Tour buzz

About a decade ago, I discovered an outfit named Icon Tours. Sleazily located above an adult supermarket in St Kilda, Icon Tours was uncorrupted by its neighbour and fully bore out its claim to provide something unique among day tours. That first encounter took me, along with a few nondescript fellow tourists, on a weird journey through contemporary ‘icons’. Spurning the usual stuff of such tours—famous buildings, churches, galleries, etc—we visited THE BOTTOM LINE, THE BIG END OF TOWN, OUT THERE, THE END OF THE DAY and other ‘potent concepts’, as the proprietor called them, that were obsessively scattered through modern utterance.

Finding myself in St Kilda recently, I decided to see if Icon Tours still existed and, if it did, what it was offering nearly ten years on from my last visit.

To my considerable surprise, though the adult supermarket had become a McDonald’s, the original sign – ‘Icon Tours Upstairs’, disencumbered of surrounding and distracting invitations to sample various esoteric toys and indulgences—was still there. And so was Mr Alighieri, the proprietor. He remembered me, even after ten years, and I certainly remembered him: the somehow darkened, brooding visage, the lambent eyes. ‘Please to get on the bus,’ he said, ushering me and five or six others waiting in the small reception area.

It was the same old battered bus but whereas on my last trip Mr Alighieri had driven it himself, he now had a driver, a Mr Vergil, releasing Mr Alighieri to offer commentary on each of the sights. We clattered off across the big square in front of Luna Park and the Palais—a place I have known for years—yet within moments, as had happened on my previous trip, the scenery somehow seemed to shimmer and we entered a world of shapes and blurred edges as if travelling at terrific speed, or as if we had passed into a slightly removed dimension. And so we came to our first destination.

At first it was hard to fathom. I saw people milling about everywhere, and the air was filled with what sounded initially like thousands of conversations flowing into, over and against one another, but which turned out to be on closer attention merely endless verbiage, always on the edge of comprehensibility but never quite crossing the boundary. We walked among the crowd. These were, Mr Alighieri told us, THE CHATTERING CLASSES. If you stopped one of them, he said, and looked him or her in the eye and listened intelligently, you would hear perfectly reasonable statements. Suiting action to words, he buttonholed the nearest chatterer who immediately said, ‘It simply defies logic to insist there is no connection between our participation in the invasion of Iraq and our being targeted by terrorists.’ It was expedient in some quarters, Mr Alighieri suggested, that such propositions be blurred into unintelligibility, into chatter.

Before I could follow this up, we were back on the bus and Mr Vergil, with a thin smile, conducted us away.
Circling through a landscape that teased by seeming familiar yet somehow just out of focus, we arrived at the next exhibit. Here, dogged-looking, frowning people—men and women—walked and crowded through large grey spaces, leaning and pushing as if pitting themselves against a huge force. Moving among them, a masked figure swung a sort of strap, striking randomly at whoever was nearest. These blows seemed to be accepted philosophically and everyone in the jostling crowd continued to look ahead and upwards as if certain of seeing some goal eventually. These were HOWARD’S BATTLERS, Mr Alighieri said, and the masked figure was wielding THE MORTGAGE BELT. ‘Also known as ASPIRATIONALS,’ he added. The whip crack of the mortgage belt rang in our ears as we departed, provoking from Mr Vergil another wintry smile and a few muttered words that sounded like ‘circles, circles’.

Soon we passed an earnest group whose obviously serious and significant words were plucked into the air by a huge wind as soon as uttered, so that whatever it was they were saying was rendered empty and impotent. ‘THE SO-CALLED INTELLECTUALS,’ said Mr Alighieri. ‘You will find them constantly referred to in newspapers along with the chattering classes, whom we have already visited, and the members of our next exhibit.’

Hopping down from the bus, we were engulfed by the smell of coffee and the rustling sounds of newspaper pages being turned, straightened, smoothed. Scattered across a wide, apparently sunlit area, people sat at tables drinking coffee, reading their papers and talking animatedly. ‘THE LATTE SET,’ said Mr Alighieri. ‘Just as the chattering classes are doomed to be represented as chatterers, so the latte set must have their opinions and thoughts, however substantial, drowned forever in coffee.’

On our way to the final exhibit, we passed an immense line of people of many nationalities and colours, stretching literally out of sight. Most were orderly and bore a look of resigned, even pained, patience, but some every now and then broke away from the line and savagely attempted to push in further up. ‘QUEUE JUMPERS,’ Mr Alighieri said dismissively. And so we stopped at the last exhibit.

It was truly disastrous. Twisted metal, shattered forms, corroding shapes—an entity, whatever it had been, in total, irretrievable ruin and decay. We looked expectantly at Mr Alighieri. ‘THE WESTMINSTER SYSTEM,’ he intoned. ‘Please to rejoin the bus.’  

Brian Matthews is a writer who also holds professorial positions at Victoria University, Melbourne, and Flinders University, South Australia. He lives in the Clare Valley, South Australia.


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