For years I lived in Brunswick in a dark, narrow terrace with a concrete backyard and a back view to a cobblestone laneway. When my writing business launched I didn’t have much work, so I used to take a long walk every morning and night around Brunswick’s back door.
I took a Lomo camera to document my ambles and tried to cover a different route every day. Whether it was humid or drizzling, peeking at people on their way to the pools at sunrise, or at 3am with a colour flash, I’d be out and about, sticking my nose into other people’s business.
I think these low-key expeditions were a hangover from the years of travel around Mali, Burkina Faso, Oman, India, the Philippines. For ages I was restless, and had a kind of mindless need to see and experience everything first-hand, as often as I could, usually with little money and no job to come back to. It didn’t matter what the culture was, as long as it was as far from Melbourne’s blocky architecture, grid layout, and bland, predictable faces as I could get. When I got home I still needed novelty. Unpredictable piles of junk; people who’d thrown together a beaut shed or shelter from scraps; inadvertent art pieces made out of a pile of suitcases and grass.
Brunswick’s oldest settled parts are now over 170 years old. Once a popular stop on the way to the goldfields, the suburb has also been a light industrial zone, and is now a haven for beards and heavy traffic. Its lush, dishevelled back laneways evoke an era of night-soil and mud-spattered carts, however today they serve no more purpose to locals than a quick shortcut to Sydney Road or a place to throw analogue TVs and dog shit.
My immediate laneway fixation was on all the different colours and stages of life of corrugated iron. For some reason people in Brunswick love a dark maroon, and over the decades it would fade to red, then orange, and finally to the metal underneath. A lot of the bluestone cobbles had caved in, been pinched or flooded, or sported full ecosystems of yellow-brown grasses and moss. Brunswick was also once home to the Hoffman’s Brickworks, and shambolic homages to this could still be seen in the ceramic bits and pieces concreted into the side of a fence to fill a gap.
Everyone had totally a different idea of what a back fence should look like. Some were tidy and prim, with a new door and a shiny lock. Other fences were thrown together with assorted offcuts and peeling corrugated iron with curled tags where trucks had tried to squeeze past. A rare few were barely fences at all. Just a blasted tangle of eroded wood cascading away from the lane, covered with choko vines, grasses and torn plastic. When you’d look through the gaps all you could see was waist-high grass, rusting furniture and cars up on blocks.
Covered air vents letting out gases from the murk below were still standing proud and wonky, like tiny turrets and minarets punctuating a skyline in miniature. These once stood above backyard dunnies where the night man would come to pick up piles of night soil in his cart.
Every week I’d note the volumes of discarded lunches from kids. Pulverised oranges, apples and decaying sandwiches condensing in plastic bags were chucked on the ground on the way home from school and left to bloat over weeks. Tin toys, tennis rackets, washing machines and dead rats were also standard.
When the laneways were abundant I’d bring a bag to fill with green figs, round figs, red figs, ovoid figs, lemons, rosemary, persimmons and grapes. The most overflowing were always the houses with the tidy white pebble gardens, stone balustrades and concrete poodles out the front. This would guarantee a messy goldmine drooping over the side, which you had to time just right to get your bounty.
Every day I’d disturb someone’s dog, and once, a whole chook-pen. Every morning the laneways would resound with the noise of trucks hauling timber, people singing in the shower, yakking in Greek or Russian or warming up old cars for 20 minutes. In some laneways the air was full of the warming scent of baking flatbread and sweets from Arabic patisseries. Once morning at 7am I got a peek at a clan of elderly Greek ladies squabbling over a roast lamb turning over a fire pit.
I’ve visited Brunswick only a few times since I moved away, and my life in the shadowy terrace off Hope Street (a few blocks from where Jill Meagher was murdered) seems like a hundred years ago, not five. The whole suburb feels different now; full of housing and developments, co-working spaces full of fruit crate furniture, and artisanal boar sausages and little dishes of pink salt. But people have probably been saying that about Brunswick since the goldrush.