Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Australia: Melbourne, City of Literature

'What's this about books?'
Continuing with my travels, I left New Zealand at the beginning of March this year, and flew into Queensland, Australia. Over the course of the next week, I then had a series of strange and fairly dangerous adventures, which included sailing out to the Great Barrier Reef during a tornado warning, night diving with sharks, and getting trapped in the middle of ‘Cape Tribulation’ (the name’s a clue, by the way) during a tropical storm, unable to leave a flooded, spider-plagued hostel because all the nearby crocodile-infested rivers had burst their banks. In short, Australia was enormous fun from the get-go.

After those slightly mad seven days, I headed south, to Melbourne, which was an even more exciting prospect than Queensland. First and foremost, it used to be the home of my creative co-conspirator, Joely Badger, who was my trusted guide for the remainder of my Australia trip. And secondly, Melbourne is a UNESCO City of Literature.

Coming from Edinburgh, and having written about its City of Literature status before, I was keen to find out more about this aspect of Melbourne during my stay there. I was only visiting for three weeks, but it turns out you can discover quite a lot about a place in that time, and so below are just a few of my book-related adventures in Australia’s first literary city.

Detail from the Joyce and Court Oldmeadow Memorial Sculpture

1) Visiting the State Library

Melbourne has some beautiful buildings, and the State Library of Victoria is one of them. Handily situated in the centre of the city, its pillared façade and elegant lawn easily make it the grandest building in sight – exactly as a library should be. 

Inside too, it’s an impressive space, especially the domed La Trobe Reading Room. Although perhaps my favourite part of the library was the Joyce and Court Oldmeadow Memorial Sculpture (above), cast in bronze by Tessa Wallis. It features multiple characters from Australian children’s literature, many of which are native critters, including a koala, a wombat and a platypus.

View of Melbourne over the Yarra
2) Seeing John Marsden at the Children's Book Festival

As luck would have it, the Children's Book Festival was taking place while I was in Melbourne and Joely suggested we go and see the author John Marsden, who she explained was something of an Australian national treasure. His most famous work is the Young Adult series that starts with Tomorrow, When the War Began, which seems to have been required reading for Australia’s schoolchildren over the past couple of decades. Tomorrow kicks off the story of seven teenagers who go camping deep in the Australian bush and return to find their town has been invaded, and life as they know it has changed forever... 

Happily for Joely and me, much of Marsden’s talk focused on writing. As a neat little story-building exercise, he had the audience match some random adjectives and nouns, creating strange pairings such as ‘blue spaghetti’ and ‘glass parrot’, and then he demonstrated how to construct a tale around them, by asking three questions: 

- What led to this?
- What are the consequences of this?
- What is the resolution?

Marsden told us that ‘stories interrupt routine’, which I like as a definition, and then pressed upon us the importance of language, urging aspiring writers to learn the rules of English in order to later enjoy breaking them. Plus he dispelled the myth that authors receive some kind of divine story inspiration: the Tomorrow series developed over time, he told us - the result of combining subjects in which he was interested, such as farming and Second World War history, with a wish to write about a group of resourceful teenage protagonists.

Joely at work in The Moat - with cocktail, naturally
3) Writing in Melbourne’s cafés

Melbourne is famous for its ‘café culture’, which I’m pretty sure is just a hipster way of saying it has lots of nice places to drink coffee. But it does, and obviously there is a natural attraction between writers and caffeine (/alcohol) so in Melbourne’s many cafés Joely and I had a great old time chatting stories, plotting stories, writing stories, coming up with a story-related business idea (maybe more on that one day…) and even meeting up with her Melbourne-based writers’ group.

Our favourite haunt, it should be noted, was The Moat, downstairs from Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre for writers. Not only does it have very cool, book-focused décor, they also have literary-themed cocktails. I sampled ‘The Bard (Ode to William Shakespeare)’, and it was glorious.

4) Picnicking at Hanging Rock

All right, this wasn’t exactly in Melbourne, but just outside of the city is the infamous spot featured in Peter Weir’s cult 1975 film, Picnic at Hanging Rock. Although the story of the turn-of-the-century schoolgirls who disappear on a Valentine’s Day picnic at the rock - some of them never to be seen again - was actually originally a novel, written in 1967 by Australian author Joan Lindsay.

I never saw any of these people again
Naturally, staying so close to Hanging Rock, Joely and I decided to visit this notorious place with a couple of friends, and of course we had a picnic there, and obviously we dressed up in frilly white tops and re-enacted parts of the film (shouting ‘Miranda!’ at one another from between the rocks, and so on). And, maybe I’m imagining it, but the Rock does have a weird atmosphere, perhaps not helped by the fact that we visited on a particularly hot, bright day not unlike the one featured in the well-known film. 

It seems to be a popular misconception that Picnic at Hanging Rock is based on true events - even the author herself grew vaguer over time as to the inspiration for her novel. So, for me, perhaps stranger than the Rock itself was its visitor’s centre, which shows a kind of documentary film on a loop about the girls’ disappearance, despite the fact that - as far as anyone knows - it never happened. I thought this piece of marketing quite interesting: although we’re so used to fictionalising facts in books and films and TV shows, it’s rare to experience the factualising of fiction, which appears to be what is happening around the story of Hanging Rock. 

5) Having tea at Miss Marple’s

Finally, one of the things I liked best about Australia was that even when I thought I was getting used to a country that, in many ways, is very similar to my own, it would take me by surprise. I was shocked, for example, by the high quality of hot chocolate there, the high prices of books, and the high probability of being subjected to violence when attempting to feed cockatoos. 

Another such surprise occurred in the middle of the Dandenongs rainforest (again, just out of Melbourne), when we came across the memorabilia-packed Miss Marple’s Tea Room and stopped inside for scones and cake. Why, one might ask, was it there? Did the Dandenongs have some link to the Miss Marple stories? Had Agatha Christie once visited? Or were the owners just very enthusiastic fans? I have absolutely no idea, for I never solved this particular Marple mystery. But then, why shouldn’t one find a café dedicated to a fictional English geriatric sleuth in the middle of an Australian rainforest? Why on earth not? 

Miss Marple's Tea Room, complete with suspicious-looking man on roof

For more bookish bits and bobs from my 2014 travels, see New Zealand: Literary Landscapes.