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The bloke with a book at the bar

The bloke with a book at the barIf ever you’ve been to a pub or bar in North Melbourne or West Melbourne, it’s likely that you’ve seen Phil McInerney. Some of you might also have spoken to him.

Phil, as he’s always known, is the bloke at the end of the bar with his head in a book or, occasionally, a newspaper. A small, bespectacled man with thinning hair pulled back in a ponytail, he seemingly never tires of reading in company, with a drink—either a vodka and Coke or a Cascade Light—just off the page, and a packet of Longbeach cigarettes in easy reach.

I always wondered what Phil was reading. One night, after years of observing his nightly ritual, I asked him. At the time, he was poring over an ad in the Herald Sun. The ad outlined positions available at the City of Swan Hill, in northern Victoria. Phil said he’s always interested in the little details in such ads.

I was also fascinated by Phil’s reason for reading amid the hubbub of a bar. Most of us read in the privacy of our homes; it’s supposed to be an intimate experience. I assumed that Phil reads in bars because he likes the company. If a conversation takes his fancy, he can always join in.

Phil is non-committal on these things. It seems the appeal is the hubbub itself. "I hate silence," he says. "I can’t stand silence."

Every night, he goes to sleep with his radio tuned into BBC World Service, which is broadcast after 11pm on the ABC’s NewsRadio.

"It’s on low, but it’s on," he says.

The bloke with a book at the barI sit down for an interview with Phil about his bar-reading habit at the Jawa Bar, in Victoria Street, West Melbourne, which has become a favourite reading spot since opening a couple of years ago. Phil sits just behind the 1951 Jawa motorbike, after which the bar is named, that sits in the front window. The bar's owner, Darina Philpot, who grew up in the Czech city of Brno and married an Englishman, adds to the area’s store of eccentrics. Jawa motorbikes are from her homeland.

Phil collects change to make Darina’s life a bit easier. On this night, he has $36 in coins arranged in neat stacks on the bar. Darina will give him the commensurate figure in notes. It’s one of the symbiotic features, part of a genuine friendship, part of the relationship between the bar owner and the barfly.

Although the word was never mentioned during the interview, I imagine Phil would not blink at the description of barfly. Since leaving school at nearby St Joseph’s College, a Christian Brothers school in North Melbourne, he’s spent most of his life in bars, usually as a bar manager. After stints working here and there, including as a chef at Pine Gap, near Alice Springs, and as a barman in Chelsea, London, he returned to live in North Melbourne in 1982 and has stayed there ever since.

The bloke with a book at the barNorth Melbourne was until fairly recently a tough, industrial suburb. On the whole, Phil likes the changes to the area, which have accelerated markedly over the past five years. "It’s a better place," he says.

Phil’s father died of war injuries in 1947, when Phil was 11 days old. The son grew up knowing that Melbourne University had a bursary waiting for him. During his years at school in North Melbourne, where he was a promising student, he intended to use the bursary to study medicine. He put off going to university in the immediate years after school and then got married at 22. In later years, he got married again. He never did take up that bursary.

At school, Phil was fascinated by science. He now reads magazines such as New Scientist, Scientific American and Cosmos, as well as popular-science books. Everything is bought from MacGill’s newsagency in Elizabeth Street in the city, where he gets a 10 per cent discount.

Phil has about 400 popular-science books on the shelves of his flat in North Melbourne behind the Comics’ Lounge, where he helps with the running of the place. On the night of the interview, he’s reading The Infinite Book, a 2005 publication by Cambridge University professor John B. Barrow.

"Think of a number," he explains. "You can always add to it."

He likes equations, but it’s never struck him to make a life in mathematics. When asked why, he says: "I like what I’m doing now."

The bloke with a book at the barThe only non-science book Phil has attempted to read in recent years is The Da Vinci Code. He got halfway through it before putting it down because he felt he knew what was going to happen. Darina has recently read and enjoyed The Da Vinci Code, as have others in the bar. It seems I’m the only one who hasn’t read it.

The Da Vinci Code conversation is punctuated by the arrival of two patrons. Phil always checks out who walks in.

"I like seeing people," he says. "I like studying them."

Sometimes Phil talks to the arrivals, but he feels no obligation. People generally sense when to talk and when to leave him alone. If they fail to sense it, Phil resumes reading and the patrons drift off.

When his eye returns to the page, it always falls back on to the sentence he left off. "I don’t know how," he says.



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