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Author photo credit: Karen Quist
North Melbourne Books: Blue Lake concentrates on a forgotten part of Melbourne’s history: the West Melbourne shanty town known as the Dudley Flats. This slum area was active between the 1920s and 1950s and was located around the area where the Melbourne Star Observation Wheel now stands. Its residents for the most part made a living scavenging through the railway and council tips that were based at the site.
What made you want to write about such an unprepossessing part of the city’s history?
David Sornig: I've always had a strong imagination for the hidden layers of places, some kind of intuition or even some hope that, hiding behind the unremarkable, empty, downright ugly or ruined areas that often go unnoticed in cities, there is something a little more wondrous to see or necessary to understand, places where time can be felt plurally. It's probably the same part of the imagination that appeals to readers of Harry Potter who secretly (or not so secretly) hope that at Platform 9 3/4 there really is a portal to that other world. It was in part what drew me toward setting my first book in Berlin, a city of many historical ghosts and erased histories. I might, in another life, have become an archaeologist.
The area Blue Lake centres on, which includes the now heavily-industrialised expanse of land between Docklands and West Melbourne in the east and the Maribyrnong River to the west has always suggested itself to me to be one of those plural places, but it was an area I had only ever peripherally been familiar with. When it caught my attention three or four years ago I began looking into its history in various archives. I discovered that while there was a truly fascinating history to put together about the drained, dredged and filled-in wetland and the Dudley Flats shanty town, it was incredibly fragmented. I could scarcely believe it hadn’t been told before, so writing it felt like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
NMB: Your book concentrates on three residents of the Dudley Flats: Elsie Williams, a singer and alcoholic, born in Bendigo to Afro-Caribbean parents; Lauder Rogge, a German man who lived on a boat moored on the Yarra; and Jack Peacock, a trader who made a decent living scavenging off the garbage tips. How did you find these particular characters and what fascinated you about them?
DS: During my early research for Blue Lake, particularly as it looked into the residents of Dudley Flats, the names of these three kept coming up in the public record, mostly in newspaper reports. There were very clear public versions of all three: Williams was the failed singer and violent drunk; Peacock was the larrikin-like ‘King of Dudley Flats’; and Rogge was the strange hermit who lived with a large number of dogs on the stranded hulk of his schooner. While all three ended up living on the margins of a stable life in the Dudley Flats area, I couldn’t help but wonder what the circumstances were that had brought them there. The further I went into the archive to piece together their biographies the more clear it became that they were shaped not only by their individual experiences, but also by some of the larger social and historical forces that were at work in Australia and globally during the first half of the 20th century. Economics, geopolitics, war, racism and popular culture all played a role in delivering them to the Dudley Flats area and the way they lived there. These forces, together with the very specific stories and individual tragedies of the three, made them incredibly compelling to me as humans and I felt a responsibility to tell those stories as best I could.
NMB: There’s a great sympathy for the down and out in Blue Lake. In many ways, characters like Elsie, Lauder and Jack make you think about Melbourne today, especially with so many homeless living on the city’s streets. Did the Melbourne you see today in any way help you imagine its past?
DS: Definitely. There were some uncanny parallels that emerged while I was writing the book, particularly during late January 2017 when there was a lot of media attention – and notable tabloid outrage – at what was portrayed as the failure of local and state government authorities and police to act decisively over the summer holidays to clear the group of people who been sleeping rough outside Flinders Street Station. The media concern appeared to have more to do with the ‘embarrassing’ visibility of this homelessness than with its underlying causes. The media accusations of summer holiday ineptitude in Melbourne’s newspapers that summer were scarcely any different to the headlines and stories that appeared regarding Dudley Flats during the summer of 1937/38. It reminded me that the lives of individuals run deeper and are shaped by circumstances that exceed the sometimes-shallow portrayal of them in the media.
NMB: Blue Lake very much has a novelist’s sensibility, with its brooding atmosphere and well-developed portraits. Did you have any particular plan when you set out to write the book or did it simply evolve?
DS: I was tempted, very early on in the process of writing as I came across some of the extraordinary circumstances of the lives of these people, and imagined the kind of knowledge they must have had about the sordid understorey of middle class Melbourne life, aspects of life that weren’t so well hidden on Dudley Flats, to write a novel rather than a work of non-fiction. But that didn’t last for long, as it became clear that my first responsibility was to tell the most accurate (and vivid) version I could of the largely untold story of the place and its people. As the book evolved it seemed that the best way to do this was to represent them first of all with an eye on the archival traces as they emerged chronologically. This very clearly suggested the final thematic structure of the book as it portrays the shift from the precolonial wetland’s unity to its post-settlement degradation, the chaos that took hold if it, the attempt to impose an order on it, and the persistence, even as its cosmetic traces have been mostly erased, of its original coherence.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
DS: I always have four or five books on the go, so sometimes it takes me ages to finish anything, but I’ve most recently very-swiftly consumed Patti Smith’s Just Kids, M-Train and her most-recent little title, Devotion. It’s an account of the meandering and instinctive creative process she follows from Simone Weil to Albert Camus to eventually write a story titled ‘Devotion’ which is also included in the book. As a friend recently said to me: Patti Smith lives in a poem. It’s true and I envy her. I’m also reading Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame of Paris, which I’m enjoying at a number of levels, but mostly for the moment when, after pages and pages of encyclopaedic (and sometimes frankly dull) description of 15th century Paris, it finally lands on an extraordinary few paragraphs that describe the tolling of Paris’ church bells as an orchestra.
Blue Lake: Finding Dudley Flats and the West Melbourne Swamp, by David Sornig. Pubished by Scribe. RRP: $35