Sunday, 5 July 2015

Interview With A Wrecker.....And A Wrecker's Biographer....

On a recent trip to the top of Bourke Street for a Sunday lunch with some friends, my wife and I came across a cute little shop by the name of Melbournalia which, as you can probably imagine has a host of souvenirs of our favourite city. Amongst them I was delighted to find copies of a book called Bearbrass: Imagining Early Melbourne which some of you may recall I gave a mention  back in February....

I absolutely loved the book and the wonderful way it's author, Robyn Annear transports the reader back to the muddy streets of old Melbourne when it was new. 

Well, sat alongside it, in Melbournalia, were copies of A City Lost & Found: Whelan The Wrecker's Melbourne also by Robyn Annear. Now I'd heard about this one, and had been keeping my eye out for a copy, not just because I'm a mad book-buying fiend.... but because, for my living, I am also a wrecker, or demolition worker! Whelan's are part of not only my industry's history, but as Robyn clearly realised, Melbourne's. 

These mysterious alignments of interests having been brought into being by the fates of book loving.... I thought I'd drop Robyn Annear a line or two and ask for an interview for the entertainment of you, dear reader... She kindly agreed, and here it is....

Robyn Annear, you’re in danger of becoming Melbourne’s unofficial chronicler, how does the title sit with you?
Well, ha, Stevie. Have you noticed I haven’t had a book published for ten years now? If I think of myself as a writer these days, it’s more in the past tense. Having said that, I’d be happy with ‘unofficial’ chronicler; it sounds literally ‘off the books’.

Do you feel a kinship with Melbourne considering you’re a bit of a country lass at heart?
It’s the other way round: I’m a city lass at heart. Even though I’ve lived out of town for 25 years now, the pace here and the lack of variety (people, places) can feel limiting. Also, I like anonymity. Can’t get that in a country town. Plus, what I really like is miles upon miles of footpath unspooling in all directions. We’re short on that around here. So a kinship with Melbourne? Yeah. It’s the place I know better than any other, and it still surprises me.

What part of the city makes you feel most comfortable?
Flagstaff Gardens, I like a lot. Collins Street. Little Bourke Street west and Little Lonsdale West and their laneways. The main shopping drags are just mad with unruly pedestrianism.

Which are your favourite bookstores to visit?
City Basement Books is far and away my favourite. I especially like their ‘new arrivals’ table and the shelf at the counter where they keep old books without covers (and covers without books!). I’ve found treasures there for just a dollar or two. As for new books, I like Hill of Content. The ‘hallowed’ atmosphere there works for me. It’s a danger, too, though, as it encourages ‘aspirational’ book buying. You know how, in that hushed, rarefied kind of setting, it’s easy to imagine yourself with hours of unbroken leisure for reading – when real life (for me, anyway) isn’t like that at all. Like most people, I read books mostly in grabs, between interruptions.

How often do you come into the city these days?
Right now, I only make it to the city about once a month – which is killing me. Family and work demands are keeping me close to home. I hope that’ll change soon, though. In the meantime, I explore the city streets using Google Street View. Not quite the real thing, but…

What do you read for pleasure?
The New Yorker, every week. It opens new vistas of thinking to me all the time. I’m finding it increasingly difficult to stick with a book. Non-fiction, in particular, seems too often to take a micro-idea suitable for an essay and s-t-e-t-c-h it out to (extensive) book length, repeating and over-elaborating to fill the pages. I’ve been enjoying the books of the curmudgeonly English philosopher, John Gray and the essays of Nicholson Baker. In fiction, I like Michael Cunningham (he wrote The Hours) and George Saunders’ short stories. Also Maira Kalman’s books of paintings and reflections.

Which book do you wish you’d written?
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (James Agee). It’s a blast.

Your approach to historical writing follows a vein of imagination some would consider unscholarly, why did you choose this approach?
Because I am unscholarly, wilfully so. (Don’t get me started.) Not having gone to university – so not having to unlearn the rules – was my lucky escape. Setting out to write Bearbrass, I just wanted to share my pleasure of Melbourne and to have some fun. It now seems unfortunate that some people took me seriously and that I bought into the idea of myself as an historian. I’m beginning to think that, by instinct, I’m more like a psychogeographer – or would be, if it weren’t such a wanky word.

Bearbrass does something, for me, many other history books don’t, it brings the reader into contact with the real people of the time. How do you achieve this?
I guess it’s because I intersplice the historical narrative with fictionalised/imagined bits taking the reader up close with a Bearbrass individual and (usually) the strife they found themselves in. Without realising it, I wrote those sections in the second-person, so that ‘you’ (the reader) felt as if you were there. And the fact that I drew so heavily on newspaper sources – so gossipy and on-the-spot – probably brought readers closer to their Bearbrass counterparts.

Who are your inspirations?
Gillian Tindall’s The Fields Beneath: The history of one London village inspired me to write about ‘a place’. Her books of history and (earlier) fiction have continued to inspire me. As a writer, she has a curious and subtle (unobvious) turn of mind.
Madeleine Henrey, who wrote as Mrs Robert Henrey, chronicled London during and immediately after World War 2. A Frenchwoman who married a London journalist in the 1930s, she was curious about everything, and an unrivalled noticer. Her loving, exploratory portrait of post-Blitz London, in The Virgin of Aldermanbury (1958), is a marvel.

Many people aspire to writing as a career, is talent more important than perseverance?

Which of Melbourne’s historical figures of the last 180 years would you most like the opportunity to interview face to face and why?
That’s easy: E.W. Cole of the Book Arcade. The Arcade was an expression of his eccentric mind and world-view; I’d just love to see them up close and in action.

Is there anywhere else in the world you’d like to have the opportunity to write about?

Not really. It would feel impertinent, somehow, to write about someone else’s place. Having said that, the book I’m (glacially) working on is largely set in Boston, USA. The focus, though, is on people rather than place. (And hey, place is much easier than people to write about; people keep moving, blurring the exposure. And who knows what they’re thinking?)

Thank you Robyn, there are more titles out there by Robyn Annear, all you have to do is look them up book lovers!

Happy reading
Stevie at BLM