Ben Winch

Light Traveller

The Long Way Round

Melbourne and the road not taken, 1998-2000

May 9th 2016

In the Australian autumn of 1998, when I was 24 years old, I arrived in Melbourne via Lachlan, Tasmania (I’d spent six months there in winter and spring ’97) and East Redfern, inner Sydney (three months in ’97/’98), having left the Adelaide Hills in a Mazda 626 loaded to the roof the year before. Melbourne, familiar to me from visits with my dad in my teens, and a place already inhabited by a handful of Adelaide musicians I’d known in the indie scene, was to be a stepping stone to less familiar destinations and an intermittent home for the next eight years, but in autumn ’98 it was just a place to get my breath back.

In Sydney I’d broken up, after four years of on-again off-again (not strictly correct: we’d been committed, if nothing else, but we couldn’t quite tolerate cohabitation), with the passionate love of my young life, and it was with both grief and exhilaration that I cut loose after the sadness of that parting. Some musician friends had a place they called the Clifton Hilton, where visiting Adelaideans would crash in the loungeroom on weekend gigging, gig-going or record-buying jaunts, and for two or three weeks I was a resident, while we jammed, started a band (the Love Rustlers) and partied.

After a crash course in Melbourne nightlife I found a room of my own, in a sharehouse in Carlton North where, magically, my current wife once stayed while I was away (her cousin was one of my then-flatmates), though I it’d take me another fourteen years to meet her and hear that story. When I arrived, it was a house full of women, and though I cracked on to most anyone who’d let me, late at nights (as my wife’s cousin remembers) I’d cry myself to sleep.

I got a job, my first ever aside from two months reading manuscripts for Random House (since age twenty I’d lived on Literature Board grants, before that on the dole): I washed dishes in a Fitzroy café. Soon I left that non-descript place for the Tin Pot Café, North Fitzroy, in those days a gay and lesbian mecca, open-minded and welcoming, and the perfect place for a frail, blue-haired neo-Bowie kid who’d had the wind knocked out of him by heterosexuality to get his confidence back. I went back for four tours of duty, despite its changing owners, over the next seven years.

My first bookshop job was a different story. I’d never warmed, even as a customer, to that glossy ex-bank building, which housed an admittedly impressive range of obscure books and records along with the familiar stuff it had to sell to stay in business. And though I made friends there, I never felt at ease. One colleague said I wasn’t “hypocritical enough”! And yes, I was guileless: when the owner asked was I pirating all the CDs I took home on approval I said sure, I’d been taping music since my teens. I talked back to the manager, sniggered (“like Vlad the impaler”, another colleague told me) during author events and shamelessly hit on my female co-workers.

As time passed and Melbourne grew familiar I stopped partying and started saving; I’d decided to leave for Canada in 2000. Meanwhile, my expulsion from the bookstore was imminent. On my last shift, for the first time ever, I signed off on the register-count. Next day there was money missing – the manager said she “knew” I’d done it. I’d stood to make $1000 that Easter weekend, and I was leaving for Vancouver a few days later. If I went quietly that morning, she said, she’d let me take the money. So I went, but not quietly: I told everyone who’d listen I was innocent, and I pleaded my case to the owner when he returned from his long weekend. I left thinking everything was cool. But when, a year later, I turned up for staff drinks, I felt like an alien. Apart from a couple of meetings with one friend, I never hung out with those guys again.

What had happened? Had they reconsidered their estimations of my honesty in light of a messy workplace flirtation, which I’d kept going via email from Vancouver and only abandoned when my ex-girlfriend and I got married in Las Vegas? Or was it just that workplace friendships, once you’ve left the workplace, don’t last? Whatever the case, maybe I wasn’t the same friend I’d been before leaving. I hated Melbourne, hated marriage, hated wage-slavery, couldn’t shake the notion I’d been cheated. And while in ’98/’99 I’d been happy to go on hiatus from my writing career, by 2001 I’d realised it was more than a hiatus.

Meantime I had an album’s worth of break-up songs (Shadow History) which I couldn’t sing because my then-wife and I hadn’t broken up after all! When I’d arrived in Melbourne in ’98, the streets had seemed washed with tears, but still that feeling of a “Wide Open Road” (classic 80s Triffids song) had tempted me. By 2001, that road had disappeared, a crossroads somewhere far back that I’d lingered by but never taken. It would take another five years before I reconsidered, and I always wondered what I’d missed along that highway.

Face to Face in Melbourne, 1998

Face to face, Melbourne 1998
Photo by Martina Mrongovius

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