It was with some interest that I read this BBC article on Melbourne, having recently just quit the place:
With its grand Victorian architecture, and famous network of 190 lanes, Melbourne is regarded as one of Australia’s big tourist attractions. But city fathers have been selling some of the alleys to property developers – and Melburnians have an uneasy feeling that vital heritage could soon be lost.
Okay, Melbourne’s lanes are nice. I had fun in my first few weeks there ducking and diving through the back alleys of the CBD stumbling across cool, independent bars with precisely nobody in them outside the hours of 17:00-20:00 on Fridays. I particularly liked this one. But I think a rather large point is being missed here, which I’ll get back to later. Meanwhile:
But for three years running, Australia’s second city has topped the world for liveability, last year scoring 97.5% for stability, healthcare, culture, environment, education and infrastructure.
Yes, and it’s easy to see why it scores highly on those criteria. Sounds like the perfect place to live a nice, easy, untroubled existence as a nuclear family, commuting from an overpriced home in sprawling, nondescript suburbia to a monotonous job while the kids receive a third-rate education which is more than enough to follow in their father’s professional footsteps. Which sounds like heaven if you’re from overpopulated India, war-ravaged Sri Lanka, disaster-prone Bangladesh, or unpredictable China. Or if you like that exact same kind of living in the UK but want some sunshine. But to me, judging a place on those criteria alone is simply an exercise in identifying the most dull cities on earth:
Hang on a minute! “Culture” is one of the criterion, yet Calgary, Adelaide, Perth, Sydney, and Auckland make it into the top 10? Adelaide? Seriously? Okay, so these places are stable, but so is London and New York, which rank at 55 and 56 respectively. True, the environments are better, except for Calgary where it’s clean but minus forty for half the year. From my brief visit to Sydney I’m not sure their infrastructure is so far ahead of London’s, and the gap will be closing fast. I’ve been to both Vienna and Helsinki, nice places the both of them, but hardly the most happening places in the world. And from what I’ve seen of the Australian education system, and heard about the health system, it’s hardly world class (sure, better than Britain’s, but that’s not saying much).
No, this seems more like a list of cities where British families like to be expatriated than a measure of which cities are the best to live in generally. Note that there are only two cities in the top 10 which are non-English speaking, and English is widely spoken in Helsinki leaving just Vienna which would pose a challenge for an Anglophone. I find it hard to believe that Perth or Calgary (both based around oil/mining) are considered more desirable cities to live than Berlin, unless the respondents to the survey were British housewives living in Aberdeen or London wishing hubby would get a job in a place where the houses are bigger, there aren’t so many swarthy foreign-types, and they don’t need to go to all that trouble of learning a new language or even, really, a new culture.
It is my opinion that life in these cities would be “good” in one sense, but interminably dull in another. I’ve found living in rougher, readier places is an awful lot more fun. Which brings me back to the article:
The Economist Intelligence Unit judges left out a few essential elements of Melbourne’s good life – like food and wine, beaches and forests, and vineyards an hour’s drive from the city centre.
The author thinks this is a good thing, whereas I expect Paris or any other major French city would have knocked Melbourne into a cocked-hat had these criteria been considered. Take the food and wine, starting with the wine. Yes it’s good in Australia, but fucking expensive. If you know where to look, and shop around, and stumble on a decent offer, you’re looking at $15 for a reasonable bottle. In central Paris you can pick up a bottle of equal or better quality from any random shop on your way home from work for €7, or two-thirds of the price you’d pay in Australia with a fraction of the effort. Things aren’t much better in the vineyards. A trip to a vineyard in France will gain you buckets of wine at giveaway prices, whereas in Australia you might as well buy it from Cole’s as far as price goes.
The food in Melbourne wasn’t bad, by Anglo-Saxon standards, but I have no idea how the city gained a reputation as a gastronomic centre. The food that was excellent came at eye-watering prices, and the cheaper stuff was no better in quality than that which could be found in Manchester city centre. The lunchtime selection in the CBD was superb, but you pay a considerable premium over the same stuff in Paris. And the lunchtime selection in London is also superb, and you pay through the nose there, too. I think that for years Australia was so devoid of a decent selection of food that when the Italian, Middle Eastern, and Asian immigrants arrived and dragged the standard of food up, Australians went bananas and thought they’d created something unique (examples abound of Australians reinventing what exists elsewhere and claiming it as unique or their own). I am quite prepared to believe that the standard of food in Melbourne at some point in the last 20-30 years surpassed that of many other cities around the globe, but with the sharp increase in prices and the unarguable improvement in food quality and availability elsewhere (particularly in the UK) in the intervening years I really don’t see where Melbourne’s edge is supposed to come from. Compared to Paris it falls well short, in my opinion.
And beaches? Forests? Well, yeah. Melbourne’s beaches are nothing to get too excited about, at least compared to Sydney’s. I didn’t see much by way of forests, and I’m sure they’re all very nice, but I’ve yet to hear somebody tell me Melbourne is an awesome place to live because of the forests an hour’s drive away. Whereas the Ardennes region is not only beautifully picturesque but it is also handy cover for invading Germans.
The other thing which is not considered – and I found this to be a serious issue in Melbourne, and I’ve heard others say the same of Calgary – is how damned isolated those cities are. Perth, Auckland, Vancouver, Adelaide – great places to live if your entire life is there and nowhere else, but not so good if you have to visit family or like to visit a different culture every now and again. Long weekends in another country aren’t viable, especially taking into consideration the price of international flights out of Australia, leaving you pretty stranded. One of the best things about living in Dubai was the presence of a decent airport and its location slap in the middle of Europe and Asia and 6-7 hours from each. Even living in Lagos had the advantage of being 6 hours flying time from Europe and in the same time zone. I find it hard to believe that living at the arse-end of the world, whole continents away from everywhere else, shouldn’t get factored into the quality of life equation somehow.
Back to the article:
Melbourne is a leader in fields like biotechnology and financial services, also music, theatre, film, and festivals.
Hmm. That would a local leader. Melbourne is hardly a global centre of financial services, is it? I think even Sydney packs more of a clout on a regional basis. I don’t see how Melbourne outscores Manchester on any of these criteria.
The city was laid out in 1837 on the Hoddle Grid, designed by surveyor Robert Hoddle.
Yes, and as a result it is rather dull. This is the first time I’ve heard somebody describe the grid pattern of a regional city as adding character.
Following the gold rush of the 1850s and 60s, the lanes led Melbourne’s trajectory downwards, with many becoming no-go zones and haunts for criminals, and buildings becoming brothels, opium dens and speakeasy gaming houses.
As suburbia flourished, the city centre slowly died and right into the 1980s the lanes were dark and dirty. Many disappeared beneath faceless office blocks.
With the urban renewal of the 1990s, the spirit of Melbourne’s lanes revived.
These days, they are not only a colourful reminder of the city’s past, but an integral part of its present – bijoux benchmarks of constant change, with Japanese tea houses and Chinese dim sum diners, fine dining and trendy bars and fashion boutiques, bespoke jewellers, art galleries, coffee grinders, hidden jazz clubs, and secret restaurants like the Italian Waiters’ Club, which opened on Meyers Place in 1947 and only recently put a sign over its door.
Now I have no doubt that Melbourne’s lanes were once as notorious, and later vibrant, as the back streets of London once were, but having walked up and down an awful lot of them, and visited a hefty sample of the venues therein, I think the author is guilty of bigging-up his hometown somewhat. Like the food, it sounds to me as though Melbourne is trading on its past somewhat in this regard, as the nanny state which is so prevalent across Australia, and especially Victoria, is everywhere. Rather than being a hotch-potch of genuinely avant-garde establishments, they are regulated into places far more sterile than the author is making out. Walk into any bar and you’ll see enormous signs warning people about drinking too much, detailing hefty fines for various alcohol related offences. At some point in the evening a squad of police in high-viz vests may well come walking through the joint, and you can be sure none stays open beyond the permitted time (or opens if there are no office workers around).
I think what summed Melbourne up for me was when a colleague of mine, who grew up in Venezuela, went to a Latin American street party in Melbourne. They had all the food on the tables outside, the music, dancing, the lot. Except drinking on the streets is banned, so if you wanted a drink you had to go inside and consume if there. Only Australia could come up with a Latin American street party where drinking outside is forbidden. If the author is concerned that Melbourne will lose its character if the laneways get sold to developers, he might like to consider what his state and federal governments are doing to it.
From my point of view, I’d take a bit of groaning infrastructure over sterility any day.