‘The North is a growing, pulsating sore on the map of my city, the part of the city in which I, my family, my friends, are meant to buy a house, grow a garden, shop, watch TV and be buried in. The North is where the wog is supposed to end up. And therefore I hate the North…’
– Christos Tsiolkas, Loaded.
I have a memory I cannot trust. After a party in Brunswick some time in the late 1980s, I tried to walk back to town, half-drunk and on unfamiliar ground. It took a while for me to realise I was going the wrong way; then I turned and walked back down the hill until the city’s towers came into view and the sun was rising. The memory of that walk is all mixed up with Ari, in Christos Tsiolkas’s Loaded, walking home at dawn from innumerable nights with a Walkman drowning out ‘the sound of trams, cars, the familiar voices of shop owners, the familiar landscape in which I have spent all my life’.
There are other places I’ve been: a grubby share house in North Fitzroy with old seagrass matting on the floor and a back gate that scrapes against the concrete paving; a fancy parliamentary chamber with decorative plasterwork and gilt finishes; a town that is ‘a flat place, divided up into a grid of streets by a draughtsman’.But they’re not my places. They belong to Helen Garner, Shane Maloney, Peter Carey. They’re Melbourne, translated into fiction.
The curve of the Yarra between Swan Street and Princes Bridge, the ‘electric blue water’ of the Fitzroy Pool or the way the bells of Melbourne’s trams sit in the background of the soundscape: when I come across these things in fiction, my reaction is not jealousy that others also have them, but pleasure that they’ve been noticed, a kind of vicarious pride that I recognise from motherhood: look at my town. Isn’t she gorgeous?
Frank Hardy, Nevil Shute, Martin Boyd, Christos Tsiolkas and Michelle de Kretser have set novels here. Cate Kennedy’s short stories, Henry Handel Richardson’s threepart The Fortunes of Richard Mahony and C.J. Dennis’s proto-ocker A Sentimental Bloke all take a piece of their life from Melbourne.
It makes me wonder: why do we need to write about the city, when it’s all around us? Then I realise I might as well ask: why do we need to write about life?
When the writer’s subject is their own town, the result is often dismissed as thinly disguised autobiography – not proper fiction. The world around us is supposed to be somehow easier to wrestle onto the page. Fiction that imagines a completely different place, a different era, is admired, much as an actor who undergoes a dramatic physical transformation is Oscar material.
And yet they say: ‘Write what you know.’ And let’s be honest, it can be a lot of fun to read what you know. If evocative writing is the art of revealing to the reader what they had only dimly felt, evocative writing about Melbourne reveals what makes the city feel like ours. It does more than even the best guidebook, dispensing with exact truths in favour of capturing the zeitgeist.
I read Tsiolkas’s The Slap as much for its sense of place as for the language; for the revelations of character as each player took their turn on stage, for the sneaky feeling that I was eavesdropping on some really interesting Melbourne people, peeking behind closed doors. Interactions and clashes between the city’s tribes – its ‘divisions and mythologies’ – give the book its dramatic tension. Without them, the slap of the title would only be worth a short story.
Cities have long served as metaphors for their citizens’ inner lives, from Dicken’s industrial anti-pastorals to Joyce’s jumbled stream of consciousness in Ulysses. Early Melbourne’s ‘marvellousness’ stood for progress, modern attitudes and the self-made man, rising and falling like Richard Mahony. The suburbs have represented tedium and a place only fit to escape from, like George Johnston’s south-east Melbourne between the World Wars – ‘without boundaries … spread forever, flat and diffuse, monotonous yet inimical, pieced together in a dull geometry of dull houses.’ The inner city’s slums and laneways have been places of danger, ‘darkness and gloom’ (The Mystery of a Hansom Cab)
Sometimes, though, a city is just a city, a place for things to happen in a story. When you live in that place, the story can get mixed up with the reality, like that passage from Loaded that matched my experience so well.
Being of a similar age to Tsiolkas, his references resonate with me. The writers of one’s own generation have an advantage when it comes to getting inside one’s head. And when the story’s set in your own city, the effect is heightened.
There’s the added pleasure of location-spotting, the sense of ownership and recognition. Nick Gadd, author of Ghostlines, which is set in the city’s west – a place its eastern-suburbs characters are surprised to find actually exists – said that he noticed, on arriving in Melbourne from Yorkshire, how many books were set here. ‘You didn’t get that feeling that literature was something that happened elsewhere.’ Gadd was speaking at a well attended session on Melbourne writing at the Melbourne Writers Festival; at the same forum, Michelle de Kretser called the fictional city ‘that richer, other Melbourne that exists between the pages of books or in paintings or in film’.
De Kretser’s Melbourne in The Lost Dog is specific in time and place. She describes a particular way of looping scarves around the neck that Melburnians adopted, and I remember noticing and copying it myself that year. It almost makes me forget that the characters wearing those scarves aren’t real and didn’t walk the streets of Richmond with me that winter.
What I like about Melbourne books, even the ones that explore its darker side, is that they are written from a place of deep intimacy with the city.
Steven Carroll’s refusal to let the smallest detail escape him in The Gift of Speed brings a summer evening in the park alive: ‘he breathes in the scent of the lawn clippings and the pine trees along the boundary, feels the cool evening breeze on his back, and realises that he is happy.’ Carroll’s park is in Glenroy, but those lines instantly sent my mind to my own summer evenings, walking the dog past a line of brooding cypresses that enclose a playing field beside Merri Creek.
These writers aren’t making Melbourne up.Any false note would be quickly spotted by their book-loving, city-proud readers, and their affection shows through in the familiar detail.
So the back lanes of Melbourne, built to accommodate night carts – carters of sewage from outdoor dunnies – become channels for the passage of friends and intimates, as Helen Garner’s characters come and go via the badly hung back gate, and the laneways of South Yarra are made into a kind of naif ’s Eden by Barry Dickins in I Love to Live, where he and his friends ‘used to wander … receiving whatever moonlit fruit God gave us over cool grey wooden paling fences where cats sat stoned by rays of love’. We’ve all taken shortcuts along those bluestone laneways, savoured the feeling of being off the beaten track, of being hidden from the main roads and seeing the ramshackle backsides of our neighbour’s houses.
Jenny Sinclair’s When We Think About Melbourne: The Imagination of a City is out now through Affirm Press.