The Essence of St Kilda (from the archive)

From as long as I can remember, my dream has been to live by the sea. So, it’s not surprising that my first home in Melbourne was in St Kilda. A few weeks after settling on Loch Street, fresh of the boat, I picked up a leaflet for an essay competition: ‘the essence of St Kilda’. I thought – what is there to lose, and took part. As it happens, I got a ‘special mention’. Now that Covid-19 is putting us all in self-isolation, I have been going through my drafts and folders, putting some order into them. I thought I might share this relic from early 2009, a recent migrant’s take on St Kilda. 

What is the essence of St Kilda? The competition leaflet invites me to “tell us your story” – but I’m a Frenchman, and I need clearer guidelines. I’m not satisfied with anything so vague. A story is not an essence. A story will have characters involved in a plot, and therefore time passing, and change. Essence, on the other hand, involves a stable intellectual object, open to manipulation, exchange, diffusion. I will therefore not engage in a digressive personal narration. I will use my logic instead. I shall articulate, clarify, and establish intellectual boundaries. I want sharp naming; anything looser is boredom. As far as writing is concerned, I hate frills and blurs. I will distinguish categories, and sieve my experience through them.

As an overture, I reach for my beloved partner, the French-language dictionary. Yes, I like understanding the world with help of a reference book. I try “St Kilda,” but it does not appear in the proper nouns section – it’s a French dictionary, no wonder – but then I think, if it’s about the “essence” of St Kilda, should I maybe look up “essence” in the list of entries, and seek inspiration among the common nouns?

Under “essence” I read: “Essence: ce qui constitue la nature d’un être,” that which constitutes the nature of a being. Synonym: nature, substance. So is it nature, then? The opposite of culture? If essence is not cultural, then what is St Kilda, naturally? Should I mention the hill, how steep it is, how high it rises above sea-level? Or should I focus on the soil, the mineral truth of the place – clay, stone, sand? On the complex relationship of hill and swamp, on the cycle of water running down into the sea, digging long beds into the ground? Or maybe my essay should focus on ecosystems, identifying the border fencing the domain of the lorikeet inland, and that of the seagull beachwards; or try and understand, interviewing volunteers and specialists, how penguins and water rats interdependently share the rocks of the breakwater?

Doubtful, I read on: “ce qui fait qu’une chose est ce qu’elle est et ce sans quoi elle ne serait pas,” that which makes a thing what it is, in the absence of which it wouldn’t be. That one’s a bit fuzzy, isn’t it? Is the essence of St Kilda about a view of the receding shadows of the coastline, or the Melbourne skyline towering over the north-western horizon? Is it the hookers and syringes of Grey street, or the mansions with their grand Palladian architecture? Is it the kitsch face of Luna Park, or the gaudy tiles on the benches of Acland street? Maybe the place-name itself holds a clue. No “Kilda” patron saint encloses our part of the world in the warm embrace of its benevolence. The ship depicted in bas-relief on the railway bridge at Balaclava station – siren at the prow, thrusting her opulent throat at passers-by – is where the title comes from, although the ship the Lady of St Kilda was herself baptised after a group of islands off the coast of Scotland – and there was no kilt-wearing holy man there, answering calls of “Kilda, Kilda.” St Kilda, whether a deformation of Dutch or Danish, tells a water story, “sweet well,” “reliable spring,” or “place of many waters.” In short, the tritest of all place-names.

Will my dictionary’s third definition yield anything less fuzzy? “Type idéal,” ideal type. Antonym: “accident, appearance.” What then in St Kilda is appearance, accident? What is the real, the true, the core? Is it an intrinsically genteel and worthy part of town, accidentally covered in sleaze? Or is it the other way around? Unless we try a more radical approach, and consider the buildings accidental, arbitrary, and search for essence in the realm of the myth, in Dreamtime older than memory. Then St Kilda could be a resting-place of the whale ancestor, seagull, penguin, some other species. Who knows? Under the Junction corroboree tree, no voices gather, and I fear that the song of the land has been lost.

I read further, unfolding the garland of meanings: “substance odorante volatile produite par certaines plantes et pouvant être extraite sous forme de liquide,” volatile smelly substance, produced by certain plants, that can be extracted in liquid form. The raw material of perfume. So should I identify the smell of St Kilda, like food and wine writers try to encapsulate a complex intimate experience of nose and mouth? Is it eucalyptus and laurel on the streets of the leafy west? Or souvlaki, chips and oil along the stalls of Acland and Fitzroy streets? Is it the smell of continental cakes, a mix of sugar, butter, apple, nut and caramel, or the bitter smell of beer and wine from the pubs? Or is it the salty wafts along the seaside – unless, wait a minute, I can smell undertones of coconut-flavoured sunscreen there, as well.

Back to the dictionary. I skip a definition that identifies “essence” as “species,” and read on to the last one in the list: “hydrocarbure, produit de la distillation du pétrole brut, liquide très volatil, odorant, inflammable,” a product of petrol distillation, volatile liquid, odiferous, inflammable. That sounds promising. They give the following quote: “l’essence est employée comme carburant et comme solvant,” essence is used as a fuel and a solvent. Giving energy, generating movement. What is it that makes St Kilda go around? Is it the slow regular tide of water moving in and out as the moon tightens or loosens its magnetic web? Or the constant ebb and flow of human desire, bringing in daily loads of the young and the old, searching for sex and drugs or the more innocent pleasures of an ice-cream, a restaurant or a concert.

I sit and ponder. Did I actually find anything that I could pinpoint as the very essence of St Kilda? Of course, I could play the existentialist – it’s always easy, being French. I grab a cigarette, pull a long face, and quote a local philosopher. Sartre: “existence precedes essence.” And I see that we’re back at the first definition – a perfect hermeneutic circle! Now we can hop along the meanings, invoke the radical impossibility of ever delineating or defining a living reality without killing it first. And thus, I undermine my initial statement of intent. Heave a sigh, meditate on the weakness of the mind. But then I can proudly stand up to my responsibility: “St Kilda is alive, it’s a historical being. I can’t define its essence, because it’s free to evolve, free to change. St Kilda is not defined by its essence!” (Imagine a serious face here.) I rave on: “I’m a part of it, I define its essence, which my choices and actions will determine. St Kilda is what you want it to be.” How moving! But isn’t all of this a series of dull rhetorical somersaults? In the end, I’ve said nothing specific. Nothing there about St Kilda distinguishes it from Prahran, Caulfield, or even Fitzroy North. And if everything you can say about St Kilda also applies to Fitzroy North, then you probably haven’t understood much about the place.

I ditch the dictionary. I explore another path. I adopt Aristotelian style, defining things by specific difference and genre. St Kilda is (genre) a suburb. It is the terminus of tram-lines 96 and 112. No line ends in the centre of the CBD. There is nothing beyond St Kilda. But it’s not a self-standing urban community. It is situated within a continuous built environment. It is part of a metropolis – named after its original central hub, Melbourne. St Kilda differs from other suburbs in the world, by belonging to unique Melbourne – four seasons in a day, multiculturalism, lorikeets and cafe culture, etc. But what distinguishes it from other suburbs in Melbourne? What makes it not Albert Park, Footscray, Prahran or Box Hill? Does it serve a unique role in the metropolis or is it generic – distinguished only by accidents of history, identifiable only by administrative boundaries?

In terms of urban planning it stands out. None of its streets are straight, they’re all diagonal. St Kilda is not aligned with any other suburb, it refuses the sprawling symmetry. While the north expands towards the open desert of the dry continent, the streets of St Kilda all end at other streets. There is no perspective here towards anything but the bay. The city blocks the suburb on all sides. And yet, it’s not a seaport, either. It is not a place where goods are exchanged, where the riches of the land embark on their international journey, converting into cash, where docker muscle hauls heavy bags of exotic products to the ground. Oh no, the naked bodies on this beach are gym-fit, and the boats harboured along the jetty are yachts. There’s no warehouse here, no machinery, cranes or towboats. Not even a fishing fleet: just a lonely ferry crossing over to Williamstown, loading and unloading gaggles of leisure-weary travellers.

Moreover, there are no banking headquarters, industrial zones, or even a customs house. Nothing is manufactured or imported, here; there’s no-one to conduct wholesale transactions. It’s not a place of trading or legislating. It is not even a retail hub! Acland is not Chapel street. It has only a few shops, and most of them have cakes instead of clothes in the window. When I moved to St Kilda, arriving fresh off the boat, wanting furniture, a fridge and a pressure-cooker, I drove up to Windsor, Prahran and Richmond. After that I came back, unloaded everything into the house, and headed to Fitzroy street, enjoying a well-deserved alfresco dinner, and watching passersby. People come to St Kilda in search of entertainment. At night or during the day, all they want is a drink, food and terraces. Relax, enjoy, experience. It’s a place of pure spending. Ultimate consumption, of which only memories remain, a souvenir restaurant card, a receipt in the wallet. A glimmer in the eye, a shiver; nothing tangible, stackable, hoardable.

Now at last a pattern appears, a recurring key-signature that orders the polyphony of meanings. Is not entertainment the specific difference of St Kilda? This is not where people come to work, rest, or gather, but relax, enjoy and spend. When I told a friend I was moving here he said, amused: “oh, the Bohemian place!” But the same adjective applies to suburbs in the north, and there are other places for entertainment. People go to Chapel and Lygon street. What makes St Kilda not a Fitzroy or a Northcote? One thing is clearly different, and initially drew me to the suburb: collective housing, apartments. And thus no worm-farms, compost or home-grown veggies, no heaps of messy uselessness in sheds. In the same way as the north is earthy, grounded, and dreams of autonomous valley-style growing communities, recycling everything, and not daring to discard, St Kilda is open to the sea, bringing in riches from elsewhere, and throwing away the old, used and worn. The riches produced in the whole state come and mingle in Melbourne in order to be exported and alchemically transmuted into gold in the mysterious operations of harbour cities. In the process, a part of the wealth is diverted along St Kilda road, and as it reaches the pleasurely south-eastern hill it flies off, in a bonfire of sheer loss, invested in the sweet bottomless well of women, drugs, and alcohol, or in the lighter vanities of Luna Park and restaurants.

St Kilda relies on excess, on cash-burning, on idle spending. It relies on the abundant riches that are offered and sacrificed here. St Kilda makes a necessity of the superfluous, acknowledging it as essential to mental balance. One can’t constantly recycle and re-use, because man is not only born of earth and toiling and drought; we also depend on salty waves, irregular flows and miraculous catches. But with excess comes risk and potential destruction. Which applies here, in St Kilda: people will tell you: be careful, muggings at night, Irish backpackers, booze and fights, I wouldn’t live there, broken bottles on the pavement; and what about kids, you know, syringes. Hence the thrill, but it has a toll. Erring along Fitzroy street, asking for drug money, shouting at each other in front of the Gatwick, are the shipwrecked victims of the pleasure cruise. Distracted out of their way – whether drink has softened their brains or sleaze has tainted their souls. But these alcoholics and druggies are welcome here, somehow, part of the landscape; even if every cent they beg is burnt on something mind-numbing, they’re still supported, forgiven. Forgiven much, because they love much.

Is it a Christian place, then, our beloved suburb? A place of gospel-driven transformation of water into wine, and the pouring of perfume over our head? Excessive, abundant, out of control. Preaching “you’re alive, so live – love is all that matters!” Grey street has it all, the short-skirted ladies making a business of love, and the green statue of Christ on the church of the Sacred Heart, extending his all-embracing arms over the hill, offering love as generously and simply as the prostitutes beneath. I saw them marching down Fitzroy street after the gay waterpolo team in the Pride march, banners above them saying “St Kilda Sex Workers: an essential part of our community.” An young boy among them – hot body, gorgeous face – was wearing a t-shirt that read: “why be poor?” Why indeed? After all, who knows, a messiah may well multiply fish and bread for us. And if we count our pennies, sourly restricting ourselves, who knows if a resenting god won’t punish our lack of trust, spoil our hoarded manna, leave us destitute of bread and money – with no memories of pleasure to relish and heaps of rotten fruit on our shelves?

Here, then, lies the essence of St Kilda: it’s a suburb of Melbourne directed towards sheer consumption and excess of life. And that’s a satisfying achievement, a workable definition of its essence. A bit dry, though. So what if – final somersault – we returned to other definitions of essence? What if the essence of St Kilda was just a volatile, flammable liquid, a subtle perfume that fills you with energy and dissolves your pain? As water tossed by waves on the shore dissolves into bubbles of foam, then lifts itself, delicate, through the air on the seaside, a gentle caress on passing faces. It sticks to the skin, a patch of iodine and dreams, quickly evaporating. Nothing left behind, only the taste of the possible. Only the phantom of a sea-something – serpent, seagull or siren – mouthing “you bear my mark now, I’m the goddess of beauty, foam-like, and my touch has made you the salt of the earth.”

On soundscapes

I’m back at Gills Diner. Yesterday morning, I started working from my study, but felt eerily drawn to Gills, and so I went. It’s not only the bombolone. It’s something about the place, it’s the vibe. And when I reflected on it, wondering why I love working form that cafe so much, I realised: it’s the soundscape.

We live in a multi-sensorial environment, surrounded by sounds and smells; our body reacts to the cold wind on our legs or the presence of another person nearby. But – maybe distortion of our screen-mediated world – visual cues take credit for everything. A place, a person, a thing, look good, or doesn’t. Whether they feel, smell, sound good – it matters, but it’s not something we think about.

I’m an earthy guy, and experience the world through all senses. The touch of wood, the waft of bacon and coffee, the echoing voices of nearby conversations and clinging metal from the kitchen – they’re more important for my own sense of space and presence than just how things look.

There’s an old rivarly between Melbourne and Sydney. Once, coming back from the other city, as I stepped out of Spencer Street Station, I had a sudden flash of insight. Sure, Sydney pleases the eye – but Melbourne is sweeter on your ears. The tingle of trams, the clapping horses, the buzz of pedestrian lights, and the large echoes of its broad street, make the Melbourne CBD one of the most pleasant urban soundscapes in the world.

And since that moment, I realised – to discover whether a place feels right – I close my eyes, and listen.