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Circling the city

FOR THE LAST two years I’ve been walking the streets of suburban Melbourne, armed with camera and notebook, a participant in a psychogeographic game that is part hunting, part hide-and-seek, part time travel. The game has rules, players, goals; its arena is the whole city. You’ll find me, most weekends, in a quiet street or bluestone laneway, staring up at faded paint on red bricks, or the ruins of a factory, squinting through a fence onto a vacant lot or construction site, and wondering.

Many writers have set themselves the task of walking in urban environments, operating according to self-imposed rules or protocols. In ‘Walking to New York’, Will Self writes of a walk from his home through familiar London suburbs to Heathrow airport, then from JFK into Manhattan, reflecting on his own dual identity and the associations of the places he passes through. In Lights Out for the Territory (Granta Books, 1997) Iain Sinclair sets out to ‘cut a crude V into the sprawl of the city, to vandalise dormant energies by an act of ambulant signmaking’; in London Orbital (Granta Books, 2002), he circles the unloved outer reaches of the capital on foot, following the route of the M25 motorway. But my approach is perhaps closest to that proposed by Robert MacFarlane in his essay 'A road of one's own': ‘Psychogeography: a beginner’s guide. Unfold a street map…place a glass, rim down, anywhere on the map, and draw round its edge. Pick up the map, go out into the city, and walk the circle…'

The task I’ve set myself is to circumnavigate the city of Melbourne, on foot, in a series of connected walks, and uncover some of its lost and hidden stories. A circle of sorts, yes, but not a geometrical shape that would please the Greeks, more an erratic wiggly line. I don’t follow the curve closely, but improvise around it, acting on a hunch or impulse. This accords with the idea of the ‘dérive’ (in English, ‘drift’) defined by Guy Debord, whose writings on psychogeography did much to establish it as a field of study: ‘In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their usual motives for movement and action…and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.’[i]

My project has one unbreakable rule: every walk must commence from where a previous one finished. So far I have made my way in a clockwise direction around the city from Williamstown through Newport, Footscray, Essendon, Brunswick, Fitzroy, Collingwood, Richmond and thirty or so other suburbs, some of which I know well, in some of which I am a stranger, and everywhere I find something astonishing. My plan is to eventually complete the circle with a ferry ride across the bay back to my starting point.

I’ve given myself a few more informal rules: don’t bother about famous places. Avoid the obvious. Points are earned for the unnoticed, the disregarded, the neglected. Derelict factories are good, and other places of abandon; graffiti, faded signage, street art (but not the well-known, over-hyped tourist stuff); liminal spaces, vague terrain and edgelands; sites of environmental damage or restoration. If you must look at something familiar, find a new angle. See the city as it has never been seen before.

I’m keen – like many psychogeographers – on things that have disappeared; I record traces of past lives in my notebook, add new layers to a personal cartography of the suburbs, mark hieroglyphics on a map of lost places. I want to revive these almost-erased histories, which cling on like the faint memories of a dream. I want the suburban streets – so uncannily quiet these days – to echo once again with the footsteps and the voices of the lost. I want to awaken the city’s memory.

And what is the point of this game, sport, project or quest – whatever you want to call it? Nothing less than to find a different way of understanding the city. To do so, you have to get out of the rat-runs, put yourself in an unfamiliar environment, and deliberately lose your way. As Walter Benjamin wrote in Berlin Childhood Around 1900 (Harvard University Press, 2006):

Not to find one’s way around a city does not mean much. But to lose one’s way in a city, as one loses one’s way in a forest, requires some schooling. Street names must speak to the urban wanderer like the snapping of dry twigs, and little streets in the heart of the city must reflect the times of day, for him, as clearly as a mountain valley.

Put like this, the activity I’m involved in most closely resembles hunting: the psychogeographer prowls the streets, looking and listening, alert for a quarry of their own devising.

 

WITHIN THE OVERALL game are various sub-games. I connect what I see on my walk to my other obsessions; make connections and seek out correspondences. My fascination with nineteenth-century quack doctors is enriched by my discovery of faded advertisements for old patent medicines like Wolfe’s Schnapps and Dr Morse’s Indian Root Pills. The same goes for my interest in sport: my dérive through the hinterlands of Melbourne leads me past neglected traces of the sporting subcultures of the suburbs.

On a wall in Richmond there’s a fading painted footballer wearing a ‘Big V’ jersey, the colours of the Victorian representative side. He hovers in space on the side of a former factory, now apartments, one leg raised in a booming kick that has apparently sent the ball spiralling off over the railway line towards Kew, where it will remain forever unmarked. His pose is classic but the painting is not exactly convincing – he’s got thighs like a sumo wrestler and pointed toes like a ballet dancer. He’s circled by faded lettering that reads CHAMPION FOOTWEAR.

This advertising mural, painted around 1970, is a relic of a company that sold parts for football boots. It went out of business in the ’80s, the decade that footwear manufacturing was booted offshore. But the Champion is still there, frozen in that pose instantly recognisable to anyone who has watched Aussie rules. He is an icon now, to be spotted from the train as you head into

Richmond station, a player from a team that no longer exists (state of origin matches and the Big V are things of the past) representing a company that has gone, an industry that’s all but extinct. The Champion’s ghost evokes all these things.

In some of the most evocative stories that I stumble on, no physical trace survives at all. There may only be vestiges of an oral history, a few newspaper items, perhaps a photograph or two. The novelist and historian Tony Birch told me about a lost greyhound track, White City, that once existed between Sunshine and Tottenham in the western suburbs, with its own railway station to service the spectators. To prove it, Tony pulled up some old aerial photos of Melbourne on a website. There were few houses back then, few factories. Just a railway line and paddocks as far as the eye could see. A single tiny platform in the middle of nowhere. And south of that, the faint white oval of the dog track.

So one hot day I trekked along Sunshine Road in search of the lost White City, past the mills and abandoned woolstores and rail yards full of graffiti-tagged rolling stock, the whoomp-whoomp of cars passing me, drivers giving odd glances at the strange sight of a man on foot. But when I reached the spot all I found was a cable-making factory, erected on the site in 1960. All physical evidence of the dog track, and its adjacent station, had gone.

You can research a few facts about White City via old newspapers and history societies, but you can only revisit it in the imagination. The name originated in London, where greyhound racing with mechanical hares was all the rage. Copycat White Cities sprang up in Manchester, Glasgow, Cardiff, even Tasmania. In the west of Melbourne in the 1920s, a group of entrepre- neurs saw an opportunity to provide cheap alternative entertainment for the factory hands and abattoir workers, using the new technology.

The racing and gambling establishment tried to close them down, not liking the competition. Using the excuse that the lower orders – especially women! – should not be encouraged to bet, they had mechanical hares declared illegal. But White City survived from the 1920s to the 1950s. Thousands of meetings, tens of thousands of races. Millions of punters travelled on the ‘dog trains’ to White City. Tickets were cheap, the track was rough and ready, and so was the crowd: unlike snooty Flemington, there’s no need for posh togs at the dogs. The bookies shouted the odds, the hordes jostled to get their bets on, just a few shillings here and there. They cheered and booed, the dogs raced, the hares ran for their lives. It was rowdy, raw entertainment.

When times were tough, the owners brought in novelties: goat races, foot races – even, unbelievably, monkeys in jockey silks, clinging to the greyhounds’ sinuous backs as they cleared the hurdles. Even in 1938 that was seen as a bit outrageous: the Victorian Society for the Protection of Animals condemned the stunt, but it did its job in terms of generating publicity, with photos of the animals splashed over Melbourne’s major newspapers. The track wasn’t just a place of entertainment: during the Depression, thousands of working-class families reared and raced greyhounds. The dogs kept many a household up and running.

White City, a place of raucous energy and community life, is silenced as if it had never existed. It’s preserved only in occasional news clippings and photographs, and, maybe, the distant memories of old-timers. The station continued for a while, a drop-off point for factory workers, but even that’s now gone. There are no ruins, no signs, and as is often the way, no official history. Were they absorbed into the land somehow, those nights at the dogs? Are they part of the memory of the city?

 

THESE ARE JUST two stories of the thousands I have encountered so far on my walk. And yet I have only scratched the surface of each of them, barely begun to interrogate what they could tell us. No wonder that some works of psychogeography – the oeuvres of Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd come to mind – seem to suffer from the need to say everything, and become elephantine, both in size and in the refusal to forget. This obsessive need to reconstruct the world out of a tiny surviving trace is inherently futile: there is just too much to say, and where do you stop? As Benjamin wrote in his 1929 essay ‘On the Image of Proust’: ‘A remembered event is infinite, because it is merely a key to everything that happened before it and after it.’

Sometimes I wonder what the endgame will be. I know that even though I complete my circle, this game can never really be concluded. The siren never sounds, the finish line is never crossed. You may unravel a few mysteries, tell a handful of stories, but many will remain unknown forever, and more are being created as we speak. They vanish into the dark, as we ourselves will vanish. It’s a game you can’t win, but which you can’t stop playing.

Like a dog on the scent, I circle the city, in pursuit of something to sink my teeth into. But the past is a hare on a track, always just out of reach.


[i] 'Theory of the dérive’, Guy Debord, 1956. Translation by Ken Knabb from the Situationist International Anthology, revised and expanded edition 2006.

References

Benjamin, Walter 2006, Berlin Childhood Around 1900, translated by Howard Eiland (Harvard University Press)

Self, Will 2007, ‘Walking to New York’ in Will Self and Ralph Steadman, Psychogeography (Bloomsbury USA)

Sinclair, Iain 1997, Lights Out for the Territory (Granta Books)

Sinclair, Iain 2003, London Orbital: A Walk Around the M25 (Penguin UK)


From Griffith Review Edition 53: Our Sporting Life © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review