Monday, May 11, 2009

Melbourne: Cosmopolitan and Cosy; Big and Small.

I've lived in Tokyo for 2 years, Rome for 4 years, Sydney for 10 years, Brisbane for 26 years and Melbourne for only 8 months.

Of all these humming, throbbing metropolises (don't laugh about Brisbane) Melbourne is starting to characterise itself in my mind as a rather extraordinary mixture of rich sophistication and rank provincialism. Australia's most European city has an underside. Its denizens seek out the comfort and warmth of a small town community, and do their level best to ring fence it from the unwelcome intrusions of a vulgar modernism.

Victoria has always been the manufacturing heartland of Australia, grown fat over most of the 20th century from government policies of economic protection. Close industry, government, political and media relationships have fostered a culture of collaboration and mutual support, and cemented networks of influence, power and status. The Melbourne Club, the Atheneum Club and other exclusive bastions of privilege still hold preeminent places in the social architecture of Melbourne, unlike in any other Australian city.

There is a palpable conformism in Melbourne. You see and experience it everywhere. There is one football code, and everyone follows it. Everybody eats brunch on weekends, which means breakfast is available all day and it's not really the thing to order lunch at 12.00 (you want what? at 12.00?). Women all wear black all the time, summer and winter (well, mostly, and anyway, I quite like that. Melbourne women are uniformly beautiful, honest!).

If they hold a marathon or charity run or bike ride, which they do every other weekend seemingly, half the bloody population gets involved and half the city streets are closed!

Attendances at outdoor events are enormous and legendary. Melburnians love being outdoors and love doing it together. Any old cafe on a windswept street will have outdoor tables and chairs, choc-a-bloc full of young and old. It could be freezing, with a ball-tearing southerly blowing in from the Antarctic and reversing all notions of adverse climate change - but there are our Melburnians, together again!

They huddle, that's what they do!

The Age had an article on the weekend about a group of people of influence in Melbourne wishing to start a new...wait for Intellectuals, corporates, sporting administrators, politicians, celebrities - all coming together. A provincial clubbiness is part of the way of life. We'll be members, we'll be insiders, we'll all think and do much the same thing. Can you imagine such an event in Sydney or Brisbane? The robust cry would be - join the bloody RSL or RAC clubs, for god's sake! Get over it! We know the Melbourne and Atheneum clubs are prehistoric in their anti Semitic and anti women attitudes, but starting a new club? Where does that impulse come from?

In my own industry, publishing, Melbourne-based publishers and authors have provided the intellectual leadership (I use 'intellectual' and 'leadership' loosely) to the campaign against the possible reform of the importation provisions governing the book industry. The champions of reform, Don Grover, CEO of Dymocks, and me, are from Sydney and Brisbane respectively. This is interesting. Is there anything to it? Yes, I think there definitely is.

Still, small communities are generally full of nice and homey people. Melburnians are definitely nice. They are warm, relaxed, unpretentious and friendly. Perhaps, ironically, the most traditionally Australian of any of our cities in that sense. Nonconformists can be humoured and safely ignored.

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