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.

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