For once, Suriyan’s not late when he gets on the bus at Northland Shopping Centre and off at the corner of the Town Hall, saying: ‘Thanks, chum! Thank you,’ and waving at the driver. With time to spare he decides to buy some vadai or pan rolls to share among those he’s meeting. He crosses the road when the light changes, leaning into the wind with long, purposeful strides, past the various shops – the moneylenders, massage centres, beauty salons and real estate agent’s offices – all seemingly empty but for their minders. Suriyan’s easily spotted. He’s a tall man with a tangle of white hair that floats above the passers-by, wearing a bright pink and blue scarf one might suspect he’s borrowed from his wife. A woman comes rushing towards him. ‘Suriyan,’ she says. ‘I need to make that call. Can I do it now?’

‘You need it right now?’

‘Yeah,’ she nods. ‘If you can.’

‘Okay.’ He pulls out a phone from his pocket and hands it over.

The woman dials a number and has a conversation in fast-flowing Chinese. As he stands waiting, Suriyan smiles and nods at people heading towards the Preston market with their bags and shopping trolleys. The woman finally hands back the phone and saying, ‘Thank you!’

‘Okay. No problem. Bye.’

He continues on his way, past the discount furniture store, the used car yard and as he nears the dental clinic, sees another familiar face. He raises his hand in greeting, stops to shake hands with a man with a ponytail and a keffiyeh scarf, and they speak for a few minutes about a recent fundraiser at the Town Hall.

‘Man, the only thing I would’ve liked is for our Welcome to Country to have been included,’ says Suriyan.

‘They didn’t?’

‘No, they didn’t! We have that extra paragraph – and they didn’t read it!’

‘It’s a shame,’ the man agrees.

They discuss how things can be improved further and what the next step needs to be. Suriyan finally breaks away, bidding goodbye, and moves along. He doesn’t glance at the large clothing store or the cake shop but enters the restaurant-cum-grocery with the sign: MKS Spices N’ Things.

He greets the shop owners and enquires after their health, their children, relatives, and their friends, all in fluent Tamil.


He purchases five pan rolls and twelve vadai, insisting he pay for the two additional vadai the owners slip into his bag. A man approaches from the side and taps Suriyan on the shoulder. ‘Hello!’ Suriyan says. ‘How are you?’

‘Fine,’ says the man. He’s from Afghanistan, a recent arrival who had applied for a refugee protection visa with Suriyan’s help. Suriyan had also found a course at the Polytechnic on St George’s Road where he could study for a minimal fee, and use the gym at the Reservoir Leisure Centre free of charge while he awaited a decision. It was Suriyan who had introduced him to the food at MKS.

‘I want to ask you something, Suriyan,’ he said.

‘What is it?’ said Suriyan placing a gentle hand on the man’s shoulder. ‘Tell me.’

The man lowers his voice, looking around to make sure nobody’s eavesdropping. ‘I remember you said something one day. You said you know someone who found, uh, someone on the internet – something like that.’

‘You mean like a partner? A girlfriend?’

The man blushes and nods.

‘Yes, yes,’ says Suriyan slapping him lightly on the back and chuckling. ‘I think it’s a what-do-you-call? An App? For the mobile phone. I’ll find out and let you know.’

‘So, after he found her on the internet, where did they go? Where did they meet?’

‘Must have been one of these cafes, you know – like the one just here, inside the old fire station. Have you been there?’

‘I have gone past it.’

‘You can go there. Or you can take her to a restaurant. But that might be expensive. Let me think…I know! Take her to Lentil As Anything. Do you know that place?’


‘I’ll tell you. It’s right here on High Street – just a few blocks that way,’ he points north. ‘You see, how it works is – it’s a buffet. You go there and you serve yourself and eat. And then before you leave, you put in a donation, as much or as little as you want.’

‘Yeah, that’s good.’

‘Just remind me, okay? I’ll find out the name of that app.’

‘When do you want me to remind you?’

‘Ah, tomorrow? Tomorrow is good.’

‘What time?’

‘Anytime. Just send me a text message. Ah, machan – what’s the time?’ Suriyan looks at the clock on the wall. ‘Adey! I better get going. I’m late!’

He rushes out with his bag of food, past the various businesses and offices, all the way back, passing the town hall, turning right after the Commonwealth bank and into a street that takes him behind the council chambers. He enters the old courthouse on the corner and takes a creaky old lift up to the first floor. Inside a meeting room there’s a small crowd gathered. As Suriyan enters, making apologetic noises, someone pipes up: ‘Mister Chairman of the Darebin Ethnic Communities Council ­– you’re late!’


Westgate Bridge

His present to me that year was the West Gate Bridge. Just before Christmas on our first date, I’d asked where he lived, expecting one of the inner northern suburbs that usually made up my dating pool. “Sunshine”, was his answer. I must have looked bewildered. ‘Deep west’, was his explanation. When I asked a friend who worked there what it was like, her response was “It’s a bit…stabby.” I was not filled with confidence.

A fellow writer, Chris had a lexicon unlike any I’d heard before, uttered from a beautiful mouth. I was deeply smitten. And so I began regular train trips to this mysterious place, ‘The West’.

Leaving the city we crawled under freeways and alongside rust-flaked silos. The train snaked past dockyards whose shipping containers, emblazoned with ‘Hamburg’ or ‘Shanghai’, were stacked into the sky. The gantries rose up like huge animals looming over the water; at night they took my breath away with their luminescence and grandeur. My affinity with the west came quickly and surprised everyone, after twenty-five years of living in the cherry-tattoo-and-craft-beer enclave of Northcote. But the train journey had become a ritual I learned to cherish, for not only would it bring me to Chris, but also the West Gate Bridge.

Her curving lines and fluttering flags caught the eye just after Footscray station.

As a native Melburnian I’d travelled across her many times, but never before had I realised just how beautiful she was.

On each journey I found myself leaning forward in my train seat, waiting for that first glimpse. My newfound love of the area and the man who’d brought me there melded each time my eyes found her on the skyline, bringing a rush of warmth and familiarity.

It wasn’t always that way, however. Every time we drove across the West Gate Bridge as kids – every single time – my dad would start the story. “It happened in 1970, before you girls were born.” We’d clutch the arm rests, knowing what was coming. “The bridge started to tremble, and then it just came apart in the sky, right where we’re driving now!” An anxious child anyway, my knuckles were white for the entire length of the bridge. I didn’t realise at the time how frightened Dad was of driving across it himself; perhaps he hoped that sharing the fear would dilute it. He still dreads it, which explained his shudder when I told him where Chris and I were moving in together. Our cute little brick house in Spotswood gave a view of the bridge, which, coming from the east, he’d now have to drive over every time he visited his daughter.

Spotswood is dominated by the West Gate Bridge. I can hear the off-ramp trucks from my writing desk, and see the flags on the top from my living room window. There is great comfort in both. The industrial aspect of Spotswood brings all the senses to life; cacophonous smashing from the glassworks factory, motorcycles revving in the workshops, huge petrochemical vats labelled PULP and SPULP, and the stench of the pumping station down by Scienceworks. I walk around and feel utterly at home here among the rust and graffiti, finding new routes, and new memories.

But mostly, I head to the bridge.

Past the huge vacant expanse of the Scienceworks car park and over busy Hyde Street, you can come to a rest just underneath this daunting feat of engineering. You’re on the verge of wetlands with families of swans, and the narrow strip of Stony Creek Park. But if you’re anything like me, you’ll stand with your eyes closed, head back, and listen to the bridge speak. You can hear the clank and clatter of huge trucks overhead. The noise is monstrous, making it impossible not to flinch. But I know that what I’m really flinching at happened before I was born, right on this exact spot.

They knew there was a problem. Still under construction, the western and eastern ends were found to be out of alignment by 114mm. Measures to correct this had caused “obvious overstress”, according to Jack Hindshaw, the engineer flown out from the U.K. to oversee the procedure. Alternatives were suggested but they couldn’t come to a decision. And so the workers kept climbing her frame.

On October 14, 1970, the bridge stirred. Her concrete swayed, briefly but noticeably. The men on top paused. One of them called out “She must be having growing pains!”, and a few laughed. One went home to tell his wife of his misgivings, but all turned up to work the next day.

Late that morning, Jack Hindshaw was on the phone to his boss, declaring his concerns. His last words were “Shall I get the bods off?” Moments later, at 11:50am, the bridge groaned. The tenth section on the western end began to buckle, shaking a shower of rust flakes loose.

Those who survived told of a ghastly pinging sound as metal rained down on the workers’ huts below.

The girders, burdened with a weight they couldn’t hold, began to turn blue from the pressure. And then the bridge gave way beneath their feet.

Over fifty men were on site. Some came down with the bridge, while others ran, quite literally for their lives. Fuel ignited in an explosion that was heard miles away. Houses nearby were covered in flying mud. The storm of dust, fire and mangled metal was catastrophic. A friend of mine was in primary school in nearby Yarraville that day and heard the tremendous noise. Another had been on school camp along the water’s edge, dozens of children watching in horror as bodies and chunks of steel tumbled into the water below.

The West Gate Bridge looms large in Melbourne’s skyline, but her collapse stays embedded in our psyche. It remains Australia’s worst industrial accident to this day, claiming the lives of 35 construction workers. Six mangled fragments of the bridge are in engineering campuses around Melbourne to remind students of the consequences of mistakes. Some survivors actually went back to work, picking up their tools and climbing her frame again. For those like my father who wince each time they drive across her, this last fact is almost unfathomable. Some people ‘touch wood!’ when they drive across her. Others go out of their way to avoid it. Almost everyone knows the story.

This is not the only shadow, however. Darcey Freeman was four years old when her father stopped his car on the West Gate Bridge in 2009, and threw his daughter to her death. If the collapse is one aspect of the bridge that Melburnians will never forget, then Darcey is the other. Barriers have now been installed along the length of the bridge to protect those who travel across, which has also led to a significant reduction in suicide attempts. These elements, deeply tragic though they are, have become part of the bridge’s complex history.

Engineering constructions of such grandeur and mystery can be daunting in their own right, even if you’re unaware of the history. The bridge is beautiful to me, but I do not view her without awe. Standing underneath, amidst the noise and rattle of her metal, the water slapping the bank and the city in the background, is an experience both sobering and exulting all in one.

I moved to Spotswood shortly after the anniversary of the collapse on October 15. Chris and I walked there with his 9-year-old son, wondering if it would be one of those wondrous occasions when we could watch an enormous cargo boat glide under her arches. We found bouquets laid against one of her girders, under the West Gate Memorial plaque engraved with the names of all the victims of the fall. The cards were heartrending; men still missed, still mourned, so many decades later. I placed trumpet lilies from our garden against the bridge, for the men, for Darcey, and for all who had lost their lives on the West Gate. With my head down I stood in silence, my hand on her concrete, steady and solid.

The West Gate is more than a symbol of Melbourne for me. Not only does she join the east and west of my beloved city, she’s also the link between my old and new life. I’ve travelled across her span as a fretful child praying for the beams to hold, in my twenties heading down the coast to a holiday house with friends, and on my way home from my first sold-out literary festival appearance. Cruising down her lanes with the sun on my arms, my man by my side and all of Melbourne spread out below us feels like the most beautiful of blessings.

It feels like flying.

It feels like home.



Hitchings, Bill, ‘West Gate’, Outback Press, 1979



No-one knows where Albion is, and being 7 km south of similarly-sounding St Albans doesn’t help matters (yes, I did just help you locate it). No, northsiders, when I say I live in Albion I’m not saying I live on Albion Road, Brunswick: been there, done that. Albion is essentially Sunshine, or rather, it would be Sunshine if the section of line between Sunshine and Albion stations didn’t bisect what seems like the natural spread of Sunshine like some kind of Berlin Wall of inconvenient railway. Something called ‘Sunshine West’ is to the south of Albion; something called ‘Sunshine North’ is to its north-east (but not directly north). In essence, Albion is a clique or a pocket, a hidden suburb hard to get in and out of. It’s like Park Orchards, or West Brunswick, in that regard. You need to know about it to know how to get to it, and to know about it, you need to know how to get to it.


Albion and Sunshine: the history of trying to bolt a concept onto a place

It’s foolish, historically and possibly in other ways, to regard the railway line as inconvenient to Albion or central Sunshine. The form and nature of both places owe everything to the railway, and they indisputably grew from it. H. V. Mackay established a branch of his Ballarat-based Harvester Works to this very place over a century ago because it was a useful rail-centric distribution point on otherwise cheap and commercially underexploited land: the whole of Chicago essentially began the same way. By the mid-1920s, Sunshine Harvester was the largest manufacturing concern in Melbourne (121405.8 sq m of factory, and 194249.3 sq m of related buildings), and Mackay marked the region with his vision.


We can go to Chicago again to get the measure of this vision, and specifically to the town of Pullman, now a suburb in the south of that city. Thirty years before Mackay bought, and began to expand, the Braybrook Implement Works, George Pullman established his ignoble experiment. It was a town wherein his manufacturing employees would live and build his railway carriages – at a time when, of course, to be building railway carriages was slightly better than the ubiquitous license to print money, a kind of alchemy really. Pullman’s town, held up as a worker’s utopia, went pear-shaped when a slight downturn in demand for the product caused layoffs, but the company’s rent-taking left hand did not acknowledge what its job-denying right hand was doing. Pullman was, apparently, distraught and affronted by the ingratitude of his workers.


Mackay’s play was not dissimilar to Pullman’s, though he sold land around Sunshine, and the land’s value was at least part due to the industry in the region – and the railway line, which was of course also the reason for industry’s presence. Business aside, Mackay’s claim to fame was (is) that he worked on improving the design of some farming equipment and created a business which, by his death, had become a monolith. I mentioned Mackay’s vision above primarily to catch you and draw you in with promise of one of those marvelous genius stories people still often seem captivated by (qv Steve Jobs) but there’s nothing to suggest he had any vision at all, unless it was the kind typified by Uncle Scrooge when he gets dollar signs for eyeballs.


Yet, the promise of a vision captivates, and there is an extraordinary tendency amongst those who should know better to clamp Sunshine/Albion to a social movement to which it was in many ways antithetical. It is slightly bizarre, as an urban planning historian, to see the extent to which those with a little knowledge will elasticize reality to claim Sunshine as a ‘garden city’; honestly, it’s not a garden city’s arsehole. Nor is it, in truth, a garden suburb, though it does have a garden – the H. V. Mackay Memorial Garden – a name honouring a man who sought to deny his workers reasonable wages by successfully overturning Higgins’ Harvester Judgement. Mackay won the battle of the Harvester judgment, but lost the war: Australia, provoked by Mackay and Harvester, established a basic wage.

Mackay’s garden is a memorial to a man who might well have said, can’t feed your family? Sorry, but please feel free to smell a flower.

For the record, and for the benefit of you the reader: the garden city concept was not, as it is so often typified, the design of concentrically-roaded urban environments with nature strips and a big park. The garden city was a socialist ideal, to create entirely new cities of 40 000 people, drawn from weary, tired, corrupt older cities, alongside industrial and other concerns to employ them, in places where no city had previously existed. Garden cities were going to kill extant cities. Garden cities were not adjunct suburbs on the edge of town propping up demonized major conurbations such as London – as Sunshine was to Melbourne. Garden cities were intended to recalibrate the very notion of land ownership (everyone always paid rent, to go to upkeep and improvement but never profit: there was to be no private land) and defeat the problems of urban sprawl (once a city reached its population maximum, a new city would be legislated nearby). The intricacies of the original idea need not be discussed here further, but the main point holds: Sunshine/Albion is no more a garden city as any other chunk of any city established in the 19th century. Mackay does not appear to have made pronouncements on ideas to locate workers close to his factory. That said, obviously – a la Pullman and another industrialist, William Lever of Liverpool, the instigator of Port Sunlight and the company now known as Unilever – it was useful in a time of growing self-realisation of the worker. Keep your employees somewhat beholden to you and consistently reminded of the pecking order. Other manufacturers consolidated Mackay’s lead and moved to the region: Wunderlich’s, Crittall’s, Spalding’s, Drayton’s pottery, the Australian Reinforced Concrete company. The stark yet majestic Darling’s flour mills, rebuilt after a fire ninety years ago, are at the end of my street, the world’s biggest bollards, keeping me from easily accessing the station every morning. Soon, they will be remade as artists’ studios. Of course they will (and of course I like artists, though I feel for the pigeons).


Albion: how perfidious?


I can’t help alluding to the phrase ‘perfidious Albion’, because it’s hilarious, but an entirely inappropriate non-sequitur here. Whatever the original purpose of applying a hoary old alternative name for England to a small suburb of 4000 people in Melbourne, you’d have to assume the name seemed appropriate partly because of Sunshine’s reputation as a kind of a ‘Birmingham’ – that is, the workers of Sunshine worked in large-scale manufacturing and, in doing so, mimicked their working class brethren at the centre of Empire. Therefore ‘Albion’, an Ancient Greek word either denoting the British Isles or anywhere outside the known Greek world (hence, Albania). Canada narrowly escaped being called New Albion, and so did Sydney Harbour. To add to the peculiarity – in a suburb named after England – many of its streets are named for major cities and towns in Australia: Perth Avenue and Brisbane, Sydney, Albury and Adelaide Streets all proudly run north-south; a Dubbo Street forms part of the road ringing Selwyn Park in its south. The streets named for smaller towns might reflect hedge-betting, in the very early 20th century, about where the nation’s capital was going to be located.


As mentioned, the railway line is a wall between Sunshine, where the Harvester Works once thrived, and suburbs. The Mackay family caused to be built a row of rather impressive – if the burnt-out shell of the last remaining is any indication – homes for Mackay offspring, along the western side of the line. One of these houses was demolished in the 1970s, and 20 or so townhouses were built on the site ten years later. At present, I rent one.


We talk of inhabiting a character or an idea. Inhabiting a house is also revealing of oneself and, well, the house. To return once again to the notion of the ‘vision’, I can’t help but wonder what the initial concept was herein. All these two-storey townhouses are, as far as I can tell, identical in layout, orientation being the only real variance. They each comprise a large bedroom, directly above a living room: both the same size. A much smaller kitchen/dining area is below a bathroom and a tiny bedroom, not big enough for a double bed, and therefore, a child’s room if it’s a bedroom at all. On moving in here, I discovered two things left behind: a large plastic frog in the tiny courtyard and a framed picture of a teddy bear wearing a hat with corks in the smaller bedroom. (Oh, and a lot of black hair in the top bathroom drawer – it’s all still there, I’m never looking in there again, though I relish the prospect of the real estate agent objecting to its presence when I move out. It’s on the condition report).


All the houses look out onto car parking spaces and two sides of each are almost completely glass; as I write this, on a particularly warm pre-summer’s day, I have been pushed further into the westernmost recess of the building to escape a hothouse effect.


I have written extensively elsewhere of my disdain and concern over the Australian habit for designating ‘bogans’ amongst working class people or ‘others’. I don’t see much of this in Albion, however; probably because of the number of million dollar properties currently being turned around in the region. It’s naturally bittersweet for locals, but few I’ve encountered seem to be rusted-on Albionites. In my middle-class mind – you can’t really take the boy out of Hawthorn – I patch together sad, stereotyped backstories for the lone men I encounter in the streets as they drive waywardly, ignoring corner stop signs. These are people who at least on one level – perhaps a few – aren’t sufficiently engaged with 2017 to care if they live or die. I have no insight into them, aside from that they are shitty drivers, but I can’t doubt that there is a coterie of holdouts in Albion (and umpteen other suburbs which, until recently, seemed destined never to hit the trendies’ radar) terminally despondent about the unaffordability of their area. Logic, of course, tells us that even homeowners who have found their property unexpectedly leap in value in a decade, however much they might marvel, are subject to new stressors: rates, local change, feelings of guilt and/or pressure from grown children who never had the luck to buy for almost nothing a house which is now worth more money than the whole family has ever seen.


Visually, it’s hotch laden upon potch. The upmarket Mackay family boulevard aside, the original suburb was built up with blocky standalone weatherboards or California bungalows with large back yards; in some instances, a few smaller homes are crammed onto what was clearly once envisaged as large family blocks. Some of these pre-1950s (the era before Mackay’s heirs sold to Massey Ferguson) homes have given way to beige or orange apartment blocks. Streets are wide and difficult to orientate oneself in.


Albion would be a whole different ballgame, in any case, if it had a genuine centre. All it has is Selwyn Park, named for one of Mackay’s children who died in infancy. The park is a not unpleasant recreation space bordering Koonung Creek. It also has a group of seven shops, named (long before the bridge) Westgate, and a centerpiece of a small housing estate dating from the late 1950s in the area’s far west, outside the original street plan. With a bold iron ‘W’ bolted to its central shop and its decidedly car-oriented focus (‘parking for 5000 cars daily’ declared advertising in the Age for 19 November, 1955: my rough calculations, based on 15 car spaces and eight hours in the day, indicate each car would stop for one and three quarter minutes… but let’s not quibble with utopia) the shopping strip retains a modernist sheen, albeit still with two empty shops, including a very recently vacated pizza outlet.


Who was it who said when the pizza take away goes, the neighbourhood’s heart breaks in two?

Nobody, of course, or perhaps Leonard Cohen, but more likely I think the pizza joint was like one of those tragic figures who dies just as rescue’s trumpets sound on the hilltop. Next door to its corpse is Sadie Black, the new café in the area and still a matter of pride, delight and fascination for locals, if the Facebook group for Albion and Sunshine is anything to go by. Perhaps the best indicator of Sadie Black’s success is the complaints about it that immediately welled up in social media: I took this to demonstrate embrace of stakeholdership amongst the locals (the complaints were also almost all ridiculous, about other customers’ behavior or entirely reasonable practices like payment on order – a rational and efficient way to do business; it was like complaining to your mother that your brother hit you). Sadie Black’s proprietors are pioneers, but everybody agreed it was only a matter of time; Albion was begging for it.


Add to Sadie Black a hairdresser; a Laundromat; a Polish delicatessen and a milkbar-cum-bottleo, and you have bare needs addressed at the strip no-one any longer calls Westgate, though only the café really provides a civic centre (the Polish delicatessen Mitko, which is stupendous, is clearly dependent on a much wider catchment area than just Albion). A scant few other milk-bar-styled buildings in the surrounding streets surely saw the writing on the wall decades ago when the old Harvester works area became a shopping centre d’énormité.


On the brink


As much as one might like to think gentrification was a trackable phenomenon, it also has to be said that it’s still as much of a state of mind as anything else. Albion is half-way there, perhaps, although as long as those Coburgistan dorks think of that skinny, nerve-wracking, 40kph road through Brunswick when they hear the name ‘Albion’, rather than an actual place, Albion feels like it’s safe from the full bourgeois makeover.


Social media remains an unreliable indicator, at least in microcosm. The Facebook group is rife with good cheer: even if it’s musing on local problems: discussion about crashes and sirens in the area (‘Did anyone else just hear…?’) or good news of a pobblebonk in a backyard; or the extraordinary bulletin that a house in Adelaide Street sold for just under a million dollars. But perhaps the most unusual story of the moment in Albion is that of the rail link to the airport.


The Albion-Jacana line – a goods rail line between two places which have otherwise failed to prick Melbournites’ interest – is set to be, at least in large part, remade as Melbourne’s connection to Tullamarine. The federal government has put money into a feasibility study; the state government is making encouraging noises about such a scheme. It’s easy to make such plans (easy, but it still costs $30 million to figure out whether it’s worth doing). If it does transpire though – in fact, even if it merely concentrates interest on this part of the west – we are going to see a whole different Albion emerge. It won’t be a complete do-over like Green Park was to Zetland in Sydney, but it will mean development of Albion as an entrepôt, a stopover, a desirable ‘fifteen minutes to the airport’ locale for people with money dripping out of their pockets and onto their dreams.


This will kill Albion, it won’t make it stronger. But old Albion has been dying for decades anyway, and nothing was ever going to stop that happening. From its ashes will spring a multitude of varieties of largely unaffordable (even to those who can afford it – if you know what I mean) housing. At least I’ll be able to say, in my dotage, that I saw the last days of old Albion, and they had a little merit.