8 days is hardly long enough to judge a city and certainly not insufficient time to pass comment on the people who live there so I will try to avoid too many sweeping statements in this reflection.
I’m writing this on my iPhone screen in glaring sunlight so please forgive typing errors.
There are some aspects of Melbourne that I have loved. The tram system makes travelling around as a tourist very easy. Within the city centre, travel by tram is free and the services are frequent. This has meant that we could get anywhere we wanted to go within 30 minutes of anywhere else.
Walking around Melbourne is significantly more relaxing than the majority of cities I have visited. There is neither the sense of pace of London or New York nor the in-your-face rampant commercialism. The lack of road signs made getting lost a regular occurrence on the first couple of days, the grid system of roads made finding yourself again easy.
The architecture is fascinating with a mixture of colonial pretension, gold rush frontier facades and 21st Century glass and metal. In common with many cities, the docks have been regenerated to create smart apartment style accommodation.
Sport plays a bigger role in the cultural life of the city than anywhere else I have visited. With clearly defined seasons for Australian Rules Football and cricket, good weather and high spec stadia across the city, large attendances are enjoyed in every sport played (including the relatively woeful soccer teams). The Melbourne Cricket Ground (referred to locally simply as the “G” -saying an acronym of 3 letters apparently too much effort if one letter will suffice) is as good a venue as anywhere in the world with its 100, 000 capacity, wide concourses, almost queueless bars and parkland approaches.
Despite a traditional masculinity associated with the country, women’s sport is taken very seriously, seems well supported and heavily invested in.
As with most big cities, Melbourne celebrates comparatively liberal values. There was plenty of evidence of a desire to celebrate diversity across the city. I grew particularly fond of the concrete anti-terrorist blocks which have been used to promote LGBT rights or stencil profound quotations.
On first impressions, this seems a city for the young (although, at 36, the average age is the same as Birmingham) The suburb of Fitzroy both exemplifies the bohemian approach to life that exists across the city centre and also takes it to a level I haven’t experienced in other similar areas of UK cities. An edgy frontier feel combined with a promotion of the arts and a roof-top cafe culture made for an interesting evening wander.
Partly thanks to the devaluation of the pound since Brexit, Melbourne is, at the moment, expensive for tourists from Britain. Everything is at least 20% more than in England and the impact on my pocket was felt particularly when eating. We travelled long and far to find a relatively inexpensive meal but everywhere paid between £12 and £20 for snacks (pizzas etc) and £25+ for any real food. Even McDonalds appeared more costly in Melbourne because there was no “savers menu”. My personal favourite for over-priced food was a Fredo Frog in the supermarket for the equivalent of £1.50. On the plus side, when eating vegetarian and vegan diets seem at least as well catered for in the city as in UK.
Another of the more obvious over-priced items in Melbourne is alcohol. Australian beer, while improving from the Fosters/Castlemaine domination of the market in the 90s, remains weak and tasteless and at approximately £8 for an equivalent pint is an expensive indulgence. As with food, we bought drinks in lots of places but found little variation in price.
Culturally, the city exists in an interesting tension between awareness of colonial heritage, the overwhelming injustice of its foundation and a desire to support something distinctively Australian and modern. There is an acceptance that the indigenous culture that was all but destroyed was more creative than the imported European influence that followed. Popular music appears to struggle to move beyond a celebration of AC/DC and Neil Finn and therefore a great deal of UK music is heard in shops and bars. Unlike the moribund music scene, Australian art seems far more confident and outward looking judging by the interest in the current exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria “The Highway is a Disco” by New South Wales artist Del Kathryn Barton. Melbourne also boasts a fine Centre for Contemporary Art on the Southbank of the River Yarra.
For all it’s liberal aspiration, Melbourne has obvious levels of inequality. Homelessness appears as almost as widespread as in Birmingham. It is a city that is built on and exudes both white privilege and post-colonial guilt. Along with many other cities in the world, Melbourne appears to struggle to share its obvious success with the poorer suburbs. As a result, a vibrant, young city excludes a proportion of its own population from the elements that create its success.