The Melbourne identity: The former hub of Australia's gold rush is now a City of Literature

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Lonely Planet's Tony Wheeler reveals Melbourne's novel story

My name's on the building. Or should be soon. In 2008 Melbourne became the second Unesco "City of Literature" (Edinburgh beat it by a year). As a result, the Victorian state capital decided to establish a Centre for Books, Writing & Ideas, which they named the Wheeler Centre after my wife, Maureen, and me. Our first Lonely Planet guidebook was published out of a basement flat in Sydney in 1973, the second from a cheap Chinese hotel in Singapore in 1975. From there to book number 100 million – a copy of the 15th edition of our Australia guide, which rolled off the presses recently, it's all been in Melbourne.

First there was a nondescript flat off Chapel St in South Yarra (nowadays the King's Road of Melbourne), then a succession of places in Richmond (the Thessaloniki of the Antipodes when we moved in, Little Saigon by the time we moved out), a modern office in the suburb of Hawthorn and finally a riverside building in Footscray – the "wrong" side of the city when we moved there 10 years ago, much more respectable today.

As with the Lonely Planet HQ, Melbourne's fortunes have proved capricious. Australia's literary and publishing history can be divided into two eras, defined and differentiated by the mode of transport: ship and plane.

In the days when you travelled down under by ship you sailed out from London around the Cape of Good Hope (or, later, through the Suez Canal), on around the south of Australia and your first stop was Melbourne. So British publishers got off the ship in Melbourne and set up shop. Oxford University Press and Penguin are in Melbourne. When planes arrived, you flew across the Pacific from the US. Sydney was your first stop so American publishers got off the plane there; as a result, that's where Random House and Harper Collins are located.

Sydney had already been in existence for almost 50 years when, after one false start, Melbourne was settled. Of course there had been Aboriginal populations in the area far earlier: if you know where to look, traces of their presence are still around. In the car park by the Melbourne Cricket Ground, less than a mile from the centre of Melbourne, a "canoe tree" can still be seen, its bark cut out to make a simple boat for the Yarra River which flowed through the MCG site in those days.

In 1851 gold was discovered near Melbourne. Within three years the population had zoomed from 80,000 to 300,000. Soon Sydney was the poor relation as Melbourne metamorphosed into "Marvellous Melbourne", the second city in the British Empire, topped only by London.

Gold wealth brought magnificent public buildings including a public library, opened in 1856, that was free to "every person of respectable appearance", although it was required that their "hands are clean". Unfortunately, its wonderful glass dome was far less than watertight and had to be covered in copper, until a renovation costing more than £100m restored it to its original glory at the start of the new millennium. The library shared its building with the Melbourne Museum, until that moved out to superb new quarters in 2000 – leaving the space which has now become the Wheeler Centre.

Our Melbourne arrival in 1975 was more chance than planned, but it coincided with a time of literary upheaval. A spate of new Australian publishing houses had appeared – home-grown places, not London or New York offshoots – and the most active were in Melbourne. Outback Press is long gone, although one of its founders, Morry Schwartz, is still a major force in Australian publishing. Morry manages a Jekyll and Hyde existence (choose for yourself which side is Jekyll, which side Hyde). Half the week he's the heart of capitalism, a property developer. The big QV centre with shops, restaurants, bars, offices and apartments overlooking the Wheeler Centre and the State Library? That's one of Morry's creations. The other half of the week he's the publisher of the left-leaning Monthly magazine and Black Inc books.

Around the same time as Outback Press and Lonely Planet got started, Hilary McPhee and Diana Gribble rolled out McPhee Gribble and soon put a host of now-familiar names into print including Tim Winton, Murray Bail and Helen Garner.

Melbourne's literary history goes back much further, though, to the colonial era with authors including C J Dennis and his Sentimental Bloke. Frank Hardy's 1950 novel Power Without Glory traced a seamy tale of Melbourne politics and business that could almost be used as a street map for Collingwood, the city's equivalent of London's East End. As a result of such detail, Hardy was sued (unsuccessfully) for libel. And Nevil Shute's 1957 post-nuclear-destruction tale On the Beach was also set in Melbourne. Sadly, it's probably not true that Ava Gardner, starring in the movie of the book, said that if you were going to make a film about the end of the world then Melbourne was the perfect place to make it.

The novel that brings Melbourne to life for me is always going to be Monkey Grip. Published in 1977, it kicked off the literary career of Helen Garner and the publishing story of McPhee Gribble. It's all sex, drugs and rock'n'roll as Nora cycles the streets of Fitzroy and Carlton, past Victorian verandas trimmed with elegant cast-iron lacework. It was a good film too, with pub-rock scenes featuring the hot band of the era, The Divinyls.

In fact, some of the best descriptions of modern Melbourne are sung, not written. One of those singer-songwriters will be joining the writers at the centre's opening event tonight. Over the years Paul Kelly has summed up Melbourne better than anybody. Any Melburnian would know exactly where you go to gaze "over the bridge to the MCG" and check a clock which "says 11 degrees": from the pedestrian bridge across Brunton Avenue and the railway tracks you can see the MCG in one direction and the clock atop the silos where the South-Eastern Freeway crosses Punt Road. In his much-loved song "From St Kilda to Kings Cross" he not only links the two cities' sin and backpacker centres in Melbourne and Sydney, he also offers to trade all of Sydney Harbour (land and water included) for "one sweet promenade" along St Kilda Esplanade, although he adds that it is a place "where the palm trees have it hard".

Melbourne has booksellers as well as publishers, authors and libraries. John Pascoe Fawkner, one of the pioneering settlers, opened the city's first hotel, published its first newspaper and was probably its first bookseller, since he sold books from his hotel room. His statue crouches – he appears to be mapping out Melbourne with a stick – on Collins Street near Queen Street.

The city's most celebrated bookshop is Cole's Book Arcade which closed in 1928, 10 years after E W Cole's death. At one time it may well have been "the biggest bookstore in the world". Go through 234 Collins Street, past the modern Dymock's bookshop, and you emerge into Howey Place. The glass-and-iron roof above the street once sheltered all those books, along with distorting mirrors and cages of monkeys. Now there's an idea waiting for Waterstone's.

Melbourne's publishing presence has also shifted in recent years. Today the city is probably in the lead when it comes to digital publishing in Australia. Hopefully that will be reflected in the Wheeler Centre – because, if it's a centre for Books, Writing and Ideas, the ideas are just as important as anything else.

Tony Wheeler is co-founder, with Maureen Wheeler, of Lonely Planet

Travel essentials: Melbourne

* The Wheeler Centre at 176 Little Lonsdale Street, Melbourne (00 61 3 9094 7800; wheelercentre.com ) launches today with 'A Gala Night of Storytelling' featuring 15 Australian writers, comedians and musicians. To reach Melbourne, only Qantas has direct flights from the UK (daily from Heathrow), but one-stop connections are available on many other airlines including Cathay Pacific, Emirates, Etihad, Malaysia Airlines, Qatar Airways, Singapore Airlines and Thai Airways.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Bid / Tender Writing Executive

    £24000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With offices in Manchester, Lon...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Executives / Marketing Communications Consultants

    Competitive (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a number of Marketi...

    Recruitment Genius: Marketing Executive

    £20000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This well established business ...

    Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester

    £25000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester...

    Day In a Page

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own