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.

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