Some more on Melbourne

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:

CaptureHang 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.

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27 Responses to Some more on Melbourne

  1. TNA says:

    These “best places to live” surveys always strike me as being slightly less rigged than the choice of Olympic venues anyway. Who benefits? Tourist industry and estate agents.

    My confirmations will be confirmed the day that Port Harcourt makes it onto the list.

    Melbourne is pleasant enough; there are few places in the world where one can surf and ski on consecutive days. They host some great sporting events. The coffee is very good.

    But perhaps many people don’t like surfing, skiing, attending sports events or coffee. He who controls the judging criteria controls the list.

    A more credible list would be one which states the demographic it’s aimed at; educated Indians seeking a quiet opportunity to make money and give their kids a better life, single gay men with large disposable incomes, retired couples with modest pensions, etc.

  2. TNA says:

    Suspicions, not confirmations.

  3. Tim Newman says:

    Melbourne is pleasant enough; there are few places in the world where one can surf and ski on consecutive days. They host some great sporting events. The coffee is very good.

    I agree, Melbourne isn’t bad at all. It’s just the way people go on about it – especially the locals – as if it’s the best city on earth. Who are they trying to convince? I’ve never heard a Parisian talking up his city, ever.

  4. The winners of “Most liveable cities” recommendations are never actually places you would want to live in. This has been commented on.

    http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/dd9bba18-769c-11e0-bd5d-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2uc5gWFMU

    Cities you might actually want to live in are crowded and expensive. That’s because lots of other people want to live there too.

    I think the isolation from the rest of the world is the number one reason I don’t live in Australia any more.

  5. Tim Newman says:

    Ah, great link Michael, thanks! It’s always good to see somebody else has said the same elsewhere, independently.

  6. dearieme says:

    “examples abound of Australians reinventing what exists elsewhere and claiming it as unique or their own”: alas, all too true – but not unique to them. I enjoyed it when President O claimed that the motor car was an American invention. Just imagine the furore if W had said it.

  7. Bardon says:

    “Economist Intelligence Unit”

    Here in lies the oxymoron.

    As TNA said, quality is in the eye of the beholder.

    I have lived in many places around the world some of them being mega cities and they all have attributes that I like and dislike. Again it depends on what you want and probably what stage of your life cycle that you are at. A young, single, adventurous man will have a different outlook than an older family man. The same person will have differing needs depending mostly on age and whether or not they shift towards providing for family.

    Big cities that I have lived in and like are.

    New York- stayed in the East Village and loved the Greenwich village lifestyle but I do have an etched memory of saying to myself that I was over it which was formed in a urine reeking Subway station looking at some bog standard graffiti. I have returned many times since and still love it, but I don’t think I would want to raise a family there. Brooklyn was insular and shite but now looks better.

    London- mostly stayed in Kings Cross and Maida Vale, loved the craic, it was a happening place, again being young and single the only show in town. Londinium never fails to fascinate me and is perhaps the most interesting city in the world. Would not even consider raising a family there. I visited it last year and was pretty disappointed with the fact that it no longer had anything original and SoHo was just full of the usual major labels, mojo lost.

    Sydney- lived in Bondi and Bellevue Hill same as above.

    Melbourne- I have had two major stints of living there first time in the noughties was Hawthorn (Coronation Street) second time a few years ago in Hampton. I really like Melbourne and bought a house in Hampton with a view to maybe staying there. The Bayside suburbs are within driving distance to the city, have good train links if that’s your thing, have waterfront, great urban villages and very family friendly neighbourhoods. The four season bit of Melbourne is something that appeals to me as well and we used to love lighting up out wood burner late afternoon. This point will be lost on you but if you have studied town planning and colonial town planning the Melbourne grid is interesting as is Adelaide and Fremantle being some of the largest reaming examples of this style, Charlestown being the best. More importantly there is a lot of old money wealth in Melbourne and they handle it well. No one is ostentatious with it and I like that. Melbourne is the only city that you can casually drive to and witness an eco shift when you drive up the range and see the drastic change to alpine vegetation, tree ferns and the like.

    Melbourne rocks and I still have my house there and may return one day.

    Tim its great to read about your newfound love of food and wine since you arrived in France. I must say though, for someone who never sampled Australian wine and preferred Wild Turkey when you were down under, I can’t really take your comparisons of French to Australian wine quality seriously. For me, Champagne is king but nothing, including your best Bordeaux can beat a bold South Australian Shiraz.

  8. Bardon says:

    “Cities you might actually want to live in are crowded and expensive. That’s because lots of other people want to live there too.”

    Michael, your comment reminds me of the much debunked and vested interest backed demographia housing affordably annual report.

    This report purports to show how bad and unaffordable the real estate market is and pretends to demonstrate affordability over a few English speaking countries, blunt instrument I know, but the housing bears among us, swear by it.

    Having had first hand experience of investing in some of the most affordable cities which was Buffalo and Rochester in NY, I can tell you with authority that they are affordable for a reason. No one in there right mind would want to live there. The unaffordable cities are unaffordable for a reason, we all want to live there.

    I am pretty sure you know this already but Australia is the most urbanised country in the world and it doesn’t look like changing. That being said, it also has the least population density in comparison to its peers, how good can it get?

    http://www.demographia.com/dhi.pdf

  9. Tim Newman says:

    Tim its great to read about your newfound love of food and wine since you arrived in France. I must say though, for someone who never sampled Australian wine and preferred Wild Turkey when you were down under, I can’t really take your comparisons of French to Australian wine quality seriously.

    I did sample the wine. I’m not knocking the quality (although it is more hit and miss than the French stuff IMO), I’m knocking the price.

    For me, Champagne is king but nothing, including your best Bordeaux can beat a bold South Australian Shiraz.

    Brisbane chap shares his views on wine and thinks Aussie stuff is better than French. I appreciate you don’t take my views on wine seriously, but who takes anybody’s views on wine seriously?

  10. Bardon says:

    For you to mention Brisbane in this discussion on wine reinforces my cash injecting view. There is money to be made in wine snobbery. I was fortunate enough to be personally trained by Roger Verge in the eighties, the first of the nouvelle cuisine marketing success, and also be his head barman and his only non french staff member in Cafe Pelican in St Matins Lane ,west end. I learned then how much extra money was to be made from wine snobbery.

    There wasn’t many manchurians down there in those days but I can guarantee if one of those ragged trousered lot ever had the wherewithal to make it, I would have easily lightened their wallet by a pony, with one simple wine recommendation.

  11. dearieme says:

    I saw a remark recently about rioting in Rennes. Or maybe Nantes. Anyhoo, little Britain. What’s up?

  12. Tim Newman says:

    I think only Bardon could sneer at my drinking Wild Turkey and not knowing anything about wine, engage in name-dropping in the course of declaring himself an expert, and then accusing me of wine snobbery!!

  13. At a session in a wine bar on Saturday, the definite highlight was a Victorian Shiraz/Viognier. That’s a uniquely Australian style, and the best ones are very good. (Some of these come from the Canberra region, which is a cool climate region, so somewhat atypical for Australia). Australian wine at its best is very good. I personally think that quality control in Australia is very good too. 20 years ago Australia outstripped France in this regard – France made many great wines but also much dross – but this is not really so any more. The quality of average French wine is much better. Australia might have gone backwards a bit. There has been an awful lot of very bland, very predictable lowish end stuff for international markets. (Call this the Yellowtail effect). The Australian winemakers are making the wine exactly as they intend to, but a lot of the mass market stuff is not very ambitious or interesting.

    The trouble is that this stuff is too expensive. Also, the good stuff is too expensive. (Really good stuff might be worth paying for. As for cheap but decent stuff, there is much better value to be had elsewhere. Particularly Spain and Chile).

    Everything in Australia is too expensive. Fifteen years ago, Australia was a cheap place to visit if you were British or American, and the wine and other products were good value for money. Things are now totally the other way.

  14. TNA says:

    “I was fortunate enough to be personally trained by Roger Verge in the eighties”

    Bardon, I have never seen you and Baron Von Munchausen together in the same room.

  15. Bardon says:

    To be trained in marketing is not a declaration of expertise. Two completely different functions.

  16. Bardon says:

    Micheal, good summary of the rise of the Australian wine industry and also some of its poorer aspects. I am currently in Adelaide and had a great meal last night washed down with a beautiful local Shiraz and good conversation.

    The price point is an issue for anyone that exports anything from oz, no doubt about it. A lot of this is to do with the relative value of the Aussie which is now the fourth most traded currency. The long term average is 70 cents in the dollar, we are now hovering around 90c on the back of a stonking 1110 cents peak at one point I thought we might have reached parity with the British peso! The RBA have stated on many an occasion that they want a weaker dollar, the only method left to do this is to lower rates further and avoid the carry trade.

    Australia was late to the dropping rates party and has only joined in of recent times. I believe that it will get back to the long term norm, I don’t know when or how though. We are relatively speaking on very low rates now and the risk off course of dropping them further is stoking inflation which is in the RBA’s remit of control as well. Its an interesting one this one. Dammed if you do and all that……………

  17. Tim Newman says:

    To be trained in marketing is not a declaration of expertise. Two completely different functions.

    Oh. So to get the fundamentals of F&B marketing, you had to travel from Australia to London and have someone personally explain it to you?

    Okay.

  18. Tim Newman says:

    20 years ago Australia outstripped France in this regard – France made many great wines but also much dross – but this is not really so any more. The quality of average French wine is much better.

    The Australian wine boom was probably the best thing to happen to the French wine industry. It shook them out of complacency.

  19. Bardon says:

    “Oh. So to get the fundamentals of F&B marketing, you had to travel from Australia to London and have someone personally explain it to you?

    Okay.”

    Does F&B mean food and beverage?

    If it does, no it didn’t necessitate any travel as I lived in London at the time. We also didn’t use the term F&B either back then in London that ceratinly wouldn’t have appealed to our clientele.

  20. Tim Newman says:

    Food and beverage is the standard hospitality industry term for, well, food and beverage. No, you wouldn’t use it with the customers any more than the management of a shopping mall would refer to their clientele directly as foot-traffic, but those are the terms in use.

  21. Bardon says:

    Okay fair enough as a young Brit being taught how to run a bar in a French style restaurant and sell the highest value wine to clients, I didn’t realise that this was known as the hospitality industry, way back then, now I know.

  22. Tim Newman says:

    Okay fair enough as a young Brit…

    Something you want to tell us, Bardon?!

    In any case, the specifics of your situation are irrelevant; my point was the practice of selling high-value food and drink to customers is the very basis of F&B marketing the world over, and is hardly a modern concept.

  23. Bardon says:

    But what you said was that having a competency in marketing (in the F&B industry) was a declaration of wine expertise, which is not the case.

  24. dearieme says:

    “… Shiraz/Viognier. That’s a uniquely Australian style”: well, apart from Côte-Rôtie of course.

    What did Tim say recently about Australian claims to uniqueness?

  25. Tim Newman says:

    @Bardon,

    Yes, but I had foolishly assumed that if you were going to engage in name-dropping and bragging about being personally trained in something it would be a skill which wasn’t run-of-the-mill, known to every waiter in the land, and could be gleaned from the first chapter of any book on marketing.

  26. TNA says:

    “…..well, apart from Côte-Rôtie of course”.

    Ah, La Landonne. *Sigh*

    Ou sont les neiges d’antan?

  27. >well, apart from Côte-Rôtie of course.

    Touche.

    (Ouch, that hurt).

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