I really haven’t travelled enough in Australia. Funny, really, when I enjoy it so much. Last weekend, for instance, I flew down to Melbourne. This was the first time I’d been in the city since, oh, nineteen something. Ridiculous. I spent the day wandering about (actually, driving mainly – there was a biting wind coming in from the bay) and thinking I was somewhere else entirely. Outside the War Memorial I overheard a group of people chatting and I thought for a moment: oh, they’re Australian. As in: I am in a foreign land and these people are from the place I am from. A couple of other times I felt as though I was in another country, America probably – that grid of streets, the cluster of high-rises in the centre that make Melbourne look like the opening sequence of Dallas and the trams, of course, that bring a touch of San Francisco to the scene. But people are always saying that Melbourne has a European vibe. Which it does, in a way – the dour barracks and autumn-leafed boulevards reminded me of Brussels, a city I’m fond of even though people make jokes about it. But really, what does any of that matter? It’s so easy to get wrapped up in comparisons, trying to sort out how we feel about a place rather than simply going with the flow, being present. Sydney people are always vying with Melbourne, or so the media would have you believe. The truth is that they are quite distinct cities and in terms of distance, it’s like comparing Glasgow with London. And every bit as pointless.
The rest of the weekend was spent in and around Ballarat, an hour or so drive away. Thriving in the 1870s following its gold rush, the town has the brave face of a place that thought it was going to be so much bigger. There are gaps between the grand buildings which others might have expected to fill but there are grand buildings nonetheless and plenty of bandstands. Some of the buildings are nothing more than curlicued facades stuck on to brick sheds behind. Which made me think of the emerging Modernists of the early 1900s and their frustration with such buildings and needless embellishment, their desire for honest structures, of form following function. And inevitably that led me to thinking of Robin Boyd’s dismay at 1950s Australian architecture which he thought was often a matter of covering a basic building with an ‘interesting’ skin, which meant crazy-paved walls and jaunty chimney stacks. Maybe we need to push against something, I kept thinking, to produce something different.
I ended the weekend in Mount Macedon, trailing through its open gardens and marvelling at the blazing autumn colours – scarlet acers arching over pathways, the leaves of towering poplars shimmering yellow in the breeze. Each place was packed, noisy with people in fact, but it was still beautiful. I couldn’t help thinking how much money these private gardens must take on such a weekend. And then I saw an empty drink bottle upturned on the triton of a garden statue and I thought of how much time must go into maintaining these places, cleaning up after the thoughtless crowds.
I was happy to return to Sydney, where the evening was cool but nowhere near as cool as in Victoria. But my mind was abuzz with thoughts and reflections. I felt nourished not only by seeing new things but by exploring this country that I call home. So often I take it for granted but it is interesting to see more of it. Not because it is Australia but because, wherever you live, in whatever country, experiencing your own country deepens your sense of what home really means.