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melbourne black and white

After three years in Melbourne, today I flew back to Perth for a summer sabbatical before moving on to the UK. I learned in my early 20s, first with Korea and then with backpacking, that life doesn’t always turn out to be as wonderful as you expect it to be. But I moved to Melbourne with zero expectations, having never been there before, based solely on the other people in my life who’d decided to go there. It turned out to be an absolutely amazing city, one I was proud and happy to call home, and genuinely sad to leave. I hope to live there again one day.

Until then, here are some of the memories of Melbourne that stick in my mind – some important, others random, all part of a self-indulgent reminiscence you will likely have no interest in:

Riding my 250cc Kawasaki dirtbike up the freeway from Geelong, the end of a two week roadtrip from Perth, and glimpsing in the summer dusk my first sight of Melbourne – a peachy sky, some wispy clouds, a full moon rising fat and ripe above the skyscrapers.

Listening to The King of Limbs the day after we arrived, sitting on the back porch of a townhouse in Brunswick and looking over the overgrown jungle of a backyard.

Seeing flying foxes everywhere, for the first year or so, winging their way across the stars, until the council moved their habitat further up the Yarra.

Riding out to a pub one night to hang out with Jamie and his friends, who called me a FOB, for “fresh off the boat.” The pub was somewhere in the inner north, an old Victorian building with an attached tower. I cannot remember its name, and although I’ve probably driven past it a dozen times now, I will never be able to remember exactly which pub it was and where it was.

Driving down Mount Alexander Road from Essendon in Kristie’s car to pick her and Susie up from work at the Joint Bar at 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning, parking across the road in Flinders Lane, sitting in the dark behind the wheel and listening to Triple J.

Playing all the way through Time Crisis 4 at an arcade on Bourke Street, costing Jamie $50 in coins, before drinking the afternoon away at my first visit to Rooftop Bar on Swanston, which would become (and remains) my favourite bar in Melbourne and probably the world.

Working at the airport up in Tullamarine. “Meeting” (serving) a raft of C-list Australian celebrities – Lara Bingle, Bert Newton, Chopper Read, Bob Katter. Standing behind the counter at the Qantas business class lounge watching the sun rise over the hills north of the terminal and the planes touching down from Malaysia and Hong Kong and India. Waking for an early shift one morning at 3:30am, midwinter, to find the street shrouded in fog, and riding my motorcycle up the freeway in -1 degree temperatures, wearing business pants. Running my hands under warm water once I got there for twenty minutes before I could feel anything in them.

Moving into the 1960s brick shithouse Jamie bought in Sunshine West in the middle of winter with the electricity company shutting off the power due to a clerical error, leaving us shivering our way through a candlelit settling-in period. The ragged old vinyl couch, soon replaced by the corduroy sofa set that Jamie and Dave purchased while visibly high, but which nevertheless served us well for two years.

Living in Sunshine West. Smoking not that much weed and drinking not that much beer, but probably mixing the two enough that it wasn’t particularly healthy. Our love-hate relationship with Geoff the dog. Watching Archer and Seinfeld and Breaking Bad on the plasma flatscreen. Cranking the living room heaters in winter, warming the one room in which we spent all of our time, shouting at each other to “SHUT THE DOOR!” whenever one of us ventured outside to take a leak or get a beer. Pissing in the backyard and looking up at the stars. Falling asleep on the couch watching Chris replay Final Fantasy IX on my ancient PS2. Coming home from a late shift at 10pm, crossing the West Gate Bridge and leaving the city behind, droning along the freeway in lashing rain, soaking wet and freezing cold, and arriving home to peel wet clothes off and stumble into the shower, becoming warm and dry and finally arriving in the living room, where Chris and Jamie would already be reliably comfortable and baked, sitting down in my armchair next to the bookshelf and yanking back that tab to make the seat fall back and the footrest kick up, the hassles of the working day washing clean, whiling away the rest of the evening with my two best friends drinking, smoking and watching TV, not realising until long after I moved out that this would be one of the happiest times in my life.

Buying a Triumph Bonneville, my first big bike, from a dealership on Elizabeth Street. Parking it nearby and then having lunch with Chris and Jamie at a tiny cafe with three little seats at a counter table looking out the window, a cafe which, like that inner-north pub, I’ve never been able to find again.

Spending my first Christmas Day in Melbourne at home with Chris and the dog. Making a roast dinner and playing video games. In the midafternoon a hailstorm passed over the western suburbs and coated every lawn with white ice, leaving us with a brief White Christmas in the half-hour it took to melt.

Getting my first speeding ticket because I was racing Chris home on the West Gate from a gig in Brunswick. Proudly putting it under a magnet on the fridge.

Riding out to the Grampians with Jamie and Maya. Eating ice cream by the creek. Fumbling around on the back trails as the sun went down, finding a place to surreptitiously camp just before the light leaked away.

Attending the 2012 beer festival at the Royal Exhibition Building, a magnificent, regal World Heritage site in which the Australian Constitution was signed in 1901 – a building which Jamie and I then got spectacularly drunk in, eventually taking a leak in the gardens outside before taking the tram up to Fitzroy and stumbling through the rain to Kristie’s house in Brunswick with a plastic bag full of pilfered beer festival “memento” pint glasses, which I still have.

Riding up into the Dandenongs with Chris in August, up to Lake Mountain where snow was covering the ground like it was no big deal. The mountainsides were still ravaged from the Black Saturday bushfires from three years ago, the trees dead and leafless, so it looked almost like a European winter.

AFL, a sport comfortingly nostalgic given my own Western Australian boyhood, the most recognisable Melbourne suburbs being those that had rattled around in my brain since childhood because they supported teams – Essendon, Collingwood, St Kilda, Richmond. Becoming more acquainted with the game than I ever thought I would be by having to cover two seasons of it at work. Going to Fremantle games with Kristie, drinking Pure Blonde out of plastic cups, perching up high on those vertiginous seats at Etihad Stadium. The MCG always seemed so small on the inside. Feeling genuinely excited when Fremantle made it to the 2013 Grand Final, only to be slaughtered by Hawthorn.

Sitting on the roof watching the sun go down on my last night in Sunshine, then drinking heavily all night so the next day I was abysmally hungover while dragging my furniture into a rental van.

Coming close so many times to winning Tuesday night trivia at the Great Britain Hotel with Adam. Drinking jugs of Piss and drunkenly playing pool until 1:00am. Taking a cab into the city to get oil-dipped bread at Siglo on an unseasonably warm night or, if we were feeling more local, wandering up to the Vine on Bridge Road and playing pool until 4am with morbidly obese alcoholics and sleazy middle-aged restaurant owners.

Wandering around the CBD until 4:00am with friends from Perth who had the good fortune to show up on a particularly warm summer night for the inaugural White Night Festival. Sitting at the edge of the Yarra texting love messages dedicated to each other’s mums to the Spheres of Love.

Shoving open my creaky old window in Richmond to sit on my bedside table, stick my head out into the rain, and smoke a joint. Finding that it wasn’t quite as pleasant as sharing one with two friends on a reclining armchair in Sunshine.

Having a heart-wrenching evening conversation with Kristie about the future of our relationship, then having my motorcycle break down on the Bolte Bridge on the way home. Spending an hour leaning against the concrete wall in the emergency lane, pulling my coat up against a biting August wind swooping in from the port, feeling miserable and waiting for my mechanic to come pick up me and the bike in his ute.

Drinking most of a bottle of gin while covering election night at the office, all of us shouting at the TV. Getting angry enough at Tony Abbott’s smirking face during his victory speech to punch a dent in the soundproofing panels on the wall.

Trams – something I’d always thought of as hokey and touristy, but which are surprisingly useful and an indispensable part of the city’s aesthetic. The dinging of the bell, the skating of the tracks, the squeaking of the doors snapping open. The cat’s cradle of electrical wires above each intersection. The sudden blue flashes sparking off the overheads.

Walking to work from Flinders Street Station, through the smell of chlorine from the fountains outside the NGV and the Chinese busker with the violin. The last 1am tram rumbling down Swan Street, audible from where I was tucked up in bed, followed an hour later by the humming of the street-sweepers. The reliable excellence of breakfast and coffee from cafes anywhere in the metro area. AAMI Park sprouting out of the grass by the Yarra like an enormous mushroom. The MCG lit up at night like a meteor fallen to earth. The bright night-time colours of 120 Collins Street, imitating its Manhattan forebear. Gelato on Lygon Street on a summer night. Rowing teams on the Yarra near Richmond. Widespread disdain for The Age going tabloid. Breakneck taxi drivers. Volatile weather. Autumn leaves.

Riding my motorcycle across the Bolte Bridge at night and always risking that lingering glance at the city lights, before begrudgingly turning my attention back to the road.

Dark Eden by Chris Beckett (2012) 404 p.

John Redlantern lives amid the warmth and safety of Family in Circle Valley. There is no sun – only eternal night. Light and warmth come from the valley’s alien geothermal trees, which glow red and white and emit boiling hot sap. Surrounding Circle Valley is the Snowy Dark – a cold, thin-air wasteland where you can’t even see your hand in front of your face. Nobody has ever left the valley, not since Angela and Tommy were first stranded there from Earth many generations ago. The 532 members of Family are their descendents – inbred, genetically mutating, clinging to the stories their first Mother and Father told them about distant Earth. One day, they have been told, Earth will come and find them again.

Dark Eden is a classic bildungsroman, in which 15-year-old (or 20 “wombtimes” old) John Redlantern grows weary at the parochial, stultifying atmosphere of Family. He fears that Family is growing larger, and game is getting scarce. He thinks that despite what Mother Angela once told her children, she never thought the wait for Earth would be this long. He believes there must be something else on the other side of Snowy Dark, and is determined to go against his elders and find out.

The novel ranges across a number of viewpoints, mostly John Redlantern and his lover Tina Spiketree, but occasionally taking in others when the narrative demands it. Beckett does a good job of exploring each character’s different motives; John, for example, knows that he’s a good leader and wants to try new things; from Tina’s perspective, we see that she appreciates this, but also recognises John has a deep, restless urge inside him, and an egotistical view that the world’s story is all about him. Similarly, the Family’s leader is a maternalistic woman who recognises the same problems as John but is wise enough to know that change must happen slowly; that “any fool can break a thing, but building a new one takes wakings and wakings.”

The world of Eden is beautifully rendered, from the glowing and humming trees to the menacing six-legged fauna, but it’s not overwrought – the characters mention things like “leopards” and “trees,” and it’s only through incidental detail that the reader sees how different these things must be from their earthly namesakes.

Beckett’s use of language to establish Family’s culture (however small and stagnant it may be) is excellent. There are shades of a post-apocalyptic story here, as degenerate tribals cling to their society’s past glory and revere their ancestors. Small linguistic touches go a long way, such as the loss of the word “very,” with characters instead simply doubling up on adjectives to emphasise them: cold cold, tired tired, etc.

What Beckett gets absolutely pitch perfect is the claustrophobic sense of Eden: the darkness, the enveloping cold, the rigid tribal laws and the inability to escape Family, to go anywhere else, do anything different or find anything new. Circle Valley is all the characters have ever known, but they have grown up hearing stories of Earth and the rest of the human race, and they know that there is more to life than this. “Sometimes I hated Eden,” John says to himself. “Sometimes I felt that if I ate another mouthful of greenish Eden meat I would vomit out my guts.”

Dark Eden has a satisfying if limited conclusion, avoiding the brutal showdown other science fiction writers might have opted for. It’s open to a sequel, but is an excellent standalone novel – an original and haunting story.

Side note – it’s a miserly publisher indeed who’d choose to save on ink by issuing the reprint with a white cover, as seen above. The original was black, a thousand times more appropriate for this novel.

Nightmares and Dreamscapes by Stephen King (1992) 970 p.

This is King’s third short story collection, mostly assembling stories he’d written in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s since the publication of his last collection, Skeleton Crew, but also containing a few bits and pieces from the ‘70s and some unpublished work.

I was wary of this one, because circa 1990 is when King started to show sings of decline – and also because his story in Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse was absolutely terrible and actually dated from 1986, which throws my whole concept of King’s decline out of whack. But anyway. This was for the most part a decent collection with. My two favourites were ‘Chattery Teeth,’ about a travelling salesman in the deserts of the south-west, which was one of those moments King hits a pitch perfect note on setting and character, and also looked like it was going to be a very different horror story from what I’d imagined (but then was the original idea after all); and ‘The Moving Finger,’ about a mild-mannered man who suddenly finds a wiggling human finger impossibly sticking out of his bathroom sink plughole.

Some of the others are hit and miss. ‘Crouch End’ is a Lovecraftian tale about two American tourists who stumble into an ancient, eldritch part of London. The part told from the tourists’ perspective is great, but the other half of the story follows two local policeman. King is apparently unaware that American and British culture are, relatively speaking, almost identical, and their dialogue is overflowing with English slang – “Pull the other one,” “a swatch of the old whole cloth,” Give us a fag, mate,” “doddy old prat,” etc. Similarly, ‘Home Delivery’ is a good zombie story on a remote Maine island, with feelings of isolation that are simultaneously uneasy yet (given the state of the world) reassuring. King ruins this atmosphere with an interlude from the spaceship sent to investigate the orbiting alien craft creating the undead, which ends with a cliched scrambled radio transmisison as everything goes to shit, and is irritatingly narrated with calm detachment by the comic British professor figure attached to the mission. And then there’s a pretty bad story called ‘Dedication’ which bothered me not for the fact that it involves a black hotel maid eating semen off the bedsheets of a wealthy guest as part of a voodoo ritual, but more for the uncomfortable way King regularly portrays black characters, up to and including phonetic spelling for their dialogue.

The collection gets more experimental towards the end – there’s a Bachman-style crime caper, a Sherlock Holmes story (which is surprisingly not bad, given how badly King fumbled in ‘Crouch End’ when portraying those exotic, bizarre, non-American people known as the English) and a Raymond Chandler pastiche called ‘Umney’s Last Case’ which also has its own Stephen King twist, and which he says is his favourite story in the collection. Then there’s a fairly long non-fiction piece about a Little League team making it to the finals, which bored me the same way the movie Field of Dreams did – I assume if you’re not American, you just can’t understand. The book wraps up with a poem about baseball and an old Hindu fable.

Nightmares and Dreamscapes also has (and I think all short fiction collections should) a section of author notes at the back for most of the stories, describing their genesis and original publication and what King thinks of them. These were always interesting to read, if a little confusing sometimes – in the notes for ‘The Moving Finger,’ for instance, King says, “My favourite sort of short story has always been the kind where things happen just because they happen… I hate explaining why things happen.” This, from the writer who ruined more than one perfectly creepy story in Night Shift by explaining various frightening things as being caused by Satanic witchcraft rituals.

Overall, this is certainly the least of the three Stephen King short story anthologies I’ve read, but for the most part I enjoyed it and it was worth reading.

Demon by John Varley (1984) 464 p.

Wrapping up John Varley’s lacklustre Gaea trilogy is Demon, a novel which brings to a close the events set in motion in Titan and Wizard. Cirocco Jones is now an open enemy to Gaea, the godlike, planet-sized being in orbit around Saturn, and is part fugitive and part resistance leader in a struggle to destroy her. (Cirocco seems awfully confident that killing the mind of Gaea will not also destroy the body, upon which she and many other species depend upon for survival.)

As of Demon, Earth is now in the grip of a nuclear war, with Gaea sending many rescue ships to ferry survivors to her. This means that the survival of humanity is now essentially in the hands of the few million people on Gaea, which ups the stakes in the battle. I still couldn’t bring myself to care much, and was largely reading this book out of obligation.

Varley, as I’ve said before, became a great writer in his later years, but there are far too many stumbles in his early books. His characters are simultaneously logical and emotional, which doesn’t sound wrong, but anyone who’s ever read a nerdy 1970s or 1980s sci-fi paperback will know exactly what I mean. He has a weird obsession with alien sex. He also has an enduring passion for classic cinema, which works in, say, The Golden Globe, because the narrator is an actor and student of cinema – but which is represented in the Gaea trilogy by Gaea herself (a millenia-old being the size of planet, remember) being a movie buff who uses her godlike powers to recreate classic scenes and creatures. The whole thing has a wacky feeling to it. And in terms of Cirocco’s grand struggle against this godlike creature, anything which doesn’t make sense is handwaved away or ignored. Gaea’s body is the very terrain upon which Cirocco walks – if the NSA can tap my mobile, why can’t Gaea tell where Cirocco is at any given point?

But one of the biggest problems with the Gaea trilogy, overall, is that it’s simply boring. Varley has created a gigantic ringworld ruled over by an alien god who’s been listening to the very first radio waves mankind sent out, has watched every movie we ever made, and has a penchant for biologically engineering whatever she wants from the collective human imagination in order to amuse herself. Yet what do we see in the trilogy? Two major alien species (basically centaurs and bat people), a few others which can be generally summed up by what they resemble (“blimps,” “submarines”), a bunch of human refugees, and some empty landscapes. Dragons are mentioned – we never see one. Gaea has created a King Kong – adventures relating to him are mentioned off-screen and we then only see him after he’s dead. In the desert is the great sandworm from Dune – which is so long that at one point the characters walk over its body, seeing neither tail nor head. Varley has all these opportunities, and more, to make interesting things happen on this world of limitless possibility, but instead we get the main characters sitting around talking about their feelings for half the book.

The Gaea trilogy is not good. Read Steel Beach, and absolutely read The Golden Globe, but do not read Titan or its sequels.

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December 2013