The other day I went on a short ride on the City Circle tram – literally only three stops – but later, as I was walking down the street on my way towards the rest of the day, I realised that something about the trip had left a lingering impression on me.
The trams are slow and old, they creak like an earthquake, and yesterday when I went back to the city to figure out what it had been that had interested me so much, the audio commentary recording that usually provides patrons with tour information about the city had broken down and been replaced by a fluro-orange clad Customer Services Officer shouting loudly into the crowded tram. When I stepped onto the tram he was midway through an announcement that this particular carriage had been built in 1940, and thus it took longer to break than a newer tram. So when pedestrians and cars cut it off we’d better hold on because there was a good chance we’d all fall over like bowling pins if we didn’t.
Yet despite all this, when I had the chance to get off the tram and cut across the city in a newer and faster tram, I didn’t.
On my initial, three-stop-trip on the City Circle – the one that had sparked my interest – I had been on my way to visit someone in hospital. So perhaps, I reasoned later, the curious impression the trip had made on me was due only to the fact that when visiting someone dear to you in hospital one will take any consolation, however small, from one’s surroundings. Or I supposed, my interest might instead have been nothing more than a simple novelty factor – for having lived in Melbourne for nearly my whole life I have only ever caught the City Circle a few times, and always in a hurry. How else could a three-stop-tram-ride linger in the mind so vividly? Why had the tram impressed me so much?
But yesterday when I went back to the city to find out, I realised that neither explanation was sufficient.
Much of the value of historical relics like the City Circle tram, old markets, and wooden ships that don’t go much anywhere lies, I suspect, in their ability to remind us momentarily that life wasn’t always the way we experience and understand it now, even in the same city. And the more familiar the place or object in question, the more compelling the message will be. This I suspect, is what had interested me: I catch trams every week, but rarely is there anything so distinctive that will cause a trip to linger in my mind for very long.
Yesterday, when I stepped off the City Circle for a moment to let some of the crowd get off and the Customer Services Officer began yelling out all the stops to the remaining patrons, I noted instantly the different reaction I had to this situation here, rather than if this should happen on an ordinary tram. On another tram someone yelling would be annoying. There it wasn’t. Far from it, I found myself smiling stupidly at all the remaining patrons who were largely tourists, wide eyed and gripping gripping cameras and maps.
‘Next stop will be Parliament and Burke street’, our guide yelled out when the tram turned off Flinders St. I continued to sit, quite happy to gaze at the carriage around me. I found myself feeling a bit like an imposter, feeding off the curiousity and general good mood of the people around me like some kind of tourist-vampire – for the passengers were mostly tourists who might have been on the tram for the first time and have never seen the city around it. I watched them with interest as they gazed curiously at the view out of the windows that I might, on my way home from work or uni, ignore in favour of a book, or perhaps something compelling on my phone. On this historical tram – as much a tourist venture as a historical relic, true – the viewpoint from inside tram let me see a city I know well from a completely different point of view, and to appreciate it as if I had never seen it before.
I heard about four different languages around me as people drew one another’s’ attention to the buildings outside the antique wooden-framed windows. The chatter that I could understand was about all the little things that you would have ceased to be curious about if you lived in Melbourne and if you walked these streets every day: the museum and the Carlton Gardens, they are definitely worth a visit. And that sculpture in the Docklands, maybe I should get off and take a closer look.
When the tram broke down for a moment and the Customers Services Officer told us it would be eight minutes before it moved again it wasn’t annoying, like it might be on another tram. It gave me a chance to consider things more closely as I sat on that well-preserved time capsule.
Not long ago I walked past a part of St Vincent’s hospital that has been recently demolished, and found myself unable to remember what had been there before. I’ve been walking past the hospital every day for the last month, and yet, where there is now a bulldozer and a pile of dust and rubble I cannot remember ever having seen anything else. It seemed a shame, I found myself thinking as I sat on the antique tram, that not everything could be preserved so well as this tram. Now, if you will allow me to digress for a moment with a quote that might seem unrelated, I will endeavour soon to wrap up the two lines of thought I am playing with.
In a book I read recently, The Architecture of Happiness by Alain De Botton, the philosopher muses on what it is about beautiful buildings and architecture that excites not only interest, but strong opinion either in favour or against its design;
…we are drawn to call something beautiful whenever we detect that it contains in a concentrated form those qualities in which we personally, or our societies more generally, are deficient. We respect a style which can move us away from what we fear and towards what we crave: a style which carries the correct dosage of our missing virtues. That we need art in the first place is a sign that we stand in almost permanent danger of imbalance, of failing to regulate our extremes, of losing our grip on the golden mean between life’s great opposites: boredom and excitement, reason and imagination, simplicity and complexity, safety and danger, austerity and luxury.
If the behaviour of babies and small children is any guide, we emerge into the world with our tendencies to imbalance already well entrenched. In our playpens and high chairs, we are rarely far from displaying either hysterical happiness or savage disappointment, love or rage, mania or exhaustion – and, despite the growth of a more temperate exterior in adulthood, we seldom succeed in laying claim to lasting equilibrium, traversing our lives like stubbornly listing ships on choppy seas.
To put it less eloquently, we detect in the design of a building, a reflection of the values we either hold dear or reject. An austere cement office block might cause one to feel crushed under the weight of one’s own strict work routine, in the same way that a children’s playground made entirely of grey cement might cause one to doubt the happy-go-lucky and untroubled state that we so often associate with childhood.
In contrast however, a building that has been designed in a way that is aesthetically pleasing to us allows us to be idealistic about the world for a moment: to see some beauty in it whose existence we might otherwise be inclined to doubt in our often messy day to day lives.
So, to bring these two strands of thought together finally – in the same way that a building can remove us momentarily from our current concerns, historical relics and reminders also have a part to play in inviting us to consider the world from a viewpoint removed from our own: as it might have been for someone in the 1940s riding a creaking tram through Melbourne – one that ground noisily to a halt if someone in a bonnet walked in front of it on their way to the market. And short of being only a tourist venture, riding on such a reminder can be a useful exercise in keeping ourselves open to different points of view about how the world was, how it is, and how it can be.
Something of this feeling – this temporary obscuration of our own world and point of view with that of someone else – reaches us when we glimpse antique buildings and is likely a part of why we feel so betrayed when they are knocked down.
A hint of a useful and often comforting reminder of another time and place, and its ability to pull us temporarily out of ourselves and our own necessarily narrow, day-to-day viewpoint, is lost when these buildings are demolished, and retained when relics like the City Circle are maintained. This is likely why we prefer instances where a compromise is reached: between destroying all traces of history, and keeping up with the demands of the present. In buildings such as the iconic Richmond Dimmeys bell tower, and the old tram depot at the corner of Power Street and Riversdale Road, a compromise has been found by maintaining the façade of an older building in the process of redevelopment into a newer building.
In this way the reminder of another time and life can remain with us and help us reconsider the world from a different historical viewpoint, even momentarily. Recently, walking around Studley Park in Kew, I stumbled across some plaques with historical information about what used to exist where there is now only grass next to the river. This might seem like a small thing, but it is a key reminder that the world has not, and will not, always be the way we see it now. And this ability is immensely important when considering social changes both past and present, that require one group to be able to empathise with, and see from the point of view of another.
Historical reminders allow us to recognise that the world around us wasn’t always the way we see it now. They allow us to have multiple perspectives of the same experience or place, which as a more general skill, is crucial in making effective decisions. Think of going on a ghost tour of an old prison, or of spending a day at what used to be a bustling gold mine and the immense popular appeal of such things that challenge our day-to-day acceptance of the world as it is at the moment. This transformation of a familiar setting into something unfamiliar has a useful effect. It has something to do with stories – experiencing the novelty or entertainment aspect – something to do with history, and, in its best form, something to do with empathy.
I remember reading, a while ago now, an article about an exhibition designed to put you as directly in the position of someone else – specifically someone blind or vision impaired – by having a blind guide take groups of visitors through a different experience of the same world:
The concept of Dialogue in the Dark is simple: visitors are lead by blind guides in small groups through specially designed darkened rooms. Scent, sounds, wind, temperature and textures convey the characteristics of daily environments – for example a park, a city, a boat cruise or a bar. The daily routines become a new dimension. A reversal of roles is created: people who can usually see are confronted with the sudden withdrawal of their key-sense sight and are taken out of their familiar environment. Blind people are the experts out of their living circumstances, and provide the public with security and a sense of orientation by transmitting to them a world without pictures. The tour itself lasts for about one hour but the effects can last a lifetime.
This struck me as an interesting idea and I found myself wishing that such things might be incorporated more easily into everyday life. So while the City Circle tram is perhaps a stretch from an exhibition so specific in its aims as Dialogue in the Dark, the central concept and effect is the same: the ability to adopt someone else’s point of view, and from that, the ability to encourage and develop empathetic reactions to the world around us.
Understanding of a place can be sadly lacking in public spaces, which is why history is a valuable tool to help us remove ourselves from our own strict routine and point of view, and glimpse a life other than our own. This is incidentally also why flash mobs are so engaging, and why apps like Geocaching are so popular. They revolve around the same idea, of inviting you to see more in your surroundings by seeing the familiar in an unfamiliar context. They break through the wall around your everyday routine and let you in on a secret moment or a different way of seeing a place that might be otherwise very familiar to you.
With history however, a challenge is created by its visibility since many of the best secrets are hidden away in closed books and require time and effort to uncover. When walking amongst the hustle and bustle of the Queen Victoria Markets for example, it can be easy to forget that more than ten thousand bodies are buried beneath the tourist hotspot, in what was part of the Old Melbourne Cemetery.
I recommend a large billboard, something, perhaps, like this;
While yes, this obviously needs refinement (and I use it as an example only, for I’m pretty sure there are historical information plaques already at the Queen Vic Markets and my billboard is, let’s face it, pretty crude) such reminders might serve to more effectively keep alive a sense of wonder that is valuable for its ability to jolt us out of our familiar routine of everyday life and remind us of those who lived in the same space as us but who perhaps weren’t as fortunate.
Much of our discontent in our day to day routines seems to come from our ability to lose sense of the idea that what we see as normal is not the same everywhere, and has not always been the same even in the spaces in which we are now living. There is something incredibly valuable about this reminder. In the same way that Alain De Botton often reminds his audience to visit some ruins, I would like to encourage anyone reading to catch the City Circle tram, even for a few stops, and examine the city as a tourist, or as someone from the 1940s. Or go on a walking tour of Melbourne, or maybe a historical tour of an old prison. There are heaps of great events like this happening every day in Melbourne. There is something immensely encouraging about being a stranger in your own city, even just for a short tram ride. As De Botton says in the video above, there are good things to feel small in front of – eternity, time, death – and visiting some ruins or seeing the world as a stranger can help bring this perspective momentarily into focus. ‘It’s good to see modern civilization crumbling to bits, it’s good to see what will happen to us in time’, De Botton continues, not to depress us, but to free us of what he calls ‘that agonising sense of self importance and egoism that is otherwise clinging to us like a bad smell’, and which can make the pressures of everyday worse than they are. This all might seem small, as though I am writing a love letter to a tram. But the ability of small things to charm us is important in a busy world where it is easy to lose sight remains an important ability. So when the corny voice on the last City Circle that I caught announced ‘St Kilda. Where you can soak up the European atmosphere’ it didn’t bother me or seem out of place. It was fitting with the experience of a tourist, or of someone pretending to be a tourist in an effort to see the world differently for a moment.
Here are some links for touristing around Melbourne that I came across. Check them out if you have a free weekend to explore the city’s past: