Two sides of a river

I am about to attempt something that I haven’t since high school English class. I am going to critique a book.

The book is simply called ‘Melbourne’ by Sophie Cunningham, a title which evokes grandeur in the vein of the Baz Luhrmann flop ‘Australia’. I thought it was a good idea to give it a go after leaving the city again. I share a lot of books, and opinions of books, with my mum. When she handed it over, she hesitated. The main reason why she wanted me to read it was so she could discuss it with me.

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Cunningham’s Melbourne of the 1960s. Credit: spin spin on Flickr

A lot of long-term travellers despise their hometown, but not me. I love it, though its main shortcoming is that it’s just so far away from everything. I love so many things about it; its love affair with sport, its obsession with Asian food, its grand goldrush-era buildings standing proudly next to modern glassy types, its loveable clunky trams and the general feeling that something’s always on, whether it be a concert, festival, sporting match or some sort of combination of all three.

I hadn’t heard of the author before; Sophie Cunningham. She was brought up in Hawthorn, has lived the majority of her adult years in Fitzroy and is just one big whopping latte-sipping north of the river snob. (That part isn’t in her bio, let’s just say that’s my take.) The amount of name-dropping in the book is laughable, to the point where I realised I knew the names of just about all of her friends except the protagonist herself.

I think my biggest problem with the book is the name. If it had been called ‘Fitzroy’ I would have understood; it’s full of references to yoga classes, literary festivals, terraced homes and bicycles. All very well and good, but it’s not the Melbourne I know. The Melbourne I know, in all its glory, is just as much suburbia as the perceived glamour of inner-city life. The only real mention of a Melbourne suburb in the book is regarding Ringwood;

Certainly by the time I was to work out at Penguin, in the early nineties, the drive up the Maroondah Highway to Ringwood no longer felt like heading towards a bohemia and the hills. It was more like being stuck an hour out of town and forced to buy potatoes in their jackets from the car yard next door for lunch.

In a similar vein, the only mention of Melbourne’s west is of Footscray, as if ticking the ‘west’ and therefore ‘multicultural’ boxes. I could find no reference to Melbourne’s modern problems; namely rising property prices (okay, she made a fleeting reference about it more to do with a whinge about the gentrification of Fitzroy), neglected public transport and the general cost of living.

Even a slightly lesser problem, in some eyes, is the disappearance of Melbourne’s bookstores. Now that Borders has been banished to cyberspace,  Highpoint Shopping Centre, one of Australia’s biggest, is without a single bookstore. No, Cunningham instead boasts of Melbourne’s independent booksellers – despite Hill of Content being now owned by Collins’ Booksellers. Readings in Carlton has always intimidated me, as if dozens of eyes are judging the fact that sometimes I like to read the Shopaholic books. My favourite independent bookshop, the Sun in Yarraville, is sadly neglected.

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The famed Readings Bookstore in Carlton. Credit:  Snipergirl on Flickr

No, Cunningham’s Melbourne is very relaxed and comfortable. She’s someone who, in graphic detail, explained a weekend in the Nicholas Building where she copied a poem on an old-fashioned printing press.

It’s a hard job, I know, trying to encapsulate a four million-strong city into three hundred pages. I hardly know a thing about Melbourne’s south-eastern suburbs, and only slightly more about the east after working for eighteen months in Doncaster. Cunningham does tip her hat to the footy and covers it impressively. The same goes for events like the Comedy Festival and debates like the look of Federation Square.

I’m not claiming that I know best, but more that as a ‘traditional’ Melbournian, one who goes to the footy every week, went to Melbourne University and loves Cinema Nova, and hell, is even a latte-sipping snob at times, this book didn’t even go close to representing my idea of Melbourne.

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