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Walking Melbourne

One of the biggest challenges of writing about your own city is having to overcome a sense of familiarity. While I wouldn’t go so far as to repeat the notion that it breeds contempt, familiarity certainly makes it hard to see clearly. By see I mean notice the things about a place that are particular to it, as opposed to the memories or emotions that are simply common to growing up in any city in Australia.

So, the first thing I did when I accepted the challenge of writing about Melbourne was to start walking, or cycling to places I’d usually drive. I made myself slow down. I started to take photos of the most incidental details. And then, when I got home I’d go to Google, or to my bookshelf, or the library, and read up a bit. So, for example, if I walked past the Edinburgh Gardens and saw some old guys playing boule, rather than just being vaguely enchanted, I’d write notes about the time I used to play that game with a friend some 25 years ago. Then I’d go to my book on Fitzroy’s history in the hope of finding out more about the history of that game in the area. I’d search for any recent articles on the game as it's played in Melbourne. And so on. Not all of this detail made it into the book of course, but it was an essential part of making myself look around with what I came to call a ‘tourist’s eye’.

This all put me in good stead for conducting walking tours as a part of this year’s Melbourne Writers’ Festival. As did the fact that I’m a walking tour fan and tend to take them whenever I travel. (I’ve walked on local tours through downtown Los Angeles, the backstreets of Atlanta, through Beat territory in San Francisco and markets in Bali. I’ve also attempted to treat my family as if I was a tour guide in New York, only to become frustrated by the fact they’d wander off during key moments in my commentary.) For all these reasons you would have thought walking around Melbourne’s CBD would be a breeze. It was not. My fatal error was to ask a group of friends to do a mock tour with me a couple of weeks before MWF began.

My friends diligently met me early one Sunday morning on the Parliament House steps – well, they tried, but there was a protest being held and we weren’t allowed onto them. This was the first inkling I had that things might not go to plan. We hovered by some traffic lights at the top end of Bourke Street and I tentatively began my spiel; but there’s nothing like standing in front of old friends and making pronouncements about the city they’ve lived in as long as you have to make you feel like a right tosser. I lost my nerve and my voice trailed off in a querulous fashion. Then we trooped off to the second point on the tour, a café in Myers Place to find it closed. At Treasury Place (taken off the final itinerary) one friend asked if I’d known the architect of the main building had been nineteen. I had not. My friend then mentioned that he’d written his thesis on the Treasury and the massive reserves of gold kept there during the gold rush. I gave up. ‘Why don’t you tell us,’ I said, ‘about the Treasury Building?’ He did.

While I found the experience of leading tours less stressful once I was doing them for real, this was, in fact, a recurring theme: everyone on the tours I took of Melbourne knew more than me – if not about all the topics I covered, certainly about very particular places and aspects of our history. I started to incorporate things people told me into the tour, or would simply step back and let people on the tour tell the group what they knew. No one seemed to mind. In fact it seemed to go better the more we just all chatted in a loud and public way as we stood in front of various destinations I’d chosen. Because that’s the thing about cities, we all have our own sets of experiences and memory. 

These are particularly circumscribed by our age – someone who was a teenager in Melbourne in the '50s or '60s would have experienced the city very differently to my experiences of the '70s (they also would have been at the massive Seekers concert at the Myer Music Bowl in 1967). And this was what I most enjoyed about getting responses to the book, and of doing the walking tours: the chance to share our stories.   

It’s why I’m planning to do another series of walks in the not-so-distant future, and not just around the CBD.

Sophie Cunningham is the author of Melbourne, published by NewSouth.

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