On the sunny side of the street
The column Melbourne is the perfect place for feeling calm and accentuating the positive. So why, asks Howard Jacobson, is he becoming so agitated?
Celebrated novelist Howard Jacobson's most recent novel is Man Booker-nominated 'J'. He has also written 'The Finkler Question', published to great acclaim in 2010. An acerbic critic and broadcaster with a passion for literature and art, he is known for his ebullient wit.
Saturday 03 April 1999
Whereupon it peters out. I got bored with it.
In fact it could have been Beau Brummell I was thinking of, because he died of natural causes in his sixties, no longer careful of his appearance; so it must have been some other Regency beau who overdosed on laudanum while still young because he couldn't face the tedium of having to do up one more button on his trousers. I understand him. I took a sabbatical from London last year because I was up to here with queueing for milk at Sainsbury's but didn't know where to lay my hands on laudanum. We are finely strung, we dandies. The sublunary world plays upon us like zithers.
But it was unwise of me to take my sabbatical in the she'll-be-sweet, no worries capital of the Southern Hemisphere. I'd confused the need to be agitated with the need to be calmed. And this city is calming me to death.
Most Melburnians would be surprised to hear me say this about their town. Queensland is where it's supposed to be sleepy. After that the Northern Territory. Then Hobart, Adelaide, Perth and Sydney, in that order. Melbourne is the only Australian city that is meant to remind you of the hurly-burly of Europe. No beach culture here. In Melbourne they wear summer clothes for no more than two months of the year. Then it's into black fashions whatever the temperature. Melbourne? It's like Milan, isn't it? Every week the department stores put a notice in their window announcing `New Arrivals'. I love that notice. It reminds you that you're a long way from the rest of the world, eager for news and susceptible to rumour; that you're near the water, reliant on the winds, and that big boats have just pulled in. `New Arrivals'. It makes you think of human cargo, the huddled masses, immigrants from the Seven Seas. And of basic commodities. Tea, salt, sugar, flour. `New Arrivals' - we can eat again! But what it's actually referring to is the latest consignment of Dolce & Gabbana overcoats.
Sophistication isn't the issue, though. Yes, you can eat well, drink well, look smart, and even be a boulevardier in Melbourne. But you can't rush. You can't get a move on. They're too polite to let you. `How are you?' they ask you in the shops, and they ask it with such pointed intimacy - `How are YOU?' - that for a moment you actually believe that they know you, that they are genuinely curious, that your health is the only thing that matters to them, and that if they don't in all honesty remember you from some other time, in some other place, then they will certainly never forget you, or how you were, ever again. After which attentiveness how can you insult them by asking where the Phillips screwdriver sets are kept?
When I was a boy I was forever coming out of shops without the thing I'd been sent in to buy because I was too shy to ask for it. Now, as a man, in Melbourne, I find myself doing the same thing because I cannot bear to implicate a shop assistant in the bathos of purchase. `Is that all you want from me? A screwdriver!'
For some time now I have been trying to replace my worn-out CD of The Student Prince - the classic soundtrack to the movie in which Mario Lanza sang but did not appear, the moguls having decided he was unfit to be seen on celluloid on account of the size of the breakfasts he'd been eating. (Frustration, you see. It affects us all differently.)
Finding the sort of vintage record shop which is bound to stock The Student Prince, in the quietly pulsing heart of what they call the Paris End of Collins Street, where `New Arrivals' grace every window, I ventured in, being careful to appear preternaturally well so that no one would have to ask me how I was. And looked around for someone to serve me. And waited. And waited. Upwards of 20 minutes I must have waited, my temper boiling over like an Austin A40 in a Whitsunday traffic jam, until at last a young man with cheerful yellow hair and a twisted mouth which he was endeavouring to straighten with orthodontic studs approached me, drying his hands on his trousers. `Hi!' he said. `How's your day been?'
`How's it been so far?'
`You should know,' I said. `I've spent most of it in here.' But you cannot insult a Melburnian intent on calming you to an early grave. Now we'd established that my day had been a ripper so far, he wondered whether I anticipated further success from it later, whether I was going somewhere nice that night, whether I had anything interesting planned for the long weekend, whether I intended to be in Melbourne long and whether I had visited anywhere in Australia I liked more.
`Yes,' I said. `Yes,' I said. `Yes,' I said. `No,' I said. `Yes,' I said. `And The Student Prince?'
`Never heard of it,' he said.
It was shortly after this encounter that I began keeping a diary. I will die out here, etc.
Seeing me suffering panic attacks bought on by chronic absence of urgency in everyone around me, Melburnians express perplexity and concern. Don't I find it relaxing out here? Sure, I tell them. It's just that the century is trickling through our fingers, our life's blood is flowing away so quickly you can hear it ...
`Well, have a good day anyway,' they tell me
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