by Jo Case
Sophie Cunningham’s Melbourne is not your average local history book. Stories of Cunningham’s school days in Hawthorn and publishing adventures in Fitzroy and Carlton sit alongside the colonial settlement of Melbourne, the damming and many diversions of the Yarra, and events like the West Gate Bridge disaster of 1970, in which 35 construction workers fell to their deaths, or the infamous Hoddle Street massacre. Cunningham writes, ‘The cityscape has been embroidered over the years with impressions of these larger public dramas, moments that nestle alongside more private and fleeting experiences.’
What makes Melbourne different – and completely engrossing – is this patchwork of public and private. It’s the difference between riding an official tour bus around a city and having a resident take you on a personal journey, stopping by their favourite haunts while telling you stories that reflect the broader history of a city. The former is about getting an overview of agreed-upon significant icons and events; the latter is a deeper, if necessarily narrower, experience. It’s about sampling the soul of a city, which is what Cunningham does brilliantly.
Melbourne is ‘a city of inside places and conversation’, she writes. ‘It’s a city that lives in its head’. And so it’s appropriate that much of the book deals with Melbourne’s cultural life, often drawing on the various essays Cunningham commissioned and published during her three years at the helm of Meanjin. She writes about the importance of AFL, which turns the city into ‘a network of warring winter tribes’, explaining the history of the game, but also sharing her passion for Geelong and its integral role in her long-term relationship. She charts the city’s evolving culinary history, the evolution of the comedy festival, the city’s music and theatre scenes, and of course, the world of books and publishing, which she explores from the inside.
What really makes it so pleasurable, though, is the novelistic telling, immersing the reader in Cunningham’s Melbourne. The monstrously hot day in 2009 that spawned the Black Saturday bushfires is characterised in the inner-city by possums falling ‘dead, out of the trees’ in the Carlton Gardens and at the zoo by ‘lions lying on their backs, sprinklers cooling them’. The sense of contemporary Melbourne being overlaid on the site of a displaced earlier civilisation – another world altogether – is evoked by descriptions of ‘the waterfall that once fell around where Queen Street in the city now meets the river’ and the fact that ‘Melbourne’s bike trails trace the tracks used by the Kulin nation’.
The differences between the post-settlement Melbourne of 100 years ago and the present are starkly evoked, too. In a pleasingly macabre image, I learned that much of today’s Queen Victoria markets are built on the grounds of what was Melbourne’s first formal cemetery. (Forty-five bodies were exhumed to accommodate the expansion of the markets!) And I was shocked and frustrated to discover that, ‘In 1929, more suburban trains left Flinders Street Station in peak hour than they do now, they were more likely to be on time, and the city was considered to have one of the best railway systems in the world.’
And as a final layer, there are the cultural changes the average middle-aged person has seen (though maybe not thought too hard about) over their lifetime. The recent phenomenon of ‘bucket back’ among Melburnians watering their gardens with assorted buckets of hoarded shower water is juxtaposed with 1970s (and 80s) childhoods running under sprinklers on green lawns, a ‘lush image of excess’ that seems ‘as exotic, as decadent, as dated, as Mad Men’s Don Draper drinking whiskey for breakfast’.
The overall effect is a kind of collage of an ever-changing city, a carefully compiled album of snapshots that reflect one person’s considered experience of Melbourne. To be pored over, perhaps, over a drink at Fitzroy’s Standard Hotel, or St Kilda’s Leo’s Spaghetti Bar … or one of the many other local haunts favoured by this tour guide.
Jo Case is the editor of Readings Monthly and associate editor of Kill Your Darlings journal. You can follow her on Twiiter - @jocaseau.
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