A hymn to Melbourne

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise. – F. Scott Fitzgerald

I don’t know about a first-rate intelligence, but life as a resident of Sydney can be a little like this. We function. We get by. Things don’t quite make sense like they should but if we choose not to think about it life rolls forward with the weight of inevitability behind it. Perhaps we should ask certain questions, but we don’t.

There is another path though. I saw it for myself recently. You can find it at Melbourne, around 1,000km south of Sydney.

First, some background. For years I hated the idea of Melbourne (which is not the same as hating the place itself). There was this empty, homogenised, family values, dull, ‘Hey Hey It’s Satuday’, Moomba Festival way of thinking which seemed to originate in this city, forever threatening to ooze out and infect the rest of the country. I suppose the main culprit was Oswald Q. Ostrich.

Then came the early 1990s. After what seemed decades of introversion a new optimism was born with the advent of a new type of administration. Jeff Kennett had arrived. Now Jeff still has magnificent hair, but back then he had a rather eccentric governing style as well. Economic Rationalism with a vaudevillean streak. He sacked lots of people and he shovelled sand all over camera crews and he brought in entertainments for the people. The ancient Romans referred to this as ‘bread and circuses’. The state of Victoria was run like a corporation and major sporting events were regularly staged at the biggest amphitheatre of them all – the city of Melbourne. It would be nice to think that Jeff din’t turn it all around. Hopefully it was some sort of coincidence. In fact Im sure it was.

I had heard things about Melbourne. People said that they would love to live there and that it was better than Sydney. Disloyal trash, the lot of it, I thought. Had to be wrong as well. Why would such lies be told?

A fact finding mission found me walking through the centre of the city. It is said that there are all manner of laneways and detours where treasures may be found in this place: a special little restaurant or a rug shop or an artist supplier … And it’s true. That’s exactly what it’s like. Laneways in Sydney are typically piled with refuse or the remains of drug use, or they stink of urine. In one recent case a series of dead rabbits were found, discarded in a secluded alley after a businessman had committed acts of bestiality upon them (but he’s a Kiwi, not one of us).

The streets of Melbourne have signs and the city is organised in a logical way. It is obvious where you are and what the predominant activity is in that part of the city. By contrast, it is a badge of honour among its residents that Sydney is illogical. Things are all over the place. Street directories of the inner suburbs and the oldest parts of the city are inaccurate, because it is impossible to cover the location comprehensively.

I was asked the occasional question about Sydney and I soon realised that I didn’t give any of these questions a straight answer. I didn’t really know. There are so many ambiguities that often there is no answer.

There had to be some better things about Sydney, or so I thought. All I could come up with was schooners as beer glasses. Pots are too small. Then there’s the harbour, I suppose. But we didn’t do that – we just live near it.

Melbourne welcomes strangers. The people are friendly, and the air is not filled with accents from New Zealand and the UK and Ireland. Well manicured public parks and other amenities appear at regular intervals. It is a pleasant place to walk. And lastly the public transport system functions properly.

I had flown back and was waiting for a train. The indicator said 8 minutes before the next one would come along. The indicator changed. It said 9 minutes now. This wouldn’t happen in Melbourne. I was home.


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