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Photo credit: Susan Gordon-Brown
North Melbourne Books: For two years you and your wife, Lynne, circled Melbourne's inner suburbs on foot, from working class Yarraville to posh South Yarra, researching the many weird and wonderful places you visited. Many of the buildings you write about – The ETA Peanut Butter Factory, famed for its modernist architecture and the Maribrynong bomb factory – are not that widely known. Was there anything that particularly surprised you and Lynne about inner Melbourne?
Nick Gadd: One thing that surprised us was how short memories can be. For example, Yarraville had the scandal of the ‘sinking village’ in the 1970s, when a housing estate was built on top of a quarry filled with sludge, and all the houses collapsed. We wondered, how could the quarry have been so quickly forgotten? And now the story of the sinking village itself is little known. Things that were part of daily life for many years are now gone as if they had never existed - like the Sands & McDougall street directories, amazing repositories of information that were published every year in Melbourne for more than a century. Who remembers them now? One reason I wrote the book is to recover some old stories and bring them back to light. One particularly surprising story we uncovered is that in the 1930s there was a race track in the western suburbs where monkeys rode greyhounds and people bet on the results. You can find that story, and photographs of the monkey jockeys, in Melbourne Circle.
NMB: Lynne passed away in 2018 and Melbourne Circle is very much a love letter and remembrance of her. Was Lynne the primary inspiration for the book?
NG: For Lynne and me, walking was a big part of our relationship. It was how we connected, how we fell in love, and something we continued doing for as long as we could. When we went walking together we were usually looking for things that had been lost and traces of the past - quirky old buildings, ghost signs, derelict factories and the like. The themes that interested me as a writer were change, loss, and renewal. When Lynne became sick and died of cancer in 2018, the experience of personal loss struck me in a terrible, almost overwhelming way. I found that writing the book helped me to deal with the grief, by remembering and recording our relationship and the ways that it was intimately connected with place. So Lynne, and my relationship with her, did inspire the book, but the themes it deals with go beyond us two - in fact they are universal.
NMB: Melbourne Circle is beautifully illustrated and presented, with plenty of terrific pictures. Did you and Lynne take most of the photos?
NG: I took the photos, though Lynne spotted many of the things I photographed. I also drew the maps. I’m glad you liked the presentation of the book - my publisher, Nick Walker of Australian Scholarly Publishing, was determined to do a nice job of the production, which meant printing in colour. I’m thrilled with the result.
NMB: Living in a car culture, our suburbs are not designed so much for walking. What do you think is the best thing about walking and what joys has it brought you?
NG: There are two clear benefits - one is that you can go more slowly: stroll, meander, and take time to look at the things that we normally ignore. The Situationists used the French word ‘derive’, which means ‘drift’, for this way of proceeding through a city. One approach I recommend is to raise your eyes above the ground level - you will often spot an old sign, a name, or a strange little feature higher up that can send you back into the past, or off on some imaginative journey. The other advantage is that you can wander down laneways, duck around the back of buildings, or inside them, and investigate places where cars can’t go. When you do, you will often stumble across something intriguing. “A walk is only a step away from a story” Robert Macfarlane writes, and walking is a great source of inspiration for writers. If you have writer’s block, just go for a walk!
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
NG: Talking of Robert Macfarlane, I am immersed in Underland - his wonderful investigation of what can be found underneath mountains, oceans and glaciers. I’ve also been thrilled by a collection of essays on art by the late John Berger, Steps Towards a Small Theory of the Visible.
Melbourne Circle: Walking, Memory and Loss. Published by Australian Scholarly Publishing. $29.99