Willy Lit Fest: Back to where it all started

In June at the Williamstown Literary Festival I’ll be running a session about the Melbourne Circle project, the two-year walk I undertook with my late wife Lynne that resulted first in a blog and then my memoir Melbourne Circle: Walking, Memory and Loss. This will be a welcome opportunity to return to the place where it all started. 

The Melbourne Circle project was a series of connected walks which took place over a two-year period. The original motivation was a sense of curiosity: we had lived in Melbourne for more than 20 years, but how well did we really know it? We decided to find out by walking. Beginning in Williamstown, at Gem Pier, Lynne and I would set off on weekly walks, looking for anything that interested us: old buildings, weird signs, quirky architecture, murals and other traces of the past.

We were not interested in important monuments or tourist attractions: we were drawn to things that were ordinary, and which pointed to the layered stories of the city. A perfect example is ghost signs: those old painted signs for vanished people, shops, products, businesses and social movements (Robur Tea, Ecks Lemonade, Electrine Candles, Champion football boots to name but a few) which linger on walls across Melbourne.

The rule that we set for ourselves was that every walk had to begin where the last one finished. Aside from that, we would walk wherever we liked, following our instincts and our noses. Over the two years, our 60 or so walks gradually formed a big wiggly circle around the whole city, taking in some 40 suburbs. The walk ultimately concluded with a ferry ride back across the bay from Port Melbourne to Spotswood, from where we returned to our original starting point at Gem Pier.

During the walk we observed many examples of loss and change in the suburbs we walked through. We also felt a sense of connection with the people who had lived there and walked those streets before us. After the walks I would track down more information about the things we had seen. It was thus that we learned aspects of Melbourne’s history that were unknown to us, such as the important role once played by ‘friendly societies’ like the Rechabites (whose name lingers on a building near Vic Market); the incredible story of the lost greyhound racing track of Sunshine, where monkeys once rode on the backs of dogs; and the curious case of Dr Morse, whose ‘Indian Root Pills’ are still advertised on walls in North Melbourne and Richmond. Environmental stories were not neglected: we learned about the forest of mangroves that grows under the West Gate Bridge, and the ‘pink lake’ of Westgate Park. I told many of these stories in my blog, which in turn attracted comments and stories from many readers who wanted to share their own memories of Melbourne.

In 2018 I experienced loss on quite another level when Lynne, my partner of 30 years, died of cancer. After her death, partly to help me manage my grief,  and in an attempt to create something positive from a time of darkness, I wrote a book, Melbourne Circle: Walking, Memory and Loss, which described our walks and delved into the story of our lives together in the city. Walking had been a vitally important part of our relationship and in writing the book I found comfort in remembering the time we had shared exploring the suburbs together. In the process of writing, I wove our story into the many others we had encountered.

As it happened, when the book was published Melbourne was in one of its lockdowns and its citizens were unable to venture more than 5km from home. During this period a lot of us rediscovered the pleasures to be gained from exploring our own neighbourhoods on foot. There is a lot to see when you go on a walk and open your eyes, even in neighbourhoods that we might think are too familiar or ordinary to hold surprises. I hope this is a habit that will continue, even though lockdowns and restrictions are a thing of the past. Melbourne Circle unexpectedly became a kind of guide for people who wanted to explore their own neighbourhoods.

At the Willy Lit Fest on 17 June at 1.30pm I will take a group on a short walk to some locations in Williamstown that Lynne and I visited, read a few of my favourite stories from the walk, and discuss memory, loss, and sense of place. If you’d like to join me, please book via the Festival website.

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