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This month marks my second anniversary in Melbourne. Since arriving here I’ve noticed something: there are an awful lot of books devoted to telling the stories of this city. I’m not talking about ‘official history’ books here (although there are plenty of those, too), but rather books that use the subjective experience of the local citizen as the starting point for exploring the formative moments and distinctive qualities of Melbourne’s ongoing transformation.
Just last year we had Sophie Cunningham’s Melbourne; there’s also Jenny Sinclair’s When We Think about Melbourne and Arcade Publications’ Melbourne Remade and Making Modern Melbourne, not to mention Arcade’s many other titles, which uncover the secret histories of idiosyncratic inner-city Melbourne locations like E.W. Cole’s book arcade, Madame Brussels’ brothel and the MacRobertson chocolate headquarters.
While this question is going to seem like facetious ignorance on the part of the newcomer, I do have a good reason for wondering: why? What is it about Melbourne in particular that drives its inhabitants to reflection and documentation? While the inhabitants of New York share five boroughs rich with stories of success, struggle, transformation, relocation, deterioration and incorporation there are only a handful of books devoted to providing a personal account of the city’s history (for the curious, try E.B. White’s Here is New York, Luc Sante’s Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York, and Charles Denson’s Coney Island: Lost and Found captures some of Arcade Publications’ style and brio). There are plenty of books with titles beginning or ending with ‘My New York Memoir’, but these stories put the emphasis on the person doing the talking rather than the nature of city that played host. I guess, like they say, ‘if you can make it there … it’s worth celebrating by writing a book about yourself’.*
While London has a venerable literary history, and scores of tourists walk its streets every year following those blue plaques like a game of geographic join-the-dots, there are (with the exception of Iain Sinclair’s collected writings) few personal accounts that describe how it feels to be part of modern London – it is Melbourne that inspires writers to tell stories about the intersection of the city’s history and its citizens.
I have a working theory: this literary interest in Melbourne isn’t an example of ‘history’ in the traditional sense. Instead, these books seem to be closer to the memoir form.
The word ‘memoir’ comes from the French mémoire, meaning ‘a record’, which had a particular resonance with the idea of setting things down ‘on the record’. For this reason, the genre was often associated with the musings of the retired politician, or indeed any other prominent social figure, who has particularly good reason to recount publicly known events with the intention of providing a more complex, subjective perspective on the official account. Nowadays we tend to think of memoir as a highly personal and revelatory genre, in the ‘I was a teen addict/Irish teacher/sex worker’ mode. But these books about Melbourne are not exactly memoirs in that sense – they don’t touch on intimate matters of that kind, but they do present accounts of the past that offer readers a geographic and cultural intimacy. They reflect on the significance of transformation and prioritise the value of making known or exposing those things that might otherwise be kept secret.
The exposure here does not belong to the author but to the city itself. Like the best memoir subjects, Melbourne is a city with a history well suited to the narrative of transformation: the city has changed much since its beginnings, and in the last 40 years it has made the transition from parochial, blue-collar industrial city to one that defines itself as a creative and cosmopolitan City of Literature. In these memoirs of Melbourne, the self-transformation and exploration typical to the genre form are externalised, embodied and explored according to the geography of the city.
It’s this last transition in particular that may help account for the popular interest in documenting Melbourne’s life story. This is a city that prides itself on the fact that it nurtures and inspires literary expression. There are, of course, the well-known names: Frank Hardy, Nevil Shute, Christos Tsiolkas, Helen Garner and so on. But, just by going about their day-to-day lives, all of Melbourne’s citizens are composing their own personal stories in relation to their knowledge of and experience of the city. For me, as a newcomer, this is the aspect of Melbourne’s interest in its own stories that I find most encouraging: the geography, history, architecture and natural landscape of the city are used as the ‘common ground’ that ties its inhabitants together, encouraging us to build connections to place – and in so doing, build communities.
Caroline Hamilton is a Killings columnist, and a research fellow at the University of Melbourne investigating the future of publishing, writing and reading. She has also written a book about the publishing success of Dave Eggers, One Man Zeitgeist.