The graffiti might be better in Melbourne. On a fence in a walkway between a church and something else someone had written in permanent marker: “Ange has the biggest vag in Vic”. Whether this was a compliment or not it is certainly a memorable line. Somewhere out near Richmond I noticed that someone had spray painted the window of a shop with the following: “Twitter is bullshit lies”. To be completely fair perhaps “Media is bullshit lies” would have been more accurate.
A very parochial person from Otago might call Melbourne the Dunedin of Australia. It’s another town that gold built. Except after the golden tide receded in Dunedin there has been not much money and the huge old stone buildings that require cash in their veins to stay open are more often than not deserted and tagged. In Melbourne the money has kept coming and their old buildings are still beautiful and thriving.
I think we’re supposed to say Melbourne is like Wellington, but I think this must sound sort of hilarious to an Australian: comparing the older much bigger metropolis to the smaller, younger one. Like going to New York and saying it’s like Lambton Quay. Anyway, Melbourne is flat, and has a river, and appeared to be free of gale force winds and earthquakes when we were there.
We went to Melbourne to see Rufus Wainwright at the Palais Theatre in St Kilda. The Palais Theatre has the look of a beautifully made sandcastle with scalloped details and coloured cellophane inserts. What were its crisp edges have furred a little though, and some of the plaster inside has fallen away. We arrived early and sat on the esplanade watching joggers, and cyclists go by; the arms of the bay sweeping out on either side of the white sandy beach to frame the horizon line where sail boats tracked back and forward. Inside the Palais the orchestra seating is under a vaulting ceiling that allows a gallery behind and an arching coppery proscenium high above the apron of the stage. On the stage was a grand piano, and two guitars in front of a backdrop lit in blue.
After the concert, waiting for a tram back to the city, I thought about the way the dry ice that drifted up at Rufus’ back as he sang Zebulon seemed like a ghost reaching out for but not quite touching him at the shoulder.
When I went to London for the first time it was like being in a dream. We arrived late at night on the train from the airport at Paddington Station. “Paddington Station” I thought with amazement. Paddington Station was, until that moment, only a place in a book I read as a child about a bear. And then there was the black taxi cab, and the streets of old, grey stone buildings behind the bare, black branches of trees in winter. Somehow it was like I wasn’t quite there, like I was the ghosting image behind myself in a slightly de-tuned TV. Places that existed in my imagination existed in reality but differently so; the imaginary place and the real competed in my mind’s eye sometimes jumping into sharp focus and sometimes separating.
Further distortions are added by time. In our three visits to London we always met our friend Matt, and now that Matt is dead something about London has to do with his ghost. I’ve not been back since he died, and I’m not sure that I want to. I feel like going to London and not seeing him would be the final confirmation of his absence that I don’t want.
Something similar to my first experience in London happened in this my first trip to Melbourne. About two years ago I started to discover Australia in books. For some reason I decided to read Australian fiction for a summer and I discovered a whole string of great authors to add to a list that only really had Peter Carey and Tim Winton on it. Seven Little Australians, My Brother Jack, The Magic Pudding. I suddenly began to feel quite bad. In New Zealand we often sneer that Australians know nothing about New Zealand, but the opposite is also true. We are like siblings that sulkily ignore each other in the back seat of the car. All of this of course separates out the indigenous populations from the settlers. The settlers in Australia and New Zealand are like siblings, the indigenous people of those countries are wholly different.
You can read Australian novels and non-fiction and come across whole passages where you feel that you are reading about New Zealand. So it was with a sudden stab of recognition that I read about six o’clock closing in Melbourne decades ago and that hour of drinking in pubs that men squeezed in before heading home for the night with a skinful. A stab of recognition because I thought it was purely a part of New Zealand’s historical identity: the six o’clock swill. Melbourne, by Sophie Cunningham, also talks about the liberalisation of the liquor laws in the 1990s and the sudden rise of cafe and restaurant culture as a result. Which, again, sounds like she could have been writing about New Zealand. As if New Zealand really was just the eighth state of Australia.
And then there is the hatred of suburbia for which I have a deep Man Alone sympathy as do all young colonials in an empty country slowly being filled up (never mind the Aborigines, never mind the Maori). One of my favourite Australian books is My Brother Jack. Towards the end of that book the narrator finds himself living in suburbia, and this realisation – on the roof of his house where he is fixing an antennae – starts his midlife crisis:
[T]here was nothing all around me, as far as I could see, but a plain of dull red rooftops in their three forms of pitching and closer to hand the green squares and rectangles of lawns intersected by ribbons of asphalt and cement, and I counted nine cars out in Beverly Grove being washed and polished…. hedges were clipped and lawns trimmed and beds weeded, and the lobelia and the mignonette were tidy in their borders, and the people would see that these things were so no matter what desolation or anxiety or fear was in their hearts, or what spiritless endeavours or connubial treacheries were practised behind the blind neat concealment of their thin red-brick walls.
And then there is the book called The Australian Ugliness by Robin Boyd.
This is a country of many colourful, patterned, plastic veneers, or brick-veneer villas and the White Australian Policy…. The Melburnian thinks of his city as Alexandra Avenue where it skirts the river and the shady top end of Collins Street… he dismisses as irrelevant to this vision the nervy miscellany of the main commercial artery, Swanston Street, not to mention the interminable depression of the flat, by-passed inner suburbs. Most Australian children grow up on lots of steak, sugar, and depressing deformities of nature and architecture.
This book was published in the 1960s but its criticism still smarts. Some of it is undoubtedly snobbish, and some of it is laceratingly accurate: of Australia and New Zealand. It is amazing how often reading Australian books is like reading a science fiction world in which a set of authors has imagined a slightly distorted New Zealand, a New Zealand that exists in a parallel universe both connected to recognisable moments in its actual history and divorced from them.
Paul Kelly may as well be describing growing up in Paraparaumu in the 80s as growing up in Adelaide in the 70s.
Real life was elsewhere. I couldn’t wait to get out of town fast enough. Of course, everything was happening in Adelaide all along… enough for a thousand novels, movies, songs. I never had to leave home at all. But you don’t know you don’t until you do.
So in Melbourne the city seemed like a version of Dunedin, a version of Wellington, a version of itself; like being in that parallel, shifting, de-tuned place.
In Melbourne the people are thin and well-dressed. There were a lot of stiletto heels and a lot of smoking. I thought both had gone out of fashion. I thought sensible shoes and wishing you could smoke were the new thing. Not there. Young men with beards were commonplace, as were young men with shaved back and sides and a mop of styled hair on top. In fact a man with a beard, in stilettos, with the shaved mop, puffing a fag and talking into the little nub on their headphone cord might be a symbol of young, urban Melbourne.
Or is it the sound of the tram bells, and the hard metallic crack of the tram wheels singing through the tracks, and trees with fine papery bark that flakes off and leaves a variegated trunk of soft browns and greys. Statues and church spires. The Victorian solidity of public buildings in rich red brick with tan trims running along the rims of the arches on the colonnades. Groups of school girls in light gingham dresses and boys in blazers with satchels. Or is it a trolley bus to Lambton Quay, and a statue of a man with a dog leaping at his side, and the steps leading up the hill past the cafes and the tree with the plaque at its foot where the wind blows men’s pants and women’s skirts hard against the leg.
No actual ghosts in Melbourne though. Just the one I carry around all the time called myself. The self I was. He had a trip out when we met two friends for dinner. We last met 14 years ago in London. 14 years ago neither couple had children and now we have four little girls between us. The dinner was loud and bright in a vast white space thrumming to music and shouted conversation. A long bar, a jumble of tables, and waiters (shaved, bearded, thin). The bar we went to afterwards was dark, and empty and almost silent with low chairs that encouraged the middle-aged to slumber, and apologise for stifled yawns.
We said goodbye out on the lane somewhere in Chinatown and went our ways. In another version of our lives Cathy and I might have lived in Melbourne. In that version we would not have been walking back to our hotel we would have been heading back to our house. Who would we be then? Who would are children be? Parts of this image are appealing, but it’s the deletions I don’t want. I’d rather the daughters I have now than any others. Rather the house I live in now than the terrace somewhere in suburban Melbourne.
Better to be comfortable with who you are, and accept that the world will always be ghosting about and within you.