How do we think about Melbourne?

Melway Edition 1, 1966

Review: When we think about Melbourne: the imagination of a city, Jenny Sinclair, Affirm Press, 2010, Melbourne

One of the observations made by Jenny Sinclair in When we think about Melbourne really strikes a chord with me – just how different the city is when you see it from the saddle of a bicycle. In this extract, she’s just cycled up the middle of St Georges Rd to Reservoir:

Perched on my bike on the track that runs through the park opposite these fine houses, I look down across Preston, Glenroy and to the city, and think: ‘it’s all downhill from here’. When I get home, I felt my sense of the world had expanded a little. Moments like this, of unexpected connection and revelation – I call them ‘surprised by joy’ moments after Wordsworth’s poem – come when we immerse ourselves, when we walk and ride; they are why we should get out of our cars for ourselves, not ‘just’ for the environment or for exercise

Cycling through the city is one of those pleasures that other less-fortunate souls haven’t experienced. Seeing the arse-end of factories from inner city bike trails, the undulating topography, the small exchanges of street life, or the great complexity and detail of inner suburban streetscapes that otherwise might seem regular and monotonous, is to be privy to a hidden world.

Cycling features prominently in When we think about Melbourne, but according to the author its prime concern is with what we talk about when we talk about place. It’s about the way Melbourne is represented. It’s about:

how we grapple with the world around us and turn it into stories, pictures and songs, with Melbourne acting as a kind of oversized artists model….The only way I could come to the question of place with any level of insight was to use what I have best access to – my own memories of life lived in Melbourne, and how the world of those artists, musicians, writers and cartographers has spoken to me

The author looks at how Melbourne has been approached by painters, musicians, novelists and film makers. She explores how television, the souvenir industry and the internet have interpreted the city and how indigenous and non-indigenous people see each other.

The book opens with a spatial interpretation of Melbourne through the “lens” of the Melway refidex. Ms Sinclair frets that her book will only be known for this chapter but that’s probably inevitable. That’s because it’s innovative and creates wonderful behavioural and emotional “maps”:

You’re cycling down Canning Street, Carlton (Ref: 29 K12) towards the city, your earphones whisper the stories to you: this house was built with blood money, a murdering brother’s inheritance; the two genteel English sisters who lived in the terraces named ‘Irene’ and ‘Elaine’ were actually lovers, fooling the neighbours for forty years.

The use of maps as a device to interpret and decode is continued in the next chapter. It looks at Melbourne through historical maps, tourist guidebooks and even radical cartography, using the example of a tourist map issued in 1996 by the gay and lesbian community:

Where a government-issue map might show a coffee cup in Lygon street or a lion at the zoo, this one is packed with (iconic) stereotypes: pouting drag queens and moustached leather-boys prance across its pages

There’s a chapter on the Melbourne of landmarks and another on transport, but again these are essentially handy vantage points from which the author can draw history, anecdotes and personal experience together to create a sense of what Melbourne is. There’s talk about cycling and public transport but not much about experiencing Melbourne from a car. There’s also little about the suburbs, where the vast majority of the population live – something the author acknowledges is not her experience of Melbourne.

Overlaying all this is a wonderful collection of photographs, diagrams, graphics and images – this is as much a picture book as it is a book of words. The ones that I find especially delightful are the old maps. Affirm Press have posted some sample pages here.

The writer takes pains to tell us in the introduction that this is not a history, a comprehensive list of everything ‘Melbourne’, or an academic treatise. And indeed it’s none of those – this is not the book for you if history is your thing, or ‘facts’ or numbers.

Actually I’m not sure what this book is really about – while I enjoyed it greatly, I didn’t come away with a heightened sense of what Melbourne is or what, in the blurb of the publisher, makes it unique. I’m amused and interested by the various ways Melbourne has been and could be represented, but I want to know “why” and I want to know what it all adds up to. Of course I didn’t grow up here so there might be a dimension I just don’t “get”.

There aren’t many big themes about Melbourne or new insights here either. Tony Wheeler of Lonely Planet fame is quoted as saying that the Bourke St mall is half-arsed, but the possibilities of this observation are ignored. It might’ve been parleyed into a discussion of how there’s something about Melbourne (and there surely is!) that seems to lead to lots of public works being done in a half-arsed way.

Still, that’s probably neither here nor there for most readers. This book is a potpourri of ideas, anecdotes and images that collectively say something about Melbourne based on the readers experience of the city. Jenny Sinclair tells us what it says to her and it will very likely say something a little different to others. Here’s an extract. My advice is read it.

4 Comments on “How do we think about Melbourne?”

  1. Interesting timing to read this blog today.

    I had only just pulled out some old Kodak transparencies (taken when very young) of a very different looking Melbourne, a relatively low rise city where St Pauls Cathedral still dominated the skyline.

    These images included shots of a pre-development Southbank, a birds eye views across the railway lines to the MCG, and a closeup of a very grimy looking Flinders Street Station … with its banner signage advertising the excitement of trips on the Overlander to Adelaide.

    Was a little shocked with how it all looked in retrospect, as I have fond memories of the city at that age. But it really came across as quite dull and boring! In fact, the railway station was the highlight since it at least looked like something actually happened there on a regular basis. And of course it possessed that more ornate and impressive facade!

    If anything, Victorian architecture losses aside, the new Melbourne looks vastly superior – particularly on the Southgate and St Kilda Rd side. (Even if still a generic modern city like all the rest, in visual regard at least.)

    Which leads me to what I really found of interest in your blog today … the simple but insightful notion that a lot of Melbourne’s new showcase additions essentially feel and look half-arsed! (Despite the advances they still potentially represent over what was there in the Fifties and Sixties.)

    There is definitely some truth to this, but I feel it is also a wider Australian truth to a sad extent as well.

    Good design and planning does not have to equate with unachievable costs and expenditures! So why is so much of it truly half-arsed with so many corners cut with regard to the need for much more evident imagination?

    The answer may have resided in the (relatively recent) lack of Aussie concern with aesthetics in general, at least until such time as Burke’s Backyard arrived on the scene.

    There are the contradictions however, like Brisbane’s fairly rapid contemporary transition from ‘thong town’ to – by sharp contrast – sub-tropical wonder town. A city that finally fully embraced (and in very imaginative & design pleasing, people oriented ways) its river, amongst other things.

    Its awareness of the beauty of its new civic landscape designs (starting in a big way with the Expo ’88 site) is also impressive. Victoria’s ‘Garden City’ will have to look to its merits it seems.

    But on the half arsed theme again, what struck me in thinking about this, is whether there are a few full arsed examples of public works in Melbourne. And the immediate thought was yes, and so symbolically so, the MCG! No one could describe the progressions there over time as half arsed … nor the depth and breadth of feelings it engenders when in use.

    I also genuinely like a lot of what has been done with Southbank and the wider cultural precinct. Maybe not Gehry like in terms of immediate impact, but its usage levels speak most loudly. There is a great sense of pedestrian connectivity and it possesses a good modicum of visual appeal for most of its length. And of course it too reflects Melbourne’s signature good food culture. (Notice I intentionally avoided ‘fine food’ culture. Woe any city’s descent into the wine snobbery and foodie obsession DEPTHS! Chill out and just enjoy it all people, for the worthy life pleasure it is, amongst many others.)

    Next fad bus to catch? Boutique/brew pub beers (and about bloody time … what took you so long?

  2. … Incidentally, love the challenge to tourism map making that your example of the gay and lesbian Melbourne map represents! Maps are grossly underestimated for their value and impact and maybe it’s time a lot more imaginative versions such as this were developed!

    I have long tried to disseminate the understanding that a road map is not a tourism map!

  3. Forgot to add that good tourism experiences and memorable city destinations are fundamentally about the great storytelling that they can give rise to.

    But fiction is not the right approach here, instead authentic stories based on the depth and diversity of life and ‘drama’ found beyond the external civic/urban facades is needed. There is no bigger let down than a flash looking city with no inner life or a dull looking city that is found to be even duller when explored below the surface.

    (Think Sydney, before the gay and lesbian communities transformed it into a far more interesting place! And n every conceivable way including foods, bars, entertainment, design aesthetics & values, music venues, business models … basically totally new urban sensibilities and ways of seeing and living!)

    Seeing a city slowly on a bike or on foot with a map or book available that engages your imagination through storytelling excellence, definitely allows your eyes and senses to absorb so much more. Even reproductions of the old (since gone) conjur up new meanings and associations, that can possess real staying power.

    Which leads me to say that I doubt the storytelling potentialities of Federation Square. Brilliant decision to redevelop such an iconic location, but definitely not fully capitalizing on the opportunity. Presumably meaning it must certainly qualify for Melbourne’s ‘HALF ARSED’ list.

  4. […] famous chapter on the Melway, a cartographic delight. Best of all though is this extract from a glowing review by The Melbourne […]

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