Friday, 7 September 2012

"See the Bombers drive up, up..."

Ah, September.  It's a wonderful time of year.

It's a time when we begin to shed our coats, shake off the gloom that descends upon us every winter, and the thoughts of a young Melbournian man such as myself turn to spring.  A time of rebirth and renewal, when the days get a little longer, the sky becomes a little bluer and women in sundresses begin to reappear, one by one, brightening the spirits of anyone lucky enough to catch a glimpse of one of these visions of loveliness, seemingly floating along on a gentle breeze.  Their brightly coloured dresses swirling around bodies liberated and unshackled by the oppressive demands winter places upon us all.  Instilling in a man a sensation that the world can be a beautiful place, filling him with hopes and dreams and desires and...


But I digress.  Again.

But September doesn't just mark the beginning of spring.  It also holds another special significance that, for one writing about Melbourne, is the elephant in the room.  It's a topic that has to be dealt with sooner or later, and now that this time has rolled around, there's no better time to deal with it.

Football has had over a hundred years to infiltrate the city, and in that time, like a virus, it has succeeded beyond its wildest dreams.  Spreading well beyond the borders set out for it, it seems to have permeated every aspect of Melbourne life to the point where it is no longer just a game to be played on weekends and forgotten about until next weekend.  It's in the population, where the question, 'Who do you follow?' becomes less of an ice-breaker and more of an adjunct to a standard introduction.  It's bumper stickers on cars, displaying a driver's allegiance.  It's coloured scarves as part of a Friday night's winter wardrobe.  It's ubiquitous in the news, whether it's TV, print, radio or online.  It turns ordinarily rational people into fanatics, and at times seems to be the lifeblood that binds a city together.

It even infiltrates the thoughts and deeds of local council planners, such as the person responsible for naming all these streets in this area of Berwick, who may or may not wear his heart on his sleeve, but certainly displays his football club allegiance for all to see.

And for those of you who haven't picked the visual theme I'm presenting here yet, those who don't have football running through their veins, I think I'd better dump some information.  These streets, all within walking distance of one another, are all named after members of Essendon's 1984 Premiership winning team*

Like so many of the little aspects of Melbourne that make you take a second glance and think twice about them, it's incongruity is matched by it's subtlety, it's desire to blend in with its surroundings and convince you that nothing's wrong and you should just go about your business.  For one thing, this collection of streets are not in the suburb you would immediately expect to find them in.  The signs are the standard green, rather than the red and black you would expect them to be if this was an official attempt to celebrate the deeds of these men.  And, indeed the most telling aspect, is the fact that most people don't even know these streets exist.

The Melbourne metropolitan area is spread over a large expanse, and unless you had business in Berwick, you wouldn't be aware of this collection of street names.  I only stumbled upon them one day while I was flicking through the Melway, trying to work out the best way to get to the house of a girl I used to know.  My Dad is a massive Essendon supporter and, while he recognised the names straight away, their collective appearance on street signs was news to him.

But, are you really surprised this is a thing?  Here, in footy-mad Melbourne?

For supporters of those clubs not participating in finals footy, the joke is that our favourite song at this time of year is Green Day's "Wake Me Up When September Ends."  If only we could shut ourselves off from the disappointment of our team not making the finals, bury our heads and forget that football exists until next season.

Yeah, right.  As if this city would ever let us forget.

And despite the roller-coaster ride and the pain my Saints have put me through over the years, as if I'd really want to.

*FOOTNOTE:  I've shown eleven photographs here, but there are two more streets that aren't represented by me, Clark Court and Walsh Retreat.  Interestingly, (well, interesting to me, anyway) Clark Ct is misspelled, the Essendon footballer spelling his name "Clarke".

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

The Dame, the Square and art of the backhanded compliment.

Full disclosure time.  I don't really like Dame Edna Everage.

Wait, wait.  Everyone put down your pitchforks and flaming torches.  My sentiments should not be mistaken for outright hatred.  Far from it.  I admire Barry Humphries for what he has done.  For creating a character and disappearing into it the way he has over all these years, a character which has become iconic to the point where it overshadows the performer.  And on the, admittedly brief and infrequent, occasions I've watched Dame Edna on the television, I have appreciated Humphries' wit and wordplay he brings to his performances.  So even though I stated earlier I don't like Dame Edna, I'll concede that I may have been a little harsh.  It's actually more of an ambivalence than anything else.

Unlike the City of Melbourne however, which at first glance, seems to be honouring Barry Humphries.  Peel back the surface though, and it appears to be waging a strange campaign of backhanded compliments against him.

I was thinking about it the other day, and I thought to have a street named after you would be pretty cool, in addition to being a great honour.  Especially if the street already existed, as opposed to being a brand new thoroughfare, and its name was changed specifically for you.  Like when the Melbourne City Council decided that Brown Alley, located off Little Collins Street, would be renamed Dame Edna Place, it would seem to be a marvellous tribute, taking into account the city's laneway culture, where any number of bars and restaurants are hidden, revealing themselves only to those who know where to look for them.

You'd think so, wouldn't you?

It doesn't seem that bad, until you actually visit Dame Edna Place and you're first response to it is invariably, "Really?  This is it?"   It's dingy, it's dirty, it's barren.  There's nothing to associate it with Dame Edna, let alone any reason for any passers-by to wander down its length.

It's a service laneway, that's all it is, and as a service laneway, it's perfectly fine.  But there's nothing to distinguish it from any of the numerous other laneways serving the city centre, save an illuminated sign and some, quite frankly, pissweak golden stars embedded into the asphalt.  None of the glamour or flamboyance usually one normally thinks of when they think of the Dame.

I'm going to move away from Dame Edna Place for just a minute and head a few blocks over, to check out what I feel is an example of street naming done right.

ACDC Lane (unfortunately Melbourne street naming conventions don't allow for a slash between the second and third letters.  Or a lightning bolt, if you want to be band name-specific) at least looks like it somewhat lives up to its name.  Sure, it's a grungy little laneway, but one with a bit of character and a bit of colour.

Those wandering down the lane are greeted by depictions of the band pasted up on the walls, sharing space with bill posters advertising upcoming gigs by other bands that are plastered up and torn down with rapid frequency, along with other examples of street art filling in the spaces on each wall, until you get down to Cherry, a bar well-renowned in the Melbourne music scene.  It's not glamourous, but in a strange sort of way it's exactly what you'd wish for from a street named the way it is.  A slice of dirty old rock and roll deep in the heart of the city.

The entrance to Cherry.  A sight not often observed by anyone during daylight hours.
But I digress.  Again.  Let's get back to Dame Edna.

So, the renaming of the street didn't turn out to be such a great honour after all.  How to rectify this problem?

How about a statue?  Everyone would be happy with a statue of themselves, yes?

A statue seems fine until you realise it's located way out in Waterfront City, a part of Melbourne originally intended by city planners to be the next vibrant place to be, but at the moment seems to be ignored by everyone except its few residents, those who do their shopping at the big-arse Costco located there, and those who come to gaze in wonder and disbelief at a years behind schedule yet still not completed Ferris wheel which seems destined to be avoided by those not wanting to suffer a horrible death due to the metal supports buckling and cracking in the heat, which, unfortunately for the designers of the wheel, tends to roll around every year due to that pesky time of year known as "summer".

Plus, look at that facial expression.  It's dour.  It's stern.  It reminds me of a teacher I had many years ago, rather than a well-loved entertainer.  Supposedly the statue was completed and sat in the artist's studio for three years due to disagreements over the statue's expression between the artist and Barry Humphries, before eventually being unveiled, years after it was supposed to be, where it now stands in an unloved, windswept, under-populated part of town.

Now, seeing as how both the street and the statue turned out to a bit of a bust, the question remains.  Why would the City of Melbourne choose to honour an icon like this in, what I'm sure Humphries would feel, such a shabby manner?

The answer, I believe, comes from the mouth of Barry Humphries himself.  And it has to do with this.

Federation Square.  A large public space housing a part of the National Gallery of Victoria, The Australian Centre for the Moving as well as bars, cafes and restaurants, it has many fans and people who utilise the space on a regular basis.  On the other side of the coin though, there are also people who see it as, "A set of dilapidated Italian luggage," who tell us that, "Getting used to it is like getting used to leprosy," and who have described it as "Frog spawn" and an "eyesore."

Sorry, did I say people?  I actually meant one person.

Barry Humphries.

So, imagine yourself in this unenviable position.  You're in a position of power and authority within the City of Melbourne, but you listen to the will of the people.  Public sentiment, as well as a general respect for Humphries' role in taking Australia to the world, requires Dame Edna to be honoured and commemorated in your city in one form or another.  So you decide to do so, but the person you are honouring continually denigrates a major part of the city you are trying to push as a major focal point.

Not really much of a mystery any more, is it? 

Bite the hand that feeds you, and you might find it slaps you in return.

Monday, 23 July 2012

"Ich bin ein Melbournian?"

When you take into account our country’s status, first as a British colony and far-flung outpost of the Empire, then as a member of the Commonwealth, it makes sense that so much of Melbourne honours past British monarchs and dignitaries in one form or another.  Statues scattered all over the place in various parks and gardens, various plaques and memorials, a market named after Queen Victoria.  You even notice it if you start at Spencer St and walk east, crossing King St, then William St, followed by Queen St and then Elizabeth St, commemorating King William and Queen Elizabeth, for those a little slow off the mark to put these pieces together.  Even our state is named after a monarch, and our state capital named for a British Prime Minister.

Just as an aside here: When I mentioned the phrase “British Prime Minister”, how many of you had a “Simpsons” flashback to Barney yelling, ‘Lord Palmerston!’ and punching out Wade Boggs?

Show of hands?  No?  Just me, then?

But I digress, which as you’ll find out as we go, I tend to do often.

So, no surprises so far when it comes to who we, as a society, choose to honour with memorials.  But what did come as a surprise when I stumbled across it one day, is that which is tucked away in a little alcove off to one side of the Treasury Gardens.

People smarter in the arts than me tell me this is what's known as a "bas-relief portrait", a bronze portrait embedded in stone and yes, your eyes are not currently deceiving you.  That is indeed a portrayal of John F. Kennedy, 35th president of the United States of America.

The memorial itself is not large and imposing and unlike others scattered around the city in semi-prominent locations, the John F. Kennedy memorial is somewhat hidden.  Sure, it is signposted, and shows up on the map directing you around the Treasury Gardens, but it is not immediately apparent.  Even when following the path leading towards it, it’s not until you turn the last corner that the fountain and surrounding garden becomes apparent.  And even then, the actual memorial is subtly placed off to one side, rather than being the centrepiece.  To put it simply, it's not something you're likely to stumble across in the course of your day-to-day activities.

So, why does this exist at all?  Why Kennedy?  Why here, half a world away, is he being memorialised?

I'm not old enough to have lived through Kennedy's era, so I can't rely on first-hand knowledge of what he was like and what he meant to people, but I've seen movies and documentaries, I've read books and spoken to those older than me, and Kennedy, to them, represented progress.  A relatively young man when elected (he was 43, the youngest ever to be elected president), he was a symbol of youth and vitality, emblematic of the United States as a whole, striding confidently forward into the future, perhaps best epitomised by this famous speech, (link is a heavily edited version.  Full seventeen minute version here

It was an infectious attitude, I guess, spreading halfway around the world.

And then, on November 22nd, 1963, in Dallas, Texas, the wave of optimism sweeping outwards finally broke, courtesy of an assassin's bullet.

Unlike the USA, which has had it happen four times throughout its history, an Australian Prime Minister has never been assassinated.  Over the years, we have carelessly misplaced one (more on him later), but none have been assassinated.  PMs stabbed in the back by “faceless men” don’t count.  (And that’s the extent of any political satire here, I promise.)

But the question remains.  Why this memorial?  Why Kennedy?

It's probably true that the bond between Australia and the USA was stronger than ever in the 1960's.  Both countries were fighting together in Vietnam, working to prevent the so-called "Domino effect" and ostensibly protecting the world from the spreading menace of Communism.  It was no less a person that our Prime Minister, Harold Holt, who proclaimed that we as a country were going, 'All the way with LBJ,' pledging his support to the then US president Lyndon Johnson.  But in today's age of creeping anti-Americanism and a desire to stand on our own two feet as a country, if an American president was assassinated tomorrow, would they receive their own statue here in Melbourne?  Barack Obama?  Perhaps, though I have my doubts.  Would George W. Bush have, if he was killed in his term of office?  I'm willing to bet he wouldn't.

And even if we are honouring fallen US presidents, the why not McKinley or Garfield as well?  Or even Lincoln, the "Great Emancipator", widely regarded as one of the greatest presidents?  Even if we decided to honour only our British heritage, then why not Spencer Percival, who was shot dead in 1812, the only British Prime Minister to meet his end from an opponent's bullet.  No.  Only Kennedy, it seems, captured the public's spirit in a way no-one else has.
But if there was such a desire to commemorate a overseas head of state in 1965, when the memorial was erected, then why not our own Prime Minister who died merely two years later?

I'm referring, of course, to Harold Holt, who, as Bill Bryson so masterfully put it in his book "Down Under", 'went for the swim that needs no towel,' drowning off Cheviot Beach, Portsea, in 1967.  Holt is not the only Australian Prime Minister to die in office, there have been two others, Joseph Lyons and John Curtin, but Holt's death is the only one that captured the public spirit the way it has.  Possibly because the nature of Holt's death, a sensational occurence, as well as the fact that his body was never found.
But Holt is not honoured with a statue of his own.  Oh no, that would just be too sensible, wouldn't it?  Instead, he has his name attached to something that makes people previously unfamiliar with it, look at you strangely when you tell them about it, and in some cases, outright disbelieve you.

A swimming pool.

Yep, that's right.  A swimming pool.  Named to honour a Prime Minister who drowned. 
It's been commented on and joked about and held up as an example of droll Australian humour innmuerable times already, by people such as comedian and now ABC Radio host Richard Stubbs, who once wrote, 'We put a lot of shit on Americans, but you can travel the length and breadth of the USA and you will not find the John F. Kennedy gun range.'  So I'm not even going to attempt to re-invent the comedic wheel on this one.  Suffice to say, it's a real thing, located in the suburb of Glen Iris, a massive structure that proudly bears Holt's name in big bright letters.

And for those who still don't believe me without photographic evidence, I'm sorry but you're just going to have to trust me on this one.  I stood outside and thought about it over and over with camera in hand, but even when it's for entirely innocent purposes such as this blog, I'm still not going to be that guy, looked at strangely (or worse) for taking photos in the vicinity of a public swimming pool.

Because I really don't want to go to jail, here's a picture of a meerkat I took instead.

But perhaps there is yet another reason why Harold Holt has a pool and not a statue.

The comicbook geek part of me came up with this theory, musing on the nature of death and the way it's depicted in the comicbooks I used to read.  Permenace was a trait not often associated with the death of a superhero, or even a villain, especially when popularity is a factor.  Resurrection was inevitable after a certain time and what appears to be "death" is very rarely so, especially if a character dies "off-screen", as it were.  This sort of thing has been done time and again throuought the years and continues to this day, leading to the old maxim where, 'if you don't see a body, they're not really dead.'

I must have had this in mind, buried somewhere subconsciously deep within my brain, which to be honest, works in some weird directions at the best of times.  Upon following twisted paths, not all of them located within the Treasury Gardens, and catching sight of the Kennedy memorial for the first time, I was struck by it's incongruity, and in that moment, I asked myself a question and answered it myself a moment later.

The question that keeps looping around.  Why Kennedy and why not Holt?

Thanks to Abraham Zapruder and his famous footage, we know Kennedy is dead.  We saw him shot in graphic detail and as horrific as it was, it offers us some finality on the matter.  We know what we saw and no-one argues with it (The why and the who, however, is another matter, and that one I'm not getting into).  With Holt, the fact that he drowned and was swept out to sea, coupled with the fact that his body was never to be recovered, instead gave rise to allegations of conspiracy, most notably that he was a communist, and on that fateful morning he didn't drown at all, but rather swam further out to sea, where he was picked up by a Chinese submarine that just happened to be out there waiting for him to take him to China, where for all we know, he remains to this day.  I should point out, this is subscribed to by none but the most ardent theorists, but the fact that such a theory exists at all, is telling in itself.  And why is it so?  Because Holt's body was never seen again.

Or to, put it another way.  If you don't see a body, they're not really dead.

I'm not saying the person in charge of deciding whether or not to erect a statue of Harold Holt made his decision based on fuzzy comicbook logic, but it raises some interesting discussion points if he did.  Do you also think people would accept Holt frozen in ice, Captain America-style, and re-awakened in the present day to lead a team of superheroes?  Hell, if we can re-imagine history to include "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter", the sky's the limit...

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

"Due to temporal instabilty, the 8:16 has been delayed..."

It’s a joke, albeit not a particularly funny one to regular users, but it’s said that the Melbourne public transport system has only a passing relationship with the general laws of time.  Trains seem to treat the schedule as more of a guideline than a rule and I’ve spoken to more than one person who missed their train by arriving a couple of minutes late and being surprised when the train actually arrived on time, a reversal of usual operating procedure.  Some days it seems as though, despite his legendary propensity for optimising the efficiency of public transport, not even Mussolini could make these trains run on time.

So, why is this?  Incompetence? The quirks of a flawed and outdated system?  Perhaps.  Or does it run deeper and is the entire public transport system itself built on a foundation of massive temporal instability?

I'll agree that for most people, localised time distortions are not the foremost rational explanation, but it’s true that for the heart of modern transport system, anachronisms do abound in Flinders Street Station.

The clocks above the main station entrance, telling people when the next train from each line will depart, are probably the most famous, giving rise to the old catch cry of, ‘I’ll meet you under the clocks,’ back in the days before ubiquitous mobile phones, when a meeting place had to be arranged in advanced between you and a friend travelling into the city on different train lines.  Tradition and a public outcry against their removal dictated that they resist the change to a digital readout back in the early 80s, but there are plenty of up to the minute digital displays within the station, so I guess we can forgive a heritage icon triumphing over tradition in this case.

Then there’s the entreaties painted on the tiles lining the walls of the lower concourses, urging us not to spit on the walls or the ground.  These always amuse me.  A relic of an earlier, possibly less genteel time, I imagine that on the day they are finally fade away completely or are painted over, someone walking alongside me is going to gaze in wonder and excitement at the now bare wall and immediately launch a big ball of saliva somewhere in my general vicinity.

And then there’s this…

Located at the station end of the Degraves Street underpass, this is incredibly useful for anyone who wishes to know where to catch a train to either St. Kilda or Port Melbourne.  There’s just one problem though.  Trains haven’t run to either of these suburbs in 25 years since the lines were closed in 1987.

The tracks are still there, linking up with existing tram lines for light rail use and in some cases, the train stations have been retained, the platforms serving as elevated tram stops.  So it’s not as though all trace of them has been obliterated out of existence.  But even so, the experience of catching a train along either of these lines is something that is fading into memory.

Then why does this remain?  It hasn’t been relevant in 25 years, but to this day it remains painted on the wall, directing people erroneously.  To make matters even more confusing, platform 11 no longer exists either, causing platform numbering to go 1-10, then 12-14.  I know we don’t believe in curses, but with general superstition in our society leading to the removal of 13 from airports and elevators and buildings, one would think that platform 13 would be the one eliminated or renamed.
Because things aren’t strange enough, I guess.

On a whim, I followed the old Port Melbourne line out to its termination point.  The station platform is still there, located smack dab in the middle of what is now Beacon Cove.  A suburb which didn’t seem to be built gradually, building by building, but seems to have sprung into existence fully formed.  As if I turned my back on a patch of nothingness one day, only to turn back around not long later to find a brand new suburb.  When I first drove through it, I referred to it as ‘Legoland’ and thought I was incredibly witty for doing so, little realising the same joke seemed to spring up everywhere at once amongst people who saw the suburb like I did, a suburb that gives the impression of being built somewhere else entirely and then planted directly down on its location in one piece.  Without a history of its own.  Which sounds like I’m criticising Beacon Cove, but I’m not really.  I’m aware history and tradition has to have a starting point, and in 50 or 100 years, no-one will bat an eye.  It’s only today where it seems incongruous.  Out of time, if I may.

Which leads me back to Flinders Street station, which seems to be emblematic of Melbourne as a whole.  On one hand, Melbourne embraces its status as a vibrant 21st century metropolis, building on the foundations of what came before, and on the other hand, the city itself is seemingly more than content to leave these foundations on display, even when they bear little resemblance to what their progeny has become.

So is this just a small part of a larger issue?  I originally thought it could possibly be a localised problem, limited to the confines of the station, but perhaps it's endemic throughout the entire city, and the real reason the clocks remain is not for the delight of tourists who snap photos of the station's facade and remark at how a city can attempt to balance the old and the new, but perhaps it's a warning for the rest of us.  The clocks, that at first confusing glance seem to indicate the presence of a dozen different time zones, serve to caution us that time is not rigid like we all believe it is and instead has a propensity to slip on an irregular basis.

This photo was taken at about 11:30am.

Perhaps.  Or perhaps I'm just over thinking things.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have a train to catch.  (Checks watch)  Any minute now...