Desolation Row

Before I start this, I’m sorry I haven’t posted in a while, it just feels hard to be creative during lockdowns, plus I started working full-time which is great but it involves a 5.30am wake-up and my body clock’s still being a little bitch about it.

Anyway during my commute I’ve once again started attempting to learn Poe’s long-ass, 18-stanza-length poem, The Raven, off by heart because every now and again I convince myself it would be a useful skill to have.

Even if you’re not a huge fan of poetry, its pretty rad tale of someone who’s resistant to accept that he will never see the woman he loves again (and obscure side note: it’s probably a coincidence but I think its cool that in King of the Hill, the ex wife that Bill needs to accept is gone is also called Lenore).

The raven symbolises death, and the poem ends with its narrator’s soul forever living under the shadow of that loss, And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor, Shall be lifted — Nevermore!”. It’s got me thinking of loneliness and desolation in books, specifically desolate places – some fictional, some real and some that are thinly veiled fictional versions of real places. It’s a theme which fits Victoria’s lockdown vibe right now, given lockdowns do leave the streets looking like empty ghost towns (I’m very over lockdowns, mainly because I desperately need a haircut).

The Plague (Albert Camus, 1947)

When I first read this in 2016, it kinda reminded me of The Simpsons movie plot where the town’s isolated under a dome and they all lose it. But rereading it last year, it not only reminded me of the experience of long-term lockdown but also made me appreciate how much worse it would’ve been in any other time period where technology and the ability to easily communicate wasn’t something you could take for granted. And thinking about it now, after recently turning 28, the same age Camus was when he wrote it hits me just how impressive his brain was and how young he was for a philosopher.

Set in Oran, Algeria; the cities experience of a plague outbreak is told in increments, largely through these four characters: Dr Rieuxs, Jean Tarrou who was visiting and gets suck in the city when the borders are closed, Joseph Grand – an elderly civil servant who long before the plague struck had struggled with his ability to express himself, and Raymond Rambert – a French journalist who like Tarrou finds himself trapped in Oran, so attempts to find a way to cross the border.

Beginning with the mysterious death of thousands of rats, high death rates of plague victims quickly becomes a reality citizens are numb to. And while the story and the outbreak its describing is fictional, the real history of the black death is delved into as Camus uses plague as a framework for exploring the human condition.

The Haunting of Hill House (Shirley Jackson, 1959)

Dr Montague chooses the abandoned mansion, Hill House, to conduct a scientific experiment on the existence of the supernatural. Renting the house out for the summer, with the landlord agreeing on the proviso that her adult nephew, Luke can tag along; Montague plans to live there and take notes of his experience alongside the only two people to respond to his invitation, Theodora and Eleanor.

Naturally Hill House has an infamous past, yet what makes it distinctive from a classic ghost story is the uncertainty of a supernatural presence, as structurally the house was built with the intention of being disorientating.

Chernobyl Prayer (Svetlana Alexievich, 1997)

Not strictly a book rather a collection of short interviews of over 500 individuals who were effected in some way by the 26 April 1986 Chernobyl disaster. Why I chose to include this book in a post on desolation is some of the testimonies are from people discussing why they continued to live in Chernobyl following the disaster, and particularly interesting the testimonies of Chechen refugees who were relocated to Chernobyl in the 1990s who created a home in the abandoned city. It’s heart-breaking but its timeless.

Milkman (Anna Burns, 2018)

This one’s pretty Kafkaesque and confusing but worth sticking with. Set in the 1970s in an unnamed Northern Ireland city, its relevant to desolation when desolation is defined as ‘a state of complete emptiness or destruction’. While violence isn’t detailed heavily in the book, the unnamed teenage narrator’s existence is defined by communal policing and distrust of the state.

The main character makes every effort to keep her head down and not attract attention, yet her habit of walking alone and reading at the same time gives her an unwanted reputation. Suddenly when a well-known figure within the IRA who she doesn’t know and has never heard of, known as ‘milkman’, continually offers hers lifts and begins appearing in places she’s scheduled to be, a rumour develops that their in a relationship which gradually begins effecting what’s real.

Not only is it a good book on desolation because of the habitual loneliness the unnamed character lives under, but often it describes her nightly walking path through dead streets and past buildings destroyed by bombings.

In the Dream House (Carmen Maria Machado, 2019)

Interesting side note, horror writer Carman Maria Machado is a huge fan of The Haunting of Hill House and chose it as the scariest book of fiction.

Anyway In the Dream House is a memoir of Machado’s experience of domestic abuse within a three year relationship, and ‘the dream house’ is both a real place where Machado and her unnamed girlfriend start living together shortly after meeting, as well as a framework for exploring why the history of domestic abuse in same-sex partnerships are often treated as non-existent.

Trapped within ‘the dream house’ by the ideal of the women she fell in love with, the book recounts Machado’s rationale for staying, alongside examples of folklore and cultural representations of abusive and what it means to be queer.

Melbourne’s Ghost Bookshop

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I’d buy a book from that guy. He has a santa/willy wonka vibe going [image via Spencer Shier]

I don’t know if this’ll make a lot of sense but cause I’ve lived in my fair share of rentals, sometimes I start imagining what I’ve looked  like from each of my former houses/flats’ perspectives [and ditto what my current abode thinks of me].

If walls were somehow sentient and could talk, do you think they’d have secret opinions and preferences on all the people who’ve called them home in their lives? Would every share-house remember all the various ways their rooms have been decorated over the years? And like an all-seeing, wise, grandma willow presence – could they give you a definitive and impartial answer to who out of the group, in their humble opinion, is the hardest to live with? 

With older buildings in the city too, occasionally I’ll walk past them and think about their stories and wonder whether there was an era, or identity or business that was their favourite. And whether they’d be pro or anti having a little graffiti on their bones?

Melbourne has so many beautiful older buildings and little traces of its past scattered and hidden in plain sight if you look closely; and since the CBD is currently so quiet it’s  almost a ghost-town, I figure let’s talk about a 137 year old ghost bookshop that I think about every time I pass the glass roof on Howey Place (I mean ghost bookshop as in it doesn’t exist anymore, I’m not talking about an existing bookshop that exclusively sells ghost-themed wares).

From 1883 – 1929, a bookshop two blocks in length, called Cole’s Book Arcade, stood on (what is now) 299 Bourke Street, and it’s founder, Edward William Cole, installed that glass roof illegally when he extended the bookshop to Little Collins Street in 1896. 

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Popularly described as a ‘palace to the intellect’ , in its heyday Cole’s Book Arcade was one of the largest bookshops in the world, with supposedly ‘two million books’ on it’s shelves.

Walking through the rainbow sign archway on the Collins Street entrance; the staff all wore scarlet jackets, and the ground floor had over a hundred chairs with signs everywhere reading, ‘Read for as Long as you Like – Nobody Asked to Buy’ [they did have a massive theft problem though bless them. But this didn’t phase Cole who was quoted as saying: ‘at least the thieves will be reading!’]

Cole’s Book Arcade also boasted the following features:

Basically it sounds so cool that I can’t believe it ever existed (sort of like a less lame Mr Magorium’s Emporium). So who was the eccentric shy-guy behind Cole’s Book Arcade?

Originally from Kent and the eldest of ten, Edward William Cole (1832 – 1918), was the son of a labourer who died when Edward was a baby. At twenty, after living rough in London and South Africa he emigrated to Ballarat during the Gold Rush where he started his first business – a lemonade stand called ‘Cole’s Cordials’ which had a frying pan for its sign.

Eventually, after then working as an itinerant photographer on the Murray, Cole moved to Melbourne where he was able to save enough money to utilise Melbourne’s public libraries for two years and make up for the education he missed out on.

Before opening Cole’s Book Arcade in 1883, Cole ran a pie stall followed by a book stall called Cole’s Cheap Books, then the first Cole’s Book Arcade in 1873 (which was a smaller bookshop, still on Bourke Street but closer to Parliament) until finally opening the bigger Cole’s Book Arcade (the one he is most remembered for) on Melbourne Cup Day a decade later.

He met and married his wife, fellow introvert Eliza Frances Jordan, in 1875, after he posted the following want-ad in the Herald Sun:

 A GOOD WIFE WANTED

TWENTY POUNDS REWARD

POSITIVELY BONA FIDE

I, EDWARD WILLIAM COLE OF THE BOOK ARCADE BOURKE STREET

wish to obtain… a wife with the following characteristics: SHE MUST BE good tempered, intelligent, honest… neat, but not extravagantly or absurdly dressy… industrious, frugal…

I am quite sensible that I may be laughed at, but… the best thing a man can have is a good wife, and the worst thing a bad wife, yet in most cases, a very irrational principle of selection is followed, for nineteen out of twenty [marriages] originate from the merest accidents of life…

I have no more hesitation in advertising for… my partner for life, than I should have were I merely advertising for a business partner…

They ended up having six children together who would live in an apartment above the famous Cole’s Book Arcade – the eldest of whom (Linda) would run the bookshop following Edward’s death in 1918.

Ultimately Cole’s Book Arcade couldn’t survive the great depression and it closed in 1929. A David Jones is now located on that address, and all the traces of the once immense cultural institution which stood there are gone – save the glass roof walkway and some original stone work next to it.

Even after seeing a whole bunch of old photos, I can’t picture what that lost bookshop must’ve looked like to walk past or how magical it must’ve felt to browse through those shelves. Plus it’s pretty incredible that you could walk past that the glass roof a billion times and not realise that its not meaningless and in fact it has its own rich backstory. I am glad though that (as far as I know) no respected bookshops keep monkey families anymore!

[A lot of really great independent Melbourne bookshops, like Embiggins and Grub Street in Fitzroy closed down last year. It really sucks and it’s embarrassing cause Melbourne is proud of its City of Literature status but the list of bookshops keeps getting smaller cause of rent hikes.]