I recently submitted to my publisher, Australian Scholarly Publishing, the manuscript of my forthcoming book Melbourne Circle: Walking, Memory and Loss. The book originated in posts on this blog – it is an account of a journey on foot around Melbourne in the years 2014-16 which I made with my wife, Lynne. On the way we observed the kind of things you’ll find in these posts – ghost signs, derelict buildings and lost places – and we uncovered countless forgotten stories and characters from the past.
In 2018, after I’d finished writing this blog, I experienced another kind of loss when Lynne died of cancer. Writing the book about our walks became a way not just of exploring the history of Melbourne but of coping with my grief by telling our story. The book Melbourne Circle is a personal memoir as much as it is travelogue or social history. In addition to some sections which originated as blog posts, the book reflects on how our lives unfolded in the Melbourne suburbs, and how we built meanings together through our relationships with these places.
As the title suggests, the themes of the book are loss, memory, connection to place, and regeneration. All of this adds up to what I understand as ‘psychogeography’, meaning a recognition of our connection with place as a key to the meanings of our lives.
The book will be published in late 2020 – for more updates, check in again here or follow me on Facebook or Twitter.
I had a great chat with arts reporter Fiona Gruber about some of my favourite Melbourne ghostsigns on Radio National’s Blueprint for Living program on 23 May. We talked about medical clairvoyants, signwriting, and the way intriguing stories are hidden behind public typography. You can check out the audio here.
After two and a half years of circumnavigating the city, and more than 60 walks through more than 40 suburbs, we have reached the final walk, and today we are completing the circle. Beginning at Westgate Park, just below the West Gate Bridge, we are going for one final stroll around Port Melbourne and Fishermans Bend before jumping on the Punt back to the western side of the bay and returning to the point where the circle began in 2014. Continue reading
You get used to typical streetscapes in Melbourne – rows of small Victorian cottages, red brick Edwardian houses in established middle-class suburbs, clusters of oversized mansions in newer developments here and there, occasional hip architect-designed boxes, and the Housing Commission towers that punctuate the city like exclamation marks. Most of it is pretty familiar after a while. But heading east from Graham Street and south of Williamstown Road in Port Melbourne, we came across streets like nothing we had seen before – at least, not in this city. It felt as if we had stumbled through some time-and-travel machine into a British housing estate. (The fact that it was raining as we walked probably added to the illusion). In fact it was a utopian social experiment from the 1920s. Continue reading
This blog isn’t just about ghostsigns, architecture, and quirky tales of local history. It’s about an experience of the whole city – including the areas that might not be thought of as attractive for a recreational walk. The most unprepossessing parts of town can be as intriguing as any other. With this in mind we walked through the Port Melbourne industrial zone and headed towards the Westgate Bridge. Continue reading
Leaving St Vincent Place we headed north along Montague Street, then turned right into Bank Street towards South Melbourne, a suburb in which much of the history has been carefully and consciously preserved. If you’re looking for ghostsigns, this part of town is rich in them. You also pass a kaleidoscope of architectural styles in the space of a few blocks. Continue reading
On 27 August I took a group of keen psychogeographers on a tour around Footscray as part of the Melbourne Writers Festival. The walk took in a number of my favourite locations – including ghost signs, street art, evidence of past lives and lost histories. The tour was an attempt to explore some of the many layers of this fascinating suburb, and to suggest ways that suburban locations can be the starting point for writing. Continue reading
Crossing the Nepean Highway and entering Elwood, we found ourselves in the land of the English writers. This is one of the most famous street name clusters in Melbourne, where dozens of poets and novelists, many of them 19th century but a few more recent, hang out together. In fact the whole suburb has a romantic, fictional kind of atmosphere. Continue reading
One of the pleasures of walking the suburbs is making unexpected connections. Sometimes it’s a ghostsign – like the ‘Dr Morse’ sign that I first noticed in North Melbourne, which popped up again in Fitzroy and on a cafe wall in Abbotsford. Sometimes an architectural feature – the ‘barley sugar’ columns that I was unaware of until I spotted them on 1930s flats in South Yarra now keep turning up everywhere. And sometimes it’s a person whose life I find myself intersecting with as I walk. Whether we realise it or not, a passage through the city is a succession of encounters with countless individuals, celebrated, notorious or unknown. Continue reading
Every now and then as I walk the suburban streets of Melbourne I see something that stops me in my tracks. It happened again at 282 Chapel Street, Prahran, between Princes and Walker Streets, when I glanced up and noticed a three-storey building, a bit faded and the worse for wear, but unmistakeably special. It looked as though it should have been standing on a boulevard in Paris, rather than in a Melbourne suburb, among standard Victorian two-storey shops, plastered with signage for JB Hifi, which occupies the entire ground floor.
This building’s facade was extravagant, with 17 archways looking onto the street from the second and third storeys, columns and balconies, carved eagles, and a dizzying assortment of shells and other ornamentation. Clearly, it had once been a special place – but today it’s a shadow of its former self. Continue reading
The 1930s were a tough time for many Melburnians – the Depression resulted in widespread unemployment, destitution, and people living from hand to mouth. But if you were a bright young thing, with money and a liking for the glamorous life, there were various ways to indulge your tastes.
What makes a Melbourne icon? I reflected on this as I headed south from Richmond into the handkerchief-sized suburb of Cremorne, a place where Melbourne icons are thick on the ground.
Cremorne is tucked into a few streets south of Richmond and north of the River Yarra and the Monash Freeway. This little pocket of narrow streets, red bricks and bluestone laneways was once a hub of industry, the home of products that were literally household names, such as Bryant and May matches and Rosella tomato sauce. It’s been a long time, though, since these iconic products were actually made here. Continue reading
Something that strikes me often about the Melbourne suburbs is their quietness. Walk through most suburbs on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon and you won’t hear much at all, except traffic (on the busier roads), the occasional lawn mower or leaf blower, perhaps the remote sound of a TV, or the bark of a dog behind a gate. More than once I’ve asked myself: where is everybody? I encounter few other walkers as I make my way around, and occasionally feel oddly conspicuous as a solo pedestrian. Sometimes parks are busy, and certain shopping/cafe strips, but many places seem eerily deserted.
The suburbs are not totally silent, though. On the wall of the Collingwood Neighbourhood House in Perry Street I came across evidence of an intriguing psychogeography project: a list of sounds heard by Lauren Brown, ‘listener in residence’. Continue reading
The walk has become complicated. My plan of describing a simple circle around the city is made problematic by the thought of the suburbs I will inevitably miss on the way. It seems foolish to walk through Carlton and Fitzroy into Collingwood, then continue east without a backward glance at suburbs like Brunswick, where there’s so much to see. So I have decided to double back and make my way through a few slightly more northern suburbs.
The self-imposed rule of my project remains the same: each walk has to begin from a point where a previous one finished, so that ultimately all the walks will be connected, though the shape of the final walk may end up being more like a spider’s web than a circle.
This time I chose to continue my walk from the sports pavilions of Princes Park in Parkville, and headed northwards up Royal Parade towards Brunswick. Continue reading
We turned left off Nicholson Street into Gertrude Street, and headed into Fitzroy. These days Fitzroy is known as one of the world’s hipster capitals, a national centre for beards, tattoos and retro attire, full of cafes where you can get your 100 per cent vegan, cruelty-free chai latte, and salons offering alternative nail art. For the suburban explorer it’s also a place rich in old bluestone laneways and cottages, street art, intriguing buildings and ghostsigns. This post focusses on three sites, each pointing to a different aspect of the suburb’s history. Continue reading
What is Royal Park?
This hefty chunk of parkland, north of North Melbourne, west of Carlton, has an identity crisis. It’s been set aside for public use since the 1840s. But the public has never known what to do with it.
The great parks and gardens of London, Paris and New York have a clear place in their city’s psyche; everyone knows them, and if they don’t go there, at least they know what they are for. Not so Royal Park. It’s the poor cousin of the Botanical Gardens, a place we think we value (if we think of it at all) but we are unsure why.
Over the years it’s been a place for grazing, a wilderness, a car park, a military base, a zoo, emergency housing, the site of sports complexes and hospitals. It’s housed murderers, it’s been called a ‘slum’ and a ‘plague spot’, it’s been the scene of angry protests. Continue reading
When was the last time you dodged a bull on your way home from a night out? Or had your way blocked by a flock of sheep? For most city dwellers the answer would be: Years ago, or never. The closest many of us come to farm animals is the meat counter at the supermarket. And yet it’s not that long since thousands of animals were driven through the Melbourne suburbs on a regular basis. Some of the busiest stock routes were here in Kensington, and you can see plenty of evidence around the suburb of how important they were to the local economy. Continue reading
Throughout the Melbourne suburbs you can see old signs and buildings that refer back to one of the most powerful social movements of the 19th and early 20th centuries: the temperance advocates. They regarded alcohol as a social evil and sought to have it banned entirely, or at least the consumption drastically reduced. This crossed my mind as I walked south from Moonee Ponds into Ascot Vale, entering ‘The Temperance Triangle’. Continue reading
This essay was first published in Melbourne Subjective, an anthology of essays, fiction and poetry about Melbourne.
His name appeared at a construction site near the corner of Lonsdale and Russell Streets, Melbourne, in April 2013. The building on the corner had been demolished and the painted sign—hidden for many years—was exposed again, high on an adjacent wall at second storey level. Facing south down Russell Street, it proclaimed in large black capitals: ‘Consult celebrated specialist Dr King, MRCS. Consultation free.’
No address, no phone number. No hint about what kind of specialist Dr King was.
Perhaps other people wandering past that site, or standing at the pedestrian crossing waiting for the lights to change, looked up and wondered as I did: who was Dr King? Continue reading
Pushing across eastwards from the residential areas of Avondale Heights, I came to a small reserve, Canning Reserve, which leads to Steele Creek Reserve, revegetated with native species by the local friends of the creek. I walked through it on a hot day in November, with few other people around. At one point the reserve is quite elevated, and you have a good view across the Maribyrnong river to an area of abandoned, fenced off land, dotted with deserted brick buildings. To the east there’s a view of the city, some 10km distant. Nothing’s going on in the fenced off area, which is bordered by the Maribyrnong (formerly known as the Saltwater) to the north, east and west, and Cordite Street to the south.
That area of fenced-off land has been owned by the Department of Defence since 1908. Prior to that, it was known for horses – the Maribyrnong racecourse was there, and Fisher’s famous racing stables. Before that, for thousands of years it was the Wurrung country of the Woi Wurrung people. But within more recent memory it’s known as the location of an explosives factory. Continue reading
Leaving Tottenham behind us, we head north up Ashley Street, making our way between warehouses, storage places, supermarkets, smash repair shops and quiet residential streets until we arrive at Ballarat Road. Here we reach the site of one of Melbourne’s best examples of modern architecture, the ETA peanut butter factory, designed by Frederick Romberg. This building, long neglected, has now been partially reconstructed. Continue reading
A few weeks ago I walked past the exterior of the old Grand Theatre in Paisley Street and wondered what it looked like inside. Thanks to a reader, Cr Nam Quach, I was introduced to the owner, Footscray businessman Peter Ki, who kindly allowed me inside for a look around and to take some photographs. Continue reading