From 2014 to 2016 I walked around my home city, Melbourne, in a series of connected walks. I was on the lookout for old signage (ghost signs), curious bits of architecture, suburban oddities, and traces of the past. In the end I completed 60 or so walks, which I wrote about in my blog Melbourne Circle.
Here are links to a selection of my other writing, published in various places. Click on the titles to read the whole piece.
This essay on the art and craft of signwriting, and the story of one of its practitioners, Moose McGowan, appeared in the Spring 2017 edition of Meanjin.
This essay in the April 2017 edition of Kill Your Darlings is about getting lost in San Francisco and unexpectedly meeting Rebecca Solnit, one of my literary heroes. You can get hold of the print edition of Kill Your Darlings here or read the essay online.
Melbourne, ghostsigns, psychogeography
“FOR THE LAST two years I’ve been walking the streets of suburban Melbourne, armed with camera and notebook, a participant in a psychogeographic game that is part hunting, part hide-and-seek, part time travel. The game has rules, players, goals; its arena is the whole city. You’ll find me, most weekends, in a quiet street or bluestone laneway, staring up at faded paint on red bricks, or the ruins of a factory, squinting through a fence onto a vacant lot or construction site, and wondering.”
- ‘Landscape of stories’, winning essay in the 2015 Nature Conservancy Australia Nature Writing Prize, in Griffith Review
“Now the site stands at an intermediate point, neither one thing nor the other. Vegetation, ignoring the ‘Keep clear’ signs, clumps with impunity around doors, sidles up fire escapes, encircles rusty girders, and cracks the concrete floor. Rabbits skip around the dye house; foxes trot through deserted offices. As anyone knows who has seen Camilo Jose Vergara’s extraordinary photographs of derelict industrial landscapes, American Ruins, it doesn’t take long for the non-human world to reassert itself. People forget, and – to use one of the defining clichés of our time – ‘move on’; quietly, without fuss, nature moves back.”
“As I walked, my antennae on the alert, I found myself drawn, time and again, to similar phenomena: faded signage on old brick walls; dead neon; post-industrial sites, derelict or transformed; oddly beautiful street art in unexpected corners. I wanted to know the stories behind abandoned pubs, cinemas and pool saloons; the resonances that lingered in areas of wilderness; what had become of once-booming industries; the meanings of the curious icons and symbols I stumbled upon. Are these the way into the unconscious of the city?”
“Melbourne is … cyclists with spikes on their helmets to deter swooping magpies; possums in the lemon trees, and lost cat signs taped to telegraph poles; it’s African cafes in Footscray, Vietnamese soup in Richmond, and shisha in Brunswick; cake decoration competitions and overpriced showbags at the Royal Melbourne Show; footy scarves fluttering out of car windows; it’s that ubiquitous female voice that instructs you ‘when travelling with Myki, remember to touch on and touch off.’”
“For me, though, one of the most poignant aspects of ghost signs is that they never tell you everything. They are works of art whose creators are usually unknown. Sometimes illegible or obscured, they tease us with fragments of meaning. Even when the sign is clear, the story behind it is not, which opens up a space for the imagination.”
“As for family holidays: the Apollo space missions that put a man on the moon were not planned with more attention to detail. Dossiers were prepared, detailed itineraries drawn up, budgets, timetables, maps marked with multi-coloured dots. Once the trip started, every event was documented in slides to be sorted, boxed and filed away for the years to come.”
“An old Greek guy is one of our neighbours. He has two hobbies: playing the bouzouki, and reporting cars for parking infringements. We’re told he’s a well-known musician around the local Greek clubs. We don’t see much of him, but sometimes we hear plunka-plunka-plunk from the other side of the fence.”
“This summer we won’t be down at Newport track for Little Athletics. Our daughters have outgrown it, so after eight years we have Saturday mornings to ourselves again. We can lie in bed until noon now we don’t have to be there for the first call. We can have coffee and read the papers instead of loading the car with chairs, bags, sunscreen and children, spending four hours marshalling little athletes and running the long jump.”
Music and memoir
“As the intro started, with its hypnotic bassline, hi-hat and repeated guitar chord, I would stand swaying in the darkness and try to relax myself, and my baby daughter. Then Tracey Thorn’s beautiful, echoing voice came in, somehow both vulnerable and strong at the same time. As I rocked my baby on my shoulder, to the heartbeat-like rhythm of the song, I’d hear: This girl I know, needs some shelter …”
“Unlike me, most of the waiting staff were veterans of hospitality work. There was luscious Debbie Rainbow, with a name like a Thomas Hardy heroine, who was going out with Matt, a gentle giant of an assistant chef. There was firebrand Samantha, who early on gave me the bollocking of my life when I filled in on her station and left it a mess. There was gentle Judy from Birmingham who had her heart broken by a caddish kitchen-hand. And there was Clare …”
- ‘The suburbs’ in Stereo Stories (with audio)
“It’s a hot heavy Sunday in September, and I’m in the car park at Bunnings Altona teaching my daughter to drive. It’s quiet at that time: the sausage sizzle guys pack up, the weekend rush slows down; the torrent of consumers of paint and sheeting, nail guns and tomato plants, hoses and woodchips abates to a trickle. The car park’s near-empty. We’re good to go.”
“I first heard Vince Jones sing in 1990, when his mellow voice came out of a crackly tape recorder in my kitchen in northern Italy. This was in a town called Saronno, a short train ride from Milan, where my Australian partner and I had just started living together.”
“Rhythms you’ve never heard before. Voices you’ve never heard before. Is this the world you’re looking for? Someone sees your badge and a conversation starts. There are other bands, other records. One song leads to another, one record to another. Talking Heads, Velvet Underground, Joy Division, Kraftwerk. The world you want is here. The world you want is on vinyl.”
Books and writers
“For all the diversity of the fiction of Italo Calvino, the experimentation with forms, and the widely ranging times and places in which it is set, a similar character turns up repeatedly. It is the solitary man, perplexed by life’s mysteries, doggedly holding on to his own ideas in the hope that eventually he will get to the bottom of things … Reading The Hermit of Paris we find ourselves meeting this character again; but this time he is called ‘Calvino’. Perhaps those fictional characters are reflections of their author; but it would be more Calvinoesque to suggest that the author is a reflection of his characters.”
“Reading Solnit is like taking a walk with a guide who keeps plunging off the trail. She roves across disciplines and genres, leaping from geography to memoir, the visual arts to folklore. As with all interesting journeys, the point is not the destination but the process of getting there.”