Melway Edition 1, 1966

Review: When we think about Melbourne: the imagination of a city, Jenny Sinclair, Affirm Press, 2010, Melbourne

One of the observations made by Jenny Sinclair in When we think about Melbourne really strikes a chord with me – just how different the city is when you see it from the saddle of a bicycle. In this extract, she’s just cycled up the middle of St Georges Rd to Reservoir:

Perched on my bike on the track that runs through the park opposite these fine houses, I look down across Preston, Glenroy and to the city, and think: ‘it’s all downhill from here’. When I get home, I felt my sense of the world had expanded a little. Moments like this, of unexpected connection and revelation – I call them ‘surprised by joy’ moments after Wordsworth’s poem – come when we immerse ourselves, when we walk and ride; they are why we should get out of our cars for ourselves, not ‘just’ for the environment or for exercise

Cycling through the city is one of those pleasures that other less-fortunate souls haven’t experienced. Seeing the arse-end of factories from inner city bike trails, the undulating topography, the small exchanges of street life, or the great complexity and detail of inner suburban streetscapes that otherwise might seem regular and monotonous, is to be privy to a hidden world.

Cycling features prominently in When we think about Melbourne, but according to the author its prime concern is with what we talk about when we talk about place. It’s about the way Melbourne is represented. It’s about:

how we grapple with the world around us and turn it into stories, pictures and songs, with Melbourne acting as a kind of oversized artists model….The only way I could come to the question of place with any level of insight was to use what I have best access to – my own memories of life lived in Melbourne, and how the world of those artists, musicians, writers and cartographers has spoken to me

The author looks at how Melbourne has been approached by painters, musicians, novelists and film makers. She explores how television, the souvenir industry and the internet have interpreted the city and how indigenous and non-indigenous people see each other.

The book opens with a spatial interpretation of Melbourne through the “lens” of the Melway refidex. Ms Sinclair frets that her book will only be known for this chapter but that’s probably inevitable. That’s because it’s innovative and creates wonderful behavioural and emotional “maps”:

You’re cycling down Canning Street, Carlton (Ref: 29 K12) towards the city, your earphones whisper the stories to you: this house was built with blood money, a murdering brother’s inheritance; the two genteel English sisters who lived in the terraces named ‘Irene’ and ‘Elaine’ were actually lovers, fooling the neighbours for forty years.

The use of maps as a device to interpret and decode is continued in the next chapter. It looks at Melbourne through historical maps, tourist guidebooks and even radical cartography, using the example of a tourist map issued in 1996 by the gay and lesbian community:

Where a government-issue map might show a coffee cup in Lygon street or a lion at the zoo, this one is packed with (iconic) stereotypes: pouting drag queens and moustached leather-boys prance across its pages

There’s a chapter on the Melbourne of landmarks and another on transport, but again these are essentially handy vantage points from which the author can draw history, anecdotes and personal experience together to create a sense of what Melbourne is. There’s talk about cycling and public transport but not much about experiencing Melbourne from a car. There’s also little about the suburbs, where the vast majority of the population live – something the author acknowledges is not her experience of Melbourne.

Overlaying all this is a wonderful collection of photographs, diagrams, graphics and images – this is as much a picture book as it is a book of words. The ones that I find especially delightful are the old maps. Affirm Press have posted some sample pages here.

The writer takes pains to tell us in the introduction that this is not a history, a comprehensive list of everything ‘Melbourne’, or an academic treatise. And indeed it’s none of those – this is not the book for you if history is your thing, or ‘facts’ or numbers.

Actually I’m not sure what this book is really about – while I enjoyed it greatly, I didn’t come away with a heightened sense of what Melbourne is or what, in the blurb of the publisher, makes it unique. I’m amused and interested by the various ways Melbourne has been and could be represented, but I want to know “why” and I want to know what it all adds up to. Of course I didn’t grow up here so there might be a dimension I just don’t “get”.

There aren’t many big themes about Melbourne or new insights here either. Tony Wheeler of Lonely Planet fame is quoted as saying that the Bourke St mall is half-arsed, but the possibilities of this observation are ignored. It might’ve been parleyed into a discussion of how there’s something about Melbourne (and there surely is!) that seems to lead to lots of public works being done in a half-arsed way.

Still, that’s probably neither here nor there for most readers. This book is a potpourri of ideas, anecdotes and images that collectively say something about Melbourne based on the readers experience of the city. Jenny Sinclair tells us what it says to her and it will very likely say something a little different to others. Here’s an extract. My advice is read it.