Melbourne by the book

Many a wordsmith has taken to the page to immortalise ‘their’ city. John Bailey asks some of our best-known for their favourite reads.

Melbourne is a city divided. We love to carve it up, to find evermore ways to insist that it’s more than just indistinguishable grey. The river that bisects us becomes a symbol of north versus south. Our footy teams mark the imaginary territories of warring tribes. Tram lines develop followers and the characters of suburbs are more familiar to us than the people who populate them. Even the weather seems to conspire against a stable identity.

Then there’s the writing. It’s more appropriate to speak of Melbourne in the plural, and our authors have given us more Melbournes than any one city deserves. The Sunday Age asked a range of Melburnians with a readerly bent to nominate the book that best describes their Melbourne. The responses take us from the swamps of 1850s Mordialloc and the gaslit inner-city byways of the 1800s to the kebab shops and delis of Sydney Road today.

To beg a favourite of Melbourne Writers Festival director Steve Grimwade seems akin to demanding of him his favourite child. His head tells him to nominate James Boyce’s 1835, a historical account of the city’s founding, but his heart takes him to ”those books which bring memory alive”. Christos Tsiolkas’ Loaded ”helps me recall slightly younger years, vital with music and dancing. Unlike The Slap, which makes me think of my current years, amidst screaming kids.”

But most often, Grimwade says, ”it’s the poets I return to, their distillations of Melbourne a Melway map to my heart: from Alicia Sometimes’ St Kilda via Kieran Carroll’s [Talking to] Richmond Station to the sly-grog joints of Pi O’s Collingwood.

”Whenever I’m traipsing across the city and I want a grin, I bring to mind any of Shane Maloney’s trilogy, with Murray Whelan making his gloriously cynical way across town to unravel a story of intrigue while his own life is unravelling around him.”

Grimwade is just one respondent to name-check that most archetypal fictional Melburnian. Author Robert Newton picks the first of the Whelan trilogy, Stiff, as his favourite evocation of the city, offering a passage to prove the point: ”Melbourne’s main north-south axis was a clotted artery of souvlaki joints and low-margin, high-turnover business. Half the Mediterranean Basin had been depopulated of its optimists in order to line Sydney Road with free-wheeling enterprise. Bakeries and furniture shops run by Abruzzesi and Calabresi sat cheek by jowl with the delicatessens of Peloponnesian Greeks and the bridal boutiques of Maronite Lebanese … The promise of strong black coffee loitered in the air and through the windows of the Cafe de la Paix, the Tivoli and the Lakonia I could see men bent over tiny cups of bracing black nectar …”

”A master of the one-liner,” Newton says. ”Maloney’s writing forces you to stop and reread the many gems that are littered throughout the pages and his description of Chinatown had me craving Peking duck. If someone asked me to choose three people I’d invite to a dinner party, Murray Whelan would be the first.”

Kate Holden first read Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip about 25 years ago, but one image in the novel is still fixed in her mind: ”It comes to me on warm nights, when Melbourne exhales its particular intoxicating evening fragrance of cooling bluestone, cat pee, peppercorn trees, naked skin, burnt moths in street lights, lemon-tree leaves and beer.”

The scene has the protagonist, Nora, dinking daughter Gracie on a 2am bike ride through Carlton: ”The moon hung in the deep, deep blue sky; the air was dotty with stars. We sailed serenely through floods of warm autumn air.”

”I can so easily feel those floods,” Holden says.

”Ormond Hall. Tolarno’s in St Kilda. The book strides up Easey and Peel streets in Collingwood and saunters through the Edinburgh Gardens to the Fitzroy Baths. The characters don’t visit these places. They live there. Ten years after my high school encounter with Garner’s Melbourne, I would be living a similar life in the same places.”

A comparable evocation of the Melbourne of her youth is what attracts Libbi Gorr to Jeff Apter’s new book, Shirl: The Life of Legendary Larrikin Graeme ‘Shirley’ Strachan. Apter describes the Skyhooks frontman as ”a bloke from the suburbs”.

Gorr says: ”I reckon that’s the clue as to why we loved Skyhooks so. The psyche of the group spans so many Melbourne suburbs, from Eltham and Warrandyte, the stomping ground of key creative bass man Greg Macainsh, to the blistering claustrophobia of West Melbourne’s Festival Hall.”

Novelist Honey Brown finds something crucial in Melbourne’s music scene, too, when describing Lily Bragge’s memoir, My Dirty Shiny Life: ”No other crowd of people celebrate sticky pub carpet quite like Melburnians, and Lily’s tale is lifted straight from the floors of the tawdriest venues,” Brown says. ”There’s a complete and utter lack of banality and small talk; it’s the literary equivalent to a seasoned rocker’s ‘Go hard or go home’.”

For Toni Jordan, it’s Michelle de Kretser’s third novel, The Lost Dog, that crystallises some essence of the city. It’s ”not one of those novels where you recognise every street corner and cafe”, she says.

”Melbourne is certainly identifiable, but it’s the energy of the place that’s so vivid. Perhaps this is the benefit of seeing Melbourne with fresh eyes: de Kretser was born in Sri Lanka and her protagonist, Tom Loxley, is from India. The Melbourne in this novel is utterly real, and I think that’s in the way de Kretser uses contrasts: Tom’s memories of his south-Asian childhood versus his rich yet sterile life in modern Australia; the avant-garde art scene of Richmond versus sandstone academia.”

Jordan says that the novel also offers a vivid sense of Melbourne’s progress through time. ”The object of Tom’s affection, Chinese-Australian artist Nelly Zhang, lives in a converted factory and the idea of transforming and reusing the industrial past as our inner suburbs gentrify is a motif that keeps appearing. Also, a large part of the book is set in the bush on Melbourne’s outskirts. The clever way that de Kretser contrasts the city with this ‘other’ Australia makes it clear that our experience of the bush and the city are constructions in our postmodern comedy of manners. The city is the place we modify: art created with our own hands. The bush is the place that still scares us, where dogs go missing and anything can happen.”

It’s Jordan’s latest novel, Nine Days, that author and The Big Issue books editor Chris Flynn points to as an essential Melbourne read: ”The entire plot revolves around a single house in Richmond, and is based upon a devastatingly moving and romantic photograph from The Argus archives, depicting a soldier leaning down from a train carriage to kiss his beloved goodbye as he heads off to war.”

Flynn describes the book as one of the best he’s read in recent years and one that will set the new standard to beat in terms of its rendering of Melbourne: ”Imagine The Slap, set in Richmond, with less swearing and a more historical sweep. Richmond looms large throughout, of course: its backstreets, its working-class roots, its colour and life.”

Jordan’s historical turn might be a reflection of other authors’ growing interest in Melbourne’s past. Writer-performer Jane Clifton and ABC Books and Arts Daily presenter Michael Cathcart hold up Fergus Hume’s 1886 thriller The Mystery of a Hansom Cab as a possible key to the city we live in today.

Outside Collins Street’s Scots’ Church, Cathcart says, ”a gas lamp glows in the darkness. A horse-drawn cab pulls up to collect two gentlemen, one apparently so drunk that he cannot stand. They are bound for St Kilda. But when the cabman reaches St Kilda Junction, he discovers that the drunk passenger has been murdered. The other passenger has vanished into the night.”

”The crime takes place in the eponymous hansom cab during a trip along St Kilda Road,” Clifton says. ”In company with the shrewd, wily and unfortunately named Detective Gorby we retrace that journey and, really, we could have touched on and off with our myki cards, the view out the window seems so familiar.”

”To be honest, I can never quite remember who murdered whom or why,” Cathcart says. ”But what I cannot forget is the way the book’s grid of Melbourne’s streets marks out the zones of class. Fashionable people promenade under the gas lights of Collins Street. Down the side lanes, there is darkness where people live in poverty and crime.”

Clifton points to Hansom Cab’s detailing of ”the terrace houses of East Melbourne, the nouveaux-riches mansions of the erstwhile elegant, bayside St Kilda and the squalor of the opium dens that flourished around the Chinatown district” as insights into the social contours that still shape Melbourne today.

Author and birdwatcher Sean Dooley offers an even older text as his favourite: H.W. Wheelwright’s 1861 Bush Wanderings of a Naturalist is ”laden with more resonance than any other book I have read about Melbourne”.

Wheelwright was ”neither a particularly brilliant writer nor even naturalist”, Dooley says, but his descriptions of the once-rich swamps of Elwood and West Melbourne and the sandbelt of Beaumaris, Sandringham and Cheltenham provoke ”both a sense of continuity and dissonance with the past”.

Bookseller and writer Corrie Perkin finds just as much interest in the topography of the city, nominating Kristin Otto’s Yarra: A Diverting History of Melbourne’s Murky River as her must-read. ”It remains my favourite non-fiction book about Melbourne, largely because Otto’s writing style is so fresh and devoid of turgid scholar-speak,” Perkin says. ”But her research is thorough, and in her hands the Yarra story of Aboriginal settlement, European settler development, urban expansion, community abandonment, then, in the 1980s and 1990s, rediscovery, comes to life.”

For historian David Day, the intersections of Melbourne’s cultural and geographical histories prove a point of fascination. He names Tony Moore’s recent Dancing with Empty Pockets as a work that reveals the ”patchwork quilt” of Melbourne, ”where drama and unconventionality competed for attention amongst the dullness and conformity”.

The book describes the bohemian, at times radical, culture that has existed in Melbourne since the 1860s but too rarely makes it into the textbooks.

Poet and broadcaster Alicia Sometimes, too, finds a ”delicious eye-opener” in Jeff and Jill Sparrow’s Radical Melbourne: A Secret History. ”Who knew Her Majesty’s Theatre once heard the cries of ‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’ as parts of her held the beginnings of the Melbourne Anarchist Club, or that gun lofts were designed for Parliament House so if protesters got a little too unruly, well, maybe they could be sorted out?”

But maybe the final word on literary Melbourne should go to those who know words best: writer Josephine Rowe works in a bookshop and chooses the tale of another bookseller as her guide to the city.

Lisa Lang’s Utopian Man reimagines the life of E.W. Cole, the ”eccentric visionary” whose 1880s book arcade off Bourke Street incorporated monkeys, a brass band, a Chinese tea salon and 2 million books.

”One of the things I love about Utopian Man is the Melbourne that Lang so sensorily presents. It’s instilled with a vibrancy and richness that are missing from a lot of other written histories, both fictional and factual. We had Turkish baths here! We had an arcade full of books and monkeys! After reading it I was left with a sense that, despite Melbourne’s comparative youth as a city, there are innumerable contrasting identities layered behind its facades.”

Source: Melbourne by the book
John Bailey
August 12, 2012 |

Knowledge test for book detectives

Think you know literary Melbourne? Put yourself to the test by working out the locations described in the following lines taken from the pens and keyboards of our local authors. Answers below.

■ ”The wind pushed at my front, the mudguards rattled so fiercely, I thought the machine would fly apart. Down and round the wide metal curve, over the river almost invisible among humped trees, on my left the convent low down on its mediaeval banks, ancient trees shadowing its courts; and on to ——– Street, slowing down from flight and back to legwork along the narrow road between rows of closed factories.”

■ ”At the time it was still cheap enough for students to live there, in tattered but elegant old flats in leafy streets … On weekends people came in from all over town, to drink, swim, and loiter at shop windows in ——- Street; at night the place had certain streets where girls wore very little, even in winter, and there were cars going around and around.”

■ ”Across the road sat ——, its floodlit facade looming like the screen of a drive-in movie, a faceless wall of austere grey basalt. Extending along the foot of the wall was a shallow ornamental moat, walled by a low stone parapet. In the moat stood a gigantic multi-hued beast with three legs and a head at each end.”

■ ”It was a tough neighbourhood but not as lethal as Collingwood or Fitzroy. Melbourne University students occupied the plentiful, cheap housing to be found along its wide, tree-lined boulevards and kept the local economy going. Italian culture ruled the ‘hood with their cafes, macellerias, bombonieri, delicatessens and home-roasted beanery.
”——- was a long way from Caulfield, let alone Burwood.”

■ ”With the demise of summer, the town seemed to settle back on itself, to mellow […] From where she sat, she could see the quiet little foreshore with its white bandstands framed by Norfolk pine. Beyond that, the road swept up the hill into the township. She could see the rooves of the cottages, peeping out from amidst the straggle of ti-tree.”

The Melbourne Writers Festival begins on August 23.


Johnson Street, Abbotsford – Monkey Grip, Helen Garner; Acland Street, St Kilda – In My Skin, Kate Holden; the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne – The Brush-Off, Shane Maloney; Carlton – The Address Book, Jane Clifton; Sorrento – Hotel Sorrento, Hannie Rayson.


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