‘Straya, Round Two – Shiftless Kangaroo
Wordsworth famously said that “…poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity.” I’m not entirely sure I agree with him, but, insofar as the continued reportage of my travels are concerned, I suppose it’s as good advice as any!
Returning, then, to the now-far off Antipodes, I shall do my dutiful best to recount my time in Melbourne and Sydney.
I should start by saying, aside from the base of operations for most the stay being located in ‘burbs of Melbourne, what little I saw of either city was limited to the CBD (for the North Americans, that’s the Central Business District – the Downtown). As such, I certainly wouldn’t want to position myself as an authority on everything that’s available in either spot, nor what might define their individual characters.
That caveat aside, what struck me about both cities was how much either has retained their late-Victorian/Edwardian quality – many of the building fronts of the latter 19th and early 20th centuries still remain, sitting relatively comfortably amidst 21st century high-rises. This is in stark contrast to my home city of Toronto, which, while it is still undergoing an aggressive Manhattan-isation in the downtown core, was never very good at retaining its old buildings to begin with. Perhaps it has something to do with the comparative climates – I’m sure it’s not very nice to shiver through a 10˚ winter without air-con or insulation, but I can’t imagine it being as taxing on plaster and brick as the multi-month freeze/thaw cycle we see in Ontario. Carrying the Victorian element further, there is also a rather imposing statue of the Empress in Melbourne’s CBD. I’m developing the strange feeling, as I visit more of the colonial countries, that we’re all yoked together in this – everywhere the Empire went, still we are overseen by this matronly reminder of our collective past. It’s not something I’d really thought about until seeing this, so quickly on the heels of the Imperial statuary in Singapore. Bit spooky, really.
My first introduction to Australia’s own version of this was in the outer towns around Melbourne – for all their monotonous suburban sprawl, there were generally at least a building or two that had stuck around a century, usually a pub (or hotel, as they are known in Vic…not to confused with actual hotels, which are also called hotels…), which were invariably bedecked with a rather charming iron grille work. I’d see it again and again during my stay; it became a bit of an idiomatic Australian architectural quirk, in my mind.
Built over 50 years later than Sydney, Melbourne came with a touch more planning. This is evident in the present, with the CBT still laid out on a grid form as designed by Robert Hoddle in 1837, and a rather clever one at that. All major street names are paired, there being a wide street meant for the front access to blocks of buildings, and a corresponding lane, thinner, intended to be used as a service access. Of course, nowadays, shops, offices and accesses front on both the street and the lane, but one can appreciate the intent of the original. Many of the lanes are now pedestrian only, with some streets shut to automotive traffic for particular festivals and events.
Some of the best examples of the city’s Victorian birth are the arcades that cut through many of the blocks – covered spaces with shop frontages, the floors are often tiled in mosaic, with ironwork and statuary adorning the walls. Reminiscent in style of either neoclassical motifs or of renaissance Mediterranean Europe, which would turn out to be rather appropriate given post-war immigration patterns (outside Athens, Melbourne sports the largest concentration of ethnic Greeks anywhere). Offering a different feel, but no less enjoyable, there are also open alleyways, many of them crowded with small shops and restaurants, liberally graffiti’d for that urban frisson.
Central Melbourne also sports a genuinely impressive Art Deco tower in the Independent Order of Odd Fellow’s Building, also known as the Manchester Unity Building, on Swanston Street. We’ve our own IOOF Building in Toronto, built in the Gothic Revival style, but it doesn’t hold a candle to Melbourne’s. The tower has had an eventful life since it was built in 1932 – at one point the toast of the city, it fell into disrepair and changed hands multiple times, with multiple efforts at maintenance and restoration, only to be finally returning to its former glory in these last few years. Several floors of the tower have been purchased by Dr. Pajouhesh, the man behind Australia’s largest dental firm Smile Solutions, and he has painstakingly restored the original décor. Carved images adorn the walls on the main floor, offering up platitudes about the fruits of progress and shared labour. It’s worth taking a moment to reflect on this – the MU Order came to Melbourne at the height of the Great Depression and sought to enliven the city, providing needed stimulus to the economy by way of construction jobs and purchasing nearly all the materials needed locally. It’s a reminder that, especially in places of uneven development such as post-colonial Australia, Capitalism could be a positive force. Dr. Pajouhesh’s efforts in restoring and sharing this piece of the city’s past shows that, once in a very long while, it still can be.
Not only were we able to visit Australia’s capital Canberra, as I detailed in my last entry, but we also had the good fortune to spend some time in Melbourne’s rival, the city of Sydney (I preferred Melbourne, which is convenient, because my wife might’ve done something deleterious to my wellbeing otherwise – honest, Melbourne’s great, I swear).
Mirroring the dendritic spread of its streets, the core of Sydney is subject to steep differences in altitude, making for difficult manual driving and worse cycling. It’s no San Fran, but, trust me, it’s bad enough. As mentioned before, Sydney is half-a-century older than Melbourne, and the chaos of its penal origins show. No clever grid layout here, no business minded dual lane-and-street with accompanying tram system to be seen. No, the streets still hearken back to the hoary past, even though the city has become a major commercial and financial hub for the Southern Hemisphere.
This nascent success is not without ramifications, either – housing prices, not that they’re great in any large Western city these days, are particularly egregious in Sydney. Gentrification is rife, as was exemplified by a stroll along the newly refurbished Darling Harbour walk. Pristine pavement, spotless wooden benches, gardens of flowers and cycads freshly transplanted in tanbark beds, the path exudes moneyed exclusivity. The only people we saw aside ourselves were the expectedly well-accoutred joggers, taking their exercise in their neoprene and lycra while on their contractually mandated lunch break, descending from the office tours that butt up against the waterfront here.
It was not always like this. On the other side of the harbour, between the Bridge and the Opera House, lie the Rocks. In its previous incarnation, this section of the city was the first stop for immigrants from the 19th century through to the post-war period. As such, the area had the usual make-up of shanties, tenements, bawdy houses and what-all one would expect on the ragged edge of life in a big city, European flotsam thrown up by the sea – little more than a fresh kick at the can keeping many of them afloat.
There is some effort at keeping this history alive, even as the skyscrapers encroach on the precinct. An archaeological dig, a sizeable one for an urban environment, sits adjacent and underneath a YMCA building, with the stubs of walls and various levels of flooring from the original buildings in the area, from the 1800’s, exposed. Artefacts are on display, the usual gamut of clay pipes, broken bottles, bent cutlery that you expect from this era – presented alongside the actual locations of discovery does have more of an effect than the usual sterile museum presentation, I must say.
Even better than this, they’ve a block of terraced houses preserved from the period – some of which were still serving as housing up to the nineties – that had fallen into the possession of council housing for a number of decades and are now maintained by Sydney Living Museums. The Museum run tours of the property, called Susannah Place. Each separate dwelling has been done up in a distinct period, with, where available, furnishings appropriate to the era. In several instances, there were records of the tenants, as well – photographs, letters, descriptions of who they were and what brought them to Australia. Set up after the penal period, the area saw several waves of immigration, starting with the lower orders of British, Irish and Welsh during the 19th century, through to the Mediterranean influx after the WWII which has so defined Australia since. The information that they have on these individuals, while not a superlative, humanises the space – it’s one thing to see some old ruin and appreciate its antiquity, quite another to walk through the tight quarters of an apartment knowing that 7 people, of three generations, lived under this roof, with no plumbing, and gas regulated by coin-operated meter. Plucky individuals that they were, this was taken in stride – our guide related to us the fact that one Italian family in the 60’s (the 60’s!) liked to boast that they had “running” water – the adult sons of a widowed mother would run from the outdoor faucet to the basin and back. Disinvolto!
This is not to say that we had a terrible time in Sydney, far from it. On our final afternoon, we braved the rain and enjoyed some of the older neighbourhoods, replete with period architecture from more than 100 years ago. Found a sweet record store where I was able to pick up an album of Mauritanian folk music. The day before, somewhat better in the weather department, saw us spend a lazy hour above Bondi Beach, working on the sunburn. I say above, as we stuck to the verge atop the actual sand – didn’t have our trunks with us, and it provided us a great view. It was, I’ll admit, a bit disconcerting looking out across the ocean, especially to the South, knowing that there was nothing but trackless depths between us and the bottom of the world.
Returning to Melbourne, we visited the Royal Melbourne Zoological Gardens. Unfortunately, it was a bit of a disappointment. The combination of nostalgia on the part of my wife (who has been many many times before) and the successive slashes to the budget delivered an experience that didn’t quite live up to expectations. It’s not terrible, it was just kinda…meh. It didn’t help that, naturally, being nocturnal, the marsupials were less than interested in showing off for curious foreigners. Apparently, their aquatic exhibits have undergone some heavy reductions, with the substitution of a crappy multi-media experience instead of actual animals. Nice bird enclosure, though – multi-storey cage you could walk through, with good sized trees and a brook.
Oddly, the Zoo was also firm in their insistence that you not use excessive amounts of toilet paper – it seemed like every few hundred metres, there was another cartoon of a ‘roo or plaster cast of a wombat pontificating on the evils of loo roll. I get that deforestation is a major issue, but this seems like a rather weird hill to die on.
It wasn’t long after that that we were bound for Bangkok, with its canals, humidity and recurrent admonitions on the proper respect for the Buddha – but that’ll be a tale for another day!