How better to end this Month of Melbourne than with Sophie Cunningham’s hot-off-the-presses cultural history? I had a surreal moment while reading this book recently: I was riding the No. 19 tram up Royal Parade when I came to the following passage:
When I was a child my dad used to take my brother and me to watch Carlton play at Princes Park. My most vivid memory of those years is of my three-year-old brother, Saul, strapped into a baby car seat that was then tied to the wire fence at the back of the outer so he could get a good view…
As I glanced up from the page for a moment and looked out the tram window, there was Princes Park itself – a very Melbourne moment, you might say!
This memoir of the city of Melbourne (part of a series commissioned by UNSW Press to celebrate Australia’s capital cities) is not a piece of hardline investigative journalism, nor a scandalous tell-all biography: this is a loving memoir told by a person who never tries to pretend that she could be objective about the place she grew up in. Cunningham, a respected novelist and publisher, is clearly a supporter of her city, yet she is not sentimental. She doesn’t neglect to point out its faults, yet clearly loves the place, for all its imperfections.
The memoir is divided into seasonal chapters: we begin in Summer 2009 and we end in the following summer, having followed Cunningham in her personal journey through the culture, geography and history of the city she loves. This division seems appropriate, somehow, since Melbourne is a place where its changeable weather really affects people – what we wear, how we travel, how we feel. (I completely agree with her frank description of Melbourne winters as ‘long, unpleasantly clammy and one is inevitably depressed by the end of them’.)
All sorts of geographies and topographies are explored – social, artistic, sporting, architectural… Cunningham’s life experience has allowed her to live at all these levels and her knowledge of the many layers of Melbourne’s story is impressive. Cunningham grew up in the middle of the ‘Carlton Push’ (a version of its Sydney sister?) – a group of 1970s writers and thespians who oscillated between producing great art and being professional ratbags, and Cunningham is honest about the tensions within this volatile group. Her arts upbringing and subsequent publishing work brought her into contact with Melbourne’s arts royalty and she draws upon these connections (and many fascinating Meanjin articles) to tell her story.
Cunningham wryly expounds upon the big split in Melbourne’s inner-city social geography, defined by its famous Yarra river which cuts it into North and South. She offers up the following email exchange from between her friends as representative of the way Melbournians like to poke fun at this geographical and moral divide:
Email 1: …I should warn my North Fitzroy friends that both trams will take you OVER THE RIVER. This is meant to happen, just act normal…
Email 2: Wait, what? Hold on – you mean if you keep heading south there’s a RIVER?!
Email 3:…I’m all up for journeys to far-flung climes. As long as I can bring my cynical North-of-the-river sneer and sense of intellectual superiority and be sneered at in turn by those with an inflated sense of their own prettiness and of their importance to the city’s arts…
And so on… Cunningham herself is embedded within these tribal divides and yet is able to rise above them when necessary to communicate a broader picture of Melbourne’s culture.
Melbourne is the birthplace of Australian Rules football, of which Cunningham is an avid supporter (she barracks passionately for Geelong), hence there is rather more football-talk than this non-sporty reader might have wanted. However it’s to Cunningham’s credit that these passages are still fascinating to read – the history of this unique game is interesting and the emotions that it provokes are well captured by her lucid writing. She explains the city-stopping nature of the September Grand Final:
You wouldn’t (I didn’t) auction a house in the last weekend of September you wouldn’t call an election, and even having friends over to dinner involves endless emails that go something like this… ‘Could we book in Friday September 10? I doubt if Geelong would be playing that night but if they are we can change.’
Well, Geelong did play that night, Cunningham tells us, so of course the dinner was cancelled.
Cunningham is skilled at showcasing the general in the particular, the history in the moment, the public in the personal. It’s the personal nature of this book, I think, that is its great strength, because its human scale allows the reader to feel involved and engaged, even in the more obscure details of Melbourne’s quirky cultural histories (for instance, the history of Melbourne’s drain-dwelling tribes!). This is not a long book – only about 280 (small) pages, but it captures the heart of Melbourne beautifully. I was sad to come to the end of it.
Verdict: Loving, personal memoir of a cultured city – well-researched and a pleasure to read.
Read more: Cunningham is also a talented fiction writer – you can read extracts from her two novels here.