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Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Next Stop: Melbourne

Ever since I first visited Melbourne more than 30 years ago, it has steadfastly remained my favourite Australian city.
Though it would have been so anyway, the fact that my journey 30 years ago started in Perth and was via Adelaide certainly helped put Melbourne at the top of my list. 
I grew up in Perth, so I have a sentimental attachment to it. Unfortunately the city fathers over the years haven’t felt the same way.
In the 1960s and ‘70s they decreed that the capital of the West would never claim its place as a mature, modern metropolis while it had a lot of old buildings cluttering up the place.
Accordingly, they instituted a carefully considered programme of wiping virtually every last building which dared to even hint at architectural or historical value off the face of the earth.
About the only bit left is the Barrack’s Arch. Having bulldozed the Barracks built for the then colony’s garrison, somebody at city hall finally had a change of heart and decided the Arch should stay. So it stands there, out of place and proportion, looking like a Victorian folly.
At least it survived, I suppose. It wouldn't have been so bad if all of the historical buildings had been replaced with something no worse than blandly functional, but Perth couldn't even manage that. Nothing encapsulates the crimes perpetrated on the Perth landscape better than the city council headquarters, a building of such ugliness, there were demands to knock it down before it had finished going up.
The last time I was there, the general meme seemed to be that it was significant building because it was so ugly and therefore one of the best examples of 1970’s architectural hideousness and should thus be preserved.
Perth has nice beaches, but the best I can say about it is that it is a city. If you are an obsessive compulsive with an irresistible desire to hang around churches then Adelaide is the place for you. Apart from that, it too is a city. Meh.
On my first visit to Melbourne, everybody looked like their cat, their dog or their grandmother had just died. The sour-faced sod look was in, and I assumed there was a council by-law requiring anybody entering the city limits to wear black or grey. Everywhere you looked you saw morose faces buried in The Age.
Mind you, given the tripe masquerading as news served up by The Age, the thought of wasting another couple of bucks buying it would be enough to make anybody morose.
Mind you, even if the people looked like extras from Depressed Zombies From Outer Space, the city itself had an air of resolute charm about it.
Melbournians seem to have cheered up a lot since then, possibly because they appear to have abandoned The Age. In eight hours, including time spent on morning rush-hour trams, I saw three people reading it. Actually, I couldn’t really see two of those people because they had it draped over their faces. It is possible they were just sleeping.
Whatever the reason, the black and grey gloom has given way to a kaleidoscope of colour and movement against a backdrop of staid solidity.
It has retained the Victorian charm inherent in its rambling ranges of sandstone hills, but has managed to imbue them with the dynamism and vibrancy of a 21st-century city.
It’s a neat trick: for an example of a city that has failed dismally to pull it off, go to Sydney.
That isn’t to say that Melbourne has got everything right, of course. One only has to look at the Melbourne Museum and the old Exhibition Building to see that. I suppose the idea was to contrast the old and the new. If that was the idea, it worked. The old is a towering pile of stately grandeur while the new looks like an airport terminal, complete with a free standing take-off ramp, possibly salvaged from HMAS Melbourne, in case the Council wants to scramble a couple of fighter jets.
The military theme is maintained with the thoughtfully provided crushed gravel parade ground between the two buildings. You can imagine companies of private school children being asked to form up and stand to attention, then passing out from heat exhaustion while the teachers try to work out why the headcount doesn’t tally.
There are a couple of free-standing concrete blocks to one side. These are either the finished article representing mans inhumanity to living space, or somebody started to build something, got called out on another job and hasn’t come back yet.
You have to wonder whether the Museum architect was told what the building was going to be used for, given that his/her grasp on the need to establish a relationship between a building and its contents seems a bit tenuous.
It is easy to imagine him/her, upon being told to design a building to house a collection of Egyptian artefacts, to reach for the ‘How To Build Mock Spanish Adobe’ manual.
One theme that seamlessly knits the two buildings together is the stupidity of their security guards.
Let the record show that the plain-clothes security person on duty at the main entrance of the Exhibition building at 12.15pm on Monday, November 18 was – probably still is – a crass, offensive, pig ignorant arsehole.
The Museum operative was just an idiot. I was waiting for my companion outside the ladies’ toilet when this gentleman approached me. This was our conversation:

“What do you think you are doing?”
“Waiting for someone.”
“Oh yes. Name?”
“Sorry, what?”
”What’s your name?”

“None of your business.”
“What’s the name of this person you a supposedly waiting for.”
“Ethel”, (It was the first thing that popped into my head).
 At that point, my companion emerged from the toilet and walked toward us. The cretin grabbed her arm and said:
“This person claims your name is Ethel. Is that right?”
Seeing me nodding vigorously behind him she smiled and said “yes”, which fairly well collapsed the imaginary case he had been building against me.

After that, whole streets-full of 20-something upper middle-class university students driving daddy's Renault to the socialist alliance protest march and middle-class hippies pretending to be urban guerrillas in the hope they would get to sleep with a middle-class, Renault-driving university student would have seemed like a return to reality. So, we went to Brunswick. The heartland of Melbourne’s ‘progressive’ community, Brunswick is disorienting at first, but that only lasts until you get your head around the fact that it is the women sporting the crew cuts and army boots and the men who favour pony tails and sandals.
We had a pleasant few hours looking at posters that said rude things about Tony Abbott, browsing through shops selling a bewildering variety of teas, mung beans, fair trade goods and vegan lollies and not signing petitions calling for gay marriage, the release of the Arctic 30 and armed insurrection against “Abbott’s jackbooted storm-troopers”.
It was all fairly harmless, we had a great pizza for lunch and any number of excellent cafes to choose for afternoon coffee. We wandered around the city, relaxing in the bustle. 
The traffic is truly horrendous - of which more another time, perhaps - but Melbourne is no orphan there and the islands between the rivers of cars are as interesting as ever. Its Melbourne.

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