On Melbourne


The following was read aloud at the 20th anniversary of Glass Wings online held at the Wheeler Centre on Friday 14th March 2014.

When I first moved to Melbourne I had only just broken up with Dublin. The break-up had been a long time coming, but of course it was still painful. When it did end I couldn’t say that she was as upset about it as I was. I couldn’t honestly say that she even noticed. That’s how cities are. She might be your one and only, but you are just one of her millions.

Before Dublin I’d been in a longish-term relationship with London. Now that had been a heady affair. Two years of it. Though… I would be lying if I said I was strictly faithful to her: after all, all of Europe lies so nearby. Who can resist flirting with Florence in summer when the fireflies are out? Who wouldn’t have a little weekend affair with Granada or Bruges or, closer to home there was that weekend with Durness, at the very north of Scotland, when the winter snow was two-foot thick and her beaches were so strange and so white at the fringes where they touched the dark green of the North Sea.

And London never seemed to mind my little indiscretions. I knew I would always go back to her and she knew it too. Or so I had thought.

People sometimes tell you to be careful of loving inanimate things, because they cannot love you back. But where does that leave our love of place? A city is not inanimate. It thrums and moves and has a heartbeat all of its own. It possesses a sort of spirit, whether figurative or literal you may take you choice.

And I often wonder about the spirits of place. Who hasn’t thought they glimpsed a figure moving gracefully in the corner of our sight? Who hasn’t for just one bare moment seen a face in a puddle or in a river reflection or a window, and looked around and seen no one there? We all do sometimes, though we pretend we do not.

The group of ancient people somewhat vaguely and inaccurately called the Old Norse believed in a class of spirit they called landvættir. These were land-wights or earth-wights, where ‘wight’ means merely spirit and not ghostly haunters of barrows. The Vikings used to take their dragonheads down from their ships when they came to shore so as not to frighten the landvættir away. I doubt Melbourne would be frightened off by carven wooden figures. She is both tougher and more illusory than that.

But I perhaps get ahead of myself.

What of the spirit of London? I do not think that any two people can know the same London. She is too vast, too myriad, too full of crooked lanes and scattered pubs and sub-cultures. My London was sometimes glimpsed having a quiet drink at the Swan or Spaniards Inn or the Flask. I once saw her reading in Hampstead Heath: the grass was as gold as the June sun and behind her children were flying kites on Parliament Hill. The book happened to be The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Dunsany, but it could have been anything really. She has varied tastes, does London. I’d see her sometimes looking for records in Camden Market or books on Charring Cross Road and busy doing other things too. Too many to count. She has too many lovers you see. Too many places to be. Too many people to walk beside: somewhere between twelve and eighteen million on a workday, depending on what measures you want to use.

Dublin was a quieter sort. She used to spend time in Temple Bar, or on weekends she might walk in the heathery Wicklows. Sometimes you’d see her drinking hot whiskey and apple juice on a winter’s day down near the River Liffey. In those days I was lucky enough to live on the waterfront in the suburb they call D4, and so we used to sit together sometimes, Dublin and I, and watch impossibly long tides vanish right out onto the horizon. We’d watch the people walk their dogs over the glistening sand until they were mere black specks against the shimmer of distant waters.

You can see why I was a bit broken up when it ended.

And there have been other cities too. I had a rather immature relationship with Auckland when I was much younger that involved too much drinking and I suppose about the right amount of the two of us dancing to very bad music. And there were the dalliances with LA, Tokyo and Hong Kong, and Cairo and Tangiers. I’ve a chequered past. You wouldn’t think any city anywhere would trust me to stick around for long, but I think Melbourne did, and it turns out that I have.

Now, of course the Old Norse thought that people had spirits too. Not just the soul, but other attached spirits: not an external guardian spirit exactly either but something a little different. They believed in fylgja, which means ‘follower’. It was a sort of externalisation of the soul, an accompanying part of the self, a semi-autonomous Jungian complex of the mind given form and semblance of external life. Okay, so that last bit was pretentious but the point is that these fylgja (I am probably massacring the pronunciation) sometimes appeared as animals and sometimes as an image of the owner, though usually only as a death omen. I suspect but cannot prove that the English word ‘fetch’, as in ‘wraith’ or ‘doppleganger’, is a distant descendant of fylgja and the various omen animals and double-walkers in English superstition are corrupted memories of this belief. The most modern manifestation of the fylgja that I know of are the daemons of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. Old mythological things have a tendency to find a way back into the collective mind eventually.

The notion that people had more than one soul brings me around to cities again. And Melbourne. I have not described her yet. My relationship with her has crept up on me so slowly, so quietly. I never intended to stay with her so long and now I wonder if I will ever leave her. Maybe, finally for me, this is the one?

And you know what? I don’t know if I can capture her in a net of words. I think maybe she has too many souls and too many semblances. And maybe for you, she is not even a she, but a he and you’ve seen him writing poetry in a cafe or you’ve seen him eating a pie at the footy. I wouldn’t put it past Melbourne to be changeful and protean. Whenever I catch a glimpse of her she is both in transformation and transformative. I do not think she is limited by language or culture either. She is new to this land and speaks a lyrical language no-one has ever spoken here before, and she is also ancient and she walks quietly about the streets unseen, moving around the sacred places of Country and keeping tradition. In her oldest forms she knows that this is a harsh land and it will grow only harsher. She knows that the continent moves north at a slow but irrevocable six centimeters a year. She knows that this city will one day be swept by the sandy red deserts of the north, and the steel will be buckled by a thousand years of heat, and the streets will be broken by a thousand years of rainless days. She knows that most of the people who swarm here now will have to move on then, find other, more comfortable places, but her old people, they will stay and they will know how to live on, and keep tradition in the hot and rainless years.

And maybe she is none of those things to you? And maybe she is a hundred other things to you? And maybe I can never know what she means to you?

But I know this. She might be your only one, but you are just one of her millions. So if she seems to move on without you… if you suspect she is running around behind your back with a younger crowd now… if you suspect she’s talking a language you don’t understand… just try to accept that life has its phases and if she takes away late nights in loud bars, perhaps she’ll give you quiet weekends in parks instead, or dinner parties, or days with family, or other glorious things?

For our lives are the lives of a thousand moments, ever changing, and though we must acquiesce to change, I suspect she will help us where she can.

About Christopher Johnstone

Christopher Johnstone lives in Melbourne
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