I didn’t travel out of Australia until my late thirties. And then, in my late fifties, I moved to England, to a market town (Faversham) in East Kent, just over an hour in to London St Pancras. It is neither suburban, nor ‘country’ – in the Australian sense – and it is decidedly not urban even if it has some 20,000 inhabitants and is the home of Shepherd Neame, a major brewery.
I don’t visit Clayton much these days. But it has gradually become a much more varied place than it was in the 1960s. Our neighbours then were Italians from Egypt, and I imagine they had to manufacture their own cooking ingredients or ship them in. It wouldn’t be the case now. The shop near the station once owned by my friend Don’s parents is now an Indian grocery, just one of various culinary sources. All of this is partly due to the nearby presence of the university. I doubt that there are sharpies in Springvale any more. It became, from the 1970s on, Melbourne’s Cabramatta – a place to go to if you like Vietnamese cooking.
Cities and their suburbs tend to do strange things to your memory. A few years or even a moment’s absence can remove some significant building or object so that it may seem that the object had never existed. A further Blue Hills poem (44), referring this time to Adelaide, makes this point:
So much of a city is light on stonework, woodwork; demolition turns us into archaeologists using the maps; memory, a particular daub of colour there, to the right, of that mountain down the street.
Suburbs are supposedly the places that the Australian expats of the ’50s and c60s were escaping from even if, like Barry Humphries and Clive James, they couldn’t stop talking about them. The supposed problem with places like Moonie Ponds or Kogarah was that they were too comfortable; they didn’t have that ‘edge’ that produces great art (though I hope I have suggested that the suburbs can be ‘edgy’ enough). They can certainly be surreal. There is a wonderful instance of this at the beginning of Clara Law’s movie Floating Life where the culs-de-sac and the neat houses on their quarter-acre blocks are shown as they appear to the immigrants in the film: almost extra-terrestrial spaces.
The film implies what so many of us infer as a norm (a Norm indeed) isn’t what it seems. ‘Suburbia’ is not the same as a collection of ‘suburbs’ – places away from a city centre. It is an abstraction, existing everywhere and nowhere. In the last pages of my long poem The Ash Range (1987) I argued, contra-Murray, that the bush itself was in the process of becoming a kind of suburb. I noted that after the First World War
. . . the local papers thin out; a parade of football teams and auction results.
These newspapers which were once, through distance, the centres of local culture full of rambling and chatty journalism were becoming syndicated conveyors of purely parochial information.
You could even say that the middle-class movement back into the city centres (which I was a part of) turned these places into suburbia. Gentrification meant that the curious and the grungy were eroded or swept away. The SP bookies disappeared, the sticky carpets were torn up from the pub floors, the music venues closed and the great silence descended.