Musings and photographs from a man in a little house by a river, on a little island at the bottom of the world.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

A Blue Room Book Review - Sophie Cunnigham – Melbourne

I was mentally in quite an agonised state. It was the early 70’s and for the first time I was venturing off my island to visit a place, to that point, I’d only seen on television, read about and listened to from afar on the radio. I was a late developer in terms of travel – everyone else I knew had made their rite of passage to destinations across the Strait, and beyond, to broaden their horizons, some never to return to my island. For various reasons, till my mid-twenties, I had remained adhered to Tasmania. But now, here I was, just after takeoff, staring out of the aeroplane – a stuttering old prop-driven Fokker – with ever widening eyes and increasing dread. Perched over the left wing, to my consternation something I assumed would be completely static and melded to the fuselage, appeared to be gyrating around of its own volition, seemingly, to me, completely out of unison with the movement of the rest of the airborne vehicle. The wing was obviously loose! At this rate it would soon fall off! Is there an emergency button I should press? Should I bring it to the attention of one of the seemingly unperturbed hostesses so she could inform the pilot that he would have to make a sudden descent to safety, presumably on King Island? Or maybe that is what a wing is supposed to do. It didn’t seem logical to me, but then again, the thought went through my fevered mind that I was notoriously lousy at physics – so I decided to remain stum and closed my eyes to it all, hoping this nightmare of impending disaster would go away. Gradually, as the journey continued, I opened my eyes and realised that nobody else seemed to be in the lather I was, so I started to relax. After an hour or so of bumping up and down on the air currents, my hand, vice-like, gripping an arm rest, I landed at Tullamarine to commence my first ‘overseas’ adventure. I cannot say at any point I enjoyed that bumpity flight, or any of the flying I have done since. But I realised it was a means to an end I could endure, and the city of Melbourne soon became a frequent terminal destination.

Apart form the episode with the apparently fault-free wing, I remember zilch of that first visit to Australia’s early capital city, but I was obviously hooked. The city has a hold on me. Living as we did on the coastline of my island with closest proximity to that metropolis, we, on the North West Coast, were far more fixated on Melbourne than we were Hobart-centric in those days of yore. The first television we watched, from 1957 through till 1962, when a station began operating out of Launceston, came in flickers from Melbourne over Bass Strait. In winter it was virtually impossible to pick up, but summer produced a more reliable signal. We were affixed to Happy Hammond’s ‘The Happy Show’; the drama of the courtroom in ‘Consider Your Verdict’; ‘In Melbourne Tonight’, featuring Australian television’s first superstar, Graham Kennedy; variety show ‘Sunnyside Up’, hosted by race-caller Bill Collins; and an early music show for teenagers, ‘The Go Show’. All these programmes were Melbourne productions, indelibly imprinted on my juvenile mind. The Greater 3UZ was my radio station of choice, again emanating out of that city on the Yarra; the deep voiced Stan ‘the Man’ Rolfe my favourite DJ. Our island’s best footy talent left the island to try their luck in the Melbourne based VFL, and we could read of their exploits in the Melbourne ‘Sun’, delivered to the Coast daily.

There is much I love about Melbourne. Early on I was besotted by the hugeness of its CBD, the ‘skyscrapers’ and shopping joys of Myer, David Jones and later, Daimaru. As I became worldlier, it was the alleyways and galleries that appealed to me more, together with the aerial ballet going on at the MCG and, in more recent times, Etihad. I started to fan out, discovering the delights of Carlton, Collingwood, Fitzroy, Richmond, South Melbourne and bayside St Kilda. The trams were a constant, providing a means of transport I prefer to any other, trains included. In the noughties I took to travelling across to the various Winter Masterpieces, and I have fallen in love with many watering holes dotted around the place. The multiculturalism of the inner suburbs is a great asset, and these days just poking around Melbourne’s nooks and crannies, with my camera at ready, is the best of pleasures.

As a place to live, I couldn’t imagine leaving my idyll by the river on the rurban fringe of Hobart. To start with, Sophie Cunningham doesn’t make Melbourne that attractive an alternative either, with her tales of that city’s criminal history. She has spent the best part of her life there, is a writer of quality as her splendid ‘Geography’ attests, and so is eminently placed to give a personalised view of her home town on Port Phillip Bay. She resides with her partner, Virginia, only a short distance away from the inner suburb of her upbringing. Our Sophie is Melbourne through and through. Her take at first seemed to me to be somewhat too personal in that we were learning more about her than the city. But as we passed through her seasonal reflections and expanded out from her local haunts, the personal intensity loosened and we started to gain a vibrant picture of this constantly expanding, constantly changing, multicultural, cultured, bookish, coffee stimulated, tribal and street-artified urban sprawl.

The book is not entirely hagiographic. The warts are there too as the aforementioned criminal ‘underbelly’ is prominent, and of course there is the weather. No treatise on this city would be complete without reference to its worship of our nation’s two greatest sporting events – the Boxing Day Test and footy Grand Final. Forgetting horses going around in circles, it is the gladiatorial AFL that most captures her pen. Sadly Sophie is a Geelong supporter, and her dismissal of the magnificent Hawks’ 2008 victory of the underdog against her team, in just one sentence, is the only real travesty in the tome. Her team has been in its pomp over the last few years so she should be one happy feline.

As is proper, Cunningham takes great effort on linking it all back to the pre-Bearbrass days of the First Australians, before the 1835 treaty and all that. Her use of contemporary literary extracts enhances her salient points, and some of the great yarns of the city. These included Barak’s walk, the ‘Angry Penguins’, the Builders Labourers Federation’s green bans that saved some of the city’s heritage, and the story of travel publishers Lonely Planet. These are a few of many related that come to mind.

Cunningham’s book is ultimately more homage than otherwise, and hit the spot for this reader. I have two trips there already planned for 2013 – I can’t get enough. My latest sojourn flitting across the water was last spring. I was only staying a few days so, travelling light, I had only one set of clothes. I should have known better. On the first day I shivered as icy rain bearing gales came in from the south, on the last I sweltered as the north wind became a harbinger of the summer to come. The city’s climate is noted for its fickleness and, to me, the cool months suit it best. Sydney is imbued with a summery sheen to match its razzle dazzle as the face of the nation, but for all that Melbourne is Australia’s soul. Two immeasurably wonderful songs always seem to me the essence of Melbourne – Paul Kelly’s ‘Leaps and Bounds’ and Archie Roach’s ‘Charcoal Lane’. Sydney songs are froth and bubble, Melbourne’s have place.

Sophie Cunningham's web-site =


  1. I can't hear "Leaps and Bounds" without yearning for that place. Every time I leave Melbourne I leave a piece of my heart there. Before meeting Bear, I truly thought I'd make the gloriously gothic city my home. Now, I have to make do with visits, and they're not as frequent as I'd like. I'd love to take Tiger there with Poppy S sometime in 2013.

  2. I can't hear "Leaps and Bounds" without yearning for that place. Every time I leave Melbourne I leave a piece of my heart there. Before meeting Bear, I truly thought I'd make the gloriously gothic city my home. Now, I have to make do with visits, and they're not as frequent as I'd like. I'd love to take Tiger there with Poppy S sometime in 2013.