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.

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