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OUR BOOKS > MELBA: AN AUSTRALIAN CITY

Melba
Essays
Written by Chester Eagle
Designed by Vane Lindesay
DTP by Chris Giacomi
First published 2004 by Trojan Press
Circa 54,600 words
First edition 200 copies
Electronic publication 2006 by Trojan Press
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Melbourne is a city and Melba was a singer; it could be said that Dame Nellie was the Bradman of Australia’s music until that other dame, Joan Sutherland, came along. Melba will never be forgotten in the city of her origins, nor did she intend it to forget her. When it was made clear that she needed a stage name, she adapted the name of the place where her voice first broke into song. Australians, not noted for being a musical people, followed her fortunes from afar, feeling that she represented them, as she was often quite proud to do. It cannot be forgotten, however, that she could never have reached her heights in the mundane place whose name she borrowed. She had to win her glory elsewhere, and bring a little home. The essays in this volume begin by considering the singer’s career, then assess her city in terms of the rejection that she had to make. How far has it come, how much has it changed, since she left and came back? Would a modern Melba have to leave? In the ebbs and flows of change and continuity, how much of the singer’s Melbourne has been swept away, and how much of it remains? How good is it, and how distinctive are its ways? Do the very qualities that distinguish it also hold it back? These essays, making no claim to be the last word on anything, are a contribution to a city’s life and thought – two things that cannot avoid going together.


To read some extracts from the book click here:
Boston airport, 1994 (introduction)
Melba
City of class
City of crowds
Flagstaff Hill
City of the south (Australia Felix)
Famous for a while
An aesthetic appraisal
The waves, the sea
A song for Melbourne

To read about the writing of this book click here.

Boston airport, 1994

I was flying from Paris to New York, and I was stuck in Boston. Snow had fallen over the north-east of the US, planes were grounded or delayed, and all passengers whose flights were problematic were asked to go to one end of the building, where we sat for hours. Not everyone took this calmly. It was my first visit to North America and I was amazed at how disputatious Americans were, and how the airport staff regularly offered useless information, as if it might ease the strain of waiting. Like everyone not into argument, I chatted to those nearest me, and had some enjoyable conversations. Talking to a young art teacher, I found that she and I shared a passion for Thornton Wilder’s Theophilus North. I told her that I adored the book, and what I loved best was Wilder’s analysis of Newport, Rhode Island. To my surprise, she quoted it: I have the book open as I write: ‘… I had been enthralled by the great Schliemann’s discovery of the site of ancient Troy – those nine cities one on top of the other. In the four and a half months that I am about to describe I found – or thought I found – that Newport, Rhode Island, presented nine cities, some superimposed, some having very little relation with the others – variously beautiful, impressive, absurd, commonplace, and one very nearly squalid,’ and Wilder goes on to sketch the nine cities in which his stories will unfold. It is a virtuosic display, and the snowbound airports of the north-east had given me the chance to meet someone who loved the book as much as I did. We talked until her flight was called.

Somewhere about the time my flight was called, an hour or two later, the idea for this book – Melba – had begun to form in my mind. My home city had layers too, sections of society that connected and sections knowing little of each other. Like Wilder’s Newport, or Schliemann’s Troy, Melbourne layered itself, new on top of old. It is perhaps characteristic of European Australians such as myself to think that this layering has not gone on long enough to be worth examining, but I am aware that the Australia described in some of my earlier books has largely disappeared, so I think it worthwhile to set down the layers and connections as they seem to me now so that future readers may find the rubble of their archaeology a little less confusing.

The title of the book comes from the name which Nelly Armstrong (née Mitchell, 1861 – 1931) gave herself when the demands of her operatic career made her believe she needed a new name. A stage name for a book; why not? Nelly Armstrong was reimagining herself, and I am attempting to create, or discover, a Melbourne in the mind, so, with what I shall call sincere impudence, I have borrowed the name she gave herself for her Paris debut, when she was 25 and her home city was 52. Much as one admires Melba, however, my book is dedicated to the young American art teacher, name unknown, who talked to me in Boston airport on a freezing day in March 1994. Long may she flourish!.

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Melba

… to see what it meant to the people of Melba’s city, welcoming her back, I quote from a speech by G W Marshall Hall, Professor of Music at the University of Melbourne. Addressing the exalted singer, he said:

Madame, we all of us, professors and students alike, feel that it is very charming of you to pay us a visit in this our little Poet’s Corner. You may, perhaps, hardly any longer now understand the singular sensations that pass through us artists, dreaming our dreams in this remote, quiet, isolated nook of the universe, when suddenly, like some northern comet, you flash through our silent heaven, bespattering it with brilliancy – flash, and are gone.

You represent to us all the possibility, the promise, the glamour of that rich imaginary world which each one secretly in his heart of hearts dreams attainable, if not by him- or her-self, at least by others more gifted and more lucky. And it is good for us, in this trite, vulgar, prosaic modern world to now and again surrender ourselves to such youthful sweet illusions; it is good that in the height of success, fame and triumph you should descend on us –

A lovely apparition, sent
To be a moment’s ornament

a living image of that ideal phantasm which lurks deep in our souls, and which represents our secret aspirations to all that is free, beautiful and joyous in life … you represent more than a particular person, charming though we acknowledge that person to be; you represent an idea – nay, the idea to which we have devoted our lives and energies, the idea of art – art, the supreme manifestation of joyous strength …

… you madam (he went on), who come from these historical seats of the ancient splendour, power, and culture of the human race, seem to waft with you something of their aroma, their beauty, their traditions, in the presence of which even modern, plebeian, democratic Melbourne becomes animated, festive, and joyous …

‘Plebeian, democratic Melbourne’: do not these words suggest that Melbourne had surprised itself by what it had produced? Let me go further; I find in the speech an element of shame, penitence, humility, that the city welcoming this star, her home city, had been made aware by her return of how far they had still to go to create a cultured city of which any resident with an ounce of refinement could be fully and truthfully proud, as opposed to displaying to visitors the wonders of wealth and recent growth which had led George Sala (5) to say, ignoring, for the moment all those putrid smells, that their city was marvellous, when patently it was not.

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City of class

I was driving an English visitor along Royal Parade. It was early autumn, the elms were beginning their change from green to yellow. ‘This is a part of the city they photograph for posters,’ I said, to which he replied, ‘Before I came here, I thought the whole city was like this.’ Proud a moment before, I felt a pang of shame as my mind swept across the suburbs north and west where trees were either not planted or were as small as the imaginations of those who lived in those places. He’d thought the whole city was like this: why was it not?

To find an answer, it’s necessary to go back to a time when eucalyptus trees and the native scrub were being cleared, when surveyors were sighting lines and elevations for the city that was so early in its formation that land sales were offering the first, central blocks. The settlement was part of New South Wales, some of those bidding had money, many were poor, but their numbers were small because the great influx of gold diggers lay in the future, and those who started Melbourne were English in their minds, or Scottish, or Irish, and the ideas they had of what they hoped to create were ideas they’d brought from those tiny, northern lands. Inevitably they set out to create a new and better (if possible) version of what they already knew.

What they brought from the British Isles in their minds was that the wealthy and well-descended lived as sumptuously as possible, while the poor, who served their purposes, struggled for whatever they could get. Rich and poor, upper and lower, knew each other well, but mixed like oil and water – intimately, the one threading through the other at each and every turn, but as far as could be maintained, ultimately immiscible.

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City of crowds

As a city Melbourne is proud of its great occasions, that is to say, of its crowds. Melbourne would feel there was something seriously wrong in its entrails if the MCG didn’t fill for the football grand final, if a huge crowd didn’t turn up for Boxing Day cricket, if similar numbers didn’t assemble to watch the horses in the Cup at Flemington. Melbourne, because of the influence of its Scots in the 19th century, has often been called a dour city, but perhaps it is aware of being a dull city, and wants to leap over its limits. At the cricket ground, as at the races, there are entrances and exits enough to prevent the crowd feeling bottled up, always a source of danger; indeed, ‘handling’ or ‘managing’ crowds is something the city knows how to do. Melbourne’s self-admiration for its capacity to generate crowds doesn’t go as far as toleration of riots. It doesn’t have them. They’d represent, if they occurred, a despoliation of a tradition of which the city’s proud.

Which is? Oddly enough, and this may seem strange to many, I think that the city’s crowd behaviour, its propensity to gather in numbers, is the other side of its constant creation of privacy, of garden retreats, of locking front doors to keep the world away. Melbourne’s crowds are composed of people who’ve decided to go out, or come out, for the day. Melbourne has never been known as a city of the night, although in King Street, or parts of Saint Kilda or Prahran you can have the experience on Sunday mornings of being mixed with what I shall call last night’s people, dressed or undressed for display, darkness, drinking, drugs, dancing, and stunned by the sonic boom of music at volumes that go close to obliterating consciousness. Over-stimulated for so long, and in a cave of darkness for hours at a time, interacting sexually more than socially, they are at a loss when forced into the air of morning, and look … lost, some of them; superior, in the case of others, whose passions are the brightly lit threads of the life they’ve chosen to follow; on the way back to normality, others, if they can find a bed and sleep; and dangerous, another group, whose nocturnal imaginations are still uncontained. They are also more obviously masculine and feminine than day-time mortals, supported by social mores that wouldn’t have been strong enough to last them through the night.

Melbourne’s crowds, the famous ones that are counted, year by year, and compared, are daytime people; in the ninety thousands at the MCG these days, down from the days when no system existed to tell officials how many were in the ground, and gates were closed only when the place looked ominously full, a rough and ready process which meant that for the 1949 grand final spectators jumped the fence and sat on the grass, as close to the players as the white line setting the edge of play. Why are the numbers down? Because the ground has reserved seating, and the days of beery presses, of supporters struggling up flights of steps in order to peer through heads and hats at those flashes of play they can glimpse, are gone. Outer grounds, where the poor and the workers stood on slopes of slippery grass or mud, are gone also, replaced by more modern, more theatrical seating. Everyone expects to see, at the prices they’re charged! Getting wet, which can be miserable at the football, and wretched for the cricket, doesn’t seem to dampen anybody on Melbourne Cup day, when the crowds – yes, there have been several hundred-thousand days – know that every few years there’s a downpour – it’s Melbourne’s spring, after all, the chanciest time of year – and that nobody’s going home, whatever the weather does, so enjoy! Crowd behaviour is different for the races. There’s a good half hour between events which, when they do occur, are only understood or appreciated by a fraction of those there. For most, going to the Cup is an excuse – so people say, and I wonder why they don’t say ‘reason’ – for a day out. Out. Away from home, that means, home or work, where social norms hold them accountable. The races are something else. You can have a flutter. Take a chance. Back a horse that runs last or near enough, with nobody minding too much, because that’s what you’re here for.

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Flagstaff Hill

Early settlers were far from home, and though they’d chosen to be where they were (Victoria resisted becoming a penal colony), they must often have felt pain in their separation. Their homeland was on the other side of the world; only a long and dangerous voyage could take them back, and if they got there, they would, as likely as not, discover that their separation and subsequent adaptation to the antipodes had made them different people. To move into the new is to lose touch with the old. This has never been easy to accept. Early settlers lacked much of what had surrounded them at home. Ships sailing up the bay were happenings in a life which was mostly struggle. Ships were the umbilical cord joining colony to motherland.

Ships, as a means of travel, of relocating human beings, have largely, though not entirely, been replaced by aeroplanes. A city’s airport is a more contemporary statement of its connection with the world than its docks, or harbour, important as these remain. Ships do the heavy work, but the glamour has relocated elsewhere. In defiance of this, in an attempt to project our minds back to the city’s earliest years, let us climb Flagstaff Hill, at the northern edge of the central city, and turn ourselves so we are looking down the bay. We can take a telescope, I think, to extend our vision; the day is clear, and sunny, a perfect day to look about.

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City of the south (Australia Felix)

Let’s look at the seasons as the city of the south experiences them, a year’s worth, or, as the joke has it, four in a single day. Some jokes are universal, some local, based on an agreement that things work in a certain way. Everyone knows the weather of their home city, and everyone talks about it. Everyone in Melbourne knows that there’s a low range to the north that hardly protects at all from the winds, hot as hell in summer, no warmer than charity in winter, that blow from the inland. The rivers, whether flowing north, or doodling westward with a lazy scrawl, block the winds in no way at all. Thus the inland makes its presence felt, and the city can neither deny nor forget. The hinterland rules, okay? Once in a while it’s the opposite wind, from the south, that dictates, and it won’t be countermanded either. Mainlanders think of Tasmania as cold, and wonder if they get more of these southerlies than we do; it must be severe – a face-pulling word – if they do. South winds don’t hang around, as people say, but they’re penetrating while they control the air waves, like a military regime determined to enforce its edicts while they’re new. Then there is the south-west, the direction of change. Storms blow in from here. When the weather’s hot, cool changes come this way, cloud building, the north wind becoming first blustery, then quiet, before the change. Melbourne follows it on the radio: the change has reached Geelong, it’s crossing the bay, it’s blustery along the foreshore from Brighton to Frankston, it’s pouring in the city but it hasn’t reached the northern suburbs yet … This is what we hear, travelling in our cars, glancing up every now and again to watch the cloudbank getting closer. We live a contradiction as we move around in our metal machines, dying for the rain to come belting down, making us turn on our wipers as we look at the tail lights, and the headlights coming on, a little way ahead.

Last of our city’s weather directions is the east, and this is a little different from the others. Let us travel in that direction, to see what happens. We make our way, via freeway and highway, to the end – there almost isn’t one – of the city’s eastern sprawl, and we travel within sight of the ranges that divide Australia’s waters, flowing inland, flowing to the sea. They lie beside us on our left, ever so enticing, until, following the coastline, they turn the corner. The east coast has begun, right up through New South Wales, and Queensland, to Cape York. Every so often tropical systems slide down this coast, and some of these systems enter Victoria. Their motivating force is downwards, not to the west, so for the most part they do no more than round the corner, influencing only the east of the state. The line they rarely pass is close to the town of Rosedale, and there is where the weather changes. A new system, a new hegemony exerts itself, and Melbourne has been left behind. Occasionally these systems creep out of their territory, and settle softly on our city, making it damp, introspective, settled in wet cottonwool. Then a change comes from the south-west, as always, and the city’s itself again, or one of its personalities has reasserted itself against another; that is the way of cities, is it not?

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Famous for a while (Australian Rules football)

There are photos of these champions and some of them have religious status in the game. Many of them are of great marks – Alex Jesaulenko, Bob Pratt – and some of players kicking, or running with the ball. Haydn Bunton is forever in the land of perfection with his left hand clutching the ball to his shoulder, and Jack Mueller, well above the earth, legs straight and together, back straight, head tilted and eyes upraised, has the ball pressed tenderly between two palms. Was ever a mark more perfect? These are mortals, these footballers, but if by chance aesthetic grace and a photographer possess them at the same moment, then status beyond the human becomes theirs, to be shared by all forever. The game has a long memory, and statistics to fill a telephone book. Nothing is too disgraceful, or too ridiculous, to be left unrecorded. Matches shrouded in fog. Matches at Williamstown, in the days of the VFA, with winds howling off the water and blowing the ball back over the heads of those who kicked it. Filthy matches when grounds weren’t drained, and players rubbed mud in their opponents’ eyes (yes, Ted Whitten, I’m thinking of you). Players grabbed or kneed in the balls. Players pretending to have no idea why their opponent’s lying on the ground. Umpires abused, but striking back with their notebook and pencil, when such things were carried. Players with hearts full of villainy and not a skerrick of mercy turning up at the tribunal with hair slicked into place, and wearing a suit, a collar and a tie. Respectability, what a liar you are!

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An aesthetic appraisal

You may be wondering how I got to these domineering roads, and why. It’s because they impose a discipline, a regulation and restraint which makes them the most aesthetic part of Melbourne’s life. Yes, I’m serious. The road is no longer a space between the housing, a means of access and egress, it’s a thing in itself, designed and built to cope with the demands of an ever-moving flood. It’s not designed for you or me, except insofar as we give up our identities and become part of the flood. The flood, that is, of cars. These freeways are designed for individual objects (cars, with people inside), yes, but to do the designing and the building these individual cars and trucks have to become conceptualised, that is turned into notional objects of certain weights, moving at certain speeds, and needing to get on and off at certain points in order to join other freeways or to be allowed back into what was once the normal traffic system. We’ve grown used, down the years, to the idea that aesthetics is a matter for engineers as much as artists, and have come to see beauty and excellence of design in bridges, let us say. The freeway takes us further because, while a bridge is an object and may be considered from a fixed point of vision, the freeway is a concept, a constriction of life’s variety into a strictly controlled stream of behaviour, with drivers’ choices reduced to those that keep the system working. Freeway driving is not the same as sight-seeing; indeed, many freeways are built with trees or high fences alongside. This is necessary to reduce noise levels in the houses behind, but drivers accept the loss of what was once the rationale for driving – to see the countryside – because they’ve accepted that on a freeway, driving itself, motion at speed, is what everything has to be about if we’re to have safety as well as speed. I’m using words like ‘reduce’ and ‘restrict’ quite knowingly, and I do so with a wry smile, because who, in the days of Henry Ford’s black T-models, would have thought that a whole world would be created for the car and that it would be so measured, managed and controlled that it was in itself a form of art?

Not Henry Ford, and, given the speeds attainable by T-models, not their drivers! This new world we’ve built has crept up on us, advanced by millions of cars sold to people who would never have been imagined, once, as able to own a car. The mass society has created the car for itself and itself for the car. Nobody knows how to get out of the situation we’re in. There’s no neat black sign coming up, with silver-white lettering:

NEW WORLD EXIT 1 KM LEFT LANE

We’re in the new world already, we built it, and, if you can take your mind off your driving for a moment, you must admit that it’s not only controlled, it’s aesthetically pleasing.

The trouble is, this new world is barely human, as we’ve understood the term. Sit in the passenger’s seat, and observe the world beside the freeway. It’s dispiriting. Impersonal. There are buildings where work gets done, but no one sleeps in them at night. Sometimes there are houses too, those evenly developed homes so far beyond the places put up for ordinary people a century earlier that one wonders at the mortgaging involved. Whole families must pledge their lives to the rooms in which they live! I can think of no way of being more at the mercy of our financial system than to dwell in it, as these owners (if one may call them that, when ownership is more an aspiration than a fact) apparently do. Car people. Car-and-house people, all locked inside together when they go to bed at night!

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The waves, the sea

I want now to introduce a third member of my family as a pointer, a guide of some sort, to the life of those I’ve described as the sea, as opposed to those more visible, more arguable figures I’ve called waves: my father’s only sister, Olly. I shall be brief. She visited her daughter in America, came back, and stayed with my parents for a few days before returning to New South Wales. I was very fond of her, and was there when she sipped the tea my mother brought her. ‘Melbourne water!’ she adjudged, ‘best in the world for a cup of tea!’ I don’t think I’ve ever drunk tea in another city without thinking of her, seated on my parents’ sofa, something good about the world restored to its proper place. Melbourne water …

Tea. There was tea in every household, once, made in the English way, not the Chinese. Tea was served in hotel dining rooms but it was essentially a domestic ritual of freshly boiled water, leaves in a pot, cups from Doulton, Wedgewood or Minton (for those who could afford them), dainty spoons, bowls of sugar and jugs of milk for those who ‘took’ it. Good hostesses knew which of their guests needed sugar, and how many spoons, which of them had their tea black, which with milk, and which of them preferred the milk added to the tea and not vice-versa. To get these things right showed excellence in hosting, a merit when women’s place was the home. In my childhood, the maturity of my parents’ marriage, coffee was scarcely known, perhaps because it came in the form of bottled syrup with pictures of Arabs on the label and was well-nigh undrinkable. Italian espresso hadn’t arrived, nor would anyone have dreamed of sitting at a table on the footpath to consume anything at all. Meals, afternoon teas, morning teas, were eaten – taken - inside, at a properly set table because that was how things were done. At once my mind is flooded with questions; how does one set of mores find itself replaced by another? Who pushes, and who shoves, to cause such things to happen? How is it that ordinary people – denizens of many fathoms down, in my metaphor of waves and sea – are budged from doing one thing in favour of another? Who can say?

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A song for Melbourne

… this is the heart of Melbourne’s problem, as indeed it is for the whole of Australia: the land says something different from the imported belief systems, so the ideas we fall back on never seem quite right. They refuse to ring true. Churches are like zoo-cages inside which exotic ideas are both fed and displayed. Our minds are detachable carriers of these same ideas, just as our cars are related to our homes. Nellie Melba had to go away to be what she wanted to become; we, living in her city all these decades later, are still trying to make it both a goal for people to want to come to, and a place we have no need to leave. Planes are flying in and out every day, day and night, Customs are searching people’s bags to see if they’ve brought in anything illegal, but the transformation of our minds is happening rather more slowly than the drugs they search for would do. Slowly but inevitably; we may regret that we weren’t born later in the process, but that’s our luck. It’s happening ever so slowly, that inevitable change whereby we move from what we disfavour in comparison with cultural capitals of the world to what we’d like to be.

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The writing of this book:

Most of what I want to say about the writing of this book is in the introduction, ‘Boston airport, 1994’, but I ran into another problem as I began to write. The question was a double one: what would I choose to talk about, and what style or approach would I use?

There must, I thought, be things about any city that don’t go out of date quickly; I was certain that I didn’t want to produce an account of my city that could easily be invalidated by some change made almost overnight. For example, it seemed to me that I could, if I wished, talk about the layout of the city’s rail lines, but not about its ticketing system, which has changed many times over the years. I could talk about the city’s passion for Australian Rules football, but not the rules of the game or the players’ uniforms, both of which are changed regularly (far too often, in my opinion). This was easily decided, but still left me searching for a central theme, and this is when I chose Melba as my starting point, because she had chosen Melbourne as hers.

Nellie Armstrong née Mitchell could not have become Melba in Melbourne, yet she took its name. Just as she had gone in search of fame, success and greatness under the city’s name because the city of her day could not have given her what she wanted (beyond the adulation she got when she came home), so the city, I felt, was in a long, almost endless, search itself. As a writer I am inclined to judge a city by its cultural level, and Melbourne, I feel, is still searching, growing, developing … It’s not doing too badly but it’s not the confident centre it might be, largely because Australians simply aren’t that sure of themselves, and also because confidence is dangerous in a way that Australians instinctively avoid. Australians are too aware of flood, fire and drought to think that life offers any easy rewards, so that success is regarded very warily in this country, as I think it should be. Big fortunes are easily lost!

So my themes are underlying ones: the transformation from a class-ridden society, English-style, to an affluent city, taking wealth for granted and ignoring those who haven’t got it. It is also, as I say in the third essay, a withdrawn, shut-the-front-door society that loves, paradoxically, to get out! It’s obsessed with football, it’s a city that reflects, expresses and relies on the countryside (Australia Felix) that it sits in, and it poses certain problems – all cities do – for those who choose to write about it. (I take up some of these problems in the essay ‘The waves, the sea’.)

Finally of course it has a consciousness of itself, largely though by no means entirely formed by its artists and writers, and this consciousness is helped in its formation by those large gatherings described in ‘City of crowds’. Lastly, I would like to say that just as Australia is a land of migrants, so Melbourne too is a city of those who’ve either chosen to live here/there, or have, perhaps, drifted to where they are. I say this because the business of writing about Melbourne has made me very aware that there is a New South Welshman in me, not very far below the surface. To stand on the bank of the Murray River at, let us say, Swan Hill, and look at the country on the other side is, for me, to be filled with a powerful yearning for the land I think is ‘really’ mine. Our childhood, and mine was in New South Wales, is something that will not be denied. The Eagle family, though, lived in parts of New South Wales which were closer to Melbourne than to Sydney, so that when our daily papers arrived, or we were sent away to school, it was to Victoria that we turned our eyes. Many years ago I travelled to southern New South Wales with my friend the photographer George (Geo. W.) Bell, and he said at the end of the first day of travel that for him the most important feature of the day had been the loss of the feeling that we were in the grip of Melbourne. We weren’t yet in the grip of Sydney, he said, but we were almost out of reach of Melbourne. This idea that a city is an atmosphere, an influence, that may go far beyond its city limits is something that was at the heart of my choice of subject matter for these essays.

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