Wednesday, 28 October 2015

The Melbourne Parliament House Tour: citizen tourists on the loose.

This rather grand building is Parliament House, Melbourne. I was excited at the prospect of taking a tour of it as it would give me something to compare my tour of the Scottish Parliament with. The Edinburgh tour was interesting as much for what it did not say as for what it did. It was, in many respects, like a political campaign that sidestepped uncomfortable issues and 'took hold of the narrative', as current news-speak would put it. With that tour I was aware of a number of the issues that were being glossed over, such as the delays and serious overspend on its construction. However, I know next to nothing about the politics of Victoria and very little about Australia either, except that Prime Minister Tony Abott was pretty widely despised and regarded as an idiot by pretty much everybody I met. This, then, was necessarily a more superficial tour of a parliamentary public relations exercise.

I was in a hurry to catch the 1 PM whistle-stop tour and would never have thought it would have taken me so long to enter the building. The security screening by the team of misanthropic guards took longer than some airports I have travelled through and resulted in the confiscation of my 8cm long flexible camera tripod for reasons they alone will ever know. I stepped into the elegant reception room where a smattering of tourist/citizens were scattered awaiting the tour's imminent start. The man in the loud blue shirt was to become my favourite: true to appearances he made a string of blunt jokes and observations throughout the tour like, "how much? crikey!"

Our guide emerged on the stroke of one, had us leave our bags in a safe storage room, then beckoned us through the barrier. He came over as a smart guy doing a simple but comfortable job. He carefully chose his words so as to avoid sounding as if he favoured one political side or another, yet he also sounded as if he was very aware of the debate and disagreements that characterise a parliament like this. His was a conspicuous neutrality that goes with the job and he gave the impression of someone who had been doing this long enough that it had become second nature to him. Indeed, he managed to sound relaxed and human in this role and even managed a dry sense of humour. 

The first room was being rearranged and didn't look its best. We began with an introduction to the architecture, always a safe bet, unless you the Scottish Parliament, that is. The queen looked down on us as we listened and we also heard how they do weddings here, though it was admittedly expensive, not to say dry as a choice of location. 

This building is divided into an upper and lower chamber, a system directly modelled on the the British parliament. Our guide explained how this lower chamber functions and it basically seems to work tribally with each side closing rank within an oppositional style of government. The sand timer is a nice touch and I am minded to get one for practicing speeches myself. It is so much more visually effective than a digital clock; there is a palpable sense of time slipping away. That was the case with our tour as well: we were up against the clock as this was essentially a 30-minute photo opportunity tour with only time for brief explanations.

We got a look at the gold-leaf clad speaker's mace in the library, the same mace that is featured in this photo and which our guide told us a spicy story about. The story goes that the speaker's mace went missing in the 1891 and rumour had it that it ended up in a nearby brothel that was frequented by politicians, used in mock parliamentary procedures/sex games. To what precise purpose the mace was put he did not elaborate further. It is a nice story, far enough removed from the present to be amusing more than scandalous, and he obviously enjoyed telling it to give the tour some light relief. I have noticed that with dry and potentially boring tours like this one, it is a good strategy for the guide to have one or two tricks up their sleeve like this to inject some life into the tour. The sex theme, in fact, popped up again a little later when we got to the upper chamber. In the discussion of the political affiliations of the members of the legislative council, our guide noted that the upper house is far more welcoming of independents than the lower house. With a slight smile, he seemed pleased to tell us that the State of Victoria elected Fiona Patten of the Australian Sex Party in the last round of elections. Naturally, my new friend in the blue shirt had a lot to say about her!

I was able to take the tour today because the parliament was not sitting. On these off days the building is not completely dead, however, it still forms a backdrop for political interviews. Here the media were lined up waiting for the suit to take the stage in front of the building which grants an air of legitimacy and gravitas to those who stand before it. I remember on the tour of the Scottish Parliament we stopped beside some pretty plain modern concrete steps which our guide told us were often used for interviews. Concrete, I suppose, speaks to the technocrat and in this the aesthetic differences between the two buildings are very significant in building different public impressions of their representatives as individuals and as a whole. Given the choice, if I were a politician I'd take this door any day, but that, I suppose, betrays my soft spot for theatre: the theatre of representative democracy.

Monday, 26 October 2015

The History of Computing in Melbourne Tour

The tour of Melbourne's computer history is, as you might imagine, a specialist tour. I was, therefore, a little nervous before taking it that I might come over as an IT imbecile who possesses superficial background knowledge, asks dumb questions and proves unable to grasp even the most elementary points. I needn't have been. My guide Chris was not out to impress me with his knowledge and use it as a stick to beat me with, he was keener to share it and so, when necessary (i.e. most of the time), translated it into layman's terms. We began informally in a cafe where I joined him taking coffee with two old Macedonian friends of his, a weekly ritual of theirs. I learnt something of modern Greek history and the reasons for their departure and emigration to Melbourne, but more to the point, I dropped in on three old friends happy to welcome me into their day to day life. Melbourne's standard of coffee is said to be very high and whilst my cappuccino was not otherworldly, it was very satisfying and went some way towards countering the fog of jet-lag and lack of sleep I was fighting through, seeing as I'd literally stepped of a plane a few hours earlier. This was, most certainly, a soft landing that, together with the warm, spring sunshine dancing over the trees, made this feel like a city with possibility.

I said goodbye to my two new acquaintances, finished up my coffee and was taken for a short spin around Queen Victoria Market. With no word about computers, we strolled through taking in the spectacle. Markets, particularly working markets that cater for the residents as opposed to tourist markets selling souvenirs and food at inflated prices, are quite addictive. They are similar enough around the world that you can make comparisons with markets you are familiar with and different enough to make such comparisons interesting. In this case I was looking for unusual vegetables and did indeed spot a light green flattened ball about the size of a fist that the vendor said tasted like carrot. He was an older gentleman who looked to be of Chinese descent but spoke with a relaxed Aussie accent and Chris told me there were a significant number of Chinese who came over with the goldrush of the 1850s and who have made Australia their home ever since. What was, on paper, a history of computing tour was turning out to be a far broader Melbourne history 101 class.

Over a very tasty and reasonably priced Greek spinach pie with pumpkin and beetroot salad, we talked about his role at Monash University and then got onto the bread and butter of the tour: the role the city played in the development of the modern computer.

We stopped outside the Royal Exhibition building to learn about the automated machines used for the 1921 census and also looked at a statue that spoke of the Victoria/New South Wales rivalry, which I suppose must still exist. It is a good thing that Chris, my guide, is careful about his appearance; with longer hair he could easily look the part of the mad professor but, as it was, he looked and sounded every bit the part of the serious, retired professor passionate about ideas and engaged with the wider society. He was, then, the expert guide who could go a lot deeper into any of the things he was talking about rather than the blagger guide, i.e. someone reading from a script and trying to succeed on charm alone.

Next stop was Melbourne Museum to take a look at CSIRAC, the world's oldest and only fully intact, first generation computer. It is a huge, metallic hulk of a machine that was state of the art when switched on for the first time in 1949. I listened to Chris talking about how it functioned and watched a period film of it in action, which included an excerpt of the world's first ever piece of computer generated music. Together, this enthusiastic commentary and video transformed this 7-ton lump of metal parked in front of me from a cold-war dinosaur into an important and innovative technical achievement. This is the sort of exhibit that absolutely requires contextualising like this for its true value to become evident, seeing as it was not made for its appearance, doesn't feature interactive games and has no celebrity angle to exploit. 

These are the computer's programmes. I recall, from the accompanying video, that entering them onto CSIRAC was not such a simple procedure. No Apple Store to connect to back then! Chris explained how the memory was held in long mercury filled rods, which we could view from the side. These were a technology imported from radar, and this helped me see how innovations in one field were sometimes passed around providing solutions in another, albeit temporary ones until more specialised technology for the task was developed. This set me off on the inevitable Alan Turing line of enquiry which, I was pleased to learn, was not a completely irrelevant one. It seems as is automating code breaking was important in the development of computers, indeed Melbourne also had a significant role to play here with the military intelligence unit FRUMEL based in the city and working in this field of cryptanalysis. What's more, I learnt that some of the war-time coding techniques and hardware were kept secret for many decades more as they were still of strategic value during the period of decolonisation and independence. In other words, GCHQ was spying on former British colonies, what a shock! CSIRAC seemed to be used for different purposes, however, and I got the impression it represented an early, heroic period in the history of computing when Melbourne was at the forefront of this emerging and powerful technology.

The tour meandered through the city and opposite Federation Square I learnt that this tour has a cousin of sorts: Made by Maths an app that shows the mathematics underpinning key landmarks and buildings in Melbourne. I'm guessing it probably started out as a tour like this one too, and has now moved onto a digital platform. The pattern on the facade of this building, I was told, was made to not repeat itself and required some rather serious mathematics (and computers no doubt) in order to achieve this. I think that these sorts of tours that make a specialist subject accessible to a broad public by making the city itself visible through an unfamiliar frame of reference are tremendously valuable. Most typically, tours that operate within the tourist industry use a format that is immediately recognisable such as, lets say, a historic walking tour, which can then be applied to any given environment. The names and places may change but the experience is more or less the same wherever you go. Tours that approach the city through different specialisms, however, have the potential to step outside of these familiar narratives conveying both new ideas and points of view to the listener and, at the same time, still telling them something about the location too. I have noticed that as universities focus ever more upon producing public facing research, tours have become one way in which research interests are being put out there. For example, the University of Cambridge commissioned the 800 Years of Death and Disease in Cambridge walk and audio tour and then there is Queen Mary's interdisciplinary East End Tour which I  myself managed to review last year.

We tried to enter St Paul's Cathedral but it was inexplicably locked. A little later the same day I managed to gain access and see the next point of the tour: a list of the deans of Melbourne. Stuart Barton Babbage figures on it and he is a descendent of Charles Babbage. Babbage senior is the inventor of the world's first computer, a mechanical device that was never satisfactorily made during his lifetime but which, nonetheless constitutes a first. I felt the relationship of this stop to the tour's subject is somewhat tenuous, as it does not so much tell us about the history of computing in Melbourne as offer a neat way to talk about the history of computers in general, but it does do this and do it quite effectively, too. Not only did this stop introduce Babbage, it also introduced Ada Lovelace, the world's first computer programmer. I was quite unaware of these achievements in the 19th Century that paved the way for the creation of the modern computer so, tenuous or not, I was interested to hear about them.

When we were out on the street the conversation continued and jumped freely around from sectarianism in Melbourne and the purpose of these plastic sheets wrapping tree trunks (possum guards) to indigenous people's status and what the purpose of the tour is. It turns out that this tour manages to cover a number of bases. It is given from time to time to promote IT at Monash, the University of Melbourne and the city more generally, and it is also an excellent way of welcoming new postgraduate students, potential students and interested parties into the department. The tour can take anything up to 8 hours, including lunch, and it offers an informal situation in which those taking it can get to know one another through taking a walk, talking about computers and, it can very usefully orient newcomers to the city itself. Today, however, it was also serving another novel purpose. I had told Chris that I was interested in taking tours of Melbourne and he told me he also happened to be a member of a walking club that was going out into the bush the following Sunday. Today's tour was, then, a test to see if I was A) fit enough to walk for several hours and B) not a jerk who'd mess things up and annoy the walking club's members. I'm happy to say I managed to scrape through on both counts.

We walked down St Kilda Road which, I learnt, was Melbourne's silicon valley in the 70s. The full tour usually starts at Monash University, some way outside the centre, and makes stops along this road where IT companies were previously located before going into the city centre and finishing at the University of Melbourne. This long route has a geographic logic to it that gives the tour some shape. That is helpful since the material itself, while being thematically consistent, does not have a strong narrative or chronology. Our route was not quite so clear cut, however; we snaked our way through the city-centre taking in the sites in a more free-form way. This way of navigating, in fact, lent the walk a lack of artifice that was entirely appropriate: it felt much closer in character to a conversation than to a theatre show, the ghost of which haunts many a guided tour.

We arrived at our final stop Melbourne Observatory, set in the Botanic Gardens that were coming into bloom and alive with many unfamiliar birds. Chris explained that there was a dedicated computer room here many years before CSIRAC or the Ferranti Sirius ever arrived in the city. The computers that filled this room were not machines, they were human; a team of unmarried women who were considered to be highly dependable at making mathematical computations based on astronomical photographs of the Southern night sky. This role of astronomy and mathematics in the development of computing also led us onto the telegram, timekeeping and ultimately the first internet connection in Australia. When I looked at all these inter-related innovations it was hard not to see them as being intrinsically bound up with the spread and maintenance of The British Empire and European colonial expansion and war as a whole, seeing as so many aspects were about making communications quicker and more effective. The history of computing in Melbourne is, therefore, a story that jumps out in many directions crossing the world and straying into global history and commerce too. On the subject of commerce, I should add that this tour is not given for profit, it is an entirely free tour, the rewards of which are far more valuable than however many dollars the university could conceivably charge for it. It is an event that can stimulate genuine engagement with the subject matter, make good personal connections and, if that sounds like your thing, the good news is the next tours are running 31st October and 22nd November 2015, bookings via this link.

Monday, 19 October 2015

The Melbourne Walkabout Tour

The meeting point for Melbourne Walkabout's Laneway Luncheon Tour was set: Federation Square, the gravitational core of this city of 4 million people. Befittingly, the crowds were out in force, as were the Australian Rules Football celebrities and the outdoor broadcasting studio: this was Grand Final day, the culmination of the football season when the two top teams compete for glory. The morning sun was already biting into my pale skin. I clung to the shadows where fans snapped idols and where I reached for the sun block. For a spring morning, it was freakishly hot and it would rise to 32 by the afternoon, the highest ever temperature for a Grand Final, I was later told.

In the swirl of the crowd it was not so easy to find our guide, who was wearing a blue T shirt. I finally spotted her tapping her phone and it was only through using it that the entire group of seven of us was able to assemble.

We glided onto an air conditioned tram and cut our way north up Swanston Street. Between the heat and our group's average age, it was worth saving the legs and taking advantage of the free city-centre trams as there was plenty of walking still ahead of us. This was a good way to get started and put a little momentum behind us.

Standing outside the impressive State Library of Victoria, we were told about how it came into being and we were given the option of taking a look around inside. This tour was not run according to a fixed itinerary with a tight script, it was a walk through the city-centre stopping at many places, and sometimes popping inside when there was collective interest. My group was made up of six older Australian ladies, one half of which was a group of friends over from Sydney. I was quite definitely the odd one out but here our interests were similar: we all wanted to go inside and see the Ned Kelly exhibition.

Before we made it to Australia's most famous outlaw we admired the view from an upper balcony of the library. At the centre of the reading room is the permanently vacated enquiry desk: a blinded panopticon. I worked in the SOAS (Uni of London) library for a couple of years many moons ago, and when I was looking at this sight I was reminded of that time, back in the 90s, when readers would trouble you in person. Nowadays, readers are kept at bay and watched remotely; the NSA and GCHQ tracking their internet usage and discrete CCTV cameras capturing them smuggling their banned-in-the-library chocolate bar into their mouths. 

Then we came upon a thoroughly tamed Ned Kelly. This was not the wild fugitive holding out from the police with gun blazing, this was his iconic body armour professionally displayed in a glass case amidst an exhibition on the man and myth. Kelly has been the subject of more biographies than of any other Australian, including today's figures in the media spotlight such as Shane Warne, Kylie Minogue or Rupert Murdoch. We didn't really hear so much about the Kelly story on this tour, we simply dropped in to see some of the artefacts as the rest of the group were already familiar with the tale. These artefacts also included the Jerilderie Letter, dictated by Kelly, where he tells the story from his point of view and which casts him as a victim of police anti-Catholic persecution. The story certainly has a number of levels to it and a big chunk of its appeal must be that he is seen by some as a Robin Hood figure, while by others as a common criminal. What is uncontentious is that he is highly infamous and as a result of this has spawned a minor tourism industry all of his own today. Search Kelly tours on the internet and you'll see an array of choices that include gastronomic tours of 'Kelly country' and candlelit tours of his site of execution. In the Victorian outback and NSW border area, he must surely be the biggest hook upon which to base a range of outdoor tours, so Kelly country it is.

Outside the library there was a bit of a buzz around a stand where a couple of young ladies were handing our free drinks. Between the hot weather and the girls giving away both glasses of their soft drink and the bottles of concentrate to take home, it was the obvious next stop for our group. We hoovered up the bottles and drank gratefully but when I got home and tried them in the cooler atmosphere of the evening, the 'free give-away' appeal had worn off and I was left with three small bottles of brightly coloured chemicals destined not to make it into my luggage for the flight home.

We were led down Madame Brussels Lane which was introduced to us as being the heart of the city's former red light district. As I mentioned previously, visiting the historical sites of prostitution, such as that which I did on the Qianmen tour of Beijing, doesn't make for nearly as interesting a tour as visiting a living site in the way you are able to on the very popular Amsterdam red light district tours. That said, a good story about this place's past that could have tickled the imagination, so to say, would have brought it to life. I mention this because I heard just such a story on the Parliament House tour, which I will get round to writing up shortly. The story involves the stolen speaker's rod and a certain disreputable establishment favoured by the political class... Here, then, was one of those moments when my Melbourne tours started to link up and inform one another in unexpected ways.

The information we were told about the places we visited was usually brief and just there to paint a picture of how the place used to be or what goes on there now. The researcher in me wanted precision, facts and a narrative, but this was not that sort of tour. This was a 'hang out with a friendly local' sort of tour. The point was not to learn things that you would only forget the next day anyway, it was to spend a pleasant two or three hours seeing parts of the city the casual visitor might otherwise overlook. The ladies on the tour seemed perfectly happy to take the place in in this way, indeed I think this was a lot more to their liking than some sort of study tour led by an expert. They were on holiday, after all, and their guide was an outgoing, younger version of themselves showing them her city.

We frequently stopped outside stores and restaurants where our guide gave us shopping and dining tips. What seemed to be her greatest passion, however, was cocktails. She had an extensive knowledge of the city's cocktail bars and it seemed she had the place mapped out in detail placing one every few hundred meters. I never had Melbourne down as a cocktail city but through her eyes I started to see it in a whole different light.

The lanes are quite diverse in character, some house shops and restaurants, this one has a nightclub at the far end. Many of these lanes thread right through the blocks and it was through these that we mostly walked. This gave the tour a more local and human scale than if we would have focussed upon the major thoroughfares along which the large colonial era public buildings congregate.  

We came to the street art, which our guide was keen to show our group. The ladies were unsure at first whether they liked it or not but warmed to it once they started taking group pictures of themselves in front of it. Maybe it is a complete co-incidence but when I took a street art tour in Berlin it was also given by an Australian lady.

We then piled into a quality chocolate shop where we were offered some samples. Rather good they were and it resulted in a number of purchases.  

This is just a random poster I spotted as we entered some shops. It is simply not right. He looks like a moody Harry Hill. Thinking about it further, however, I started to wonder if tribute bands are a bit of an Australian thing. I have heard it said that the Australian Pink Floyd is as good, if not better, than the original and while the idea of the Aussie Floyd initially sounds like a joke, they are anything but: they have toured extensively for decades and sold over 4 million tickets. Could it be, because the country is so far from Europe and America, bands from there used to visit less frequently creating a ripe market for tribute bands to step in? Nowadays travel is easier, I suppose, but this is another genuine 'tourist theory' like the previous one on Melbourne's traffic lights.

I also spied a particularly opportunistic jewellers.

The tour finished in a cafe somewhere near Queen Victoria Market. We were treated to a dish and beverage; I had the mushroom risotto with a carrot and ginger drink. It was rich and creamy with a nice variety of mushrooms, set off by a watercress garnish. We ate sitting around a large table sharing tourist impressions of Melbourne and stories of home while the Puerto Rican waiter extolled the virtues of the Buena Vista Social Club, which played in the background. After a couple of hours walking in the heat we were about ready for a sit down. Our guide explained that just the week before the weather had been uncomfortably cold requiring a scarf and coat and she was very happy about this sudden turn around. That said, we also started talking about global warming and Australian bushfires. This tour is an informal style of one that is probably, like the meal itself, best enjoyed with friends. I certainly got to see a great deal more of the city than I otherwise would and I also got to hang out with people I'd not otherwise connect with. Of all of the tours of Melbourne I took, this was most probably the most touristic and also easiest of them, and none the worse for that either. Not being into shopping or cocktails, however, I felt that the tour was aimed more at the rest of the group than at me. Still, if that is who actually shows up, then that is entirely appropriate and it gave me a chance to step into their world, if only for one sweaty morning's walkabout in Melbourne. 

Friday, 16 October 2015

The Melbourne Town Hall Tour

This is Melbourne Town Hall which, since it features on this blog, you will not be surprised to learn, offers tours. The tours are free and the group size is limited to ten. I booked a place with no difficulty and the group of four who had also booked for the same tour didn't show up making this a one on one tour. As a guide it can be frustrating when this happens, but as the guided, I did not feel any sense of loss. Fairly close to the start of the tour, the two of us stepped out onto the balcony above that displays the Horses poster (a tribute concert to the Patti Smith album) and I leant that this balcony had deeper rock and roll heritage still. My guide, a retired RMIT professor, told me that The Beatles once stood on this spot to greet a huge and out of control crowd of Melbourne's youth swept up in a tidal wave of Beatlemania.

Judging from the press coverage of their arrival in Melbourne it must have been quite extreme. Although this clip comes from outside their hotel around the corner, I was reliably informed that this scene was repeated on Swanston Street and at Festival Hall, where the concert took place. I was not completely surprised to learn this because, strangely enough, I already had a Beatles song stuck in my head, and I would not count myself as a particularly big fan of theirs. The traffic lights in the city centre make a sound when flashing green for pedestrians. This sound starts with a falling electronic tone followed by a succession of quick beeps which sounds not dissimilar to the start of Helter Skelter on the White Album. With this distorted soundtrack and the lyrics "you may be a lover but you ain't no dancer" already in the air, I speculated that the person who designed the sound for the crossings was one of the fans in that sea of teenagers back in 1964. Whilst this is almost certainly not true, it reflects a sort of tourist logic that I like to indulge in when visiting new places where I have but a few scraps of information at my disposal which, when put together, can produce a novel theory.

As we walked through the corridors, passing the security guards and pensioners enjoying a raucous party in one of the side rooms, we passed a number of people going about their business. My guide told me in a matter of fact tone, "that was the major". I rather liked the relaxed but respectful atmosphere in the building which was clearly a working town hall and not just a ceremonial shell. When walking around some official buildings an atmosphere of power and paranoia dominates, not so here. 

The guide stopped in front of this picture and explained the history of the city, in particular how it was planned and why there are such wide roads, large city blocks and lanes running cutting through them. We located the town hall on the corner of Swanson Street and Collins Street on the map and I was reminded of the municipal newspaper that I glanced through whilst waiting for the tour to start. It featured the predictable 'your city council working for you' stories and a list of proposed construction projects whose planning was up for public consultation. What was unusual about this otherwise dreary read was that it also included a full-page advert for Top Class of Collins Street who promised, "kinky escorts 5-minutes from your door." Whilst it is normal these days for civic publications to try and raise revenue from advertising, I was surprised to see they were openly accepting whole page spreads for prostitution on the doorstep of the Town Hall itself. I had earlier been taken to the city's former red light district as part of a tourist group, something I always feel is an odd attraction, and then here was the contemporary virtual red light district vying for attention in a seeming embrace with the city authorities.

We next stepped into the concert hall which seemed to mostly host 'respectable' concerts, namely classical music and events at which the audience is well-behaved and sits down. It says something that Patti Smith's Horses now falls into that category. Also coming up was a concert of Turkish Sufi dancers and musicians commemorating 100 years of peace between Turkey and Australia sponsored by the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism and the Turkish Embassy in Canberra. The event was tied in to Anzac Day and I could not but view it as a somewhat opportunistic plug for tourism using a consensual form of culture as the hook. Rather than a cultural event that investigated why the two countries were dragged into a war between Britain and Germany 100 years ago, this was a classic culture as goodwill ambassador sort of show. While there is certainly a place and audience for this, it can be disappointing when cultural programmes adopt an overly tourist-centred point of view that expects Spain to mean flamenco, Russian to equate with cossack dances and Rumania  gypsy bands. Does the USA mean Patti Smith? Not quite yet, but to a certain older section of the Melbourne public, Smith certainly is the more acceptable face of Old Sam.

We went backstage to see the organ in action. It was a newly refurbished state of the art affair which was mostly tucked away out of view. However, we were lucky enough that it was in use and here the tour got slight messy and interesting. The guide seemed put out that he had to shout over it and that notes and chords, not even music, were being produced, seemingly at random, breaking his flow, and occasionally blowing out the ear wax. I rather liked the way the organ imposed its own unpredictable rhythm upon us; I think tours are more interesting when they go ever so slightly wrong. Like in the theatre or performance art, it is in these moments, when things go off-script, that you see another level of the reality that underpins the performance. In this case it was nothing drastic; my guide simply liked things under control and didn't like raising his voice. 

The council meeting chambers were lavish in a very old-school British colonial sort of way. If I compare them to the Scottish Parliament, which I recently visited, they make Edinburgh's debating chambers look like a Meccano set. My guide was keen to tell me that The Queen had visited the building and he showed me an array of flags denoting other members of the Royal Family who had also graced it with their presence. I couldn't quite figure out if this was because he had picked up on my British accent and thought this would appeal to me, whether this was standard information on the tour or if he was himself keen on the monarchy. I didn't have the heart to say I was a republican as he was a nice man and in his stride here.

The one feature that stuck out like a sore thumb was the monitors. I was told that whereas papers were formerly laid out on display on the red desk for examination by all present, today everything is now put onto the screens or given as printouts. The room was, then, a beautiful relic that still had to function in changed times. That, in a sense, was my impression of the Town Hall itself, as a result of taking this tour: it all functioned fine but it had a weight to it that was not carried by the people themselves. My guide was an obliging and knowledgeable chap who did this for his own pleasure and I almost wish I had taken the tour a day or two later when I would have been able to throw more pointed questions at him. Alas, you never exactly know what you're going to get when you step in as a tourist, but if you find yourself in Melbourne this is a place worth stepping into.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

The No. 35 Tram Tour

This is one of the City Circle trams, the number 35 route around Melbourne's Central Business District (CBD). It is an old-fashioned tram, painted burgundy and gold, in contrast to the much more modern business-like white and green trams that connect the city centre to its sprawling suburbs. I was told that the city has become one of the largest in the world on account of its urban sprawl; fortunately the 35 doesn't deal with that, it plies a fairly constricted loop that takes in most of the tourist attractions, except the penguins which I never managed to get out to see. I find circular lines often have a special feeling about them; Beijing's number 2 subway is meant to be haunted and runs a ghost train after the regular service stops, London's circle line used to host unofficial carriage parties and it's more recent melancholic qualities were well observed in the Tiger Lillies song The Circle Line, then there is Glasgow's darkly nicknamed 'Clockwork Orange'. These are lines that, in a sense, go nowhere, that are the antithesis of travel from from A to B. My question then, was, would Melbourne's city circle live up these examples and also be more than just another route?

No he isn't, was my first reaction, which is probably slipping into the ad man's trap as, one way or another, this fatuous statement caught me. The Victoria and Albert's touring exhibition has reached Melbourne via Paris and Chicago with next stop Groningen. And this tour schedule possibly shows where Melbourne sees itself as a city and destination: somewhere between Chicago and Groningen. Call it a postmodern flattening of culture or a simple ploy to get people through the museum door, exhibitions of pop star memorabilia dressed up as critical retrospectives seem to be doing the rounds right now.

I read that city circle route was introduced in 1994 and was the precursor for all trams rides in the CBD recently becoming entirely free. I was tired and falling asleep when I first took it and I didn't realise it is not precisely a circular service; it follows an elongated q-shaped route. The tram must have completed its dockland tail then changed direction, surprising this slumbering tourist.

The dockland stretch of the service is, in fact, the only part where I got a sense of Melbourne lying on the water. For a city that sits on the coast, it seems to face in on itself much more than facing out onto the sea.  

While the other trams in the city seemed to be largely free of advertising, the 35 is lined with adverts. That, I guess, is the price of getting to ride it for free. Looking around the ads, it was easy to tell which public arts bodies have enough funding to buy their audience. What was striking was that, even with some of the more trashy adverts, they all seemed to include the tram information at the bottom. This gave them the air of being a public information panel and not just a dumb advert. It was a smart way of the tram imposing its own civilised aesthetic upon the ads rather than the interior becoming a free for all with lurid eye-candy lumping out at you from all sides.

An aspect of the trams that I was made aware of by my host Mick Douglas was their colonial heritage. Kolkata and Melbourne, two cities built at the height of the British empire, are the only cities in India and Australia to have held onto their trams. I wish we had been a bit better in the UK at holding onto ours, too. Something the two cities trams also have in common is that there are now restaurant trams that make their way around the city centre. These are not a common sight, but I did see one of them crossing the centre and rather attractive it looked too.

And this is one of the city's more trashy attractions: the crime and justice experience at Old Melbourne Gaol. In retrospect I would have liked to have visited it and done their candlelit tour complete with ghosts and Ned Kelly. Instead I got a blast of the State Library's Ned Kelly Tour, which was tedious in comparison, even if they did have his metal body armour on display.

Sitting at the front seemed to be the most fun place to be but, I was missing out on the announcements. These are recorded messages that introduce the various attractions that the tram passes. Again, like the adverts, these are restrained in tone and the sound quality is that of a friendly tram announcer cum tour guide rather than that of in-your-face commercial radio adverts. The volume was, however, too quiet and I missed a good part of them sitting here rather than underneath one of the speakers. My overall impression of the tram is that it is a minor attraction in its own right, of the order of a not very engaging tourist bus and, at the same time, a rather useful transport service. As such, it is very popular, particularly with tourists. If it were to go further in the direction of becoming a tourist attraction, it would cease to be a public tram, so I understand the restrained tone since it is not only tourists who use it. Still, in spite of its respectable appearance, it is basically one big rolling advert designed to shuttle tourists from one place to the next in order spend their money. This it does, and does with a little grace.