published by University of New South Wales Press, 2009 (new edition 2012)
ISBN 9781742233727

Every city has its characteristic smells, sounds, even tastes, which change with changing circumstances. Although they rarely have the same impact as what we see, they linger in the memory, eventually coming to define a particular place for us more strongly than any of the monuments, pageants or displays devised for our benefit.

New York, for instance, is the sweet aroma of chestnuts roasting on street corner braziers, steam rising from sidewalk gratings, the screech of subway trains, or sirens wailing through the night. Melbourne is trams rattling across intersections, cutlery clattering on footpaths under outdoor cafe tables, freshly-brewed coffee in dank laneways and the clamour of Asian and European languages.

Tasmanians going to Melbourne on the overnight ferry know their destination is near when the city’s polluted fug rolls across Port Phillip Bay into their cabins to awaken their noses at 6am. Like the unceasing din of traffic, it is strangely arousing, evidence of the city’s energy and power.

A big city’s odours and noise assert its unnaturalness. What strikes you about Hobart, on the other hand, is the refreshing absence of both. Although people living downwind of the zinc works may be sickened by its emissions, and log trucks riding their engine brakes down the southern outlet at 4 am are a constant irritation to those living nearby, on the whole Hobart is peaceful, its atmosphere unencumbered.

This makes stepping out the front door for the morning paper a heady experience. The lungful of air you take in has journeyed across endless tracts of ocean and forest. It alerts you to the season: languid and sweet with pollen in summer; brisk, moist and earthy in winter. The air signals, with pinpoint accuracy, when that seemingly endless string of lazy, late-summer days suddenly crisps into autumn. There’s a bracing bite to it that wasn’t there yesterday. Even in the inner suburbs, you can smell the seasons.

This makes whatever odours there are all the more potent. In the early days of settlement, the putrid stench of whale oil was so pervasive that residents agitated for a separate wharf for whaling craft further from town. A journalist writing in the Mercury in 1890 remembered as a boy some fifty years earlier standing in a crowd to watch a whale carcass being hauled into shallow water at Sullivan’s Cove to be cut up and boiled down. The smell, he said, was overpowering. Fresh horse pats in the streets must also have been pungent, especially in summer, although colonial noses were no doubt as attuned to it as ours are to car exhaust, so perhaps it hardly registered. The dust constantly being thrown up from dirt roads by passing hooves and wheels did register, however, and was a major cause of complaint, since the council did not have enough water to keep it settled. So were the noxious emissions from tanners, fat-renderers, manure-merchants and bone-boilers along the Rivulet. Car exhausts notwithstanding, Hobart’s air was a lot more noisome in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries than it is today – more animal and more visceral – and residents had little choice but to put up with it.

Not all was stench and clatter, however. Louisa Anne Meredith delighted in the sweet perfumes of roses, sweet briar and Hawthorn in Hobart’s flower gardens, which transported her back ‘to the right side of the earth again’. Tasmania, in return, exported its unique botanical bouquet to the world in the form of oil extracted from native blue gums, which was widely used for soaps and inhalents.

‘When you went down Kelly Steps, in the season’, recalls Max Angus of his Battery Point childhood in the 1920s, ‘the smell of raspberry jam at Peacock’s Jam Factory was wonderful. The factory was slap against Kelly Steps on Salamanca Place. Further on, at the wharves opposite Parliament House, you got fishing smells, and the spicy aroma of fresh timber.’

The salty, fishy smells of the waterfront and the slightly rancid pong of fishing boats at anchor have survived the area’s gentrification, still evoking the romance of the sea. But this is not necessarily what fastidious outdoor diners want as they tuck into their deep-fried Travalla and freshly-brewed latte. Up the hill on Hampden Road’s cafe strip, the famous bakery of Jackson and McCross fills the pre-dawn air with warm yeastiness, while the dreams of New Town and Bellerive residents, meanwhile, are sweetened by Jean-Pascal Patisseries, which, before the rest of the world is fully awake, will be transporting the delicious aromas of fresh breads, desserts and chocolates to specialty food shops across the city.

In other words, Hobart’s most distinctive smells these days are not redolent of industry, labour or export but of leisure and indulgence, reflecting a changed economy.

Asking for Trouble

published by Harper Collins, 2014
ISBN 9781460701669

It was two-tone – powder-blue and white – with fog lights and white-wall tyres. So it stood out. Cars in Milverton were all sensibly black or grey – except for the McMahon’s red Pontiac, but the McMahons, it was generally acknowledged, had more money than sense.

‘A two-door isn’t very practical,’ Dad mused, thoughtfully kicking each tyre in turn. ‘It makes it a bit awkward for passengers to get in and out, doesn’t it?’ Even I could see that that was just the point. Mother had no intention of taking us on outings. The family Vauxhall was quite capable of that. She wanted an escape. And a Hillman Minx Californian coupé was just the ticket.

‘She’s a little beauty, she is. One of a kind,’ the Pritchard’s man gushed, trailing Dad around the vehicle like an eager puppy. He could not bring himself to pitch a car to a woman. Even when Mother asked him how many miles it had done, he barely glanced in her direction.

‘Only twenty thousand on the clock,’ he told Dad, swinging open the driver’s-side door. ‘Practically new.’ He could not disguise his distaste when Dad stepped aside for Mother to get in.

‘The little lady seems to like it. Got taste, your wife.’

‘It’s the little lady who’s buying it,’ Mother spat, narrowing her eyes, although strictly speaking that wasn’t true. No bank was going to lend money to a married woman. Dad was buying it for her. If pressed, he would not have been able to say why.

He would have done anything for her, however impatient, dismissive, selfish and thoughtless she was. My mother was rarely without a glass of sherry or a Marlborough. They were ‘more efficacious’, she maintained, than the medication prescribed by the doctor, which gave her dizzy spells. Understanding that Frankie kept her thin and nervy and prone to flying off the handle, Dad felt a constant need to atone for not accepting more of the burden, and she exploited it shamelessly.

She was hardly what you’d call an attractive woman, my mother, and it was my misfortune to take after her. She had a long, hollow face and a beaky nose that she habitually stuck in the air to foreshorten it, which only made her look haughtier. To compensate for what nature had so unfairly failed to provide, she paid far too much attention to clothing and makeup, being permed, manicured and dyed for hours on end at Meredith’s Hair and Beauty. For years, she had religiously adhered to the Ponds Seven Day Beauty Plan and still lived in hope of seeing results. Alone of all the mothers I knew, she wore red nail polish, which made other women think her common and quite possibly Catholic.

The Pritchard’s man had noticed the nail polish and Dad had noticed him noticing. Another small humiliation for him to bear.

‘Oh, Reg, it’s just divine,’ she cried, then turned to the Pritchard’s man: ‘I’ll take it for a test drive.’

He stroked his goatee and cast a doubtful glance at Dad. ‘Have you got a licence, luv?’

‘Of course I’ve got a licence.’

‘She’s very fortunate in that respect,’ Dad said. It was his job to remind her occasionally of her place, a service she knew she needed even if not one she particularly welcomed.

‘Alright then, I suppose we can take a turn around the block.’

‘We? I’m perfectly capable of going on my own, if you don’t mind.’

So, raising his eyebrows and giving a little shrug, as if to say, ‘whatever next?’, he went to the office for the keys.

As Mother lurched off out the gate, grinding the gears, it was all Dad could do to stop Frankie from running after her. ‘Don’t panic, she’s coming back,’ he soothed, but Frankie was not convinced. Nor was I, for that matter. I could just see her dashing for the border, windows down, wind in her hair, free at last, abandoning us to cope as best we could.

The Pritchard’s man, deciding there might, after all, be a sale in this, sat the three of us down in the showroom and gave Dad a cup of tea while he went to fend off a young man ogling a Jaguar. We sat there for a very long time.

‘You don’t think she’s got herself into a bit of bother?’ the man asked, finally.

‘No, don’t worry. She’ll be back,’ Dad assured him. ‘Adele is very thorough. She’ll want to put it through its paces.’ This did not inspire the poor man with confidence. Dad sat upright with his empty cup balanced on his knee, staring serenely ahead, ignoring Frankie tugging at his coat, itching to clamber all over the cars.

When at last she careered back into the yard and hit the brakes just inches from the plate glass window, Dad ambled out to meet her, returning her smile as she sprang from the driver’s seat. There was a spark of love and devotion in that brief, wordless exchange. Her face was radiant, and, while he could not really share or understand her excitement, he made it clear that he was happy to be happy on her behalf.

The Pritchard’s man, missing all the cues, circled the car checking for damage.

‘Hey,’ he called. ‘This bump on the rear wasn’t there before.’

‘I was backing,’ Mother said tightly.

‘Well, you’ll have to pay for that.’

‘We intend to pay for the whole car,’ Dad said, and Mother let out a little squeal and threw her arms around him and planted a big red lipsticky kiss on his cheek.

From then on, the Vauxhall had to be put in the garage while the Hillman sat proudly in the drive where all the neighbours could see it. In my mother’s eyes, it lit up the stagnant pool of middle-class banality that was Milverton. It was, as people say nowadays, a statement. And it stated that she was not cut out for these quiet streets and neat weatherboards and well-tended lawns, which could never satisfy her appetite for adventure. That, at least, is what she told herself. ‘Quiet as the grave,’ she complained. ‘You could fire a cannon down the street without hitting a soul.’ Although you might hit Mr Coster’s labrador, which was always wandering. My father was the one who fitted in. Mother never allowed herself to. Truth be told, though, Milverton suited her better than she liked to admit. It was her world too, whether she liked it or not.

The Hillman was her bridge between dull reality and the promise of something more thrilling.


published by the Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales, 2011
ISBN 9781876991418

There is more than one way to tell a story.

Museums generally take a rational, systematic approach, selecting objects of the highest quality and importance, grouping like with like, and arranging them in their proper sequence. When we go to an exhibition of, say, eighteenth-century English porcelain, we expect the Wedgwood, the Derby and the Staffordshire to be properly identified, with early pieces on the left and more recent ones on the right. To appreciate the story, we have to accept the conventions of the genre.

As a means of telling big cultural stories – what are nowadays disparagingly called ‘the grand narratives’ – these established systems of classification are unsurpassed. They are a way of apprehending the world, in both senses of the word: a methodical attempt to identify everything and to establish its relationship to everything else. The model is the encyclopedia.

Yet, even allowing for the occasional foregrounding of an individual masterpiece, we may occasionally get the sinking feeling that all the narratives have been predetermined, which can unintentionally rob the exhibits of their individuality.

We expect the historic house museum to be more personal, more playful, even perhaps more capricious. The model is the novel. After all, a private residence, even one built to impress, is not a public museum. If it happens to be turned into one, it will retain something of the lives and personalities of its former owners. That, of course, is the point. Rather than being assembled logically to elucidate History, objects are freed to tell more personal stories. Here there is nothing at all unusual about a Louis XIV clock beside a Chinese vase on a Georgian mantel beneath a nineteenth-century landscape. While such an assemblage may not tell us much about French clocks, Chinese vases or Victorian paintings, it has a lot to say about the tastes and aspirations of those who owned them and, by extension, something of their times. Where were these things acquired and how? Were they purchased or handed down from earlier generations? How were they regarded by the people who lived with them, and how accurately did they reflect the tastes of the time? In other words, it is not so much the objects themselves that capture our interest, but what they can tell us about their social and historical setting. If the conventional museum concentrates on who made the object, the house museum looks at how it was subsequently used.

It follows that when we visit an historic house it will be less in search of knowledge than with a desire to inhabit the past: to understand what it felt like to exist at some earlier time. We are seeking some meaningful point of comparison: a way of bracketing-off, or temporarily stepping aside from, our lives in order to see them from a fresh perspective and thus to better understand ourselves. This is not just nostalgia or wishful thinking. Only through an understanding of what went before can we properly understand the present.

The historic house museum has often been compared to the wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities, that sometimes bizarre accumulation of rocks, sculptures and stuffed crocodiles that sixteenth- and seventeenth-century dilettantes assembled for the delight of themselves and their friends. The cabinet of curiosities was rarely as undisciplined as it might appear: it had its purpose and conformed to patterns, although not ones we recognise today.

Unsurprisingly, this approach to collecting, displaying and interpreting objects is enjoying something of a revival at present, because, in the age of the internet, its intuitive, quixotic approach, which until recently could be dismissed as antiquated and undisciplined, strikes us instead as eminently practical and modern. The Google generation is perfectly attuned to the fortuitous conjunction.

Thus, in a spirit of open-minded receptiveness, we take a lively interest in everything: not just the rosewood sideboard with its silver candelabra, but cooking pots in the scullery, harnesses in the stables and gardening tools – things that concerned only the servants when the house was occupied – as well as those that would earlier have been discreetly passed by, such as the wear on a stone step or the diary left open on a desk. The smallest details become important.

It follows that we will be less concerned about the authenticity and individual quality of the objects we encounter than we would be in a conventional museum. Our focus is, instead, on the authenticity of the experience. For example, the various nineteenth-century copies of Old Master paintings at Vaucluse House, purchased as souvenirs during the family’s European tours, are interesting precisely because they are copies. They tell us not only about the Wentworths’ own predilections, but also hint at the way works of art tended to be appreciated at the time: less for their intrinsic value than for the moral import of their subject matter. In the nineteenth century, the word ‘copy’ did not have the negative connotations it has for us today, when mechanical reproduction has, paradoxically, led to a fixation on ‘the original’.

Nor do we mind that most of the furnishings and fittings we encounter at both Vaucluse House and Elizabeth Bay House are substitutes, so long as we know we can take them on trust. Is this a wallpaper they might have hung at the time? Are the curtains ‘of the period’? Would the family have at least recognised that sideboard? Or, to paraphrase the delicate phraseology of the Vaucluse House guidebook: has their acquisition been guided by the style and taste of the provenanced Wentworth collection? We must be confident that the whole makes sense, with every component, down to the flowers in the vase and the umbrella in the hallstand, chosen with proper care to fulfil its role in the story.

Yet, if this is true of furniture and fittings – those impersonal things that contribute to the general ambience – we are likely to be less ecumenical when it comes to personal effects. Sarah Wentworth’s exquisite silver chatelaine, for example (thimble, scissors, pocket-knife and trinkets linked by chains), must be the very one that Sarah carried at her waist to snip loose threads or extract the odd grapeseed. If not, we would think it lifeless. It matters. And it matters because in such personal items something of the individual is retained. Meaning inheres within them. Thus, they cannot be replaced by copies or substitutes without some essential continuity being broken. While the cedar sideboard, the Spode dinner service and the Brussels-weave carpets tell us what life was like, the snuff box, the diary, and the initialled handkerchief tell us who certain individuals were, making them more real to us. At the risk of sounding arcane, we might claim that personal effects carry their own particular aura, which is why a brooch that once belonged to grandma, even if worthless by any of the usual criteria, remains precious to us.

In short, sometimes we will happily accept the accurate stand-in, sometimes we insist on the real thing. It is the creative interweaving of verifiable historical fact, informed conjecture and intimate personal revelation that gives the story complexity, that fires our imaginations and inspires us, allowing us to put ourselves in the place of these long-vanished people and to re-imagine their lives (and hence to re-imagine our own).

Through The Magic Lantern

Extract from a catalogue essay for the exhibition, Melbourne’s Parks and Gardens, at Melbourne Town Hall, September – November, 2012

While the depression of the 1890s has dented their confidence, Melbournians have good reason to feel pleased with themselves as the new century begins: Queen Victoria has graciously agreed to the formation of the new Commonwealth; the first motor cars are appearing on the city’s streets (a mixed blessing, admittedly); some of the better homes are lit by electricity, the marvel of the age, and the telephone is revolutionising business communications (although, of course, nobody would think of having one in the home). Furthermore, a new city-wide sewerage system has drastically reduced the risk of typhoid and other deadly diseases. Australians, as one contemporary journalist enthuses, ‘... are equipped by a more than usually high average of education, a broader measure of political privilege, and a more generous share of individual freedom and public liberty than those who have preceded us in the race.’

There can be few more potent expressions of civic pride than the public park or garden. From the mid-nineteenth century, almost every Victorian town of consequence had established its own municipal botanic garden, an achievement unmatched by any other state. And now, with working hours reduced to an average of 48 per week, citizens of all social classes had the leisure to enjoy them. And enjoy them they did! That horticultural genius, William Guilfoyle, was transforming Melbourne’s Botanic Gardens into a verdant paradise, while the ring of public parks around the city – Carlton, Alexandra, Fitzroy, Treasury and Flagstaff Gardens, and the Domain – which only thirty years earlier the visiting English writer, Anthony Trollope, had derided as ‘not lovely’ and ‘not in themselves well kept’ had been rejuvenated, with wide, tree-lined avenues, colourful parterres and mixed borders.

Melbourne’s unsurpassed public open spaces both reflected and spurred the gardening passions of suburban land-owners. An attractive home garden not only improved your property values, it confirmed your status as a morally upright citizen. And morally upright citizens made for a healthy, cohesive society. This is the legacy of English Protestantism, which, for centuries, had fostered a spirit of open enquiry and a love of nature as a path to personal salvation. Thus, working the soil, propagating, weeding and tending were not just pleasant past-times: they brought you closer to God, encouraging an active appreciation of His great work (and, in case we are tempted to mock, much the same view is promoted by television gardening programs today, although with any direct reference to God papered over, of course).

‘So it was,’ writes the historian Keith Thomas, ‘that in England trees were not merely domesticated but gradually achieved an almost pet-like status.’ From as early as the mid-seventeenth century, wooded parks and gardens had become an acceptable part of English towns and cities, where they were expected to raise the physical well-being, the spirits and the civic virtue of the populace. In Catholic Europe, where nature had far less purchase on the popular (or religious) imagination, gardens were thought of as part of the private sphere, leaving paved town squares as the focus of public life.

It was in her colonies, particularly those of the New World, that England’s love of gardening and its tradition of empirical observation of the natural world would experience their finest flowering. Our enthusiasm for horticulture springs directly from our English heritage.

Thus did Melbourne – with its wealth, its seemingly unlimited spaces and its mild climate – become one of the world’s great garden cities, in both the private and public spheres. By the early 1900s, horticultural associations were flourishing and their annual flower shows and competitions had become important social events; field naturalist societies were encouraging first-hand observation of Australian plants; seed merchants, nurseries, lawn-mower manufacturers and manure sellers were doing a roaring trade, and there were handbooks and magazines to fulfil every gardening need. Then, as now, people visited the Botanic Gardens not only for relaxation and recreation, but for inspiration, ideas and information about new plants they might introduce into their own suburban plots.

Melbourne was, therefore, the logical home for Australia’s first government-funded horticultural school. The Burnley School of Horticulture, established in 1891, taught a range of practical gardening skills, including orchard management, vegetable growing, horticultural science and garden design. Its first principal, an English-born horticulturalist, writer and teacher named Carl Bogue-Luffmann, was a remarkable figure who deserves to be better-known than he is. He was one of the founders of the Victorian dried fruits industry (the city of Mildura owes him a very large debt of gratitude); an ardent advocate of Australian native plants (and one of the first to recommend a native botanic garden for the proposed new national capital); a promoter of the naturalistic garden (as opposed to the formal, geometric styles popular at the time) and a champion of sexual equality. While it caused uproar in polite society, his decision to admit female students to the school was vindicated by the subsequent success of so many female graduates (Edna Walling among them). ‘I do not think horticulture is an affair of sex’, he bluntly told a Royal Commission in 1900.

What we will probably find most appealing about Bogue-Luffmann today, however, is his immense passion for gardening and his missionary zeal as a teacher. His book, The Principles of Gardening for Australia, published in 1903, is a personal manifesto whose poetic language and often startling directness sets it apart from most practical guides of the time.