It’s been a tough week for us Melburnians. Banned from every other state, curfews from 8pm, corralled to just 5km from our homes. This week, the city has been divided between sadness and anger. Friends have sobbed – in privacy or in public – mourning the loss of their former lives, while others – me included – are hot balls of rage at the stupidity of a few who have refused to listen to our doctors telling us to stop mingling, or more people will die.
I wrote this piece because I’m oddly patriotic about this city, because I need to voice how gutted I am about these restrictions on our lives, and also to reinforce my belief that they’re necessary to preserve our people. I also I know we’ll come out of this stronger, and that we will find unexpected reserves of creativity and beauty, that we will ensnare those dreams and ideas that, in our usual frantic lives, dance on the fringes of our peripheral vision, forgotten in the grind of the commute and clock punching.
Once upon a time, Melbourne was a dag. You may love our laneways, live music, literature and lavish tables, but this town’s definitely been shabby around the edges in its past.
Born in Melbourne to parents who later fled north for the warmth of the tropics, my return visits to Melbourne as a child were nothing short of Alice arriving in a multicultural wonderland. Traipsing behind my gruff great-aunt, in her fur-lined coat perfumed with Alpine menthol cigarettes, she’d let me purchase our tickets from the (quite frankly, terrifying) conductor on the tram into the city, where we’d walk Swanston Street.
We’d slow down past the delights of the Arthur Daley-styled London con man selling kangaroo-shaped opal necklaces on the way to the Coles Cafeteria on Bourke Street. Six floors up in a lift! She’d treat me to braised steak and onions, and dessert I didn’t have to share with a sibling. Walking through the city, I’d smell the rich scent of Greek souvlaki, taste lemony Italian gelato, hear sales pitches called in heavily accented English at the Queen Vic and South Melbourne fruit markets, where freshly skinned rabbits hung beside salamis of obscene lengths.
Later, I would wash my hands in the water wall and stare up into the looming interiors of the NGV, pausing especially for Tom Roberts’ and Frederick McCubbin’s Australian idylls painted in the wilderness of Box Hill nearly a century before I was born there.
What my great-aunt didn’t dwell on were the wee-washed laneways or the abandoned factories whose brick walls we’d hit our tennis balls against for hours, the rough band rooms with beer-washed floors and a mullet-topped clientele, and a railway depot in the city’s centre.
The city weathered the scorn poured on it from its northern rival, the Emerald City, with its greed-is-good suits and aerobics classes in front of the Opera House. Truth be told, Sydney just did a far better PR job on itself in the 80s and 90s, with its waterfront beauty, money worship and bicentennial bluster.
In retaliation, the Melbourne scene crawled out from its underground lair and laid itself bare to the world. Cheap rents, laid-back laws and low expectations fuelled the spawning of tiny specialist cafes, the 10-person bars, the curious design shops, the wee art spaces wedged into street corners. It’s a truism that if you walk down a darkened lane in Sydney, you expect to be mugged. Walk down a darkened lane in Melbourne and find…the hottest bar that everyone’s talking about: if you can’t find it, it must be sensational.
Those lanes, places and arcades are empty right now, as we push through what fees like a never-ending lockdown.
But we’re a resilient people, an artistic people. We know our talents and if we can flip from a backwater to become internationally renowned for our food, music, art and literature, then we’ll flip again from this virus. We’ll write, we’ll paint, we’ll act and we’ll sing. And we’ll do it all bloody well, because that’s what we’re good at.
I’ve written this piece as much for myself as for my fellow Melburnians in the face of rising coronavirus numbers, locked borders, closed airports and nasty memes. There have been tears, there have been rages, but there’s also been rationality and there is also hope.
I’ll see you under the clocks again soon.