Wandering the streets of Melbourne, even in mournful weather, is an experience.
My childhood was filled with books and reading, limited only by my access to books. Other people’s preferences and tastes, from the scientists and academics next door to my father’s more earthy tastes in bush poetry and Australian classical literature.
An avid reader, I devoured everything and went into withdrawal in the absence of words. In desperation at the breakfast table (no books allowed) I would memorise the back of the cereal packet.
And now, in Melbourne, old memories come to life.
Melbourne in my early understanding was a historic place, a place of culture, one of the cradles of the Australian nation. Publications such as the Age and the Bulletin were respected indeed. Those whose work was published in them became household names. Among them are A B ‘Banjo’ Patterson; Henry Lawson; and C J Dennis. All authors I read from an early age. Sometimes the dialect of those classic Australian writers was challenging, because language does change over time, especially slang terminology. But the sort of early Australian slang these writers used was often self-explanatory. As a child I struggled but still loved the cadence of the words, how they flowed. Now as an adult, I have rediscovered my old favourites. Reading them again feels like having a casual natter over the fence to an old neighbour next door, exchanging words as we might pass garden produce back and forth, a sort of cultural barter. I gain added colour in my understanding; they gain further steps towards immortality as their writing lives on in my heart.
Two days ago we tried to book last minute tickets to The Cursed Child but baulked at the cost and the need to be there on two consecutive nights. Instead we go to a night of live comedy at The Comics Lounge. Instead of The Cursed Child, we see some cursing men. It’s edgy, fun and innovative. Another flavour of Melbourne.
The next afternoon we see a play, Photograph 51, at the Arts Centre. It’s about the poorly-recognised contribution of Rosalind Franklin to the discovery of the DNA double-helix. The set itself is a spiral, slowly revealing itself as part of the world of the characters. So different from classics such as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and the Melbourne production described by C J Dennis in The Sentimental Bloke.
Doreen an’ me, we bin to see a show —
The swell two-dollar touch. Bong tong, yeh know.
A chair apiece wiv velvit on the seat;
A slap-up treat.
The drarmer’s writ be Shakespeare, years ago,
About a barmy goat called Romeo.From Songs of the Sentimental Bloke, C J Dennis, 1915
The Melbourne of today is an eclectic mix of art, design, practicality, multiculturalism and construction. On opposite sides of the street are the old and the new, the classic and the modern, often with scaffolding. Wherever we turn, we see something interesting and exciting. Outside the Victorian Library we see what appears to be a half-sunk pediment in the pavement. Is it a statement on the potential destruction of the library? Or rather a reference to its permanence through future ages? Nearby an antique street lamp has been painted in ornate colours.
We stumble into Melbourne Central with vague memories of the place from our visit when the kids were school-aged. Of course, everything has changed. It’s still an exciting place, but only if you’re there for the shopping. We are not.
After a late breakfast (expensive) at the café next to our hotel, we’re now in search of an inexpensive top-up, a very light lunch. We’re also in search of ‘Little Athens’, the Greek part of Melbourne. I need a new briki to make Greek coffee at home. We have a map and find Chinatown readily. The red lanterns overhead are a dead giveaway, and the Greek section is the next street. When we find it, it’s marked with a Greek key on light poles and other structures, but there are Asian restaurants along the strip mixed in with the Greek shops. There are various cafés, a couple of restaurants and — oh, joy! A gift shop. And yes, they have brikis. A range of sizes and materials. The best ones are copper but I need a solid iron one that will work on an induction stove. Small, for one cup.
We seem to be out of luck, until Jeff finds a red enamel one that likes the magnet on his phone case. Yes! If it attracts a magnet, it can be used on an induction stove.
The shopkeeper wraps up the purchase and we chat about
Greeks in Melbourne, and his place in the community. He is curious about our
own interest in Greece, so we tell him our story (see earlier blog). We leave
having made another friend.
Next door is a cake shop and, as we’ve been looking for a snack to tide us over until dinner, we drop in. Do they do Greek coffee? The presence of a Chinese girl behind the counter would indicate otherwise, but she nods happily when we ask. So we order two Greek coffees. ‘Metrio,’ Jeff tells her in Greek and she nods again. We choose our sweet treat, and Jeff makes a beeline for the orange syrup cake which we remember fondly as Eftichi’s favourite in Crete.
The coffee, when it arrives, is delicious. It is served with the customary glass of water. At a nearby table, two men converse with animation in Greek. We sit by the window in this unusual place, looking out at the intermittent rain. This is very much Melbourne too, the intermingling of cultures in an Australian city where Chinese girls serve good Greek coffee.
My mind wanders back to C J Dennis and The Sentimental Bloke. Those poems were written of a Melbourne a century ago, of a working class man and his world as part of a growing city. It’s not just a love story between a man and a woman, it’s also showing love for the city, for life and for friendships. Around us we see delivery trucks, young men pushing loads of boxed goods on trolleys. I think back to Bill ‘the bloke’ with his ‘barrer’ delivering a range of goods in the markets, including rabbits at times, and seeing his ‘peach’ the fair Doreen at work in Bourke St sticking labels on pickle jars. ‘The Bloke’ refers to his mates and ‘the push’ or gang and the fights they get into in ‘Little Lon’ (Little Lonsdale St).
This Romeo ‘e’s lurkin’ wiv a crew —
A dead tough crowd o’ crooks — called Montague.
‘Is cliner’s push — wot’s nicknamed Capulet —
They ‘as ’em set.
Fair narks they are, jist like them back-street clicks,
Ixcep’ they fights wiv skewers ‘stid o’ bricks.
Wot’s in a name? Wot’s in a string o’ words?
They scraps in ole Verona wiv the’r swords,
An’ never give a bloke a stray dog’s chance,
An’ that’s Romance.
But when they deals it out wiv bricks an’ boots
In Little Lon., they’re low, degraded broots.
Wot’s jist plain stoush wiv us, right ‘ere to-day,
Is “valler” if yer fur enough away.From Songs of the Sentimental Bloke, C J Dennis, 1915
And we are here. We walk along Bourke St, we cross at Little Lonsdale St.
We are from Sydney, but we are in Melbourne. Nobody gives us stick about it. Along with Sydney, this is where Australia started, where it grew and, looking at Melbourne’s many construction zones, where it is still growing.
‘The Bloke’ said it best — ‘Livin’ an’ lovin’ — so life mooches on.’