Sophie Cunningham’s Melbourne

It’s a bleak and damp morning in Melbourne. It’s autumn; the summer is well gone and winter beckons. Footpaths glisten with the drizzle of the early rain and the turning leaves on the old city trees hang wet and limp overhead. I sit in a café with my coffee and watch the endless parade of office workers trudging up Collins Street—a rooftop of bobbing umbrellas covering their way—as the straining trams in the background pull their overcrowded stock toward the office towers at the city’s eastern edge. It’s slow and cold, a melancholy place … and I love it.

Why would one love a city like this? I know outsiders often shake their heads before exiting north for bluer skies and more captivating vistas. The panoramic has never been our forte. The colours of Melbourne peak at a damp green but hover mostly in the darker shades of beige and grey. I suppose, more than anything, love for Melbourne has to do with the feeling of home. For me, the sense of history and belonging in this city runs deep. The complex connections—relationships and locales—are like a reassuring web that holds me in place. This city is me.

The last month or so I’ve been reading Sophie Cunningham’s Melbourne. Cunningham is a kindred spirit, as deeply enmeshed in this place as I am. Part of a series on Australian cities, Melbourne is more than travel guide or social history. It’s an affectionate testament to the idiosyncratic warmth of this city and its people. It’s personal—Melbourne through Cunningham’s eyes and experience—without being self-indulgent.

Cunningham’s narrative takes us through the seasons of a Melbourne year, providing what she calls ‘a photograph of the city, or, more accurately, a series of them.’ These are pictures I recognize and warm to. Cunningham describes Melbourne as ‘a city of inside places and conversation. Of intimacy. It’s a city that lives in its head.’

It’s true, as some critics have noted, Cunningham’s focus in on Melbourne’s centre and it’s most inner suburbs. We never venture far past Fitzroy or the inner edges of Footscray. As a boy from Dandenong, I know that Melbourne is far more diverse than this. But how else does one write of a city but from the vantage point one has. To do otherwise would be to render the place without feeling. You just can’t do that with Melbourne.

Cunningham’s Melbourne is the story of a place the author inhabits.  In my view, it’s what makes it a book worth reading.  And that’s as it should be, for Cunningham is right when she says of Melbourne, ‘it’s a place you have to get to know from the inside out.’  Even more, perhaps, it’s a place you can only love once you’re inside it!