When I was a young boy my father would take me to the Moomba festival each year.
Not to witness the annual parade, but the weight-lifting events held on a rickety stage in Yarra Park. We would walk from our one-bedroom terrace in Fitzroy, through the city to the river’s edge. Obsessed with masculinity and physical strength my dad seemed as enthralled with men wearing the tightest of sporting outfits and throwing a heavy barbell above their heads as a child watching the dizzying lights of carnival rides. I would quickly become bored with the grunting, farting weightlifters and wander off, down to the banks of the river, where I would search for stones flat and smooth to skip across the surface of the tea-stained water. Back then, I knew only a short stretch of the Yarra, bounded by Princes Bridge to my left and the Swan Bridge on my right.
At the age of ten I moved to a foreign land, a Victorian Housing Commission scheme in Richmond. I didn’t know it at the time, but I have since learned that the grey concrete meccano-like architecture of the high-rise estate that became our unlikely home, was a form of brutalism. And it was. The estate was over-run with hundreds of kids who had also come from someplace else, whether it be, like me, from a mile up the road, or from the other side of the world. In the first months of being forced together in government sponsored social experiment, turf was marked out, defended and fought over, until eventually, an uneasy truce broke out amongst a group of teenagers who realised that what we shared in common was more attractive than the language and cultural values that divided us. In addition to the expected shared interest in pop music, fashion and a hatred of order – heavily promoted and policed by the dreaded estate manager – we fell in love with the river.
Richmond was, and remains a suburb partly bordered by major roads ever clogged with heavy traffic, including Victoria Street, and the dreaded Punt Road, a blocked artery that a quadruple by-pass could never repair. But the east and south-east boundaries of Richmond are skirted by the meandering river, entering the suburb beneath the Punt Road Bridge and moving on to Abbotsford at Victoria Street. Soon after I moved to Richmond I was standing on the laundry roof of our housing block, itself up on the roof above our flat, a space that belonged to women during the day, washing and hanging clothes, and teenagers at night, smoking cigarettes, listening to music on crackling transistor radios while looking up a vast stretch of night sky scattered with stars. From the roof-top I could see beyond the Abbotsford (now Carlton) brewery to a mass of gumtrees in the distance.
I was immediately struck by the unlikely sight and soon began my explorations of the river.
Not long after, on a Sunday morning, along with a large group of kids, I slipped through a hole in a wire fence behind the brewery, followed a trail through a mess of weeds and rubbish and found myself on the bank of a river. My personal geographical map was so restricted in those days that I was not aware that this was the same river I’d enjoyed skipping stones across each Moomba. We explored the river that morning, along both banks from Collins Bridge in Abbotsford to the ‘Skipping Girl’ Bridge at Victoria, where in those days the still to be restored Skipping Girl herself, Audrey, performed an erratic neon dance above the famous vinegar factory each night.
From the age of ten, and throughout my teenage years, the river dominated both my experience of living in both Richmond and later Abbotsford. It also became the unlikely muse for much of my writing when I became a fiction writer, culminating into my fractured ode for the river, Ghost River, in 2015. It was a rare weekend as a teenager that I did not spend time on the river, either swimming and jumping from bridges in summer, or walking her banks throughout the year with friends, simply smoking and telling stories, some true and some fictional, all embellished and influenced by our shared love of the water.
The year I turned twelve I began Form One (Year Seven) at Richmond High School and the river followed me to class. The school was built on the site of an old tip on the west bank of the river between Hawthorn Bridge and the ‘Catwalk’ rail bridge, which would become my favourite jumping bridge. There was both comfort and satisfaction in sitting in a classroom overlooking the place I most wanted to be. The river became my creative inspiration during English classes when we were asked to write a poem or story. While some kids would struggle for inspiration, I would simply look out the window and follow the current of the river easing towards the bay.
But the river also created a sense of restlessness in me. It was where I most wanted to be. Although it was off-limits at lunchtime, no school regulation could stop some of us from spending the midday hour under the Catwalk, smoking more cigarettes and even sneaking in a swim on warm days. The struggle between the pull of the river and the confines of the classroom heightened over the following years, and by the time I was enrolled in Form Four the river had won. From the beginning of the school year onwards, the late summer seemed to drift on and on. I forgot all about school and hung out at every swimming hole along the Richmond side of the river. The change in the weather, around early April that year, coincided with my expulsion from school, due to a lack of attendance, and what the school principal explained to my mother as ‘a total absence of motivation’.