Category Archives: Melbourne

Research: A home in Carlton

When Duo Ex Machina‘s Frank and Milo first appeared in a story, they’d just returned from Amsterdam – they were kinda big with the Dutch – to attend a funeral in Fremantle. They had no home but a hotel. 

By the second story in 2004, they were on a publicity tour, and still no home was mentioned. At this stage, Frank had in fact inherited a flash house by the Swan River but here they were in hotels again. Milo’s mother and some extended family were dotted about Melbourne, though.

So here we are in 2009 with Number One Fan and I thought it was about time they had a home of their own. The house by the river was full of sad memories, and besides, it’s a lot harder for me to research locations when I don’t live in Perth any more.

When looking for a home for them in Melbourne, I knew I wanted them to live in one of those beautiful Victorian-era two-storey houses with iron lace and stacks of charm. I knew I wanted them to be somewhere with an open view in front of them, in a suburb that connected to their Italian roots. While they had a heritage home, I wanted them to live somewhere full of young energy; maybe on the line between traditional and hipster.

After a bit of poking about, I kept coming back to Carlton. Although Lygon Street, also called ‘Little Italy’, is a bit overhyped, it’s still a lovely area when you get away from that central street. It’s said Melbourne cafe culture started here, with all the Italian restaurants. It’s home to La Mama Theatre (where playwright David Williamson made his debut), Readings Bookstore, Cinema Nova, and Italian delicatessens, and Melbourne University is just over the tramlines.

Carlton was established just after the Victorian Gold Rush, in 1851. It started out a bit posh – Sir Redmond Barry (the man who pronounced the death sentence on Ned Kelly) lived on Rathdown Street in the early days – but became a place of small industry and the working class. The Jewish population got their synagogue in 1919, and after WWII an influx of Italians strongly influenced the area’s character, along with all those hungry minds at the university.

Some beautiful houses with iron lace are dotted all about Carlton. Quite a few parks are in the area too. I went for a walk around it one recent sunny day to choose where I’d like their house to be, and to see what was nearby. 

This row of terrace houses opposite Argyle Square was the best option. From those front balconies, people can look over the English elms in the park and see the students lollling about on the lawn to study, or families picnicking and eating ice-cream they bought up on Lygon Street, a short walk away. Around the corner is The Lincoln Hotel if they want a quietish drink.  At the Lygon Street end of the square is what was in 2009 a red brick power substation, but as of a few months ago is a new cafe called Parco.

The location was right but the houses there weren’t so I took some small streets, crossing Lygon and heading towards Drummond and Rathdown Streets. There I found two lovely white terrace houses. One of them has beautiful leadlighted decorations on the downstairs window and above the door. The other was plainer at ground level, but had lovely etched glass in the upstairs window and the balcony door.

A wee bit of googling gave the prices that they last sold for. One of them, with three bedrooms, two bathrooms and even a car space, went for $800K in 2005. I think Frank’s Swan River place would have covered that.

Of course, Frank and Milo’s place isn’t really real. I’ll be playing around with its insides and outsides, maybe having them refurbish and add a fancy music room onto the back of the house while the front gazes onto the park with its demure 1890s lace of iron.

Research: Aboriginal Melbourne

In both my contemporary and historical fiction set in Melbourne, I aim to include, where possible and appropriate, more details of Melbourne before white settlement. 

Sometimes this involves a bit of googling – most recently I’ve used a language map to check what language groups existed in and around Ballarat, for a story being submitted to a new anthology.

For that same story I also wanted the Indigenous character to speak a few words in his own language – Wadawarrung. I was thrilled to discover in my searches an app! The Wadawurrung Language app   is beautifully laid out. So much of the language has been lost, but this is an elegant and helpful introduction.

However, for a more comprehensive overview of Melbourne and its importance to the Kulin nations, I have The Melbourne Dreaming: A Guide to the Aboriginal Places of Melbourne by Meyer Eidelson. I have an old edition, but a new one was published in 2014.

The Melbourne Dreaming tells the story of Aboriginal Melbourne around the Yarra River, Merri Creek, Port Phillip Bay, Maribyrnong River, Melbourne city and some places around, including Sunbury, Corinella and some locations hard to get to. Most entries are accompanied with a Melways map and reference so you can visit these places yourself.

If you want to learn more about Australia’s pre-colonial heritage, and about the traditional custodians of this land, it’s a fantastic guide.

Melbourne Research: Brother Baba Budan

This cafe, at 359 Little Bourke St, Melbourne , is named for the man who reputedly first smuggled coffee beans out of Yemen (and consequently brought joy to the world).

A version of BBB appears in the first chapter of Number One Fan. The cafe isn’t identified by name in the story, but the cosy, industrial ‘distressed’ look of the walls, the metal scoop that is a door handle and, of course, the inverted forest of chairs hanging from the ceiling are reflected in the look of the story version.

In 2009, BBB was run by the owner of North Melbourne’s St Ali, another great Melbourne cafe. (In 2019 it gets its house roast from Seven Seeds, another Melbourne coffee superstar.) 

It’s tiny, with one communal table and a few stools scattered around periphery benches. The only food it serves are a few pastries, which are also excellent. I rarely have to queue for coffee, but there can occasionally be a short wait while visitors armed with guide books come to take pictures of the ceiling’s bristling chair legs and of course the coffee.

I prefer other people to make my coffee – an espresso-machine cafe latte is da bomb! – but we get their house blend and their decaf for making plunger coffee at home, for those hours when *gasp* BBB is closed! 

I suppose it’s cheating to call it research to drink here, but I’ll do that anyway, because that makes me happy, and you should do the things that make you happy, right?

Because it’s tiny, there’s not always somewhere to sit and enjoy watching the staff being so professional and the Melbourne coffee crowd being so very appreciative of their excellent brew. 

Instead, bring a Keep Cup or equivalent, get your coffee to take away, and sit on the steps of the Melbourne GPO (though not at its own excellent cafe on its terrace, obviously). Contemplate your delicious sins while watching the trams, and decide if you’ve done enough of them.

Research: Melbourne in 2009

The next book in the Duo Ex Machina series, Number One Fan, is set in Melbourne in 2009.

What was going on in Australia and Melbourne that year?

For a start, I found and photographed this plaintive sign which had been shoved into a bin down near the Sofitel Hotel, on the Flinders Lane side.

I never did find out why the placard had been made or why it had been dumped as though it caused the placard-maker pain, but the sign and its sad ending have always made me wonder what the story was.

In 2009, Australia’s Prime Minister was Kevin Rudd. He and the Labor Party had won government by a landslide in 2007 and he promptly signed the Kyoto Protocol, apologised to the Stolen Generations, finished pulling Australian troops out of Iraq and instigated several education and communications policies, including the National Broadband Network.

It was kind of downhill after that,  and in mid-2010 he was replaced by his deputy, Julia Gillard. But that’s a whole other year and not part of Frank and Milo’s 2009 story.

In that year, Australia was playing it’s regular game of Natural Disaster Bingo, with floods in Queensland, the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria that killed 173 people, torrential rains in NSW, followed by more floods in Queensland and NSW.

This was the year Geelong won the Septemer AFL Grand Final and Shocking won the Melbourne Cup in November.

In February, the St Jerome Laneway Festival overflowed its location after four successful years (leading to new locations in 2010 that would fit everyone). The line-up included The Temper Trap, Tame Impala and Architecture in Helsinki.

The Black Eyed Peas, Kings of Leon, Lady Gaga and the Hilltop Hoods were all over the charts. Jessica Mauboy and Guy Sebastian were in the Top 100 too.

So that’s a taste of what was happening in 2009, when Frank and Milo are recording a new album, setting up an office to deal with admin, and find themselves drawn into another maelstrom of crime and danger.