The sprawling quadrilateral

During my time in Richmond, between 2008 and 2018, I saw thousands of apartments being built. These constructions were, as we shall see, an ironic reversal of the suburb’s historical development, which since the middle of the nineteenth century tended to favour industry over the residential, and as such, the suburb had mostly been working class. And encroachments of industry into residential space had been the history of Richmond as it grew and developed into the twentieth century.

But then former sites of industry vanished and were transformed into huge apartment complexes. Once a suburb of industrial labour, Richmond was now a place for retail living. It’s history had been turned on its head.

Richmond is a sprawling quadrilateral.  One wouldn’t describe it as hugger-mugger.  It’s design is clear and orderly, making it … well … clear and orderly, or if you like, bland. Its boundaries are Victoria Street to the north, Hoddle Street to the west, and Swan Street to the south.  Although, we could extend the boundary further south, beyond Swan Street to the Yarra, to include Cremorne and Burnley. Geography, rather than municipal boundaries, makes better sense of these inclusions.

The eastern boundary of Richmond is again the Yarra River.  Cross over the bridge and you’re in Hawthorn.  But do that at your peril.  If you’re broke and living in Richmond the big houses on the hills of Hawthorn look down upon the south-eastern flank of Richmond with the glint of class divide in their eyes.

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On a clear day you can see all the way east to the Dandenong Ranges from Richmond.  But you have to look past the cars banked up to the crest of Richmond Hill, the sun intensifying their colour as they loosen into streams of movement when the lights change.  And you have to look past the criss-crossing nerve ends of tram wires strewn above the road, past the signs — the signs for beer and shoes, the signs for the hospital and for dresses, food and real estate – and past the buildings that in the summer heat look as though they’ve been rescued from a kiln.

Look past all this and you’ll see the great distance of the mountains to the east. And if you walk in that easterly direction, up Bridge Road and over the hill and keep one eye on and one eye off what the poet Judith Wright calls the “flowing and furious world,” you can exist simultaneously among the shops and the people in the streets and in the freedom of the distant mountains. 

But the view is more than this.  It’s an immaterial link to the past and one of the few things that will remain, if there is anyone left to see it, of the early years of the city and its expansion east into districts such as Richmond.  This view or “perspective” predates even buildings considered historic because it inspired their construction.

Between the lolly-bag scene of Richmond retail and the distant ranges, dimensions of time open up.  The elevation that gives you this view is the result of geological activity that occurred over 400 million years ago.  Your eye is not only connecting the two points.  They are already connected geologically by Silurian-aged deposits over millions of years.

It was precisely this vantage point and its dazzling view stretching east to the mountains that attracted pioneering gentry in the 1830s and 40s.

Richmond was named after Richmond Hill in England, where the view was protected by an act of Parliament, the Richmond, Ham and Petersham Open Spaces Act (1902), the only one of its kind in Britain, brought into being under pressure from those who protested against development of the area.

Here in Australia, Richmond’s “hill” also offered commanding views of a vast plateau, but one ripe for the developments of farming and grazing, and later, industry. Historian Janet McCalman tells us that Richmond’s social fate was determined by its topography.  Richmond began its colonial days as a semi-rural home for the well-to-do.  But it quickly became an over-crowded suburb of the working classes.  This change in Richmond’s demography was foretold by the industries that began moving into the area from the 1860s. 

Tanneries, wool-washing plants, a brewery, boot and furniture making all took advantage of the wide, flat land by the river.  The disused silo still standing in east Richmond was used for wheat.  Closer to the heart of the suburb you can see the silos of a disused malthouse, which were converted into apartments and described by Philip Goad as forming “a brutish totemic tower of inner-city living.”  Through industry, Richmond became a creation of the late Victorian boom. In another hundred years it’ll probably be seen as the creation of early twenty-first century gentrification.

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Richmond hardly bears a visible trace of the past.  Richmond Town Hall no longer reveals its Victorian era, revivalist gothic architecture.  In the 1930s it was remodelled as a Council priority.  And yet there are traces of an industrial past, evident in the malting silos in the far southwest corner of Cremorne, next to the freeway and by the river.  If you notice these silos it’s probably for their billboards.  And if you walk the backstreets you might glimpse a bluestone wall or a cobble-stone segment of road.  But these things don’t amount to much.   

And that’s okay.  An absence of the past in Richmond means you don’t have to hear, see, or smell the slums.  In 1916 a Richmond local despaired:

The aspect presented to the train traveller between  Richmond  and  South  Yarra  is  one  of most unsightly backyards, and the mental impression of this  city  conveyed  is  that  it  is  a slum neighbourhood excelled in unsightliness by nothing else between here and Sydney.  Where it is not a slum, it is advertising hoarding, and the odours are certainly not those of ‘Araby the Blest’.

(Richmond Guardian 26 February 1916)

The blessed aromas referred to here were those of an Arabian Bazaar. The south ward of Richmond was very poor, cramped and narrow.  There were lots of unmade streets with a lot of mud in winter and dust in summer.  This area was once known as Irish Town. To the north were the fresher airs and leisure gardens of the homes on Richmond Hill, whose drainage ran south, downhill, into Irish Town.

Walking in Irish Town, this local further observed that the streets were “full of horse manure, waste papers, empty tins, rabbit entrails, dead cats and such-like flotsam and jetsam, whilst the channels contained a quantity of malodorous slush.”

In James Joyce’s Dubliners (1914), there’s a story called “Araby,” which begins in a street in Dublin called North Richmond.  The narrator of the story is a boy who wants to go to the Araby Bazaar in Dublin to buy something for a pretty girl he likes.  But he’s held up, waiting  for his drunk uncle to come home and give him some money.  By the time he gets to the Bazaar it’s too late.  Nearly all the lights are out and the stalls are closed   The boy leaves with nothing.  Later, reflecting back on this time, he says, “I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.”

Joyce’s biographer, Richard Ellmann, argues that the Bazaar in Joyce’s story has a real-life counterpart in the Araby Bazaar which came to Dublin on May 14-19, 1894.  Was the Richmond local familiar, like Joyce, with the Araby Bazaar in Dublin?  Had he read Joyce’s story?  And if so, did it inform his low opinion of Richmond?  Was “Araby” a cultural variable in his social observation?

Remembering his childhood journeys into the city by train in the 1920s, the narrator of George Johnston’s novel, My Brother Jack (1964), says

All the way through to the city proper there was nothing to break the drab flatness of this unadventurous repetition except the club flags flying over the grandstands of some football ground or other, or a particular factory smokestack that impressed by its height or shape or the amount of reek it gave off, or the grimy brick wall of the Rosella Jams and Pickles Factory with the cloth-capped girls working and chattering behind the railway-sooted windows.

This description is one long sentence.  Which is deliberate, because it imparts a sense of the out-stretched distance of the journey.  Johnston wants to say that travelling through the eastern suburbs of Melbourne, past Cremorne and to Richmond, is like an overly long, uninteresting sentence given pause only by the commas of particular sights (a football field, impressions of industry) and the semicolons of train stations. The full stop is achieved, so to speak, at either end of a flat diffusion of dull geometry and sad habitations, namely, the city or the last suburban “outpost.”

*

Walking in Richmond parklands one evening, down the south-eastern corner of the suburb near the river, I came across an old dead gum tree.  It stood at least twice my height, and because it was surrounded by tall scrub and leafy trees and set back from the path, I’d never really noticed it before.  But this particular evening, the sun going down, there was an eerie light which seemed to indicate the significance of what stood inconspicuously behind the surrounding scrub.

I found out that it was a Corroboree Tree, which once marked a boundary between Aboriginal tribal lands.  This was a site for meetings between Indigenous tribal groups and for the performance of song and dance.  It was a place for stories and exchange.  And as a shady, wide-open area to gather and meet, the parklands are still, in a way, serving this need. But in a place of dog shit and laughter, that bare tree stump is a haunting symbol of dispossession. Here more than anywhere else in the docile inner-east the terror of history will strike a blow.

Cultural politics and historical fiction

Several years ago there was an article in The New York Times that caught my interest.  The article was about Olly Neal, a high-school kid in the late 1950s who stole a book from the library because he liked the racy cover. Neal was an ‘at-risk’ kid.  He was poor and black and had an attitude.  His father was a farmer.  The house had no electricity and Olly Neal was one of thirteen children. 

Olly had stolen a novel by Frank Yerby, a black writer.  He finished the book.  Then he went back and stole another, again by Yerby.  This happened another two times.  Four novels in total, all stolen and all by Yerby.  Olly had caught the reading bug.  As the article in the Times describes, this probably changed the course of his life.  He eventually went to college and studied law.  By the 1990s, now in his early fifties, Olly Neal had become a judge.

What’s even more wonderful about this story is that Neal’s English teacher, Mildred Grady, knew all along that Olly had stolen that first book, but she kept quiet and instead sought out more books by Yerby, at her own expense, to put on the library shelf so her student could steal them.  What a sweetly covert system of encouragement, of reaching through to a vulnerable kid!

And who was Frank Yerby? 

His name is not really heard of today, but Frank Yerby (1916-1991) wrote more than thirty novels, and was acclaimed for the meticulous research of his historical fictions. Yerby protested vociferously against US racism and left the US in the 1950s for France and then Madrid, where he lived for the next thirty-five years. 

In 1971 Yerby published one of his most well-known books, an historical novel called The Man from Dahomey, which is about the slave trade in early nineteenth-century Dahomey (now Benin, in West Africa).  It’s a book that goes to great lengths to explore the social conscience of its characters and assert a cultural politics of history, race and power.

It’s often said, pragmatically, that historical fiction is useful for cultural politics because it can evoke empathy for the injustices of the past.  As literature, historical fictions can, in the words of WG Sebald, “attempt restitution over and above the mere recital of facts, and over and above scholarship.” David Malouf has also claimed the “superior powers of empathy and historical understanding” of historical fictions.  He means ‘superior’ to strictly factual non-fiction writing.  As Malouf argues,

our only way of grasping our history –– and by history I really mean what has happened to us, and what determines what we are now and where we are now –– the only way of really coming to terms with that is by people’s entering into it in their imagination, not by the world of facts, but by being there.  And the only thing really which puts you there in that kind of way is fiction. … It’s when you have actually been there and become a character again in that world.

Both Malouf and Sebald appeal to the category of experience in the belief that fiction gives us the “truth” of history.  For Sebald, fiction restores those experiences of the past which have been lost to the onward rush of progress.  For Malouf, the truths of fiction are the truths of imagining more empathetic relations between the present and the past. 

Similarly, Kate Grenville, author of The Secret River (2005), an historical novel about early nineteenth-century settler encounters with Australian Aborigines, and more recently, A Room Made of Leaves (2020), argues for the empathies of historical fictions.  Of the The Secret River she’s said that it’s “probably as close as we are going to get to what it was actually like.”  And in an interview with Ramona Koval on ABC radio, responding to Koval’s question of where she would position her book in relation to debates over Australian history and the colonial past, Grenville said that her book

is up on a ladder, looking down at the history wars. … [A] novelist can stand up on a stepladder and look down at this, outside the fray, and say there is another way to understand it. … The historians are doing their thing, but let me as a novelist come to it in a different way, which is the way of empathising and imaginative understanding of those difficult events. Basically to think, well, what would I have done in that situation, and what sort of a person would that make me?

For historians, these claims are a little frightening because they obscure what should be a clear line dividing the historian’s role from that of the novelist’s.  Historian Mark McKenna has argued that Grenville promotes the “rise of the novelist as historian, of fiction as history,” which encourages a decline in critical history and an ascendance of historical novels as “dream histories.”  Likewise, in The History Question Inga Clendinnen points out that the crucial point of difference here — one that shouldn’t be obscured — is between the aesthetic purpose of the novelist and the moral purpose of the historian.  

But what if a novelist writes with a moral purpose over and above that of an aesthetic one?  And how can we tell if an historical novel is motivated not by aesthetics but by a moral relationship to the past? 

We can begin to answer these questions by looking at Yerby’s The Man from Dahomey.  The book appeared in the wake of the Black American Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, and in a note to the reader Yerby states that he wants his novel “to correct … the Anglo-Saxon reader’s historical perspective.”  He does this by showing how North American slavery destroyed a high and admirable African culture and reduced “a proud, industrious, warlike people … to the state of tortured, neurotic, self-hating caricatures of humanity.”

© CRA-terre – Ensag – Thierry Joffroy

The Man from Dahomey tells the story of Nyasanu, the son of Gbenu, a well-respected African chief.  It traces Nyasanu’s relationship with his family, particularly the affection between Nyasanu and his father, and his marriages to six wives.  As as a chief’s son, we see the importance of Nyasanu’s social position as well as Dahomean vices, like the renaming of wives.  But after suffering a fall from grace for taking revenge on the man who sleeps with his wife, Nyasanu is sent into exile and later transported to North America.  “He had been a man, almost a prince,” writes Yerby.  “Now he was a thing.  A slave.”

In Yerby’s novel, Dahomey is a complex society of marriage rites, of languages and religious customs unique to particular tribes, and of the power struggles between the ruler, King Gezo, and his people.  A lot of research went into this.  Yerby’s book is rich in anthropological content, drawing comprehensively from key sources such as Melville J. Herskovits’s two-volume, Dahomey: An Ancient West African Kingdom (1938).

If there is a formal, or aesthetic, weakness in the novel it’s the way in which anthropological explanations endlessly accompany dialogue and plot development.  But it’s clear these explanations serve a political purpose rather than a strictly artistic one, informing the reader about the sophisticated realities of early nineteenth-century Dahomean life.  

It’s interesting to compare Yerby’s novel with another work that’s also about the slave trade in Dahomey in the early 1800s.  Bruce Chatwin’s The Viceroy of Ouidah (1980), tells the story of Francisco Manoel da Silva, Chatwin’s fictional counterpart to the historical Francisco Felix de Souza (1760-1849), a West African slave trader from Bahia, Brazil. 

In the novel, da Silva leaves a desolate childhood and a life of aimless wandering in Bahia and sails empty-handed to Ouidah.  He takes command of an abandoned Portuguese fort but is soon arrested by the King of Dahomey.  The King’s brother helps da Silva escape and in turn da Silva helps stage a coup.  Da Silva is rewarded for his efforts by being appointed the new King’s viceroy with dominion over the sale of slaves.  But his situation worsens and da Silva is eventually stripped of his wealth and entitlements, dying a ruined man.

Chatwin’s book divided critics.  Some saw it as a triumph of style over substance, while others dismissed it for lacking humanity and not taking a moral stand on the slave trade.  Bernadine Evaristo, winner of the Booker prize in 2019, recently wrote about it.  “By rights,” she said,

I should really hate this rather rococo novella, because its obsession with the ugly side of humanity and its brutal depiction of Africans is almost without redemption. Instead, I find myself swooning at its excesses, and rereading it every time I start writing a new book, in the hope that some of its genius will rub off on me.

Chatwin’s novel is a stylistic marvel.  Ornate, short, brisk and baroque, clever and dazzling, it’s straight out of the Flaubertian school of writing – aesthetically detached, striving for artistic purity.  Actually, as an historical fiction, The Viceroy of Ouidah has more in common with Flaubert’s Salammbo than Yerby’s novel (the literary historian Georg Lukacs wrote that Salammbo is the result of Flaubert’s “programmatic non-partisanship.”  We could say the same of Chatwin’s book.)

But where does that leave us? 

Yerby’s novel may not be the best of its kind, but it contains a people’s history of Dahomey and inscribes a form of moral and political reclamation.  Of course, you could always read West African historians themselves, or if you have to, go back to Herskovits or even to Frederick Forbes, a British naval officer, whose mission journal of Dahomey recounts his time spent with King Gezo in 1849 and 1850. 

And there’s Cameron Monroe’s 2014 book, The Precolonial State in West Africa: Building Power in Dahomey, which features historical, archaeological and ethnographic sources to investigate the political order of Dahomey during the Atlantic Era.

But Yerby’s novel carries you off into the moral story of Nyasanu.  Something Olly Neal might have felt when first reading those earlier books of Yerby’s, books that came into his life at the right time, and for the right reasons.

Talmalmo – The collector

The collector was a man named Alfred.  He lived with his wife Emma in an old hotel on a bumpy dirt road below the blue hills of Talmalmo. 

The hotel was built in the 1860s.  It began as a coach stopover and provided the services of an inn.  From Bowra to the head of the Murray, where the way was being made more and more accessible with every year that passed, it was the only licenced establishment.  The hotel must have seemed at the time a worthwhile venture.  There was a mining boom, and pastoralists were gaining a foothold.  Some money could be made.  It would serve a purpose, too.  Coaches ran along the road outside its doors.  People would stop and stay a night or two.  There would be food, drinking, lounging on the verandah.  You could take in the view, think of future prosperities.  In its beginnings, the hotel would have been a welcomed site to travellers trying to get their drays through on the long haul to Albury.  But with the uncertainty of making a living on surrounding runs, and by the very remoteness of its location and so little settlement, the hotel would never produce a great deal of profit.  It would always be a lonely hotel. Yet the beer kept coming, well into the next century. Brewery listings dating back to the 1920s record an ongoing supply to the hotel. But it would dwindle.  Alf, who bought the hotel with Emma in 1946, could get what he needed himself, in his mustard-coloured ute, driving the hour or so to Albury for the kegs.

Alfred, or Alf to everyone who knew him, had transformed the hotel barroom into a private museum.  It became a kind of Wunderkammer, a room crammed full of wonders and curios.  Step in, have a drink, listen to Alf tell his jokes and stories, and while you’re at it, pick an object, any object, and ask about its history.

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Alf in his barroom of curios

Alf’s barroom was also a kind of bush museum.  Look up!  Look up and you would see on the ceiling the jaws of a shark, crocodile skins and a stuffed goanna. Around the walls and on shelves there were Aboriginal and New Guinean artefacts; there were rifles, pistols, daggers, swords, a collection of pipes from around the world, shells, bullets, drums, spears, tankards, porcelain figurines, medicine-man stones, a joystick out of a Japanese Zero, an indicator from a submarine and, if that wasn’t enough, the long saw from a sawfish. On one of the shelves behind the large oak counter Alf kept a fisherman’s ruler, which ‘naturally tells lies,’ and there was a tiny slug of printer’s metal on which was engraved the Lord’s Prayer. A framed photograph of the monoplane the Southern Cross hung on the wall above the shelves. The tooth of a mastodon, a relic of the ice age, was used as a doorstop, and a print of the Mona Lisa was stuck to the back of the door. Of all the wonders and curios, however, Alf’s favourite was his collection of hats. They hung in a back room just behind the bar and included a silk topper, a fez, a beaver Paris beau, a boater, a fedora, a slouch, and a yarmulke. Next to these, on the wall, there was a miner’s helmet, a gas mask from the Great War, a Communist Chinese soldier’s cap and many wigs.  When people visited Alf would come out to greet them in one of the wigs, or in a hat or the gas mask — sometimes all three.

On each new visit you could fix upon something you hadn’t noticed before.  There seemed no end to the marvels in that room.  Each object contained within it an unfolding story.  Each had a material past, had come from somewhere and from someone.  Alf knew all this.  The room and he together.  Appearing in the room he disappeared, too, into a multitude of narratives, into the stories of the past contained within the curios and the people who had ushered their existence into the room. 

Then, after all this was said and done, after decades running the hotel and being in his barroom, quick changing in hats, masks and wigs, telling his stories while staring out through the barroom window across the paddocks into the deep expanse of the country, down to the winding brown river and the hills in the distance where his eyes would rest and never grow weary, Alf had a heart attack on his tractor and died.  Emma was left alone at the old hotel. Hearing the news, many people rushed to the place and looted the curios.  What was left, what Emma saw before her, went to a museum.  But to this day many items are still locked away from inquisitive eyes, for fear that someone, or someone’s descendant, may return to reclaim them.