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Labour Day longings and a trip down memory lane

In my younger years, my grandparents lived in a suburb on the edge of the city in a house with a tin-can toilet at the end of the back yard, and the bread was delivered by horse and cart.

My secondary school took us on adventures to Melbourne in a bus or by train – each ‘dog box’ on the train filled with wooden panelling, green leather seats, brass fittings and teenagers.
We saw plays by Shakespeare and Chekhov and smuggled shots of bourbon into milkshake containers filled with Coca-Cola.

Jeff Kennett, premier of Victoria from 1992 to 1999, showed his disdain for country people by closing the train line in the early ’90s, as well as hundreds of small rural schools. Tiny historical train stations, with names like Hillside and Fernbank, were demolished, perhaps to make it harder for resurrection.

Craig Ingram just after announcing he would support Labor.

Craig Ingram just after announcing he would support Labor.Credit:Simon Schluter

Craig Ingram, an independent MLA, later toppled the Kennett government by supporting Labor and Steve Bracks. The trains started running again.

Post-school, the excitement of city pubs, “discos” and live music was alluring. I saw Midnight Oil at the Crystal Ballroom where the wooden floor bounced up and down, and Men at Work at the Station Hotel, where the trek to the toilets was frightening.

Australian rock royalty, Midnight Oil.

Australian rock royalty, Midnight Oil.

Stints of education, when I had to live in Melbourne, saw me drawn back down the highway at every chance.

Over the decades, short trips to Melbourne to visit restaurants, exhibitions, shops and hidden bars have been a welcome treat. Our last trip to Melbourne – other than for a few days, armed with a travel permit to care for an elderly relative – was one year ago on the long weekend in March 2020.

Pandemic precautions were unfolding with none of us aware of the tough restrictions to come. People in China were being welded into their homes.

High-flying Australians arriving on flights from the USA were testing positive to the COVID-19 virus. We shared our hotel lift with a flight attendant who, we joked to each other, might be contagious. She would soon be out of a job.

An empty Melbourne during lockdown.

An empty Melbourne during lockdown.Credit:Jason South

When the state went into lockdown, we settled into an easy routine. I was permitted to go to the office, my industry considered essential. I wore tracksuit pants, picked up dinner packs from restaurants, cleaned out cupboards, took up the ukulele and settled in. Zoom conferences with clients and online professional development made communication quick and convenient from the comfort of my swivel chair.

Premier Daniel Andrews’ marathon press conferences, delivered at a different time slot each day, offered a new style of lively entertainment. I argued out loud with the journalists as they tried to provoke new headlines and bullied officials less media savvy than Dan.

I watched strangers abuse each other on Facebook messages, and his political opponents eventually fall silent.

The easing of restrictions in the countryside meant we toured around the state to places we had never visited before, normally holidaying overseas. We felt sorry for our locked-up city cousins but with the tables of privilege rarely turned, we couldn’t help feeling slightly smug.

Now, as our region fills with people from the city – eating, drinking, staying, camping, boating, fishing buying up houses and moving here to work from home – I am content with my country lot.
I hope Melbourne recovers soon and springs back to her former life. But, for now, I don’t care if I rarely head west on highway one.

Susan Murphy is a Victorian writer.

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