Back in the 20th century I used to like walking around Melbourne with my Aunty Joan because she’d always be pointing out everything she remembered that was no longer there. When I read Robyn Annear’s Bearbrass: Imagining Early Melbourne in the 1990s, I loved it so much, partly because it was like walking with Joan. Here was the historical code under the shiny screen of the modern city, laid out not only by a local but by a brilliant historian with the gift of the gab. The fact that we now have a sequel of sorts, Adrift in Melbourne: Seven Walks with Robyn Annear, is an unexpected delight.
Annear writes history with a smile but with a deadly acerbic stare. One gets the sense she believes the city has been taken over by fools, and worse, that it was founded by fools in the first place. On both counts she provides a wealth of stimulating evidence. From the dynamiting of the original river falls at the bottom of Queen Street in 1883 to the utter strangeness that sees the Docklands area of Melbourne now boasting an intersection of Collins and Bourke streets, Adrift in Melbourne is laced with polytemporal narrative laneways running between the more obvious linear streets of colonisation’s grid.
Having begun our dérive on Collins Street East, as it was known back in the days when the statue of Burke and Wills was plonked smack in the middle of the thoroughfare, we walk with Annear deep into the nooks and crannies of the town. Armed with erudite information we encounter anecdotal tales of both horror and charm, learning all the while how “names attach to places, places attach to names, and memories attach to both”.
Annear’s affection for the layers of Melbourne is always sparkily realist, as is evidenced by her appraisal of the top end of Bourke Street, formerly referred to as Eastern Hill, where the fate of the “chop cellar” in Tom Mooney’s National Hotel of the 1850s is treated no more or less exotically than the Palace Theatre on the same site, the demolition of which in 2020 was described by hyperbolists at the council as “morally outrageous”. “Arctic Monkeys had headlined there, for Pete’s sake,” adds our trusty and sardonic guide, reassuring us again, as she does on every page of the book, that on this tour of Melbourne we are in the best possible hands.
Text Publishing, 288pp, $27.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 4, 2021 as "Adrift in Melbourne: Seven Walks with Robyn Annear, Robyn Annear".
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