Talking UP Melbourne

We always love hearing Melburnians talking up Melbourne, so it was a delight to read Thornton McCamish look at a city going gangbusters.

Whether Melbourne has been revived, or refurbished, or "Starbucked", something's definitely up.

IT'S always instructive to hear what outsiders make of your hometown, though I didn't realise just how instructive it could be until I went backpacking in Europe in the early '90s.

In Athens, I met ticket inspectors who knew all about Melbourne, and gave me messages to convey to cousin Niko in Preston - you must know him? There were rug merchants in Istanbul to whom Melbourne was the hometown of all those lovely blonde Australian girls who'd sipped apple tea in their shops. But for most of the people I met - for my fellow-travelling Canadians, Chileans, Americans, Germans - Melbourne drew a big blank. At best, it was a synonym for not-Sydney. Especially among Sydneysiders.

It might be different on the backpacking circuit now. In the 15 years since, our pollies and major events dons have worked tirelessly to revive a tired brand. These days the Melbourne product seems to be going gang busters. "Major events capital." "Cultural capital." "Theatre capital." Film Victoria's website spiel captures the general tone, describing a city ready for her close-up: "alive with cosmopolitan energy that offers up countless experiences and attractions to thrill its visitors - a truly international city."

You expect the city's sales team to pad out the bra a little. But lately general opinion seems to be swinging into alignment with the boom-town hype. "Melbourne is intrinsically clever without being brash about it," says Lonely Planet's 2004 city guide, "and finds itself quite suddenly thrust onto to the world stage." Last year in The Bulletin, author John Birmingham wrote: "Melbourne is a grown-up city that has suddenly come to terms with just how much cooler it is than everyone else - which is to say, way cooler." Last month it was Robert De Niro's turn to talk up the town. "I like it," he said, thoughtfully. "It's good." That's the kind of talk that could go to our heads.

Cities are personal to the people who live in them. I couldn't care less about formula one racing, for instance, but I still feel a little gleam of pride when a racing team boss describes Melbourne's as the best grand prix.

It's not just a Melbourne thing. On that backpacking trip I met a guy from Cleveland, at a youth hostel in Verona, who mentioned in the lounge one night that the Cleveland Symphony was probably the best in the world. When it became clear that no one believed him, or cared much either way, he became so insistent and red in the face I thought he was going to cry.

Still, I'm a bit suspicious of this boosterism, partly because the rise or decline of a city is hard to define, but mostly because the new hyped-up image of Melbourne doesn't bear much resemblance to mine. It was a relief to hear recently that the NSW president of the Australian Hotels Association had rejected suggestions that Sydney could do with a slightly more sophisticated bar scene, a scene more like, say, Melbourne's. "We don't want to sit in a hole and drink chardonnay and read a book," John Thorpe said. "People can sit down, talk about history, chew the fat and gaze into each other's eyes but that's not what Sydney wants."

Sitting in a glum hole talking about history? Now that's more like it. Bleak by climate, brooding by nature. A cosmopolitan, sophisticated town. When he visited in 1998, Bill Bryson wrote about our city's "settled and gracious air", which reminded him of Europe. Paul Theroux didn't think it looked much like Europe at all, but managed to set aside his customary disgust for new places to describe a "settled and social" city which "looked especially prosperous in bad weather, its buildings darkened by rain and its streets shining with the reflections of busy crowds".

Yes a staid town, a little self-serious. Mostly flat. But a shock-jock free zone. Arty. Look no further for live music venues and lively small presses, and deeply intellectual stencil-art graffiti. You could call it the ABC of Australian cities. (In which case Sydney would be Channel Nine.) Culture? "We've got culture up to our arseholes," as Bazza McKenzie feelingly put it.

But maybe that's the old story. The new Melbourne has more front than Myer. Whether we've been revived, or refurbished, or just "Starbucked", as Barry Humphries has complained, something's definitely up. Living in Melbourne in the past decade has been like watching intriguing-looking dishes arrive at your table when you thought the meal was over.

Eureka Tower, Fed Square? Yeah, OK. Completely refitted MCG, and Southern Cross Station? Go on, then. Australian Synchrotron? Syncho-what? And now a 120-metre high Ferris wheel at Docklands? Well, all right, maybe one little ride ..

So credit where it's due to our civic procurement chiefs. For them, no idea or event has been too far-out to contemplate. According to a recent press report, Ron Walker was all set to bring bullfighting to the MCG at one point and would have, except that when he went to Spain to have a look, all that business with the bull getting stabbed made him blench.

So that was one that got away. And the 1996 Olympics was another. But there haven't been many. We've had the Bledisloe Cup, the FINA world swimming championships, and the 2011 Presidents Cup golf is coming - all bringing welcome jobs and cable TV exposure, if not necessarily profits.

There are less obvious - more Melbourne - signs of pelf, too. The decision to nominate ourselves to become, with Edinburgh, an official UNESCO "city of literature", for example. Or The Encyclopedia of Melbourne, an online resource that was published last year as a 800-page book. Ours is the only Australian city that has treated itself to such an engrossed self-examination.

And why not? The rest of the world clearly thinks we're the business. Our city was, with Vancouver, the world's most liveable city in 2002; and again in 2004. In its The Cities Book (2006), Lonely Planet ranks its hometown as the 12th most marvellous in the world. We were named No. 1 Australian city for international meetings in 2005.

But does that mean we've become an international city? What to make of this year's quality-of-living rankings issued by the global human-resources giant Mercer, in which our town makes a more modest appearance at 17th spot?

Maybe rankings aren't that revealing after all.

Perhaps you could measure a city's greatness by the spores it releases to the global breeze: Germaine Greer, Neighbours, Percy Grainger, the bionic ear, the secret ballot. World class or what?

The trouble with getting excited about our new-found international glamour is that it inevitably takes us back to the one area in which Melbourne has long been incontestably world-class: worrying about whether it's world-class.

The Great Australian Cringe applies nationwide, but Melbourne has arguably suffered most, probably because we got off to such a promising start. In its youth, Melbourne was an authentic prodigy. With gold as its steroid, the settlement grew at a freakish rate, faster than anywhere in Europe or in the British Empire. The colony got itself a navy to protect the richest gold port in the world. Even when the bullion stopped coming so easy, the dreamy mood lingered. "(There) is nothing extravagant in the estimate," this paper's editorial boomed in 1888, "that in another century Australasia will have a population of 100,000,000." That Melbourne would be the megalopolis at its hub didn't need saying.

So the fall, when it came, was from a considerable height. The river of history flowed around us. There was the 1956 Olympic Games, but the world was already drifting away. Once Whelan had taken the wrecking ball to our magnificent Victorian-era buildings, the kindest thing to be said about Melbourne was that she had a nice personality.

Melbourne's artists and thinkers were scuppered, too. Australian artists have always felt a perfectly reasonable need to head overseas, but ours seemed to cut and run with hurtful relish. "I am a refugee from Australian culture," Albert Tucker declared. Alan Moorehead hopped the boat for Europe in 1936, and never regretted it. Later he wrote: "To stay at home was to condemn yourself to nonentity" - which for him was the worst thing imaginable.

You get the feeling that Melbourne would have gone overseas itself if it could have gotten the airfare together. It couldn't. Instead, it waited for elsewhere to come here, bearding the celebrity representatives of the world as they stumbled half-pissed and blinking out of their Comets and Constellations onto the tarmac at Essendon Airport, to ask them if they liked Melbourne.

Even when they said they did, we itched for the birch. Ava Gardner never said, famously, that "On the Beach is a story about the end of the world, and Melbourne sure is the right place to film it". So one of us made it up. The line was concocted by The Sun-Herald's Melbourne correspondent Neil Jillett as a joke; the subs on his Sydney paper must have thought it sounded about right, and left it in.

Something's changed since then, though I don't think it has much to do with Fed Square or Docklands or major events. What's different is the way we look at ourselves. One of the interesting things about the past decade or so is the new perspectives on our city it has given us, both literally and figuratively: Eureka Tower Skydeck; Shane Maloney's Murray Whelan books, Chris Tsiolkas' Loaded. The movies Romper Stomper and Spotswood. Water taxis. Kath & Kim. All these have helped us see our highly suburbanised, multicultural city more fully for what it is.

And for what it isn't. As Melbourne's thousands of overseas students or returning expatriates know, this isn't a major world city. It just doesn't pack the centrifugal energy of megalopolises such as Mumbai or Mexico City. When the Martians come to Earth, they won't start their visit in Melbourne.

This is useful knowledge. Because it meant that those of us not actually involved in the promotions business could give up vying for international acclaim. "Melbourne turned inwards a long time ago," John Birmingham suggested in his Bulletin article. "Melbourne's internal life has always been more finely developed than the harbour city's. Not just its clubs, pubs, cafes, restaurants, bookstores, boutiques but also its inner life."

I think there's something in this. At some point Melburnians stopped caring whether the world recognised our city as one of the great cities.

This doesn't mean Melbourne has become provincial - Melbourne has an insatiable interest in things going on elsewhere - just less restless. More than half of the people who live here are first- or second-generation immigrants. For many of them, Melbourne is the wider world.

The changes that have made the biggest difference to Melbourne's enviable inner life were mostly about good housekeeping. Things like the changes to the licensing laws, the ones which germinated the city's 150 or so small bars; and the urban planning overhaul begun decades ago, which produced footpath cafes, restored a sump-like Yarra and brought it back into the city; the Postcode 3000 initiative that repopulated Hoddle's grid and helped breathe a little mystery back into our city lanes.

Pleasing ourselves may actually have made us more worldly. The fact that the Facebook "Melbourne is Better than Sydney" group has some 22,000 members and the "Sydney is Better than Melbourne" group has 500 could be taken as evidence of an irrefutable truth or, more plausibly, as residual chippiness, but I suspect it's more of a collective raspberry, like an online Mexican wave.

When RMIT's new Global University City Index placed Melbourne fifth in the world a few weeks back - using what can only have been very Melbourne-friendly definitions of "global", "university" and "city" - the news was greeted with an appreciative guffaw, a city-wide roll of the eyes: world-class universities? Up to our arseholes in 'em.

We still grill celebs about Melbourne when they arrive here but there's an in-joke flavour to it now. Look at moy! It's another one of our city's private gags. Like hook turns, and all those lanes that turn out to be right-turn only when it's far too late to do anything about it; the humorous conceit that we have the best coffee in the universe; the weird, happy cult of Mayor John So.

TO ME the best thing about Melbourne is not unique, and it's not new, just getting more pronounced - it's the fact that Melburnians like to go out. We leave our suburbs and go to things, a habit we probably learned from our footy obsession. Melburnians show up in truly impressive numbers to everything from evangelical gatherings to political marches to bars and baseball (the MCG to holds the record for the biggest crowd ever at a baseball match: 100,000 at the '56 Olympics); from Moomba to Moon Festival; Spiegeltent to illegal street racing. We'll even come out to watch television: witness the crowds of up to 10,000 people who flocked to Federation Square to watch the World Cup.

You could open an envelope in this town and people would show up.

They'd probably enjoy themselves too, though someone would no doubt claim to have seen a better one in Riga or Bilbao. That's the sort of city it is.

I've since learned that the American guy at the youth hostel was right about the Cleveland Symphony. Sorry, Michael, Cleveland did - does? - have one of the finest orchestras in the world. But I bet the coffee's rubbish.

About the author

Thornton McCamish is a Melbourne writer. In 1989 he went to Melbourne University in 1989 to study law and emerged six years later with a Masters degree in Literature instead. He edited The Big Issue Australia magazine before turning to full-time writing.

His travel book, Supercargo: A Journey Among Ports, was published in 2002.





❊ Web Links ❊


Talking UP Melbourne 

Talk of the town by Thorton McCamish [The Age]

A Guide to Melbourne University by Thorton McCamish









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