Friday, 4 May 2007

An Australian Experience-the Lucky Corner of Victoria

Only Victoria, the smallest mainland state and the size of England, has most of its territory in temperate and inhabitable conditions, with miles upon miles of green farm, pastoral land, and forests in all directions. A local Aussie student friend of mine had a farm/retreat house in the north of Melbourne, where she also owned thick woods of pine in awesome tall and dark shapes. The other bulky states all have substantial bush land, deserts, or impenetrable tropical rain forests not far from coastal urban centres. This corner of Australia is without many of the features people usually associated with wild Australia: outback, desert, barren plains, expanses of nothingness, and dried up land. This comparison in proportions of liveable regions in total territory makes Victoria, along with its capital Melbourne, the best place to live in Australia.
One feels readily at home in an oasis of Victoria than in the other places. I am not referring here to busy commercial life or surfing paradise, which are accessible in Sydney or Gold Coast; it is the sense that you are in a vast region of green surroundings and leisurely life style that one feels quite sure of being in a good place to live. This surrounding in Victoria gives one a vague sense of being somewhere in England or France.
The state of Victoria is called the "garden state" for its uncountable numbers of greeneries and gardens. For a long time, proud Victorians used this name on every car number plate issued in the state, painted in green letters. A Liberal Party Premier in the 1990s was determined to make a big bang of everything after coming to power and subsequently had the words replaced with "on the move". The opposition Labour Party jokingly related the new slogan to the fact that Victorians left the state for sunny northern state of Queensland in droves, so they were indeed "on the move", to flee, to be exact, under his rule. Luckily, this name-changing drive did not catch up with me, and my number plate remained "garden state" till my time of leaving Australia. The Labour Party in power then changed words not back to "garden state", but to "place to be". In the end, the perfect and affectionate words of "garden state" are lost forever. In reality, political tussles don't change much of the amazing beauty this state and Melbourne contain. Nothing is able to snatch that precious scene away and make it disappear.
Melbourne is well known for its Victorian style buildings and homes. Driving through central Melbourne and nearby areas is indeed a pleasant experience. One passes tree lined boulevards with sunlight falling through tree leaves, flashing contrasting golden and green colours. Banks still operate in old buildings with solid foundation of granite. Now and then a tram in old shape passes with the distinctive bell ringing. With mild slops up and down, trams move gently as pre-historical monsters or giant worms. I once took a picture of the central Bourke Street at dusk, with dark golden sunlight, dim street light, grand building of Myer department store, and a slow-moving tram sliding down the empty street. The result is pretty much an oil painting of landscape at pre-or-early industrial age, tranquil, serene with little want.
A tree lined divided street of central Melbourne district is worth mentioning, not just for its beauty, theatres, and sparkling hotels, but more for its name. The Exhibition Street directs towards a fabulously constructed and decorated building, the Royal Exhibition Building. This grand and ornate building sits at the centre of large, expansive and well manicured gardens, the Carlton gardens. A long an wide walk path leads to the grand southern entrance, with large squares of gardens and tall, leafy trees at both sides. The view from there resembles that standing at the back door of the French palace Versailles, though the length of this walk is a little short of that between Fountain of Latona and Fountain of Apollo.
This building was constructed in 1879, for an express purpose, the Centennial International Exhibition in 1888, showing off, among other things, the achievements Australian and in particular Melbourne made. Another stately purpose was added on some year later. The building became the venue for the first Commonwealth Parliament of Australia at the time of the Federation in 1901. Since a new capital was to be built to house MPs, this building served the purpose of temporary Parliament House faithfully for 27 years. This building is a standing testament to glorious past when Melbourne was the undisputed political and cultural centre of the nation from very early years onwards, discarding later quarrels from other states of the significance of this past.
Melbourne is in fact very lively at day time, with office workers and shoppers roaming around the city centre. Beautiful arcades and department stores, which resemble the scenes in the British TV series "Are you being served?", feed customers with huge quantities of goods. Night clubs along several streets, especially King Street, are the places for fun and indulgence after the dark. These may look just like other big cities, in terms of noise, activities, traffic flows, and vibrancy.
Many other cities undertook frenzy redevelopment projects to improve their image and attract big businesses. Melbourne is not totally immune to this drive, with Dockland and South Bank as the prominent examples. Once on a flight back to Melbourne, a Singaporean executive sitting next to me asked about interesting places to go. Guessing him not a tourist of Phillip Island penguin parade type, I had to mention Crown Casino as something new, entertaining, and perhaps posh. How could I persuasively tell him that the good life in Melbourne is the ordinary life of ease, rather than theme-park like excitement? Vanity clouds people's judgement from time to time.
Amidst this kind of development drive, some projects bound to be built in unpleasant fashions. The Melbourne Exhibition Centre is in no way near the Royal Exhibition Building in style and function, and God knows why it is there. The building is in a standard rectangle shape, so rectangular that one wonders it might not require any specialised design work. I had a chance to walk in the building for a look. The overwhelming impression was a large box more fitting for Airbus 380 hangar or shipyard. In fact, it is called "Kennett's sheds", perhaps due to the fact that it was built during his terms in office and with push from his ministers. On that day, watching small numbers of people searching through piles for cheap books in this gigantic, near empty concrete complex, I felt what a waste this is. I thus became clear to me that redevelopment frenzy can easily go overboard and create monstrous projects, not just in developing or totalitarian societies.
Fortunately for Melbourne, the city as a whole has not been dramatically re-figured after those development projects were under way. The difference from others is in degree and style. Melbourne has managed to retain its unique characters, depth and flows. Change here is largely incremental. It is still a great pleasure to drive through many of Melbourne's leafy streets of nice residential suburbs, unhurried and distant to crowdedness, stress, noise, and eagerness to please.
Being in Melbourne in a city comparison is quite unlikely to be affected by fast expanding and intruding cane toads which immensely irritated northern neighbours. You can have plenty of sunshine and blue sky everyday, and you receive cane toads and other strange forms of animals as well in a bundle. The climate is not harsh at the other extreme, winter cold, either. Victorians don't worry about winter blizzards or snow storms, because they don't exist. Considering the ordeals and lengthy troubles Canadians get themselves into during winter, this is a blessing fro this state. As such, cars built in Australia are for normal driving conditions, without the routines such as filling anti-freeze liquid.
State rivalry in Australia and counter claims have deep roots. The state of NSW was the first English colony, marked by Captain Cook's landing and the First Fleet. To be fair, that is the state of origin. It was precisely because that colony (state) was so massive, encompassing the entire continent minus Tasmania, that its territory could not be sustained and had to be subdivided. The Port Phillip district went the same course as Queensland and South Australia and declared its separate colony status in 1851 as Victoria. The split of this small sate seemed insignificant of those days and not disturbing to NSW, but dramatic changes occurred later to cause continued jealousy. From the time of gold rush, Victoria quickly caught up and established its leading place in the nation, becoming prosperous and populous, in relative terms. There were more civilised and cultured development in the state, typified by freemen immigration against the initial convict roots of NSW. By the time of the 1888 Exhibition, the tiny state of Victoria and its capital Melbourne displayed amazing qualities of the centre of the nation. The first Parliaments also stationed in Melbourne. This must be a bitter reminder to Sydney as the first colony, the mother of all colonies, where it all began.
Melbourne lost its leading industrial and commercial positions to Sydney essentially because its early trade came from the British side and the European Atlantic. In the last century, trade moved to the American side and the Pacific, so that Sydney's position became prominent.
This state (city) rivalry is unavoidably reflected in an early writing of Donald Horne's. His obvious dislike of Melbourne at that time indicates his disgust of money, political elite, and accompanying control and organisation, thus he praised Sydney's free spirit and roughness. Time has indeed changed. It is ironic that big businesses and international businesses have favoured Sydney as their camp for organising production and services of the world. This is a reversal of roles and in views: as Sydney goes on to pursue money and fancy, Melbourne has adequate resources and depth to retain its old charm, intellectual strength, and stylish and worry free atmosphere, unfazed by the presence of money or international conglomerates.
Melbourne's advantage is in the maintenance of its calm metropolitan beauty, unhurried posture and elegance among more flashy, ambitious, and noisier sister cities. Melbourne needs none of the unhealthy habits or showcasing to be a great city, with a mild patronising attitude while looking at other competition frenzy territories. "Been there, done that", and the city stands to be among the best and most pleasant in the world.

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