of LP), the counsel of an American house mate who’d been here five months already and free wireless internet at home - I set out to do kultur; Melbourne style.

I think a test of any city worth its salt in the Western world is its art and cultural centres. First up, and because its free, is the National Gallery of Victoria (the name makes no sense to me either) which houses the Australian art collection and is located in the redeveloped and popular Federation Square. The latter is a tourist destination in itself (for a city lacking in them) but I've never warmed to it; I thought it looked like a post-industrial mess of jagged cladding masquerading as “modern” architecture. In 2009, it was even voted as being the 5th ugliest building in the world by editors and members of the popular website Virtual Tourist. The gallery itself was ‘alright’ - seen-it-all-before, unexplained and repetitive aboriginal ‘map’ paintings followed by idealistic paintings of pioneers out in the bush, ‘The Pioneer’ by Frederick McCubbin (1904) is an example. There also seems to be an obsession with bushranger-extraurdinaire Ned Kelly - particularly by leading Aussie artists Sydney Nolan and Albert Tucker. It started early enough - Australia producing what was probably the world's first full length feature film in 1906 - The Story of the Kelly Gang. However, the repeated images of Ned Kelly in armour to a non-Australian audience matter comes across as very parochial. Moreover, from the biographical notes provided anyone half-decent an artist packed their bags and left for an art school in England or Europe. Some things haven’t changed.

Things were better over at the National Gallery of Victoria (International) which is in the cultural precinct of the Southbank and housed in a 1960s designed building; more like a fortress reminding me more of 15th Century Sforza Castello in Milan than an art gallery.

It holds an enjoyable collection of Old Masters and other European stuff including a collection of twentieth century British art that I’d half-forgotten; vague artists such as Stanley Spencer and Graham Sutherland but also more well-known painters such as Walter Sickert (he of ‘Jack the Ripper’ suspicion) and Francis Bacon (he of screaming Cardinals fame). This gallery reminded me that even though British art is less renowned than say Italy, Holland, France it has at least got some pedigree. An exhibition was showing at the same time of Ron Mueck a Melburnian-born, London-based artist of colossal life-like sculptures (of naked people) - disturbing and fascinating but I'd seen some of his work in San Fran a couple of years ago and didn't feel the need to spend money on seeing it again.

Close to where I live is the prestigious University of Melbourne. It's a pleasant place to walk around leafy grounds and neo-Gothic buildings from the mid 19th Century - (it’s also where I go for my gym) - it clearly based itself upon the Oxbridge style of colleges - names like Trinity College and University College abound. The smaller yet weirder Ian Potter Museum of Art is located on campus and on my visit I recall an odd collection of Classical Greek pottery and ancient Coptic papyrus alongside temporary exhibition of Aussie modern art. The only interesting thing about the place was the Classical sculpture piece on the wall outside by Christine O'Loughlin and the intricate stain-glassed Leckie window.

Talks and ANZACs

After work I’ve been taking advantage of the free talks at the newly-opened Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas - the same Wheelers who set-up Lonely Planet and who are originally from the UK. I thought I’d go because not only would I hear some interesting discussions but I might catch the eye of some extremely hot intellectual chick that’d fall in love with my English accent. To my disappointment it was mostly attended by bespectacled grey haired retirees. Sat in a long narrow room, based in a wing of the State Library of Victoria I listened to a discussion with American journalist Mark Danner about his book which sounded like it was largely about ‘why everything is crap when the Democrats aren’t in power in the USA’. The discussion of world events didn’t reveal too much (to an International Relations bod like me anyway) and it simply turned into everybody-nodding predictable Bush-baiting session.

A second talk I attended was entitled ‘Historians on Melbourne’ - which was far more interesting in revealing the hidden side of the city. A well-known brothel proprietor Caroline Hodgson (1851 - 11 July 1908), also known as Madame Brussels made her riches from providing ‘services’ to the rich and powerful. There was even a discussion of whether she had a tunnel direct from Parliament to one of her properties.

The last talk I attended was a last-minute affair to coincide with ANZAC Day - a public holiday which commemorates the soldiers of the Australia and New Zealand Corps who were killed during the Great War (1914-18). The talk was based upon a new book that was to be published entitled ‘WHAT’S WRONG WITH ANZAC? THE MILITARISATION OF AUSTRALIAN HISTORY’ by Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds (with Mark McKenna and Joy Damousi) New South Books’ and I wanted to go because I’d had my own opinions on the day. For example, the declarations of an ‘ANZAC’ spirit, that the bloody battlefields of Gallipoli and Fromelles somehow formed a nation and lastly the Brit-baiting - that they had died fighting not for Australia but for Britain in a ‘pointless’ war.

ANZAC Day has grown massively in the past ten years or so - indeed to a packed room the authors stated that Australia Day - commemorating the landing of the First Fleet in Australia “wasn’t really working for us” - so much so that it had become an unofficial “National Sorry Day” to the aboriginals. Anyway, according to their book the problem with ANZAC Day: “the myth of Anzac, military achievements are exalted above civilian ones; events overseas are given priority over Australian developments; slow and patient nation-building is eclipsed by the bloody drama of battle; action is exalted over contemplation. The key premise of the Anzac legend is that nations and men are made in war. It is an
Bicyle and meBicyle and meBicyle and me

...on a train into work
idea that had currency a hundred years ago. Is it not now time for Australia to cast it aside?”

From the discussion they also made the assertion that those men who went to war knew as much about why they were fighting the Turks as Australians did in the present -the point being that ANZAC represented Australia’s pointless participation in an imperialist European war fought in a distant land far from Australia. According to a review written by Robin Pryor, “The authors see in our Western heritage only danger - danger that we have been dragged into wars brought about by our great and powerful friends. “ At the end I wanted to put my hand up and provide a few pertinent points of my own - keeping the British end up as it were. But I bottled it and besides the review I came across essentially articulated what I would have said in a spluttering of nerves on the night. Allow me to quote in full a quite brilliant analysis that counters the authors’ view of the Great War.

In their survey of our military history, their views are made very plain. They see our country as Fortress Australia, largely unconcerned with what takes place beyond our shores, our defence forces required to deal only with violations of those shores. Australia, in this view, is a small world entire to itself that should not have been concerned about the many conflicts, some on the other side of the globe, with which we became embroiled through an imperial attachment to Britain or to am attachment to the Pax Americana. I reject these views for a number of reasons. Firstly, I see Australia as a member of a larger entity conveniently called the West. The states that describe themselves as Western broadly adhere, however imperfectly, to the principles of the Enlightenment: secularism, tolerance and personal freedoms. There have always been perilously few such states in the world. Australia has always been one of them and therefore shares a common heritage with the others, and it is not in our interests to see any of them trampled over by states that do not share these values. This is not pure idealism but idealism mixed with self-interest. If the states that constitute the West were snuffed out, we would find ourselves in a very hostile world indeed. Let me take the Great War as an example of this, because it is a conflict with which the authors seem to have a great deal of difficulty. It was caused not by ‘mistake’, as they seem to think, but by naked German aggression from a state that was anti-liberal, anti-democratic, militaristic and to some extent anti-Semitic. Its aims (pace Fritz Fischer) were the permanent domination of Western and Eastern Europe with the eventual subjugation of Britain and further expansion into the colonial world on its agenda. In other words, our protector (Britain) would be reduced to impotency. In what sense was this conflict none of our business? Whatever the authors think, if Germany had won it would have become our business sooner or later, but under much less favourable circumstances.

I wanted to stand up and pointedly state that Australia’s contribution was not simply 'fighting for
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Tallest Scoitsman alive
the bloody poms' and getting killed as a consequence of their overlords' incompetence (Gallipoli)- a frequent accusation that I’ve heard amongst all and sundry here. That Gallipoli involved more British and French then ANZACs and even worse losses but also those ANZAC volunteers fought for ‘God, King and Empire’. Robin Pryor - God Bless him comes up with a terrifically pertinent fact: “According to the 1911 census, seventy-two per cent of all people living in Australia had been born in the United Kingdom. A majority of the remaining twenty-eight per cent had parents born in Britain.” What’s wrong with ANZAC is the hijacking of the memory of Aussie soldiers who died fighting for a very different Australia than today. If I could go back to the

An elderly chap behind me then stood up and despite not having a question confirmed for me the truthfullness of the difference in meaning of ANZAC to a different generation. He gave an account of hhow he grew up with ‘Empire, England morning, noon and night’. As a soldier in the second war he said that the ANZACs of the Great War gave them an example to follow and “made us better soldiers”. I was touched by this and also grateful for a tangible side to what ANZAC meant on a personal level.

I soon discovered that Melbourne was pretty good for exploring its neighbourhoods - Carlton’s Lygon Street, Fitzroy’s Brunswick Street, Prahan, Richmond, Hawthorne - that kind of city-living thing where the best bits aren’t all focussed on one street. So I started socializing (a little) with my American housemate/host from my excellent base in cooler-than-thou Brunswick. Sometimes I would spend a Saturday morning at a coffee shop with the American; eating ciabattas and nice steak sandwiches out on the pavement and staring at the waitresses’ tattoos; trying my best not to scold my housemate for her irritating American up tightness and her hard-to-please coffee snobbery. (Melbourne’s obsession with the soluble drug caffeine has fed this YUPPIE pathology - but it hasn’t claimed this aloof Londoner). But it is fun to explore the various cafes and eateries in the area - many have the décor equivalent of lo-fi music - deliberately shabby, low-key or bare with ironic menus such as up-market beans-on-toast. People dress with that boho chic and it’s all a bit pretentious - but it’s so much better than the ‘uniform’ of oversized sunglasses and Roman sandals that Brisbane presented. I can’t really reference it to London because I’ve never lived in Boho’ central - but I guess the closest to it is perhaps a blend of Clapham and Shoreditch - God, that sounds awful.

I like cycling around the pretty streets lined with quaint shabby colonial/Federation houses and avant-garde new-builds. I stop off and browse in my local bookshop - Brunswick Bound -which is excellent but also too bloody expensive (a recurring theme of book buying in Oz.) But I’ve since found a very well-stocked local second hand bookshop staffed by a jocular beardy fellow from Armagh - who not only introduced himself but promptly invited me to come back and have some beers that evening. I didn’t (typical Londoner).

I have been socialising though. The American woman I live with invited me to dinner with friends in Richmond, a Vietnamese area of the city. And despite her being practically teetotal the after dinner drinks meant I got talking to her friend’s boss/friend. Not only was Clare a hip graphic designer with three years experience in Stockholm but she also ran her own company at a studio in the city; suffice to say she was well-up on the cultural happenings in the city. Cue Saturday excursion to the gold mining town of Bendigo with its fine art gallery and mine tours. Another Saturday and this time to the rolling hills of the Yarra Valley - a wine area east of the city and the beautiful Tarrawarra Museum of Art (and winery). We caught the last day’s showing of the exhibition George Baldessin- an Italia born artist who was killed aged 39 back in the 1970s. The etchings were interesting, the paintings less so but the metal sculpture was pretty cool - oversized pears made of bronze. Clare then took us to the Heide Museum of Modern Art - was an artist haven from the 1930s to the 1950s provided by a young rich couple In the main gallery was the contemporary modern sheeeite which produced utter boredom, bordering on a desire for a rampage through the place demanding: “Tell me where the art is! Tell me where the art is!”. Modern art more often than not produces a spiritual depression within me - a sort of nihilism. post-modern and architecturally significant (if cold) house that was built later on had more interesting stuff however. For example the genuinely startling series by Charles Blackman’s eerie series of a solitary school girl. I’m trying not to make that sound creepy.

Melbourne takes its drinking seriously and I’m grateful there are a variety of bars, pubs and drinking dens: one of my favourites Claire has introduced me to is the Carlton Hotel Bar. It has three floors (including a rooftop bar surrounded by skyscrapers) and lots of stuffed animals from someone’s African safari. But my favourite so far is probably Siglo which sits on a roof on top of the cigars and leather sofas Supper Club, which sits on top of the European - a great place for eating on Spring Street; to top it all off it directly overlooks the flood-lit Victorian parliament building. I love the huge mural of the Royal crest which is painted on the a building adjacent to the bar. The wine list is expensive and no doubt classy but I’ll stick with what I know - the beer list has good Belgians and is esoteric enough that even I’d not heard of most of them (even a Campaign for Real Ale flirt like me). There are a few more bars in the vicinity that I like to go to in the city, one is Mrs Parma - which serves varieties of the peculiarly Victorian take on the Parmigiana aka the Parma (a large chicken breasts schnitzel topped with Italian tomato sauce, cheese, and sometimes ham or bacon, generally accompanied by chips and/or salad) a popular pub dish. It’s not bad but pretty hefty in size. The place is unique in that it serves locals brews on tap such as Hargreaves Hill Hefeweizen and Mountain Goat Hightail Ale - sadly they are all served as if air conditioning had never been invented and are freezing cold.

Chinatown is in a similar area in Little Bourke Street andd I’m afraid the one pace I’d been to wasn’t very good, but then I’m not sure if dumplings are meant to have burnt arses or not.

Clare and I were sort of seeing each other during this time and it seemed that all the boxes were ticked; looks, ambitious and successful business woman, cultural tastes, music, her own place, lots of books, artistically inclined, successful family of wine and filmmakers British background. But, I’m either allergic to relationships or hyper realistic about them and I called it off before things moved any further along the road.

Festivals seem to happen regularly here - which is a very good thing indeed because there’s always something to look forward to. The French Film Festival was pretty good for all of the one single film I went to see - but what a great choice it turned out to be. Not only was there a French band playing traditional Frenchy music but there was also free Kronenbourg beers, oh and the film, Incognito turned out to be one of the funniest and most enjoyable movies I’ve seen in ages. Who’d have thought it? I need not go into the details of the German Film Festival or the Food and Wine Festival - but it just goes to show that there’s stuff to see and do here.

The most recent thing I’ve seen is the acclaimed Melbourne International Comedy Festival - which isn’t particularly cheap (around 25 dollars per show - 15 quid) but makes up for it in sheer size and variety. There’s that word again. I was pining for home by this time and so I went to see a best-of the Edinburgh Comedy Festival show - but if I’m honest - and I will be - out of the three acts only Carey Marx was laugh-out-loud funny and original too. Dipping into the wallet again on Tight-arse-Tuesdays along with all the students I wanted to see Tim Key’s show called, wait for it, The Slutcracker but it was sold-out and I settled for Essex comic Russell Kane instead. The local rag describes like so: “His ability to display the cerebral, emotional, visceral and cultural without coming off as a tosser - well, that’s the irresistible mark of Kane.” The Age. He was bloody brilliant and a good tonic to being so far from home - good British balls-in-the-air sense of humour. Alas the comedy fest had to be ruined by going to see a local comedy act playing above a bar. It was Tracy from Tyrone who thought it might be worth going to. I blindly went along forgetting that comedy stand up doesn’t tend to reach those green parts. There was only 4 unimpressed people in the room, and I think one of them was his hot (and clearly delude) girlfriend. It's seeing this kind of amateur rubbish that makes you appreciate all the more what an art good stand-up is.

That’s been the only down side of my stay in Melbourne so far. Not bad considering - and it wasn’t even my choice! So, in answer to my sister’s question of Melbourne being a “bit boring” I assured her. “Of course, it’s not got the big block-buster sights like Sydney, but it’s definitely a cool place and I'm really enjoying it”. Or rather, as one wit had it: “Melbourne’s the book - but Sydney’s the movie!”.

What I'm reading:

The Places in Between by Rory Stewart
In January 2002 Rory Stewart walked across Afghanistan -- surviving by his wits, his knowledge of Persian dialects and Muslim customs, and the kindness of strangers.

Additional photos below
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18th June 2011

State Library of Victoria
Hey mate, That's not Parliament Building, it's the State Library of Victoria. I hope you had a look inside :)
21st June 2011

Cheers fella; duly corrected - neo classical architecture, eh?

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