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June 27, 2002
Sunday afternoon, and time for a long walk. I set off in a random direction, and spent several hours walking around Brunswick. I was trying to find a sign that read "danger trams," which I couldn't locate, but that was just a pretext. Every so often I like to walk around the place, if only to appreciate where I am now.
I used to live in Brunswick. At the time I did my best to ignore its shortcomings, and I can report modest success at this endeavour. Time has passed, though, and now when I go there shortcomings leap out from all directions. Brunswick is a parade of shortcomings. Every winter it has a Festival of Shortcomings. The weather turns cold and people walk around looking miserable. It's an incredibly bad festival.
As a place to live, Brunswick has two advantages. It's close to the city and it's close to Melbourne University. Unfortunately, its list of advantages gets to two, and comes to a conspicuous halt. A few years ago the council ran a competition to find a third advantage, but there were no prizes given out. Rumour had it that there were no entries.
Brunswick has the look of a place exhausted by its history. It's always been a poor area, and this is obvious in any direction you look, even if you look up. The Brunswick sky is choked by a dense network of swaying power lines. Even the tiniest streets are decked out with strand after strand of electricity. No one, it seems, ever cared enough about the place to consider other options.
Or maybe it's just one more indication that Brunswick has never been particularly well planned. If you walk to Brunswick from the city, a moment comes when your heart sinks. That's how you know you've arrived in Brunswick. Just north of the CBD is the Victoria Market, which is wonderful, and then you keep going up Elizabeth Street to arrive at the western edge of Melbourne University. By now the road has become Royal Parade, and it's a royal road indeed. It's extensively covered by trees and lined with beautiful old houses. North of the university the beautiful houses continue, as do the trees, but instead of a university there's the impressive vista of Princes Park. I've seen tourists look at this road, and break into applause. Some weep at its beauty. This is one of Melbourne's best areas, and like the best areas of New York, it comes to an abrupt end.
You cross Brunswick Road, and Royal Parade immediately surrenders. It casts aside its aristocratic name and changes into the dread spectre of Sydney Road. Four wide, tree-lined lanes shrink to two. The park disappears, and is replaced by a landscape of factories. Everywhere you look are trucks and traffic and trams. It's noisy. It's crowded. It's poor. All of a sudden, there are no trees.
And this is where I used to live. I walked past my old house, and shook my head in disbelief. What the hell was I thinking, I wondered.
Well, I got to here and realised that I'd asked a question that I had no ready answer for. So I thought some more. And then a little more ...
A series of visionary dreams
I finished my Arts degree in 1992. By early 1993, I was completely lost. Or, if I can use a nautical term, I was adrift. Eventually I figured out that I needed a plan, a direction, a goal. Lacking all these things, I did the best thing I could think of: I slept in. But not out of laziness: I was sleeping in deliberately, on purpose. My plan was to have a series of visionary dreams. Just the ticket, I thought, for working out where I should go and what I should do when I got there.
If it's not clear by now, then let it be clear from this point on: I was never very good at the practical side of things. In retrospect, I can safely say that having a series of visionary dreams was a terrible idea. And, sadly, it was not to be my last terrible idea. Life, it seems, is a process of stumbling from one terrible idea to another, with occasional breaks for coffee.
One morning I was woken by the phone. As soon as I picked it up I realised that I'd just forgotten yet another visionary dream. (This was typical of the time. I never remembered any of my visionary dreams, and now doubt I ever had one.) On the phone was my girlfriend of the time, and she was excited. She told me that she'd got a new house in Brunswick. It was a big house, with lots and lots of room. "It's a shop top," she said, which was a kind of house that I'd never heard of. It sounded interesting. She wanted me to move in with her. The visionary dream thing wasn't working, and I didn't have anything else to do, such as research the idea. "Sure," I said.
The house was right on Sydney Road, a few steps past the sign that read "Sydney - 880 kilometres." As promised, it was right above a shop. A friend helped me move in. Like me, he was from a decent home in a decent suburb. We arrived in daylight, which was definitely a mistake, as every shortcoming was on stark display. The noise was incredible. One of the housemates, Army, had one of the rooms at the front of the house. She took to wearing earmuffs. Her boyfriend, Navy, took a different approach. He tried to imagine that the waves of traffic were like waves at the beach. This worked only when the lights outside the house were green. When they turned red, all the trucks going to and from Sydney would brake to an ear-splitting halt. Navy would be lying awake, breathing in storm clouds of carbon monoxide, and trying to pretend that screeching brakes was a natural phenomena, like rock pools and low tide. I'm not sure what happened to Navy, but there was a rumour that he went on to develop an impressive range of mental-health issues.
Next door was an anarchist bookshop. I never went in there, because it seemed to operate on a policy of maximum intimidation. There were posters and books on display, and all of them were coated in a thick sheen of anger. Images of guns and barricades and warfare were omnipresent. Perhaps as a result, this bookshop had become a target for vandalism. It seemed that every week someone would throw a brick through the front window. Strangely, most of the broken glass ended up on the footpath. For a time, this was puzzling.
At school I had a teacher, George Wilson, who had a standard threat of "it's straight to Skid Row for you, lad." He'd say this only about minor transgressions, such as when someone spoke without raising their hand first, or when they'd provided a particularly lame excuse for not having done their homework. It wasn't his serious threat, and there was a healthy dose of absurdity in the way he said it. He was gently pointing out that life offered choices, and some choices could lead to disaster.
So when I arrived in that shop top house on the most polluted road in Melbourne, I knew instantly where I was. I'd arrived in Skid Row.
That house was the first time in my life that I'd consciously taken a backwards step. I'd finished a degree, but I was incapable of seeing this as a benefit. I wasn't looking for a way forward, or taking steps in that direction. As a result, I went backwards. I'd tried to have a series of visionary dreams, and I'd ended up living next door to an anarchist bookshop that broke its own windows.
The visionary dreams thing was a charming idea, but it wasn't really what I needed. What I really needed was to wake up. In retrospect, in a funny kind of way, Brunswick helped me do that.Posted by Sean Hegarty at 01:34 AM in the Reflective category | Comments (0)
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