State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 83 May 2009


Chris Wallace-Crabbe
Sweet Yarra, Run Softly

‘To join the public, it is not necessary for a man to go to some particular spot; he can sit at home, open a newspaper or turn on his TV set’
W. H. Auden Wrote this, indirectly deploring the disappearance of particular, hallowed, lived-in public spaces, forty-seven years ago.1 At that stage he had no prevision of the destruction of private space that was going to be caused by the mobile phone. But for all that, we still hang on to our sacred places where we can: and in my case the valued personal city is rambling Melbourne, settled from Tasmania in 1835 and enormously dispersed, or bloated, since then.
Let us turn back for a moment. In the early 1840s a visitor to this settlement wrote with some perplexity that ‘The town itself covers a considerable space of ground; not so much from the number of its dwellings, as from a propensity that disposes the houses all over the colony to keep away at the farthest distance from each other consistent with convenience’.2 In this respect little has changed, except for the hill-seeking scale of our metropolitan sprawl.
The Garden State used to be paraded on the number plates of our innumerable cars, and its capital was long celebrated as a city of gardens, which partly made up for its deficiency in the matter of hills. But years of drought have put not a damper but its arid opposite on that. Gardens are harder work these dry, busy days. Still, few of us, except for trendy youngish groovers, would relish living in flats, or that's what I like to hope. Moreover, those of our number who do live in what are nowadays called ‘apartments’, an oxymoronic noun, since they live much closer together than do neighbours in houses, but are said to have a Good View: mind you, if we turn back to Auden, he once declared that a poet could not possibly write well in a room with a view.
I am still fond of a comment of Des Fennessy's, offered back in 1952, that ‘flats are considered in Melbourne to be strangely immoral’;3 certainly my late aunt Violante would have thought them only suitable for those whom she called ‘gay bachelors’, whatever ‘gay’ meant back in those days before SBS television, hip-hop and visible bra-straps.
Australia is polycentric, with a loose handful of state capitals, which are in turn kept at a good distance from each other. Hence they are commonly compared with one another, generating a family of traditional jokes, like the one about the Opera House: ‘the exterior is in Sydney, the interior in Melbourne and the car park in Adelaide’. But the former two cities are on a scale so different from our other capitals to be other in kind from them, even from burgeoning Brisbane, which now provides us with political leaders, astonishingly.
In some respects, footy and geological shaping aside, Melbourne and Sydney are remarkably alike, although it is not easy to confess this. Size, and an angloid colonial foundation ensure that there is little substantial difference, other than that occasioned by landscape. The mythic beliefs persist: down here everyone wears black, not merely the gangsters of Underbelly; our politics are hard Left but socially conservative; everyone who is anyone has been to a private school; we have almost all the serious cultural journals. Right-wing Sydney on the other hand has the charm school, a mardi gras, beaches and cocktail bars.
Once upon a time I was persuaded to write an essay about my home city under the title, ‘Melbourne in 1963’ which was later collected into a book.4 That was more than half a century ago and a lot of silt-bearing water has flowed under Princes Bridge since then. About the same time I wrote about it in verse, hammering out an eponymous paysage moralisé in which our social character was read from our flat topography and landlocked bay: the poem came to its conclusion, by way of a young man's arrogance, with the line, ‘Though much has died here, little has been born’. Originally it had ended with ‘nothing has been born’ but a poetry-writing doctor pointed out to me that ours is an outstanding city for medical research and its beneficial results. Poetry must respect truth, even if art triumphs in the end.
So, what is the city that I see now? Can I characterize its multiplicity of effects?
What can Jonah say about the whale if he lives inside it? From the Brunswick window where I write, I only see rough grasses, grapevine, a tall ironbark, the low hedge and the gabled terra-cotta of the house directly opposite: nothing beyond this but small clouds and sky. Even before I moved here I regarded that droll film, ‘Death in Brunswick’, as typical of something about us. Yet we all should know that Melbourne's is a conurbation that has altered radically. We are a long way from the suburbville that was affectionately depicted in Bruce Dawe's early poems.
The changes over these last four decades have been remarkable. Once we were neighboured by Anglo-Celts, Italians, Greeks and Balts, broadly speaking. Now the deadend streetlet where I live has Indians, Vietnamese, Chinese, Germans and Lebanese. Meanwhile the city has two dominantly Viet suburbs, while one area has running trouble between police and young Somalis: or so it is reported. And, worse, some Pacific Island youths are said to go in for ‘curry-bashing’, recreating the unfortunate tensions of Fiji. There was even incipient trouble just over the back from us, because of the radical preaching of the local imam.
If we turn to tango, there is quite an increase in Spanish-speakers, not all of them soccer players. By which token, we still inhabit the footy capital, but soccer comes on apace; and we even have a top Rugby League team! In one historical change, the ethic names for our soccer teams have gone: farewell Wilhelmina, George Cross, Polonia, Brunswick
Juventus (where my sons learned their football, to use the international noun) and South Melbourne Hellas. It must be admitted that the game has prospered accordingly, with crowds and with national results.
A propos of soccer, a recent event in this city, which deserved to please everyone, was the World Cup for homeless footballers, played in Federation Square, the city's symbolic heart; in the most pleasing possible outcome, Afghanistan were the winners.
Let's face it: we live in a metropolis that sprawls, like those in the American mid-west. Our ‘bungalows’, as the curious Poms used to name them, trail out and out, although recently there has been a great increase in double-storeyed building, even – or especially – in outer, working-class areas, where environmentally unsuitable McMansions squat hugely on their blocks; after all, the kids don't play outside any more. Electronic entertainments rule, at the expense of literacy, and at the expense of active Christianity.
Taking the helicopter view you could envisage the suburbs as lying in concentric bands, like a target, but they gradually change their flavours, as rainbow balls do.
Centrifugally or centripetally? Our citizens look for homes inward or outward. In general the smart, educated or arty middle-classes move in: to lofty rugged apartments above bleak streets; or to warehouses reminiscent of the years when this was an industrial state; or to 1880s terraces, renovated twice or thrice by now and handy to university or to the kids’ school. Immigrant families are much more likely to move well out, especially in the second generation. Out there, public transport being thinner, they are likely enough to comprise three-car families and to be nervous about the price of petrol, which goes up and down like a lavatory seat. But the rule of what I once called the ‘remorseless cars’ has been memorably anatomized by Graeme Davison in his Car Wars.5
The in-between suburbs are generally prosperous, their streets well-treed, in a deciduous manner, yet as my teenage son once asked, ‘What do they do there?’
We know the answer now: when in doubt they join the majority by playing video games or blogging one another. The Orient rules our postmodern lives, just as it makes the products we buy from the shops, which in turn will often be located in bulky centrifugal centres: instant cities for scattered suburbia. But what does middle-Essendon think about our society? Or Highett, once put into saucy song by Barry Humphries? Or Hoppers Crossing, a name that would appear to commemorate some past plague of locusts?
What they would all have in common is anxiety about transport. Oscillations in the price of petrol have accelerated this recently, putting the kibosh on big cars and Toorak tanks. Newspapers, lacking much else in the reign of tranquil governments, print transport pieces just about every day; but the trams and trains still won't get out to most of our outer suburbs, so we have new reports, plans, schemes, and further consultations. You could say that the Second Law of Thermodynamics applies to urban transport, just as the Book of Revelation sheds light on global warming.
Which brings us to the inevitable issue of pollution and carbon bootprints. A recent
newspaper article cited a State commissioner for environmental matters who had said that ‘If everyone lived like Victorians, almost four planets would be needed’.6 That's what we face, having inherited a brown coal state and its by-products.
But some old areas resist this standardization of ownership and effect. Around us, along the archaic Sydney Road, there remains a whole gallimaufry of quaint shops and mysterious businesses. Bride-shops display their shirred and crinkled white creations. The Lebanese cake shops with their sticky, syrupy delights survive, but smart coffee shops are moving steadily north into our territory: not that this distresses us, creatures of the coffee age.
Meanwhile, new bookshops appear, for the bookish.
It's a pity, though, that our old Turkish favourite, the Halikarnassus, has gone: for some years, indeed. There is an African hairdresser, an archaic Greek barber, and the usual sprinkling of ethnic estate agents, one at least downright squalid. There are Islamic fashions, Franco Cozzo beds, delisted pubs, narrow shops full of Chinese junk (junks?). Of course we are close to Tabets or El Fahir for Levantine pastries, and a large, blank-faced cop shop, keeper of the peace. Most obvious of all would have been those clear windows, vapid remains of four successive shops that were parts of the empire of a fleeing big-timer, whose presence was being sought by extradition order; the luxury apartments platonically there have suddenly vanished and left no trace of their putative existence
If we speak centrifugally, then, the word Melbourne includes Toorak and Taylor's Lakes; St Kilda Upper Esplanade and St Andrews, devastated by this year's firestorm; Half Moon Bay and the classic Burley Griffin subdivisions; the instant faubourg where Pentridge once was and the expensive wilderness of Docklands; the 150-year-old Academy of Mary Immaculate in Fitzroy, and Cranbourne Golf Club out to the south-east, noted for its Jewish members. The city reaches far eastward – ‘Its limbs still kicking feebly on the hills’, as I once wrote – and south-west to Laverton air base. Its central shopping in the CBD has long been subverted by the ziggurats of shoppingtowns and soi-disant malls, though the nineteenth-century Queen Victoria Market remains a target destination, not only for householders but also for tourists.
Even thinking about Vic Market leads us to brooding on food. There is little to be said about this, since everyone agrees about the outstanding range and quality of restaurants here: the old world of angloid vegetable cooking and wartime rationing is the dimmest of memories, although there are still said to be some Sliced Bread Suburbs.
But the signifier, city, can often mean the old heart, the CBD, and about it we are likely to have a whole of feelings. The London of Smollett's Humphrey Clinker comes to mind here; in that hilarious epistolary novel a West Country family comes to London, the turbulent crowds and noisy diversions of which prove infuriating to elderly Matthew Bramble, and a source of delights for his young niece. Most of us are probably Mr Bramble and Lydia at once when it comes to our own downtown bustle and hubbub.
It nourishes our dreams, of course, one recent example working on these grounds. Overnight I had a big, anxious dream. I was to meet the late Ron Simpson, an urban poet and close friend, for lunch in town: Flinders Lane, I think. But first I had to get out of Milan, where I was in a vast estate of Roman ruins. All the ruins were painted or sheathed with a shining mahogany surface; they went on and on, wherever I turned. At last I made my way out but could see no sign of public transport; so I made my way through the urban blocks until I struck a tramline, laterally curving. I asked which way led to Rome, which had become my destination. Neither, I was told. Having looked further, and the locals having no English, I came back to the tramline; one was just leaving but, rushing desperately, I just managed to scramble onto one of the two open invalid waggons at the back… and woke up at the right time, of course.
Milan, I always feel, is the Italian Melbourne. And both enjoy trams as a feature of their public transport.
Other comparisons came to mind for Asa Briggs in his influential book, Victorian Cities.7 He looked at Melbourne alongside Manchester, Leeds, Middlesborough and London, analomizing them all as typical of the High Victorian era, not only in their transport systems but also in their architecture: all those displayed solids of stone and brick, those classical pillars, pediments and graded orders of window. There were the facades of our prosperity.
All this has now become process and transitory product; mere display is now the Ding an sich. The handsome 1880s facades often do little more than mask the steel-and-glass high-rise tucked in behind them. Even the MCG, once the world omphalos of Test cricket, is now little more than one of a set of venues at which sport can be played out for the sake of telly and its advertisers.
To yearn for substance is almost as atavistic as hungering after essence. You might yearn for the past, but when you get back there, there is probably no there, there; or else another set of mythical sites, racist, homophobic, provincial, and steadily nourished on lamb chops with over-cooked carrots.
And what do the artists see of their city? Something between John Brack's cool precision and Peter Booth's dark intensity, I would say; we never seem to escape the dour parade in the former's ‘Five O'Clock, Collins Street’, and Clarice Beckett's cloud-soft suburban streets have become a thing of the past, so far from Howard Arkley's spray-painted villas in lurid, shadeless shades. Of course, it is not incumbent on an artist to read the home city distinctively; there are other fish to fry. Still, one of our painters, the Latvian-born Jan Senbergs, has developed large, expressive overviews of Melbourne, more in the tradition of ebullient Kokoschka than of glumly Mancunian L. S. Lowry.
It was very pleasing to hear that my home city had flowered as UNESCO's World City of Literature: this felt as though I had bet on a horse a fair while back, and it had finally
come galloping home. At the same time, I wondered exactly what the citation meant: was it money as well, or just the gaseous reward of fame? And how was the decision produced? It was all a bit mysterious, but good. And we are repeatedly told that we are readers, a reassuring thought when print culture seems so often to be under threat.
To be sure, we have swags or even hordes of writers these days, and extremely energetic small publishers on hand to pick up the talent that global firms have abandoned or ignored. But what do they depict of our dominant tones or our multiculture? Nobody, in my judgement, can attempt the sweeping view of social mores that characterized suave Martin Boyd; we are too many things at once.
In his hilariously subversive Trap, of 1966, Peter Mathers began to depict our cultural diversity: an expansion now endorsed by some of our immigrant writers like Alex Skovron, Michelle de Kretser, Ouyang Yu and the late Jacob Rosenberg. Also, the poet Dimitris Tsaloumas continues to write both in Greek and in English, and Tony Birch draws upon his inner-city Koori upbringing.
There is no one centre, but there is good writing: Vincent Buckley's Blakean Golden Builders, however Carlton-centred, was perhaps the last body of poetry to seek a unitary Melbourne, a city of God. R. A. Simpson saw nothing larger than an assemblage of suburban vignettes, while Dorothy Porter and Jordie Albiston looked to its criminal narratives for poetic inspiration. Pi O turns oral Richmond into a charivari of ludic voices, while in prose Peter Rose's moving memoir of his brother simultaneously evokes footyholic Collingwood.8
When the chips are down, this city has plenty of everything for one's needs and wishes. There are more concerts, more art shows, than one can ever get along to; quite enough films; but, perhaps, we don't see enough plays of quality. Quite enough art galleries and museums to go round: ditto concerts and plays, even a scattering of operas, while pubs have their gigs and poetry readings, to keep young hands clapping.
The days are long over when all our brands of culture appeared to huddle rowdily together in one city pub, the hyper-bohemian Swanston Family.9
Most pleasures feel accessible, here. It is an open, treed city – too spacious for the future, no doubt – with some clustered foci of creative interaction: just think of greater St Kilda, Richmond, and Brunswick-North Fitzroy, all three mingling varied housing with reused factory spaces. And these three places whirl like planets around a central spine of the Arts Mile, in the middle of which we will blessedly soon have the Centre for Books and Ideas.
As for me, I can write poetry anywhere here, but particularly when walking around. And now I'm off for another creative stroll, but before that, and defying my own strictures about overarching views, here is the buoyant poem I wrote to celebrate last year's UNESCO decision:

A City

Maps of cloud move east above our heads
Yearning toward the thirsty Dandenongs.
We bustle down here, talking hard, and think:
A city of readers, I would like to say,
Even inside these hand-held blackberry years.
Where sandstone rubs against a basalt plain
We built our solid warehouse on foundations
Of fat McSheep, trickling the profits into
Bookshelf and blackboard. The Word remained the word.
Languages need our writing, to survive,
Require a culture razzamatazz with change.
Here, set on chunky stone, in rectangles
Where the Koolin hunters had long been roaming,
We learned to manufacture education:
The word itself was British, for a while.
A city can be the powerhouse of ideas,
Prolific, plural, multitudinous;
The world lives here these days, in miniature,
Jostling, brooding, at peace. That's no small thing:
Our yellow beaches feel like harmony.
Much as the Yarra drifts past, upside-down,
We take ideas and turn them over, knowing
It is the opposite that's good for us,
While, destined for those fire-prone Dandenongs
The maps of cloud swim eastering overhead.
And so, sweet river, continue to run softly.

Title page of Peter Mather's novel Trap (1966). Collection of Gavin De Lacy.


The Dyer's Hand, and other essays, New York: Vintage, 1962, p. 82.


R. D. Murray, from A Summer at Port Phillip (1843), in James Grant and Geoffrey Serle, eds., The Melbourne Scene, 1803–1956, Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 1957, p. 40.


Des Fennessy, from ‘Portrait of the Settlement’, in Grant and Serle, p. 299.


Melbourne or the Bush: essays on literature and society, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1974.


Car Wars: how the car won our hearts and conquered our cities, Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2004.


Jo Chandler, citing Dr Ian McPhail, in the Age, 5 December, 2008, p. 6.


Victorian Cities, London: Oldhams, 1963.


Rose Boys, Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2001.


Located on the north-west corner of Swanston and Little Bourke Streets.