They’re a weird mob, psychogeographers. Always drifting through boondocks and “liminal spaces”, interrogating their forsakenness. Iain Sinclair in rust-industrial London, Martin Amis bound for the airport on foot. It’s not as dull as it might sound, but it is essentially weird.
The weirdness, by and large, is the point. Seeking outsider narratives in urban places that lie just beyond commuter consciousness is, by definition, an edgy undertaking. And the psychogeographer, a cultural forensicologist in sturdy footwear to whom seeking and narrative are indivisible, spares the reader no dead end, no thicket, no trackless wasteland. It’s as if, paradoxically, only by looking – really looking – at a place of desolation can it be made visible. And more than that, redeemed.
In Blue Lake, David Sornig writes into visibility an expanse of low-lying land to the west of Melbourne’s CBD. In the town’s early years there was, in some seasons, a blue lake (or, really, a lagoon) spreading west of La Trobe Street, hemmed with purple-flowering pigface and speckled with black swans. Better known as the West Melbourne Swamp, it was devalued and disregarded – like the area’s Indigenous inhabitants, made “more and more invisible”. The wetlands were progressively drained and choked with effluent and waste-dumping, in a process called “reclamation”, but which was really the opposite. Over the course of a hundred years, the Yarra River’s jutting elbow was straightened, channels and docks were cut through the one-time swamp, and railyards and rubbish tips further isolated it. Even though roads and raillines crossed it, to most Melburnians it was a blank spot, a place between. Sornig calls it the Zone, after the eerie, sealed-off territory in an Andrei Tarkovsky film, a name which, he writes, “makes nebulous, self-defining, unmeasured, radiating sense”.
The psychogeographer treats erasure and confoundment as portals through which to imagine forsaken places into being. Sornig extends the technique to the forsaken people whose presence there brought the Zone briefly, and luridly, into Melbourne’s consciousness. Once it ceased to be a swamp, the Zone had gone nameless until, during the Depression of the 1930s, the shanty town that grew up there became notorious as Dudley Flats. Central to Blue Lake is Sornig’s attempt to reconstruct Dudley Flats and the lives of its inhabitants, in the process reclaiming them from the tabloid characterisations by which they were known at the time and since.
Dudley Flats, in those years, served as an object lesson – better than any Sunday School – as to just how far a person might fall should they stray from the path of righteousness. Suburban families would visit the Flats to show their children how much they had to be grateful for. For here lived the evicted, the paroled, the homeless, in shacks made of tin and scrap salvaged from the Dudley Road tip. Parliamentarians invoked the place as a byword for one another’s failings: “Dudley Flats is your monument!” shouted Robert Menzies. “Dudley Flats is your spiritual home!” Arthur Calwell shouted back. To politicians and the press, anyone living on the Flats was a hopeless case, a metho drinker. The “parties” there, it’s true, were all-ins, often ending in arrests, if not deaths. But Sornig digs deep to give us a sense of community, and even of agency, on the Flats.
We get to know three of those who lived there longest: Elsie Williams, a singer of Afro-Caribbean parentage, once billed as “the Coloured Nightingale”; Lauder Rogge, a German-born sailor who, though a naturalised Australian, was interned during World War I; and Jack Peacock, a stunt rider, horse trader and scrap dealer who made a good living on Dudley Flats. The book begins with Elsie’s death, in circumstances so horrific and debased they’re like a scene from a Hieronymus Bosch triptych. The press retailed Elsie’s death, in all its gruesome detail, as emblematic of the Flats. Drawing on traces gleaned from primary research, as well as “the tools of the novelist”, Sornig reanimates aspects of Elsie’s life and potentialities, along with Lauder and Jack’s. Their stories, threaded through the book, give cohesion to Sornig’s perambulative ruminations on the Zone itself and help fix – and redeem – the place in the reader’s imagination.
Despite repeated attempts, the poorly drained and off-the-grid Zone largely eluded development through much of Melbourne’s history. Or, as Sornig puts it, “It remained a discordant vortex in which the coherence of the rest of the city became mired.” The Melbourne City Council, after World War II, considered a beautification scheme – gardens, playing fields – but soon abandoned the idea “in view of the obscure position”.
Fifty years later came Docklands, which, for many Melburnians, continues, just like the Zone, to defy habitation. A property developer, asked in the early 2000s what had occupied the land before, could reply with near-truth, “There was nothing there before.” Docklands covers a portion of the Zone, the container terminal another; the tollway flies over and other utilities have made incursions into it. But still, Sornig manages to spend long hours walking through areas of it that feel remote enough to be unmapped.
Blue Lake seemed to me about a hundred pages too long. It begins in confoundedness and ends there, too. In between, I could have done with less of Sornig’s effortful, and to a degree programmatic, musing on the Zone’s essential unknowableness. (I get it already.) But his insights and imaginings into the lives of Elsie, Lauder and Jack are tender and illuminating, and ensure the reader, whether they can locate the Zone itself, can know it through its inhabitants.
In the end, Sornig hails the perpetual blind spot that is the Zone as “a site of natural resistance”:
Perhaps Australian cities need places where this contradiction can be felt uncomfortably, uncannily, through the feet. Zones with their own puzzling and unresolved consciousness that, like this story, teeter uncertainly between history and myth. FL
Scribe, 400pp, $35
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 15, 2018 as "David Sornig, Blue Lake". Subscribe here.