The meaning of Melbourne
The meaning of Melbourne
This smell is the first thing I notice. The most basic and primitive of the senses hiding deep in my reptilian brain becomes the primary one triggered by my new surroundings. Sure, I am thrilled to be taking my first steps along cold damp foggy Melbourne streets, yet I am entranced by a smell.
It is the early daylight of a winter morning, the type radio weather reports will grumble into a day of bleakness. I am probably lost and there is another smell competing with the new one- vomit on the end of my sleeping bag hanging out of my rucksack to avoid contaminating its contents. This was sprayed there by another passenger on my overnight bus from Brisbane that has just spat me out near the old Spencer Street Station, a fawn tiled building with toilet block charm.
Anno domini 1969 and I am 19. I hadn’t heard of the baby boom then, but I was born at the height of it. The pretext for my journey is a student arts festival or some such thing. I travel with the title, deputy editor of the Queensand University student magazine, Semper Floreat, but the real reason is more complex than the pretext. I am looking for Michael, a charismatic friend who in my last high school year had helped me discover a whispered world of art, music, literature and curiosity. Disappointed by his final year 12 results, Michael had run from his conservative Catholic family to Melbourne, the only place in Australia that seemed to promise asylum for a young man with such thoughts.
My university arts degree first year, has so far been turgid and disappointing, nothing like the golden uplands I had expected. And there is a further distraction: we are amid the pregnancy of what ultimately proves to be a stillborn student revolution. The demands of Semper Floreat seem my only highlight, except for the occasional letter from Michael which I devour in my guts.
From his irregular scrawl I picture a dreamy world of softly lit overflowing nuance that I can’t help compare with the rigid unforgiving sunlight of mine. In my adolescent Brisbane, time is stuck in sub tropical midday summer glare. It is etched in my mind like an over contrasty photo where that sun blazes above the subject as an inquisitor’s spotlight. So directly is it overhead that people’s eyes are shaded into black empty sockets, faces in the street become walking skulls dessicated by the heat.
This sense of inquisition is more than metaphor. The year was the second in the long Johannes Bjelke Petersen reign as Queensland premier and although few of us had any idea of what was in store, we had warning in 1969 when he banned the record of the musical “Hair.” Fortunately I had already bought a copy, but I was conscious of living in a place that was a city in name only. Brisbanites, swamped by the rural might of conservative censure were constantly made feel mere urban parasites, living off real honest folk who toiled in agriculture. It left such a scar, so deep, I distrust farmers to this day.
Southerners might romance the old Queensland houses on stilts. I spent my teen years in one and I can report it was only a slight improvement on a tent. When I moved to Brisbane from my birthplace Sydney, aged 13, I had a crisis. The new place all seemed so shoddy and temporary. Tin roofed houses with timber walls so thin, you could not only hear someone fart in the next room, you could detect them thinking about it. To make it worse I was forced to sleep on a verandah under a roof of unlined corrugated iron and a row of windows with thin curtains. There was no insulation anywhere in the house, but my section was worse. I was baked like a biscuit in summer, and chilled on the occasional cold winter morning.
Michael, far from this, was establishing himself as an experimental animated film maker. His world, I imagined was housed in old red brick, with warm interiors and even warmer women. He would mingle with artists, writers, and musicians, who took vision transforming drugs and had sex, even with their own gender if they chose. There would also be untasted foods and drinks, flavors that if I could savor, would somehow give air to my suffocated senses. To my family the whole south represented a Sodom and Gomorrah of temptation.
Meanwhile I grew a beard.
This torment was taking place only four years after the Rolling Stones told the world they were dissatisfied. They sang a shocking song that became an anthem for a restless generation. Although I didn’t like the band, I could sympathise.
So, on my first Melbourne morning, seeking satisfaction, I trudge along the lower end of Bourke Street, past solid old buildings interspersed with bluestone alleys. It excites me as I imagine Europe might, a real city built to last. On one side of the street is a fantastic shop called Hudson Stores, full of all sorts of blokey objects, that I am sure are useful even if I can’t immediately figure out a use for them. The shop seems hardly changed since lit by kerosene lamps.
Further along, the street becomes a canyon of solid brick and stone, doorways I note, shut firmly against the weather. I reach the top of the hill, William Street and turn down it towards Collins. Looking towards the distant Yarra river, I see shielding it the Flinders Street Station viaduct topped by a magnificent steam locomotive hauling freight. It belches a plume of black smoke which makes me think of the other smell that seems everywhere.This is soft, pervasive and musty, not coal smoke from a steam locomotive. I know that and this is different.
Down Collins Street, I reach Elizabeth where I turn left and within a block find an entire neighbourhood devoted to motorcycles. Along with the beard, part of my rebellion at home was to buy a small unreliable used Suzuki. Here, I haved stumbled on an overflow of motorbike abundance, so much choice I feel light headed. Even this early on a Saturday, it is already coming to life with engine rumbles and contempt.
I turn again and reach Swanston Street, catch a tram to the university and sign into the festival. Melbourne Uni too is a surprise, more ivy league than cement block. There is a show of European art films, so I plant myself in front of one by Antonioni while I figure out how I am going to find Michael. Apart from renewing friendship I need somewhere to stay. His last address is near the university, so after the film I head there. No-one is home.
The only other place he mentioned in his letters is the tiny La Mama theatre, still today in its former Carlton factory. It is late afternoon when I arrive. I meet a guy who seems to be writing a script. I ask if he knows my film maker friend. I am impressed when he says he has heard of him. I explain my predicament, he says I can sleep upstairs. So here is where I spend my first Melbourne night, closer to culture than anyone in my family had been in our working class lives.
Next morning I again try Michael’s last address and find he has moved, but has left directions to his new place across the river in a suburb I had never heard of and could not pronounce, spelt Prahran. He has apparently landed a part time job as caretaker of a church and the job comes with its own cottage. I catch a tram that seems to rumble forever through what I know are still inner suburbs. Brisbane’s inner city seemed in those days to peter out after four blocks, this place is vast.
My stop is the corner of Commercial Road and Chapel Street. I can’t believe this is a suburb. There is a department store called Moores on one corner, under its own cupola that would not be out of place in any central city. Chapel Street is lined with so many interesting shops that I miss my correct street and turn down the next one. It is short and my eyes are fixed on the building at its end. In the soft foggy light, the elaborate fading Rechabite Hall is straight out of Charles Dicken’s London. I can’t believe it, the building is small but as grand as anything I had seen, yet it seems almost forgotten. In the context of what is around, the hall is just another building. I am drowning in so much stimulation.
At this moment, an orange ball of sun appears through the haze. This proves another surprise. It is near midday and I had never imagined the sun could be so low on the horizon. Here it is gentle and distant giving heat hardly more than a lightbulb. When its light hits something it streams from the side, caressing rather than oppressing. This is a sun I can cope with.
Michael’s cottage is in the next street and he is home. The building is tiny, brick and old, but it contains one quite beautiful window lighting the single bedroom, the window’s frame watching over the bed like a crucifix. I can put my sleeping bag on a mattress in the lounge. There is a small kitchen with a table, there is also an inside dunny, something we did not have in the Brisbane house or the Sydney one where I spent my childhood. Primitive the place might be, but I am impressed and washed in jealousy. His own house- but one with poise enough to double as the gamekeeper’s cottage in Lady Chatterly’s Lover. Does such a place assist him with romance and roots? I ask and he dances around the answer like a joke.
The last time I had seen him six months earlier, Michael had come to our place to tell me he was leaving. My Dad asked how he was getting to Melbourne and he said he would hitch-hike. Did he have any money. No. Dad gave him some and insisted I take the family car and drive him to the Gold Coast where he said he had a friend.
This friend turned out to be a still glamorous French woman in her late 40s early 50s. Michael explained on the way down that she had always offered to let him stay if he ran from home. Part of the deal, I understood she would also be giving him coaching in bedroom arts, something he claimed older French women regarded as a duty. I remember this time he also laughed when I probed, so I never did discover how he knew her.
I plonk my things in the cottage lounge and Michael lights a fire in the tiny hearth. He uses something I had never seen, dark brown rectangular blocks. “Briquettes,” he explains. I had heard of them in school geography lessons about the mighty Latrobe Valley. They are so foreign, so Victorian. Eventually a whiff of smoke is blown back down the chimney bringing the soft musty smell. Thus the mystery is solved. In exchange for internal warmth, these cause the smell, probably not even noticed by locals, that I will associate with Melbourne.
For the rest of the week I go through the motions of attending the festival. Michael is attending too, but I am much more excited about seeing the city, that is until Michael announces he is having a party on the Saturday night. People from the festival are coming and a group of musicians have offered to provide music on unorthodox instruments. They call themselves The Jug Band and will later become famous as Captain Matchbox.
I am to catch the bus north on Sunday and am given special cachet as joint party host. My tasks include making dips and finding enough toilet paper, so I raid public toilets in every nearby park.
There are only three things I now remember about this party, the band of course, playing on the bed in Michael’s room. Then there is a guy who holds forth on his ability to masturbate mentally, claiming he can ejaculate merely by thought, without touching his penis. Fascinating!
Most memorable is a girl called Jan with long red hair, who has attended the festival to indulge in drama. She lives in Townsville and what a delight, she is catching my bus the next day. I am making a mental note that she is quite attractive when she asks if I mind that we sit together on that long trip. Don’t worry about the soiled sleeping bag, she says. She has a blanket that will cover both of us.
The final discovery of my Melbourne journey is revealed on the trip back. It is as unfamiliar as everything else has been- and I still associate it with Melbourne. I believe it is called love.