Tag Archives: local history

Psychogeography

Everyone has their own theory about the methods and purposes of psychogeography, is it magic or unknown science, but the one thing that people are sure about is that it involves walking. Psychogeography may be a form of literary or artistic fiction about a crowd-sourced index and map of various cities. It is not intended for the sole-benefit of the researcher, although it may well be, but for a larger audience. In this it can be distinguished from religious or spiritual walks; pilgrimages, walking meditations or the Aboriginal walkabout as these are done for the spiritual benefit to the walker.

Bionic Ear Lane

There are different types of psychogeography.

There is the psychogeography of the Situationalists; the dérive, and all that programatic pseudo-scientific shambolic stuff at the start. Not forgetting all the other wanders of the city that had come before them, especially in those Paris streets.

The psychogeography of Stewart Homes (London Psychogeographical Association and the Manchester Area Psychogeographic) where the Situationalists philosophy is mixed with the magical geomancy of lay lines and architectural conspiracy theories.

The psychogeography of Will Self with his long distance traverses of the urban landscape of London, New York, Los Angeles… As Will Self explains:

 “most of the pychogeographic fraternity (and, dispiritingly, we are a fraternity: middle-aged men in Gore-Tex, armed with notebooks and cameras… ) are really only local historians with an attitude problem. Indeed real, professional local historians view us as insufferably bogus and travelling – if anywhere at all – right up ourselves.” (Will Self Psychogeography Bloomsbury, 2007, p.12)

All this walking may not be as bogus for historian as Will Self implies; Charlie Ward writes on his blog:

“when I finished a Masters Degree and realised that I was a historian, I’ve noticed the foibles that characterise the guild. One of these is the habit of ‘taking the air’ in locations at which past events occurred. While I remain coy about these activities, I was buoyed to read in Mark McKenna’s excellent biography An Eye for Eternity ,that Australia’s pre-eminent historian, Manning Clark, was a committed practitioner of this eccentric science. According to McKenna, Clark spent days driving across the outback on trips punctuated by the historian pacing about like a bush parson, divining the temper of times gone by.”

My own version of psychogeography are predicated on research and strays into both the territory of local historians and even archeologists. When I asked my friend Geoff Irvin, a real, professional archeologist about describing my activities as “a surface archeological survey” was an abuse of term, he scoffed at the much abused idea of surface archeology and told me to abuse away.

My predilection for amateur local history comes from mother’s side of the family; my mother’s main interests are Chinese immigration to Australia and graveyards in Central Victoria. My maternal grandfather, Harold S. Williams wrote a series of history articles, “Shades of the Past” for the Mainichi newspaper during the years 1953 to 1957 along with a couple of books. He was a bit of flâneur, reporting on the local history, observing the coffee shops and other minutia of life in Osaka, sometimes with a revolver in his pocket. So I suppose that I’m carrying on a family tradition.

I have now been writing this blog for six years. Travelling around Melbourne: walking riding my bicycle, taking trains and trams. I am not a pedestrian purist, like Will Self, for me psychogeography can be conducted by other forms of transport, although for accurate observations being on foot (or on a bicycle because it is easy to stop and start) is best.

Perhaps we need another term, other than crazy ‘psychogeography’, or perhaps the activity has already divided in specialist areas of interest: ghost signs, paint spotting (looking for graffiti), legend tripping and urban exploration.


Footprints of history

Here is a bit of history for Melbourne’s street artists:

“Stencilled advertisements were a popular form of footpath advertising particularly in the more frequented stretches of Bourke Street. Little action was taken against offenders unless damage to property was incurred, though the practice was seen by the MCC as being contrary to the spirit of the advertising regulations. In 1920 some men who had stencilled the footprints of a dog in whitewash on the footpath from Flinders Street to the Majestic Theatre could not be prosecuted under clause 32 of By-Law No. 134, as no obstruction or annoyance could be proven. This lead to the creation of a new By-Law No156 in 1920 ‘for regulating or prohibiting the writing, painting, printing, stencilling, placing or affixing any letter, figure, device, poster, sign or advertisement upon any footpath, street or road within the said City, or upon any building, fence, or other property vested in the Municipality of the City of Melbourne’.”

(Andrew Brown-May, Melbourne Street Life, Australian Scholarly, 1998, Kew, p.50)

Brown-May does not have any information on when stencilled advertising began in Melbourne. Stencilled advertisements were probably used prior to 1920 but before 1870s when it would have been pointless as the sidewalks of Melbourne were in too poor a condition.

Maybe if this trail in the 1920 had been proto-street art, the work of art students rather than advertising then the City of Melbourne’s council might have taken a different view of the activity. However, there was no street art in the 1920s and advertising not graffiti was seen as blighting the image of the city. Along with stencilled advertisements there were numerous advertisements pasted around Melbourne along with people ringing bells to advertise sales. And so the City of Melbourne passed the first laws specifically prohibiting stencilling, wheat-pasting and the other techniques of street art

Advertising has long had a deleterious effect on Melbourne’s culture and on its street art in particular. Except that without the techniques and technologies of advertising, like stencils, there wouldn’t be street art. (See my post for more on the nexus of  Art & Advertising). The footprint of advertising is still on us.


Coburg Mix

Coburg is changing – I’ve had this conversation many times, one of the most memorable was with another resident in the Victoria Street Mall. I liked the changes and he didn’t, was this simply a matter of different tastes? He didn’t like the café culture although he couldn’t explain what was wrong with people talking and enjoying life. I enjoy having more good cafes and restaurants within walking distance of my home. I wanted to understand why he didn’t like the changes but he kept on talking about the way things used to be. In the end I could only conclude that he just didn’t like change.

Victoria St. Mall, Coburg

Victoria St. Mall, Coburg

Coburg cannot simply be seen simply as a working class suburb in the north of Melbourne. Coburg is a mix of the old and new, people from around the world, a mix that creates a friendly atmosphere on the liminal zone.  Coburg is now in the liminal zone the inner and outer suburbs but it was once a rural village just to the north of Melbourne. The basic structure of Coburg was laid out in the late 19th century when it was still a rural village aspiring to be a city. The row of churches, the grid of major streets, the pubs, the cemetery, and the civic and recreational spaces had been created before the population boomed.

Coburg remains a mix, a muddled merger, a blend that hasn’t been homogenized into one substance. All there are many elements in this mix from the rural and urban, the mix of prison and industry, the mix of nationalities and a mix of classes. The mansions along the Avenue and the Grove are an indication the wealth of some people who lived in Coburg in the late 19th century.

Mansion in Coburg

Mansion in Coburg

Richard Broome often comments in his book, Coburg – between two creeks, on this mix even when Coburg became a largely working class suburb in the 1920 – 70s. (p.215) Broome comments on the aspirations of Coburg’s blue-collar employees, reflected in the higher than average home ownership in the suburb. Coburg as suburb with high home ownership; even in the Great Depression there were only a handful of repossession in Coburg. Home ownership makes people, in a classic Marxist sense, not working class as they have capital. Although Coburg did have a large number of factory workers during the 1920 – 70s as the factories closed down the population mix changed yet again and Coburg became a dormitory suburb.

The micro-suburbs like Connan’s Hill on the border of Coburg. Or “the Toorak of the north” as the original publicity claimed for the new suburb of Merlynston. Both of these mico-suburbs were urbanized post WWI before they were all farmland.

Coburg’s Chinese population arrived along with the European settlement of the area and specialized in market gardening. Chinese market gardens opposite the Coburg Town Hall; the land was acquired by the city, although there were still Chinese working market gardens along the Merri Creek into the 1970s. The presence of the Chinese market gardens was marked by a piece of pavement art in the park. Kitty Owens and Mary Zbierski pavement painting ‘Magic Carpet’ (Ghost Chinese Market Garden) first exhibited as part of the Moreland Sculpture Show (it was in chalk then and was on a different piece of pavement), now the painting has gone too.

Kitty Owens and Mary Zbierski ‘Magic Carpet’ (Ghost Chinese Market Garden) pavement painting Coburg

Kitty Owens and Mary Zbierski ‘Magic Carpet’ (Ghost Chinese Market Garden) pavement painting Coburg

The mix of Coburg is one of its many attractions; it makes for great people watching. I love walking or cycling around the suburb, I can do almost all my shopping locally and dine out locally. I do have to leave the suburb for art galleries and most of my live entertainment.

Coburg is an area of land bounded by the Merri and Moonee Valley creeks. The Moonee Valley creek is now just a large concrete drain but the Merri Creek is now an attractive place, recovering from its badly polluted state in the late 20th century. Coburg has changed from a village to a city, to a dormitory suburb, to a shopping and business hub. Coburg has changed since Europeans stole the land from the aborigines but it is now being done with greater taste. There is a greater sensitivity to preserving the local character. There are a surprising number of heritage listed buildings and heritage overlays in Coburg. Developers are preserving art deco facades of factories (see my post on Art Deco Coburg) and homeowners are restoring Federation era houses, renovating the interiors for the 21st century. There was plenty of insensitive development in Coburg in the 1960-80. Now there are many new construction sites along Sydney Road many of the old shops, garages and warehouses are coming down. The “Hygenic Building” still stands but the dairy behind it has long gone.

I didn’t realize the passions raised by these changes in Coburg until I wrote my first blog Coburg 2010. But it is still out there, last week I got of pamphlet from the Save Coburg campaign. This is often the parochial politics of the current gentrification of a suburb, the financial and emotional attachment to the home, the financial pressures to move, the loss of rental spaces for students and other low-income groups. If you want to make really intelligent comments on this aspect of redevelopment then I suggest that you first read Michael Thompson’s Rubbish Theory, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1979); far too few people have read this brilliant book. Thompson describes the chaos mathematics of the forces operating to depopulated former inner city slums and makes them attractive places to gentrify.

For more on the history of Coburg you can read Richard Broome, Coburg – between two creeks, (Lothian, 1987) but I must warn you that it is a boring local history with too much focus on details and not enough narrative. Broome had made full use of the archives but struggles to make a history out the material collected and his frequent contemporary asides are not an alternative to analysis.


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