Time travel in Melbourne

Do you ever get that prickly feeling, when walking through the old parts of your town, that time is not linear? That it somehow overlaps? As I took my dog Oliver for a walk on the weekend, I had in my head an Australian novel The Getting of Wisdom*, which was written a little over a century ago and set in East Melbourne, through which I happened to be walking that morning.

Looking around, I realised I was seeing many of the same buildings, tramlines and gardens that first caught the eye of the book’s scrappy 12-year-old heroine, Laura Tweedle Rambotham, when she arrived in Melbourne from her ‘up country’ home to attend a prestigious ladies’ college*. Here I tied Oliver to the same cast-iron lamp-post that Laura (or at least the book’s author) would have passed. There, the same historic Exhibition Buildings, set amid beautiful gardens. Overhead, a century-old criss-cross of tram-wires, decorating old colonial buildings and terrace houses like spiders’ webs over paintings.

Laura’s world and my world have combined, despite the passing of 100 years. And yet in my world, rising up and around and permeating Laura’s world, stand monuments that would be unrecognisable and unfathomable to her: skyscrapers, cars, new trams on much-used lines, and modern buildings interspersed amid the old. This is what I mean by time overlapping. I do not believe the present or future ever really replace the past. Instead, they are simply another layer on the old. Time is a collage.

And I thought to myself: if you look closely enough at the geographical contours of my city, at the odd and ancient tree that has survived, even at the cultural traits that we carry as a people; you’ll find that in this world sit also the worlds of not just centuries but millennia of Australians who lived here before me, going back more than 40,000 years.

It was quite the philosophical walk with the dog. *The Getting of Wisdom was written by Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson, under the pseudonym Henry Handel Richardson. It is the story of a square peg of a teenaged girl trying desperately to fit into a round hole, with often funny and sometimes heartbreaking results.

*The fictitious Laura attended the factual and still prestigious Presbyterian Ladies’ College, Melbourne, which opened in 1858. Sadly, the original school building (see above) did not survive the years.

The historical photograph of the Presbyterian Ladies College was taken in 1905 and is classified for copyright under public domain.

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