Saturday, September 29, 2007

Bearbrass, by Robyn Annear

Bearbrass was one of the early names of what would in time become the city of Melbourne. To us it sounds like two incongruous words put together, bear and brass. But it's actually a poor transliteration of an Aboriginal word that means 'river of mists'. What a shame that this eerily beautiful description was not in some way kept for Melbourne.

Robyn Annear in the introduction to her book says she did not want to write a straight history of early Melbourne, but rather wanted to write something that relied on the reader's imagination. Hence there are quite a few passages in the book where we are taken down a contemporary Melbourne street, then abruptly asked to cast our minds back, with Annear providing all the descriptions.

I must admit that this book made me realise how much Melbourne is a part of me. I've lived inner city for the best part of 15 years, in West Melbourne, and know all of the streets and places that Annear describes intimately. She can also be quite funny on occasion, describing with a snob's relish some of the seedier parts of Melbourne, like King Street, or the most depressing, like the former Spencer Street station. I laughed out loud when she described being exposed to a flasher in Howey Place, and mused upon whether it was the Place's namesake, coming back to spook her. It's this lively sense of humour that makes Bearbrass such a joy to read.

The most interesting aspect of the book was Annear's insistence that the Yarra should have been the centre of the city, and that the planning basically botched things, with the south bank being left a shemozzle, not 'fixed', if you could call it that, until the nineties with the advent of Southbank. (Annear clearly dislikes Southbank, suggesting we should spit on it. Her descriptions of it are quite hilarious - the noise, the people.)

I found the descriptions of the early small 'service lane' streets, like Little Bourke, Little Collins etc., fascinating. They were all originally called 'Lanes', and for some reason it was only Flinders Lane that retained its original name. I've often wondered what the city planners had in mind when you walk down these odd mini-streets. Now we now, they were only meant as service lanes to the main streets.

Whenever you walk through Melbourne, amongst the horrible new buildings, terrible squares and ill-conceived architectural extravaganzas, you can still find the remnants of old Melbourne, and indeed it is possible to imagine Melbourne in an earlier time. For people who know and love Melbourne, this book will help you imagine much more.

I agree with Robyn Annear that there's so much that's being built in Melbourne that is truly horrible. Who let these atrocities happen? Federation Square is an absolute abomination. I doubt it will still be there in 50 years time. What's the point of building things if they're not going to last a generation before becoming white elephants?

Remember when they tore down most of the Victoria Hospital building in Swanston Street, and then they put in skateboarding ramps and a mini-golf centre. Are these people crazy?

Alas, despite all of this, the old city still seeps through. Some of it melancholy, some of it beautiful. Who's ever walked down the Paris end of Collins Street on a Sunday and felt that wistful lonliness? No amount of vandalism seems able to destroy the old Melbourne.

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