John BRACK, Australia, 1920–1999. Collins St., 5p.m. 1955, oil on canvas. 114.8 x 162.8 cm.
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia. Purchased, 1956 © National Gallery of Victoria.
Once, when living in Portland Oregon, I was acknowledged at a party by an elegant old wag who asked, in patrician, Rocky Mountain-Oxbridge tones; “Larry, where is it that you’re fruhhhm, exah-ctly?” He went on; “I’d wondered whether you were from New Zealand? Or South Africa perhaps? But of course you speak High Australian, don’t you?”
On a couple of occasions during years lived in New York, having a coffee or a drink in one of the bars around Mulberry Street staffed by sniffy actor-model types, my order had been briskly taken by some young woman discreetly suppressing a mild kangaroo twang. On each occasion, the order taker wouldn’t quite look me in the eye. As if to convey, “you don’t mention it, and I won’t either.” I’d keep quiet until it was time to pay, when I’d inquire, murmuringly, “so where in Australia are you from then?” To ask was dismally gauche, I knew. In both instances, they were Melbourne girls. A quick flash of the eyes told me to piss off before I ruined their dreams.
On other occasions, in a train dining car crossing Montana, or after an uptown choral concert, I’d find myself meeting people visiting enthusiastically from Down Under.
“We’re from Brisbane. I’m Pearl and this is my husband Merle, my daughter Fleur and her boyfriend Barry. We’ve just been doing Europe. We met so many people from back home, didn’t we Merle? What’s your name? Lorentzo? You don’t sound that Australian!”
Well, I acquired my accent during formative years in Britain and Norway, and it’s now become High Melburnian.
Melbourne is Australia’s classy city, fairly mellow, less noisy and frantic than Sydney. Sydney’s glorious cliffs and sunny inlets were seeded with convicts and soldiers. Melbourne, with uninspiring weather and a broad, muddy bay, was settled fifty years later by farmers and bankers. Melbourne grew rich and splendid on gold. It was going to be the capital of Australia, but due to rivalry with Sydney it was decided that the federal parliament should reside halfway between the two, in the dry yellow sheep runs of Canberra. People from New South Wales thought of Melbourne as being slow and dowdy, but Melbourne has managed to keep its air of superiority quietly to itself, as wise snobs do. People here are agreeable, if not particularly welcoming.
A weekday morning rush hour on the tram. I’m on a shiny new white and green number 96 going from Fitzroy, through the city and down to St. Kilda on the bay. A woman in pink track pants carrying a laptop computer bag blocks the middle doors of the tram with her massive rear end stuck out like a boulder in a stream. People resort to sucking their breath in and squeezing around her, both men and women trying to avoid groin-buttock contact. She stands there, like a stubborn cow blocking the barn door with a resentful look on her face. No one dreams of telling her, “move your fat arse lady so we can get by.” Not even “umm, excuse me, could you step in further, we need to get on board.” That’d draw a ghastly amount of attention to ones self.
There does appear to be room to move beyond the big pink-swathed bum. There’s even a seat down the end, which no one will take. The two chalk-faced suits nearest to it ignore that empty seat. Others glance resentfully at bodies blocking easy access to its green pad, but no one will move. I speak up, “If someone takes the seat, there’ll be room for another person to stand there.” I am ignored. I push through, excusing myself as best I can, and take it. Muted glints of passive hostility are now transferred onto me. But by the top end of Bourke Street the tram has half emptied.
As they do once in a while, a posse of ticket inspectors wanders through, polite in dark blue uniforms, big and chunky with clumpy black shoes. I present my ticket with a flourish and a smile, and they thank me and move on to the next person. I’d noticed a tall skinny dude with a little chin beard and street-hip scruffy clothes sitting behind the middle set of doors, lost in his Walkman. He sees the ticket cops just as I do and dashes up to the coin operated machine on board the tram, grabs some coins from his pocket, punches in his request and grabs his two-hour ticket, quick as a flash.
So what do I feel? I feel there’s something dirty and rotten about this scoundrel, something shifty, sneaky, embarrassed and shameful. Because of course, like many Melburnians, I’ve jumped on the tram a few times without paying, risked a quick free ride with no pebble of guilt to ripple the placid surface of my conscience.
Down the other end of the tram the ticket inspectors have stopped, hemming in a young bleach-blond fellow, or maybe it’s an older man with white hair. He has his back to me so I can’t judge his face. The ticket cops are earnest and polite as they write up their note pads, giving him an infraction notice and a lecture. Pity the wretched underdog who’s been caught without a ticket. This contrasts with the displaced sense of shame and disdain I felt over the fellow who got up sneakily to purchase his ticket in time, and with the solidly righteous feeling of having bought my own ticket well in advance.
“Nest e-shtupp As-shol Strict,” cries the swarthy driver from his cockpit. The tram shudders to a halt at the corner of Russell Street. A crazy man gets on squirting a bottle of water around. It’s hot outside, so no one is roused with bother. He’s got no clothes except some army shorts. He’s yelling, “Who’s got mah corn bread”. He goes on with pretty good imitations of Tweety Bird and Thylvethter the cat.
A forty-something woman in an all-white ensemble with sun glasses bigger than her face gets on, sees the crazy guy waving his water bottle, and with a huff steps off again before the doors close. An old lady sitting just below the crazy guy’s protruding belly button taps herself on the knee and starts talking to the lady next to her about the good old days on TV when they had cartoons on before the news and not that awful Seinfeld, so whiny, “but he’s a Jew, isn’t he though?” she says to the other with a raised eyebrow. The other, much nicer lady turns her head and looks out the window, ignoring her.
I’m dragged out of the present, to a visit with my elderly godmother more than thirty years past. She lived in a lovely home in Glen Iris in the Eastern Suburbs. She was speaking about a trip to India and Thailand. “Asians are such lovely, lovely people,” I remember her saying in her delicate, quavery, high Melburnian kindness. “You know Lorentz, you can leave your handbag on a cafe table over there in Asia and no-one would dream of stealing it.”
The shiny new 96 tram trundles along its eighty-year-old rails. It’s gotten chilly in here now, nearly empty of passengers. A wispy young man gets on, another eccentric, a pale fellow who hasn’t broken a sweat outside, even though he’s dressed in silks and a black swallowtail coat.
He sits opposite me. His face is as white as an alabaster Christ in a Baltic church. He’s got a prophet’s beard and ringlets down each cheek, a waistcoat of silver scrolls, baggy pinstriped pantaloons belted high under his ribs, a blue business shirt and a woven tie, white gloves on thin fingers, and his pale, veinless feet are shod in glossy black slippers. His vestment is crowned with a Satmar-style fur hat.
The tram squeals very slowly around the corner onto Spencer Street, and as it does so a heavy silver crucifix the size of a handgun slips out of his waistcoat. He notices me noticing him and looks blankly uncomfortable. I’d love to talk, but I’m shy too. Perhaps my inquisitive, bacony bigness is a threat. He floats out of his seat and tiptoes down to the empty area at the other end of the tram. As he sits down again he fishes a transit ticket out of his waistcoat pocket, holds it in both hands and gazes at it, muttering something, a cleansing prayer perhaps.
Later that afternoon, on a long walk up the beach path from Brighton back to St Kilda on the northern shore of Port Phillip Bay, the sky is thick with smoke from the bushfires raging in the mountains to the north, fires which have burned three quarters of a million hectares so far. The office towers a few kilometres to the northwest can barely be seen because of the haze, they seem like mile-high skyscrapers in the distance, though the tallest of them is a thousand feet.
The land around the bay is flat. Heat ricochets off the sand. The black tar soaks it up. Flies are dancing all over my face. Dozens of small boats tack across the bay. A couple of bulk carriers shimmer in the nebulous distance. Cyclists whiz north and south in their super streamlined silver and neon sports gear, high on the saddles of their racers, with mixed expressions on their tightly drawn lips, of chilly concentration and environmentally conscious scorn.
A bent-over Japanese lady trudges slowly by, her face crunched up like a salted plum to protect her eyes from the hot breeze. She’s pushing a koto in a shopping trolley. I happen to look down as she passes, and just off the kerb a lost button melts into the sticky black road.
Quite a few sun worshippers and picnickers are taking the day off work. One couple catches my eye. Agog and culture stunned, I cannot help but look again. A young man, dark brown and lanky with a thatch of black chest fur, oiled up and lolling around on his beach towel, wiggles his tight little bottom in electric blue bikini briefs, adjusting his limbs to the burning caress of the afternoon sun. Sitting close by him on a rug, a young woman feeds him with her fingers, doling out morsels from a picnic basket. She is swathed, nun-like, in a tent of black cotton, with a cream-coloured hijab covering her head and shoulders.
I spend the last part of the afternoon wandering up and down Acland Street St Kilda, avoiding the pastry shops, and checking out bric-a-brac and New Age jewellery stores. After a meat pie and a diet coke I walk down to the gardens by the beach, to read and doze under a dusty Phoenix palm away from the crowd. The breeze has changed by dusk and it’s cool again. I wander back down the coastal path a mile or so, to where it’s really quiet. The fishermen won’t be here until well after dark.
Evening on the bay: the water is flat, smoky and oily. The red-hot cast iron sun has set over Williamstown on the invisible western shore. Whatever colour there was has wasted away. There seems to be no sound left either, apart from the sluggish retch of brine, leathery weed and black garbage puking slowly over flat sheets of sand.
There’s plenty of cosmopolitan tinsel to make Melbourne a diverting place: elegant little arcades, a Chinatown as old as any other, galleries, cobblestones, cafes, gypsy musicians at the old Vic market, Turkish rhythms wafting out of kebab shops, operas and ballets, imposing Victorian wedding-cakery and elegant post-modern towers. But a bourgeois British chill, discreet and charming on the one hand, blinkered and dull on the other, still deadens the marrow of Melbourne. Back in the 50’s, John Brack set up his easel on Collins Street in the city and painted the office crowd going home after work. Grim, gimlet eyed, weary and grey, like New Yorkers without the buzz of caffeine or jazz, or Londoners without their brisk, well brewed opinions, the army of businessmen, clerks and secretaries marched down to Flinders Street station each weekday evening to catch suburban trains. No one paid him any attention, the artist later said. It was as if he wasn’t there.
This essay first appeared in the monthly magazine Black Lamb, which can be seen at http://www.blacklamb.org