Monday, September 04, 2006


When travelling away for a holiday, I seem to face two conflicting impulses. The first is that, because it is a holiday, I need to relax, take it easy, recover from the rigours of servitude. The second is that because I only have a short period and there is lots going on around me, then I need to throw myself into all that is on offer, stay up all night checking out the nightlife, pursue anything that sounds interesting. The problem is that that is as tiring as not being on holiday. So it was that I was very conscious of missing out on a lot of things during the ten days I was in Melbourne: I didn't get to a play, I didn't go to Footscray and check out the Ethiopian cuisine (which sounds just a little strange, given that Ethiopia has some of the most desperate food shortages in the world), I only went to one gig (a local singer-songwriter, Jess McAvoy, all very pleasant, she has a nice line in banter, but her music was a bit poppy for my tastes), I didn't even get to go to the National Gallery of Victoria.

Oh, and of course, my reason for going to Melbourne in the first place was the Melbourne Writers' Festival. I failed to attend so much as one event. The closest I got was to see the film of a book by someone at the Festival (Rupert Thompson's The Book of Revelations) following which there was a Q&A by the director of the film (Anna Kokkinos) and its star (Tom Long), and then to buy a copy of the book. Only then did I learn that the author was in Melbourne: it would have been interesting to have him come and comment on the movie. But I'm afraid that my expectations of the Festival were not in any sense met: I thought there'd be some of the big names of contemporary literature there, those who have not long published their latest work. David Mitchell, for example. After all, Melbourne says it is the cultural capital of Australia, and you'd think they'd have the biggest names. Instead, when I got the programme, it was a complete dud: sure, I might have gone to some random events and had some pleasant surprises, but they wanted too much money for a pig in the poke. The Brisbane one (in two weeks) looks much better: Sebastian Barry, Lionel Shriver, Roger McDonald (2006 winner of the Miles Franklin), Jasper Fforde are at least names of authors of works I am interested in. Or there is Adelaide: they had Vikram Seth. Vikram Seth! Plus, they had Sarah Waters, Suketu Mehta, Michael Cunningham, MJ Hyland (and she's from Melbourne). Ah well, maybe next year.

Instead, my days fell into a very pleasant pattern. In the ten days I was there, I managed to become a regular at three cafes - the very pleasant Journal is in the Melbourne Public Library building, which was almost directly opposite where I was staying. So, I'd start my day there, wander around the downtown area a bit before having another coffee and lunch at a different cafe before sitting down to do some actual work, mostly in the Uni library. There also seemed to be quite a lot of purely random tram catching: I was most impressed to find several things I'd had it mind to track down simply by being on the right random tram. Or, in one case, missing the last tram home, meaning I had to walk (I'm funny about catching taxis) and so walked past the source of the best burgers in all of Victoria - Danny's. This was according to a reader survey in the Age: I'd actually say the place the readers said was second was better, but disadvantaged by its position. This is Kermonds, way out in Warrnambool, which I lucked into last time I was in Australia: a very old fashioned place, the way I imagine McDonalds was before it went for world domination, it had a line up of four men in chef's kit, all furiously making burgers, which were very very good.

So, I explored bits of Melbourne that were new to me, became re-acquainted with bits that were familiar, found some fine bookshops, managed to dine on Malaysian food four times, in four different places, and see four very different movies, three of which were Australian. I think I love Melbourne: in all my travels, it is only the third place that has really appealed as a place to live, and the other two (Esperance in Western Australia, and Darjeeling) simply can't happen. They need to fix their book festival, but.


Anonymous Courtney said...

When I went to the Associated Writer's Press Conference this year in Austin, TX, instead of attending the various panel discussions and key note speakers, I sat by the pool and drank fruit juice during the day and went out for meals at felt like all I could manage. Your body and mind have a pretty good idea of what they need on vacation, I think - it's best to listen to them. Your trip sounds wonderful.

4:45 AM  

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