Melbourne – Sophie Cunningham

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Review by John Kerrens

Despite the ‘Bleak City’ image on the cover, Sophie Cunningham’s ‘Melbourne’ is a warm-hearted, benevolent look at the world’s most liveable city. Set out in journal format, the book coMelbournevers many of the important events in the city’s history.

Though not intended as a completist volume, Cunningham’s book nevertheless resonates wonderfully in its descriptions of the various events, people and institutions that helped shape the city. The 1970 Westgate Bridge disaster, the Hoddle Street massacre, the Italian Waiters’ Club, Hawthorn Football Club, the Cave Clan, Nick Cave and, of course, the Velvet Underground all-black dress code (in Melbourne black was the new black every year. These days the wisdom is more likely to be “when in doubt, wear black”). 

The writing style combines personal anecdote in tandem with documented incidents from the city’s history. Perhaps it’s an example of Melbourne’s collective introspection; that a book about a city – impersonal by its very nature – would seamlessly move in and out of the personal and into the collective. The writer’s own anecdotes never jar or seem ill-placed; rather they serve to illustrate and humanise the bricks-and-mortar aspect of the city. As Cunningham states, Melbourne is “a city of inside places and conversation”. No doubt this is attributed at least in part to the city’s “terrible” weather and supposed introversion. Whilst rival Sydney is brash, glamorous, Californian; Melbourne is intellectual, cultured, European.  In any case, those are the common stereotypes.

A good example of a formative event described in the book, is the 1986 “kidnapping” of Picasso’s ‘Weeping Woman’. A group calling themselves the Australian Cultural Terrorists (it’s unlikely they would use that handle today) removed ‘Weeping Woman’ from its perch at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) and seemingly tip-toed right past the security guards, removing the canvas from the frame as they went. They then issued a public statement, threatening to destroy the painting if the government didn’t agree to increase Arts funding in the next budget. The government called their bluff, figuring (correctly) that a group of artists wouldn’t be able to bring themselves to destroy such an important work.  An anonymous phone call to the media revealed that the picture could be found in a footlocker at Spencer St station in the CBD.  The painting was returned to the NGV and gallery Director Patrick McCaughey was released from the padded cell where he had been kept under heavy sedation throughout the incident. The identities of the Australian Cultural Terrorists were never discovered. (McCaughey, incidentally, came up with the best quote in the book:  “We live in a philistine nation but a civilised city”).

In the afterword, the author comments on Melbourne’s ongoing dynamic between socio-economic polarities: “The balance between the conservative and the mercurial, and between focused activism and smart policy development, will dictate whether we still want to live here in twenty years’ time. Well, that, and Melbourne’s old nemesis, the weather.” The book then ends with a graphic account of a storm in town. Always the weather.

A thoroughly enjoyable and informative work.

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