Melbourne – then and now

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Moving to Melbourne in the late ’80s, yours truly had several aims.

One was to avoid becoming immersed in any sort of significant Kiwi expat community, as could surely have been the case had I chosen, say, Sydney. Or, I’ve been told, Brisbane and even Perth.

Another was to work for The Age.

They didn’t want me. Because, I was told by the bloke who did the interview in the dowdy staff canteen at the Spencer St building, I didn’t have a degree. (Still don’t, actually …)

They started using me as a casual sub-editor anyway, but I needed a full-time job so accepted one at the old broadsheet Herald in Flinders St.

After few years there and I did indeed end up at The Age for another few years, followed by the short-lived Sunday Herald and a lengthy, wild and often satisfying decade or so on the Sunday Herald Sun.

The bloke who did the original Age interview ended up at the HWT building at Southgate eventually.

And like just about everybody I ever had anything to do with newspapers in Melbourne, he’s gone.

In fact, the very last of my colleagues from the Sunday Herald Sun officially finish up this Friday.

And of course I discovered there are Kiwis everywhere in Melbourne, but they tend to fly under the radar. Which suits me fine.

My first abode was a one-bedroom flat in Greeves St, Fitzroy, just a block from the Black Cat.

Brunswick St was just beginning its journey to hip, so the Black Cat was one of the few happening places.

Bakers, next to the Provincial Hotel, was a regular.

The pub itself was strictly a hard-drinking boozer of the old school.

From there I moved around … a few years in East Brunswick, then something of a cultural and food desert. St Kilda for a few  years more, followed by a wonderful time in the CBD – Flinders Lane, if you don’t mind, in a gorgeous old building called Bible House.

Since then it’s been all western suburbs and fatherhood.

Before actually relocating west, first in Seddon, followed by West Footscray, Seddon again and now Yarraville, I did visit a few times.

Sometimes I’d get on the train to “do Vietnamese” in Footscray.

More frequently, I’d go by rail to Yarraville to watch wonderful old B&W films at the Sun. Gosh, how I wish they still did that!

During all my early years in Melbourne, no matter where I was living, food was far from being the serious focus it has become.

I was far more intent on what was happening at the Prince of Wales, the Club in Collingwood and myriad other live music venues.

Music wasn’t even on the list of things that found me moving to Melbourne.

But I soon found out that what was happening here was every bit as thrilling as anything I’d encountered in the US or living in London in the late ’70s.

It blew my mind!

Country, rockabilly, western swing, serious grunge (years before Nirvana!) and much more – and eventually jazz – became my life.

My music passions have become something of a private, non-gig-going pursuit these days, but I will never forget the music I experienced or the people who made it.

But even then I was a cheap eats hound of some repute.

I recall one former newspaper colleague saying to someone: “Go and ask Kenny – he knows all about cheap eats!”

So how was it then, compared with how it is now, for me?

My most immediate joy on arriving from the food barrens of Wellington had been the fact that it was possible – indeed easy – to eat Indian food in restaurants.

Back then, though, that almost always entailed the more formal and expensive eateries.

Since then, and particularly in the past decade or so and fuelled by many Indian migrants, that situation has changed to a remarkable degree.

Those more formal Indian places still exist, but they have been joined by a multitude of cheap eats-style establishments serving thalis, dosas, biryanis.

That the western suburbs, very much including West Footscray, seem to be one of the leading areas for this magnificent eventuality is something that I find thrilling beyond measure.

There have been many other changes to the food scene since I became a Melburnite.

Coffee culture, north African food (of course!), dumplings and many more.

But the ease with which I can enjoy sub-continental tucker – rubbing shoulders with students, taxi drivers, young Indian families and other fellow travellers – would seem to top them all.

However, the shadow cast by recent and ongoing news stories about pitiful wages, sweatshops and the like in the restaurant business is something with which I will continue to grapple.

8 thoughts on “Melbourne – then and now

  1. What an interesting post, Kenny. I’ve known you for years, but I learnt something from your post! I came to Australia in the late 1980s, left a couple of times to live in Thailand, but have been back here since 1999. Like you, I avoided the “Kiwi expat” thung (!). Back in Auckland in the 1980s, there was Trooper Cooper’s Curry House, which I knew by reputation but never went to. Back then, going to a restaurant was only for special occasions a couple of times a year. In 1986, I went on a trip by myself to Hawaii and Los Angeles. I came back with the LA vibe, which was then sushi! I discovered back in Auckland, that there were wonderful Japanese restaurants down by the docks. They were pretty much only for Japanese customers (and me) then. How times have changed. Melbourne was a revelation, particularly meeting my great friend, Rosa, born in Italy but brought up mostly here.

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    • No, that was the amazing thing. A tour guide told me that in those days, when most Japanese toured in groups, they preferred their national cuisine, so there was quite a market for Japanese restaurants in Auckland. When I first tasted sushi, on that trip to LA, my friends didn’t really tell me what it was beforehand. They just said, “It’s fish; try it—delicious”. And it was! I got adventurous, and my favourite sushi was the one with caviar and a raw quail’s egg.
      Auckland, of course, was atypical in its cosmopolitanism. In 1999, I was staying with some friends in Central Hawke’s Bay, and I was cooking a Thai meal for them. I couldn’t buy fresh chillies or snow peas, let alone fish sauce. My friend said the likes of snow peas might be available in Auckland, but not there.
      When I moved back to Melbourne from Thailand in 1999, it used to irk me that I couldn’t get pea-aubergines for green curry, and that even the restaurants didn’t have them. Then I found that you could buy them in Springvale.

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  2. When I lived in Wellington, there was a Japanese restaurant, but it was far too edgy for me. There were Chinese places all over, but mostly they were pretty dull. There was one cheap place on Courtney Place where I overdosed on beef and black bean sauce. So unbelievably exotic!

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    • For my 21st, my parents took me to my first “fine dining” restaurant, on top of the Hotel Intercontinental in Auckland (which we all called “the big I”). I had lobster for the first time. I still have a photo of me and my lobster from that night!

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    • Done! We had bulk seafood when I was a kid at home. Most of it we caught ourselves. But there wasn’t a lot of imagination or flair that went into its cooking. Actually, none at all! I can’t remember fish ever being baked or stewed or curried or saladed.

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      • Hey, thanks. We hardly ever had seafood at home, because my dad didn’t like fish, except when he caught it himself, and wasn’t keen on other types of seafood. Also, he had eaten so much lobster as a youngster, from Blackhead Beach in Hawke’s Bay, that he didn’t ever want to eat it again. He loved fishing, but was more the freshwater fisherman: trout at Taupo, usually, on the way to Palmerston North for the holidays. I only remember fish being fried lightly in a pan, then served with new potatoes and probably a salad. My grandparents were Catholic and had fish and chips every Friday, but we never did.

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