The beginnings of bicycling

If you look at Google Maps using the beta cycling tab, Melbourne becomes a network of dark green, of cycle tracks spreading out from the city and criss-crossing the suburbs.

The paths wind around the rivers and creeks, then settle abruptly into the grids of the inner suburbs. There is something tantalising about maps, and Google by bike is no exception.

Melbourne by bike

In green, the map of Melbourne suggests a different city – a whole new world, one that I started exploring in earnest in winter last year. Now that I know I’ll be leaving Melbourne in the coming months, I’m very glad I began when I did. Continue reading

Book review: Eleven Seasons by Paul D. Carter

For outsiders, the attraction of Aussie Rules football is hard to understand. In WA it hovered at the edge of my consciousness in winter, and I chose a team as an easy way of identifying my allegiances to the north or the south of the river.

In Melbourne, football culture assaults me with the presence of loud fans in the city after games. Wide-eyed children on the tram, bedecked in team colours with a parent by their side, bring to mind memories of my mother’s stories, of going to the football as a teenager with a much-loved older cousin who has long since passed away.

Bruce Dawe’s poem ‘Life Cycle’ gave me something of an insight as a youngster into what it meant to grow up with football in Melbourne. Now, Paul D. Carter’s Eleven Seasons, which won the The Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award for 2012, has added a stirring contribution to the way I understand the culture of AFL, revealing both its problems and its power from the inside.

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Emerging Writers’ Festival: Aussie Voices

On Sunday I attended the Aussie Voices panel as part of the Emerging Writers’ Festival Town Hall Conference. The panel proposed the questions, “Does Australia have a literary voice? Who tells the stories of Australia? And are our literary voices representative of the people of Australia?”

I’ve been thinking about it ever since, because some of the questions it raised relate to things that I am grappling with in my own work.

Tamara Barrett has blogged about the session, and she has some good quotes from the panellists that I missed. What I want to engage with here is the question of how white writers – writers of Anglo descent – can contribute to a diverse voice in Australian literature. It’s something that Barrett raised in her blog post, and that crossed my mind during the panel as well.

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AusLit101: on Voss and Monkey Grip

Two Thursdays in a row I’ve climbed the short steep steps outside the Wheeler Centre, each time with a half-read novel in my bag. First Voss, then Monkey Grip: two very different books.

And, in the space of one hour on each of these evenings at the Wheeler Centre’s Australian Literature 101 series, two very different literary critics have shared their thoughts on these Australian classics and on what they mean to our literary landscape.

These two books, one that I’ve now nearly finished in the few hours since the session ended, are flooding my mind and my diary with very different thoughts and ideas, about writing and life.

Last Thursday the book presented at the Wheeler Centre was Voss, the author of which is Australia’s only winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Patrick White.

The presenter was Peter Craven, critic and cultural commentator, seeming ever so slightly bored to be there but more than happy to talk about Patrick White, about how White “imagined us into being”, and what this meant to Australia.

Tonight the book was Monkey Grip, originally published by McPhee Gribble because it was a bit radical. The author is Helen Garner, writing of and from within the Melbourne that she knew, in the ’70s.

Kerryn Goldsworthy was the presenter this time. She was given a copy of Monkey Grip for her twenty-fifth birthday, the year after it was published. She spoke about the book as one who loves it and for whom it resonated, most particularly at the time but, one senses, even now.

My copy of Voss, half read before I put it down to start Monkey Grip for this week’s talk, is smooth and nearly new and cost me $5 on a bargain table. It’s a Vintage Classic, print tight and thick on cream pages. It sat unread on my shelf for nearly two years and now is waiting on my bedside table until I get back from my journey to 1970s Melbourne.

Monkey Grip has my mother’s name inside the front cover, and the date, January 1979. It was published in 1977, so maybe it did not immediately seem so relevant across the continent, far away, where the sun sets into the ocean and the changes of the seasons are easily missed.

The book falls open in a precise spot, where a few pages are falling out. All through the text, against the small print on brown pages, there are pencil marks. I recognise what I think might have been my mother’s concerns, her interests, back then.

There are lines beside the paragraph on children delimiting the scope of women’s lives and freedom. Grey pencil runs under those phrases where something is captured, purely and cleanly in prose, something messy about love, or loneliness, or addiction.

Voss impressed me from the beginning; I saw the characters of Laura and Voss drawn so densely in the opening chapter. I read on through their meeting in the garden, their meeting of minds or souls; of recognising each other’s flaws. Peter Craven placed the novel in a hierarchy of worth. He said it was a parallel of Moby Dick. He was certain of Patrick White’s place in the canon of literature in English – not up to the mark of James Joyce, of course, but as “good as Beckett or Nabakov”.

Kerryn Goldsworthy spoke tonight of what makes a classic. Critics don’t decide what makes a classic, she said, but readers do. She spoke of the second wave feminism of Monkey Grip – how it was not just about the fight for equal pay but also about women working out how to live their sexual lives. Goldsworthy said that Monkey Grip, and Jessica Anderson’s Tirra Lirra by the River, both with main characters named Nora, marked the beginning of a period when more female writers were able to get their work published.

Monkey Grip makes me want to write more, and it makes me think I can, and should, write with more surety than I do, in this voice that I have, this voice that is mine.

Reading Voss, I admire it and appreciate it, but I struggle for the vision – struggle to ever imagine having the vision to be able to write like that. That’s to be expected, you might say, for it is Patrick White after all.

Reading Monkey Grip, I think instead, I don’t need that vision – I have my own, I just have to free up my mind and my words and let it come, with the clarity of my own voice, and thought, and imagination.


It’s that time of year again, comedy time, when you can’t pass the Melbourne Town Hall without being accosted by people in attire ranging from normal to very abnormal, all of whom would like you to take a flyer. Towards the end of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, if you’re lucky, this is also the place to score two-for-one tickets, sometimes from the comedians themselves.

The way in which MICF seems to create a community of comedians and comedy-appreciators is one of the best things about it. The door person for one show might be performing at the same venue a few hours later, swapping places with the comedian currently on stage. There’s invariably some level of interaction in most shows I’ve seen, so it’s not the time to be shy if you’re sitting at the front. The range of events in terms of price, notoriety, age and topic means that the cliché “there’s something for everyone” is not far from the truth.

That being said, it can be hard to find that “something” in a comedy program containing, according to Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu’s little blurb in the inside cover, 430 events. The best idea is not to think about it too hard and just jump in head first. Daunted by the volume of the program, that’s been my approach in the past – dicated by what I’m invited to by friends or by who’s offering two-for-one tickets on the sidewalk. This year, failing to find any of the comedians that I actually know in the program (I think this was due to impatience or really bad index use, as I’ve since discovered that many of them are performing after all), I signed up to review six shows that are a fairly random selection.

Two of these took place last night, so expect to see my reviews popping up on Crikey’s blog Laugh Track very soon. Last night was a great start to my experience of the festival – warm weather always makes me feel more kindly to Melbourne than winter, and meant the atmosphere in the city was actually festive. In spite of rushing to make the first show and almost missing it due to the tram being packed with footy fans headed for the MCG (I had forgotten about the impact of AFL on public transport), it turned into a fun night, thanks, of course, to the comedians. One tends to forget that the benefit of comedy is, quite simply, that you laugh – a lot.

I’ll be reviewing the following shows for Crikey’s Laugh Track:
Matt Grantham – How Many Politicians Does it Take to Change a Lightbulb?
Dixie’s Tupperware Party
David O’Doherty is Looking Up
Little Dum Dum Club
Hayley Brennan – Attention Seeker
Ryan Walker – Man Up!
Hannah Gadsby – Hannah Wants a Wife

(Edited 18 April to include links.)

What might have been lost

We stood under an overcast sky last night at Sidney Myer Music Bowl, clouds glowing orange with the lights from the city. As the twilight deepened, Bon Iver‘s support act, Sally Seltmann, began her set, and I felt that to be here, in this big and rushing city, was not so bad after all. In the midst of bustle and busyness, of traffic jams and too many shops, the place and the moment was an oasis to remind me of all that was good.

We bought tickets to Bon Iver late last year. At that point, a few very difficult months loomed ahead of us due to circumstances outside our control – a period of time that offered no surety as to how it would turn out in the end. The tickets were a promise for the future, an acknowledgement of hope.

So when the delicate but rousing first chords of “Perth” rang out to the audience of 12,000, I looked up to the orange sky, felt the music sweep into my body, and the sense of happiness was complete. To be there was magic; those first chords took it to a whole new level. A few drops of rain fell, a gentle reminder of the city in which we stood, and then the rain left us for the rest of the night: for the next two hours of incredible, inspiring music.

I fell for Bon Iver’s first album For Emma, Forever Ago while I was staying in a hostel on a Canadian ski mountain nearly three years ago. It fitted perfectly, and it never occurred to me that perhaps the environment was right: headman Justin Vernon wrote the album while holed up for the winter in a hut in the Wisconsin mountains, and he says he would have moved to Australia yesterday if he didn’t like the cold so much.

I have listened to the first album and, to a lesser extent, the self-titled second album, on and off ever since. Sometimes I listen with concentration, sometimes with abandon. Always it sweeps me away from the present – sometimes right away from the music, taking my thoughts elsewhere entirely, but more often the music is there beside me, sending me on a journey and coming along with me. These journeys are always into the imagination, and sometimes into the future.

To see the nine-piece band play and to hear Vernon hit the high notes in person was something else altogether. From “Perth” they slid smoothly into “Minnesota, WI” – just as these two tracks meld together on bon iver, bon iver. Vernon’s voice dropped for the second song, an indication of his vocal range that would emerge throughout the show.

The music veered from delicate melodies to thicker vocal sections. Lyrics that are barely understandable on CD suddenly became much more clear. The songs that I had heard over and over again took on new depth of sound and feeling out there under the vaulted ceiling of the clouded Melbourne sky.

It was not just the sound and atmosphere that was brilliant. The footage broadcast on two big screens either side of the stage for those of us on the lawn seating was well shot – close-ups of Vernon’s hands on guitar strings or keyboard, of the horn and saxophone and violin, of the drummer striking cymbals with wire brushes.

The backdrop to the stage hung like torn strips of bark in three V-shapes, leaving black spaces the shape of two mountains. Across this torn backdrop, images and lights played and changed: colours danced, or a blood-red river flowed against gravity; later surf rolled in. It was never distracting but it was always interesting, combining the elements that make a good music video with the live music experience.

It’s a while since I’ve been to a big concert, and there was a focus in the crowd that you don’t always get. You could sense the restless elements starting to fidget during some of the instrumental sections, particularly during the long saxophone solo at the end of “Holocene”.

Largely this was a crowd that was joyful to be there and keen to let the band know this between songs, but falling into silence during the quieter and more gentle songs. I think it’s a brave thing, to slow down and sing softly in front of a crowd that size, but Bon Iver handled it on a number of occasions before bringing back the strong beats and sending the crowd’s energy skywards again.

I’d forgotten the power of a good concert, and of hearing music that you love played live. It’s not just about the enjoyment of the moment; for me it’s also about where the music takes my imagination. It’s about the sense of calm, the cheerfulness, that you carry with you afterwards.

It’s about looking back, the next day or the next week or the next year, and remembering how it felt at the moment of the opening chords, or how it felt in the middle of the song that was the first of theirs you ever heard. There is something special, undefinable and ungraspable about just being there, with however many other people, at that moment in time when music makes the world seem bigger, fuller and happier.

On inclusion and exclusion: Melbourne (2011)

I was a bit shy about reading Sophie Cunningham’s Melbourne while on the tram – which is where I get most of my reading done – I was afraid that people might think I was a tourist. I mean, how often do you see a local getting around reading a book with their city’s name emblazoned on the cover?

But read it I did, nonetheless – in cafés, on the tram, while dawdling at the Parkville campus of Melbourne Uni or eating lunch at La Trobe. I was easily hooked, as it moved through a year in the life of the city, from the Black Saturday bush fires of 2009 to the following summer’s hailstorm, telling stories of the drains under Hawthorn, the Westgate Bridge Collapse, and the changed meanderings of the Yarra.

It is a brave enterprise, this mission of a series of books about our capital cities (Brisbane, Adelaide, Hobart and Sydney all have versions) – books that are neither history nor memoir; that are definitely non-fiction but which are difficult to categorise beyond this. Melbourne is closest to being a tribute: it is a story and a history in the service of one city, the author’s home city.

The book’s personal element is both its redeeming feature and its ultimate downfall. It is inevitable that a book like this will reflect the author’s own story and experience, and in this there is a beautiful honesty. A pure history of Melbourne would have its own biases; parts would have to be left out while others are told in more depth. Cunningham’s tribute to the city of her birth is, in its form, honestly and openly a biased and personal piece of work without being purely a personal story.

For me, the disappointment of Melbourne lies in that it is a story that made me feel excluded from the city. It is a very different city to that of The Slap, for example, in which the characters inhabit their own narrow version of the city yet the reader does not feel excluded. Perhaps the difference here lies in the novel’s ability to portray so many points of view; Melbourne, on the other hand, can portray only one.

I called myself a local in the first paragraph, but I’m not really – I have only been living here since 2009. In this time, and in all the years prior to that when I visited my grandmother, Melbourne is a city that has made me feel both included and excluded by turns. (I could generalise and, seeking a more poetic sentence, say, Melbourne is a city that makes you feel both included and excluded… but I do not wish to say ‘you’, here, for the experience is different for everyone.)

I began to feel included by this city when, after a short time of living here, I established a few regular haunts: sites of familiarity and comfort that allowed me to spring joyfully into the strange ‘rest’ of Melbourne, knowing that there were parts of town that would welcome me back, as though I belonged, with their familiar layout of streets and buildings, cafés and faces.

Yet she is a fickle lover, Melbourne, and when I did not give her – especially her inner-city heart – enough attention, she soon forgot me. So there are times when I swing the other way, to feeling that there is no place for me in this big and bustling city.

Perversely, Melbourne only increases this sense of dislocation. It reinforces elements of the city that one feels one should know or be a part of. But not everyone cycles down St Kilda Road; not everyone has Paul Kelly and Sian Prior in their circle of friends. Of course, Cunningham has been prominent in Melbourne’s literary scene for some time, so it is only natural that her friends would also be part of this scene. I cannot blame her for the choices she has made in writing this book, and there was much that I learnt and enjoyed in reading it. But nonetheless I can wish that between Cunningham’s story of a city in which I live, and my own experience and interpretation of it, there was something that brought me deeper instead of shutting me out.

Originally written 14 October 2011.


Last year, summer was defined by the presence of the pontoon at South Beach in South Fremantle. It was there when I arrived back in WA in mid-December (I wrote about that in “On coming home”), but one day in February I went to the beach for a morning swim and it was gone. The water was, once again, unbroken from groyne to rocky groyne.

This year I’m a long way from that beach, and from that type of summer heat: in Perth it stretched on in the mid-30s, unbroken for nearly two months but tempered each day by the sea breeze. Melbourne heat feels much more oppressive, and on a really hot day I feel stranded amongst the solidity of the city: it feels so far from the sea. I could jump on a tram or a train and be looking across the bay within half an hour, but on these beaches I am still a stranger. Nowhere do I feel so far from ‘home’ as on a hot summer’s day in Melbourne.

Today is different. It’s sunny and breezy and not too hot, and outside the window where I write there is a fernery, cool and damp and growing riotously after the spring rain. The light is full of gentle colours, green and cream and the palest hints of blue sky. It is a new year, but in that artificial setting of a day and a date as somehow crucial to our lives, there has been no momentous event or shift in feeling. The past year unfolded with an endless steadiness; it was a year where the time always seemed to be running away, because of what lay ahead. The seismic shifts, the things that happened that changed everything, happened with a surprising inevitability.

They happened on days and dates that followed no pattern, and so the beginning of a new year is just a minor shift in comparison: an excuse to hang the new calendar and to realise, in the days immediately after, that writing 2/1/2011 or 3/1/2011 looks correct but isn’t. There is always a sense of dislocation in that: looking at the date and realising you have transported yourself back one year, yet have remained exactly where you are, caught in the new one, with new numbers to signify your place in time.

In spite of this, when I imagine the days, weeks and months ahead, I am ever so happy to be here, with the year opening up ahead of me like the fresh blank pages of a new diary, waiting to be filled.

Reflection on Unsensored11

Tuesday, 6 December 2011:

It’s the second last day of Unsensored11, and I’m taking the opportunity to hang out at the gallery before the images start coming down tomorrow. Somehow the day that I spent gallery sitting last week flew by and I still want more time to look, and to contemplate the images on display.

There are the four portraits of young women who are part of the punk scene, by Liam White in collaboration with Ada Conroy. The portraits are striking for the fact that they give us nothing of the faces or expressions of the women, but instead give each of them a voice. The voice is captured in the chunk of typewritten text beneath the portraits and inside the frames. There are mistakes in the text in places, thanks to the fallibility of human fingers on typewriter keys. It is appropriate, for surely in telling their story, no-one says it perfectly the first time round. There are always corrections, revisions, maybe some backpedalling.

In using typewritten text, the set of portraits also harks back to the pre-digital past. The whole exhibition does this simply because every image here is captured using film, but no exhibit does this more so than Liam’s. The portraits are analogue-shot, darkroom-printed, typewriter-explained.

There are other images in the exhibition that hark back to the past in different ways. Andrew Cosgriff exhibited “grime”, a black and white photo of Ballarat Railway station. It is an image that could almost have been taken a hundred years ago. A soot-blackened worker leands against the rail, beyond which there is a steam train. There are old-fashioned signals overhead and a thick dark plume of steam clouds the sky. It is only the modern signage – a “Ballarat” sign and another that is a line through a walking stick figure – that really gives the game away. It is, in the end, a photo from the very recent past, harking back to something older.

“At the end of the day” by Timothy D. Johnson also has the past present, subtly. The photograph is of the sun going down into the ocean, but it is shot through the rigging of a tall ship, Leeuwin II. The ship’s capping rail is in focus in the foreground, gleaming a little in the evening light. I’m proud of this one, for it is a ship that I know well and who I have sailed on for years. She is not that old, having been launched 25 years ago, but she is a traditionally-rigged tall ship and so, if you are open to it, she cannot help but make you dream of the past.

The movement in this image can only be remembered or imagined: the invisible wind that must have been blowing that evening. In “grime”, movement is present only in the steam; otherwise, it is an image of calm. The railway worker is just watching, resting or waiting, perhaps.

There are however two shots in the exhibition that are full of movement. They rely on this movement, caught and suspended clearly on film.

I am thinking of “Schooling Jackfish”, shot by Marcus Visic – an image of sleek bodies, bubbles of air, and blue – so much blue. The story behind this shot is quite remarkable, and testament to the resilience of film and the challenges that it can pose for those who remain committed to it.

The other that strikes me for its movement is “The Great Escape”, by Dave Carswell. Click through and you will see why – it is a beautifully composed image, the curving arcs of the boys as they backflip balanced by those who watch them, standing casually on the other edge of the pier.

There are several images of the sea or the coast in this year’s exhibition, unlike last year. Perhaps it is something about the warmer weather, about it being springtime when images are chosen, instead of the depths of winter. One of my favourite sets is “Point Lonsdale Pier”, exhibited by Lea Williams, three polaroids that are blue in theme and that focus on the edges of the land: the point where humans make their contact with the sea. This edge or border between land and sea is the site of my own image in the exhibition, too.

There are many more images in the gallery that draw me to them, that make me think of other things, sometimes clearly related and sometimes not. Consistently for me, though, I am drawn to the images of the ocean. Some of the portraits are engrossing, and images of Melbourne are often striking with their angles and light, but for me, the ocean has a pull that is hard to match.

Unsensored11 closes tonight (7 December). The exhibition is held yearly by the Melbourne Silver Mine, a group that is wholly dedicated to analogue photography and film techniques. This is my second year taking part in the exhibition, and I hope to be back next year!

Kodak from the eighties

At the Box Hill camera market earlier this year we picked up a few random films, including a roll of Kodak Gold that expired in March 1989. Standard, run-of-the-mill film back then, but twenty years on it produces something quite different.

The risk of expired or cheap film is that sometimes there’s decent shots messed up by too much grain or strange colours. But then sometimes there’s a few that turn out alright…

This one was taken in South Fremantle in July, and I like the graininess in the colours of the sky:

And there’s this one, looking up the bay towards Melbourne from Brighton. I know, lots of ocean photos… They are hard to resist.

And then for something quite different, no water in sight, there’s this one shot by No Fixed Address on the same roll of film: