Let’s go to Australia. We have family in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne. We’ll visit the three cities in turn, one week each. We’ll take notes and photographs to document our memories. We’ve been to Sydney and Brisbane, so let’s fly on to Melbourne.

You’ll like Melbourne, so said everyone. So we did.

There is nothing quite like a journey from the outskirts of a city to get a sense of the place. You travel on a rattling train with the bleary-eyed commuters through the plain, low-lying mix of homes, businesses and utilitarian shops. The buildings begin to rise, the passengers grow in number. Skyscrapers and stadia build up the crescendo. Here we are. He we are in the centre of things.

Reading room, State Library of Victoria

Out of the central station with its tiers of stores that are begging you to travel no further, and round the corner is the State Library of Victoria. Our third state library and perhaps the finest yet. The traditional round (strictly speaking octagonal) reading room, based on that of the British Museum, towers up to a huge skylight. Here time stops still. Exhibitions on book history encircle the place. It is something of a marvel what world treasures have found their way to Melbourne.

Elsewhere there are modern reading rooms which bustle with energy and are lined with books that no one appears to be reading. The books are signifiers of study rather than study-objects in themselves.

In a large space to itself, the DIY armour of Ned Kelly. To see the reality of a legend is a startling thing. It is as though Nottingham had kept hold of Robin Hood’s bow and arrow.

Ned Kelly’s armour

The city’s signs say Melbourne. A few add Naarm, for the indigenous lands of the Kulin Nation who understood a world without skyscrapers, stadia or utilitarian shops. Melbourne, for the most part, seems not greatly interested in what lies beneath its foundations. It is a city young enough to have a founding date (1835) that is not merely the stuff of legend. Whatever came before has been buried.

Walking along the grid of streets that remind you how young this city is. Grids are for places that want to grow up quickly.

Layers and layers of enticing niche foods in the Queen Victoria Market.

Arcades filled with tempting unnecessaries. Alleyways with fine cafes. Young men beckon you to come to their cafe in particular. You go to the one without the beckoners.

A pop-up library on a side street with the encouraging sign saying ‘Borrow Me’.

Luna Park

St Kilda, to the edge of the city. The ramshackle appeal of an English seaside town with more money and fewer buckets and spades. It is equally shabby and smart, everywhere something to engage the eye. The man-in-the-moon entrance to Luna Park is pure Méliès, the poetry of cheap thrills.

Beyond St Kilda for a family quest. A little under one hundred years ago my grandparents moved to Australia, settling in the Sandringham area. It cannot have changed much since then: quiet, prosperous suburbia with wide streets, low houses, and the beach nearby. We stand outside their home. They left in 1939, so no point in knocking. Back in the centre, my grandfather’s art deco offices still stand in Collins Street, the old business centre. Here old and new are interspersed, the architects of today acknowledging the inheritance of their peers.

Also in Collins Street the civilised delights of the Kay Craddock antiquarian bookstore, which makes such an art of arranging things on shelves. When all is said and done, there is nothing more beautiful than a beautiful book. I bought a satisfactory edition of Ulysses.

Tasmanian Devil

Countries can sometimes find it easier to define themselves by their animals than by their people. The uniqueness of Australian fauna proves its difference. Sanctuaries where you can come up close to phlegmatic Koalas are everywhere. A kangaroo carries her joey, who is almost but not quite ready to venture alone. A Tasmanian Devil looks up at me, as though wanting to say how affronted it is by its cartoon representation.

Then to Phillip Island, as dusk falls, to witness the extraordinary sight of penguins coming onto shore to visit their burrows. This they have been doing for millennia. Only in recent decades have they had to do so before a seated audience of hundreds (almost all of whom surprisingly obey the command not to take photos). They arrive on the beach, confronted by lights and aggressive gulls, some determined, some retreating. Eventually all brace the hazards to head for the dunes, where we see them waddling under broadwalks as we depart, impelled to find home. Evolution cannot have prepared anyone for this.

Melbourne is defined most by its sports. The MCG looms large, the baying cauldron of Ashes Tests. Everywhere people are dressed in the black-and-white stripes of a local Australian rules football team. To experience the mayhem of this on a vast home television set is to witness clearly sport as the substitute for war that it always has been. War before the strategists got hold of it, pure attack met with attack.

Outside the centre, the quieter back streets beguile. Iron railing balconies, weathered by a hundred years or more, have a gentle charm. Long boulevards speak of French impressions. In Albert Park runners circumnavigate the lake, black swans understand the territory as their own, and exemplary coffee bars are always just around the corner. Here is a place to be on fine mornings.

Playing video games at ACMI

Back to the centre and the cultural venues that cling to the sinuous Yarra river. It is quite a jolt, after the settled comforts of suburbia and the swagger of the city streets, to find the admission of a debt that every such venue publishes, onsite and online:

[Insert name of your organisation here] acknowledges the Traditional Owners, the Wurundjeri and Boon Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation, on whose land we meet, share and work. We pay our respects to Elders past and present and extend our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from all nations of this land.

ACMI, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image) has an outstanding permanent ‘Story of the Moving Image’ exhibition. From shadow puppets to AI, globally told but with an Australian twist. I have never seen the story of how and why we are drawn to screens told so well as here, nor seen an audience of all ages and kind so enthused by the experience. We step into a booth and make a flipbook of ourselves, dancing.

Frame still from a flipbook dance

Sparrows stealing sugar from the table of an indoor cafe.

The National Gallery of Victoria (NGV to its friends) is in two parts: national and international. NGV National has building work, so we see only nineteenth-century Australia, artists puzzling how to make sense of a land only superficially related to that the lands from which they came. Interspersed are past and present Aborigine artworks, adroitly counterpointing the vision.

Pierre Bonnard exhibition at National Gallery of Victoria

NGV International is a place of sophistication and ambition. It has an exhibition of Pierre Bonnard paintings, displayed in rooms with surprise vista designed by modern artist India Mahdavi, taking her inspiration from Bonnard’s patterns and colours. The result is overwhelming. We drown in colour, to the point of exhaustion. Early in the display, complementing Bonnard’s sketches of late nineteenth-century Paris, two Lumière films, Sortie d’Usine and Le Repas de bébé hang as though paintings on a wall. The visitors are mesmerised by our primitive selves. We watch, over and over and over again, the same eternal minute.

Watching Sortie d’Usine

We take our leave appropriately. The Shrine of Remembrance, by the Royal Botanic Gardens, impresses you, in every sense, with the country’s loss. The design is perfectly proportioned. The displays within tell supremely well the stories of the wars that shaped the nation. You cannot argue with the hurt or the pride. Words supplied by Rudyard Kipling, in a plaque inside the shrine, capture the place and the people:

So long as memory, valour, and faith endure,
Let these stones witness, through the years to come,
How once there was a people fenced secure
Behind great waters girdling a far home.

Their own and their land’s youth ran side by side
Heedless and headlong as their unyoked seas
Lavish o’er all, and set in stubborn pride
Of judgment, nurtured by accepted peace.

Thus, suddenly, war took them – seas and skies
Joined with the earth for slaughter. In a breath
They, scoffing at all talk of sacrifice,
Gave themselves without idle words to death.

Thronging as cities throng to watch a game
Or their own herds move southward with the year,
Secretly, swiftly, from their ports they came …

My English grandfather was at Gallipoli. He must have come to Australia a decade later in part to recognise a debt. Or so it is good to think.

Inside the Shrine of Remembrance

How does it all join up? Melbourne is too diverse to have a shape. It is the many pieces of a jigsaw for which there is no governing picture. It is not even clear if the pieces would come together, even without a picture. The grid of streets is an illusion. It is the fragments that have the meaning.

A city of memorable fragments.



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