‘Melbourne’ by Sophie Cunningham


2011, 272 p.

This book is one of a series published by New South where an established author  is given an open brief to write a ‘travel book where no-one leaves home’  of about 50,000 – 60,000 words about their own town.   There are nine in the series: Peter Timms (Hobart); Matthew Condon (Brisbane); Delia Falconer (Sydney), David Whish-Wilson (Perth); Kerryn Goldsworthy (Adelaide); Paul Daley (Canberra), Eleanor Hogan (Alice Springs);Tess Lea (Darwin) – and this one, Sophie Cunningham’s ‘Melbourne’.

As the commissioning editor Phillipa McGuiness said:

the inspiration for this series was literary, not some pointy-headed urge to make a grand statement about Australia’s cities….While people may read local histories, or dispassionate general histories about where they live, we rarely get the chance to read about our own cities in a way that resonates with our own experience and resurrects memories….So I wanted to ask some of our best novelists and writers to write non-fiction about the cities they lived in – or have adopted – in a way that would evoke intense sense memories for people who are familiar with them and give those who aren’t a sense of what it’s like to live in Brisbane or Adelaide or wherever.

In this book, Sophie Cunningham uses the seasonal year as her organizing structure, starting off with summer and moving through the seasons until finishing up with summer again.  Of course- in a city that is obsessed with weather- too hot, too cold, too dry, too wet- and famously has “four seasons in one day”, what other device could you use?  In particular, she uses the year 2009-2010, reflecting no doubt the date of commission, but that year was also a particularly memorable one for weather.  The summer of 2009 saw three days of excruciating heat (I wrote about it at the time, here) that culminated in the Black Saturday bushfires (that I also wrote about here) that razed Marysville and Kinglake.  I think that the fact that I can so easily link to four posts in this blog (and there are more than I could have linked) demonstrates how deeply these events are gouged into the consciousness of a Melburnian.

Cunningham’s book is consciously literary. Not only is she a writer and likely to bring a writer’s consciousness to the task, but the book was written in the wake of her resignation from Meanjin, a literary journal deeply embedded in Melbourne’s cultural identity.  She may have left Meanjin under contested circumstances, but her frequent citations of articles from Meanjin commissioned and published under her editorship suggest a continued identification with – and even a lingering sense of grief over- Meanjin.

For readers who are familiar with the city being discussed, there’s an internal comparison at work – “Would I have written the book this way??” Cunningham’s take is very much based on the inner suburbs of Melbourne, and a much younger perspective than I could bring.  She is gay, without children, and part of a literary milieu that as a mere reader, I can only observe from outside the window.  I think that if I were writing it, I’d be harking back to an older liberalism (all those Victorian worthies who in their way were quite radical), more architecture and possibly more politics.  I think I’d have to roam outside into the suburbs beyond the inner city, because I see Melbourne very much as a suburban city too.

The book is only small and beautifully produced- it fits well in your hands. It is by turns personal, historical, anecdotal and observational.  I did have a frisson of dissatisfaction near the end which seemed to have too many Melba-esque (pun!) farewells.  It was probably more the sense of rounding-off too many times, rather than the ending itself: in fact, I could have happily read another fifty pages more.

An interesting concept, and a really enjoyable read.

My rating: 8.5

Read because: It was on the library shelf

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

aww-badge-2015-200x300I’ve read this as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013.

10 responses to “‘Melbourne’ by Sophie Cunningham

  1. I love Melbourne and lived for many years in the eastern suburbs, mostly Blackburn. but also in all the inner suburbs, including Windsor La. in the city when I was at uni. When I went out it was mostly Fitzroy and Carlton, straight in and out on the eastern freeway. Last year, having been a Perth-ite for the last 15 years, I visited Melbourne for the first time as a tourist (I normally stay with mum in the outer east) staying in an inner city apartment and that was a whole new experience, seeing the city from the inside out, so to speak. I agree with you that you need to know the suburbs to fully know Melbourne (and maybe you need to have spent whole winters catching the train to suburban football grounds!). Now I’ll have to see if my local library has this book.

  2. I’ll look out for that too. Harder to imagine a “literary” work on this very prosaic town.

  3. Love your question “Would I have written the book this way??” In my imagined version I would choose 5-8 people living in very different suburbs and present ‘their’ Melbourne (or Melbournes, plural). Because for me Melbourne is a collective where the experience of living in one part is completely different to the experience of living in another part. St Kilda Melbourne is very different to Keilor Melbourne, for example. Eltham, say, is different again. I would bring it all together at the end with a footy match at the MCG and the revelation that my 5-8 people are all present and supporters of the same team. This despite the fact that I am not a footy person! Hmm, there might be a reason why Sophie Cunningham was selected to write this book and not me, lol!
    Confession: I’ve avoided reading this because I resent having the inner-suburbs portrayed is being the only and best Melbourne. Was I right?

    • residentjudge

      They SHOULD have got you to write it!! And yes, your sense that it was about the inner suburbs is pretty much spot-on.

  4. I have now read two of these books – Sydney and Adelaide (both reviewed on my blog) and thoroughly enjoyed the personal tours through the author’s city. In some ways they invite the question ‘would I have written the book this way?’ because they are so personal to the author; it’s quite natural then to wonder what your personal response would have been. Seeing a city you know so well, revealed in someone else’s eyes, reminds us how diverse our experiences are, but also how similar at times.

  5. Pingback: August 2015 Roundup: History, Memoir and Biography | New Australian Women Writers Challenge Blog

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