City terraces

Living in Carlton in the late ‘70s meant teenage desires found climactic expression and bohemian tendencies went troppo. A rented terrace with seven residents, and a floating population of 70 times seven, was an unequalled domestic adventure. ‘Floating’ was in fact the word, with a daily intake of legal and illegal substances causing the population to see the great omphalos in the ceiling rose, or a Canning Street roundabout. Ganja plants lined the concrete backyard, or were cultivated by ultra-violet light under the staircase: the only things in the house given careful tending. Washing-up? What’s that? We ran alternative shows on the nascent 3RRR. There was a high demand for sensory overload. Concrete poems built from Real Estate sections decorated the walls. Philip Hunter was imitating Tapies in one room, Paul Grabowsky copying Bud Powell in another. Weekends were one long jazz rehearsal. Parties were immovable feasts as guests took half an hour to find their way from front door to fridge. Culinary skills extended about as far as over-peppered spaghetti Bolognese.

We never thought we were making memories, but this book reminds us we were one small story in decades of change. As Arnold Zable says, ‘from the outset Carlton has been on a roller-coaster ride of booms and busts.’ This most lavish of local histories is full of surprises. Three closely-written pages explain how Carlton got its name. Nobody knows, the closest plausible reason amidst a labyrinth of guesses, being that the Carlton Gardens, established in 1852, lent the name to the surrounding bushland by simple mind association.

An attempt is made to piece together Koori history, though ‘Carlton is not known to have had any particular significance to the Wurundjeri’ and we mainly learn how the people were dispersed or assimilated. In fact one conclusion drawn by Don Chambers is that Carlton was ‘probably associated with death and mourning’ by the Indigenous inhabitants, as their people were buried in the new Melbourne General Cemetery, in the section ‘Other Denominations’. The presence in the bush of the Collingwood Stockade on what is now Lee Street School, would not have been a friendly sight either.

The truth about Carlton is that it’s unavoidable, geographically, culturally, collectively. It’s often seen as an extension of the city of Melbourne. To get anywhere north of the Yarra, Carlton must enter consciousness. A range of topical chapters goes a good way in delineating how this happened. Carlton began late, really after the gold rush, which meant expansive use of space, whether for essential services like the brewery, or marvellous eminences such as the Exhibition Buildings. Classy housing and broad streets rose up beside factories and hospitals. Its symbiotic relationship with Melbourne University later made it a second home for anyone who studied there. It was only the crash of the 1890s that changed this affluent progress.

Many of those who cohabited in cottages of glorious squalor in the 1970s became the ones who yuppified the place ten years later. Yet, that gentrification saved Carlton is a myth debunked here, as it becomes quickly apparent that the immigrant population after World War I, especially Italians and Jews, settled Carlton during an era when it was judged a slum by the rest of Melbourne. That, and the heroic actions of the Carlton Association in protecting large parts of the Victorian heritage from the predatory Housing Commission demolishers, are the main reasons for its preservation.

Some of the most personal and effective work here covers the Jewish and Italian times, the period circa the Olympic Games being identified as when ‘olives and pasta dura replaced pickles and rye bread in Carlton’. The tremendous social and cultural change brought to inner Melbourne, especially by the Italians, is everywhere apparent today. So much so that it seems to have eclipsed the work of that other group of boat people, who nowadays go by the exotic hybrid ‘Anglo-Celt’—a term they themselves would have met with disdain, or worse. For it is the Anglo-Celts who, despite building and inhabiting Carlton for its entire existence, are shadows in their own history. We learn about churches, businesses, and the picturesque shorthand of local politics, but their absence grows greater as the text proceeds. The editor apologises for the omission, confessing more work has to be done, but gives no satisfactory explanation. Vincent Buckley’s long poem ‘Golden Builders’ is a virtual reconstruction of Carlton as a place to which Melburnians are cloven and cleft. (It names so many Carlton streets that Michael Cathcart once called the poem the alternate Melways.) No such memory of long-term ancestral commitment can be found in these pages, or picked up quickly, even though it is easy to revel in the general scene. We spot the connections—Cardigan Street and the Charge of the Light Brigade—but not always the deeper meanings. Ray Lawler, who set his paragon play there, described it as ‘a now scruffy but once fashionable suburb’. The word ‘fashionable’ is used comfortably by many contributors to set the 19th century picture, yet the book itself provides few personal glimpses, giving impressions of some mythic otherworld, exact details of which are now lost. What we can see are the results: polychrome terraces, ferny wrought iron, and squares of tree colonnades. But was it all just business as usual, carried out by men with well-cut beards? This lack of a longer memory may indicate a failure of imagination. The scruffy second half of Carlton’s life is in the foreground.

This also indicates another truth about Carlton: it is a place people left as better opportunity arose. The Skips went deeper into their verdant suburbs; the Jews crossed the river into Balaclava; the Italians sought something so simple as bigger gardens for their vegetables and grapes. Carlton’s overall population steadily declined from 1945 to 1995, sign that for much of its history Carlton was a place to arrive at, then move on from. Even our own student micro-history of the late ‘70s bears this out. The owners suddenly wanted to sell the house. Romances turned into arguments. Personality intruded on personal relations. It got messy. By the time the household broke up it was time to get a job or return to study. We were kicked off the radio on the grounds the jazz show sounded like a party. It’s true, it was a party; Carlton gave permission to party all night and we left without regrets.

For this reviewer, a Magpie barracker, the most irksome chapter tables the triumphs of the suburb’s football club, the Blues. Blues and melancholy are exact synonyms in the Collingwood lexicon, the 1970 Grand Final being fairly certainly the most brilliant comeback in the history of the game, a spectacular victory over the archrivals that has powerful undercurrents for both clubs to this day. Glory and catastrophe. Sport though is but one small aspect in a diverse, changeable history. Bill Garner’s chapter on the theatre explosion, and its ultimate implosion, is heartfelt. The chapter on crime carefully charts shifting causes and effects. And the section on the built environment is simply drooly for anyone who has lived there for any time; bluestone lanes are forever part of the central nervous system.

The book is rich. It covers a lot of country in urbane and particular style. It need not be repeated. It’s good value. That said, the book leaves certain avenues open, some already stated, and there is one especially. Tightly edited oral histories dot the text, but they dwindle. The time is ripe for a full-scale oral history of this and other inner Melbourne areas, especially with a new fierce phase in thoughtless re-development. ‘In every nook and corner previously unoccupied, frail buildings are being run up … in lanes and alleys, and on little patches heretofore used as yards and garden plots, miserable cribs are being erected for human occupation.’ This is not a recent letter to The Age but a report in the Melbourne Argus of 1868.       

Carlton: A History edited by Peter Yule. Melbourne University Press, 2004. isbn 0 522 85061 8, rrp $59.95

Philip Harvey is Poetry Editor of Eureka Street.

 

 

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