Essay // Winter City, Warm City: Melbourne

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O WINTER…I love thee, all unlovely as thou seem’st,
And dreaded though thou art!…
I crown thee king of intimate delights,
Fireside enjoyments, homeborn happiness,
And all the comforts that the lowly roof
Of undisturb’d retirement, and the hours
Of long interrupted evening, know.

These lines are from British poet William Cowper’s ‘Winter Evening’ of 1785, which Adam Gopnik quotes in his 2011 Massey Lectures series Winter: Five Windows on the Season. I cannot but borrow the reference by redacting the poem to a few lines, for it is more than apt for my current subject, winter, and for the subject of this blog, which can be no better described than by the phrases ‘intimate delights’ and ‘homeborn happiness’.

This post will be—hopefully—the first of my own essays on winter (short, hurried, and incomparable to Gopnik’s though they will be!) centred on the moods of the cities I have had the pleasure to visit during the ‘off season’. Although those of you in the springing Northern Hemisphere will feel seasonally off-kilter, you may also sense more keenly the idea of winter, which expresses itself so intensely in your climate.

— ♦ —

HERE IN THE SOUTHERN HEMISPHERE, winter is rapidly approaching. In Melbourne, commuters have brought out their black overcoats, students have brought out their black tights and black skinny jeans, and we’re all getting ready to have our black umbrellas and black boots on permanent, stoic stand-by in dampening, darkening hallways. That’s not to say that the mood is black. Melbourne—I think, at least—thrives on winter, just as Sydney seems to do on summer.

For me, Melbourne winter means sharp emphasis on the bleakest aspects of student life: in share-houses, showers must be short if you want them hot; heaters are most usually placed off-limits by the most frugally-minded in the house and their non-use rigidly enforced; big batches of soup suddenly appear in the fridge and must be eaten at a succession of monotonous meals; and in dryer-less homes, clothes are eternally, fatalistically, drearily damp. In their humble way, these domestic winter concerns epitomise the first of two paradoxes of the season, for while they are grim, they are also certainly romantic (in written idea, if not reality) for a section of the city’s 20-somethings who naively search for quintessential experience.

The idea of winter as bringer of romance seems age-old. It has, at least, been with us since the innovation of various givers of comfort (window glazing, effective heating, electric lights, downy jackets and the like), which is to say that it is rather a modern notion after all. The comfort of within is not possible without its opposition, and both must be embraced for each to have full meaning: what is the consolation of a roaring fire and a hot beverage unless, baby, it’s cold outside?

Of course, much of the memory-rich romance of winter comes from the cultural dominance of the north, and images of a mid-century northern childhood (in which it is perpetually Christmas) most of all: snow, frosted windows from which to peer at the snow, toboggans upon which to hurtle through it, snowmen in tartan scarves, fathers in knitted jumpers, lights on trees. (Personally, all of this is inextricably tied to my formerly intense fondness for Arthur Ransome’s Winter Holiday, in which newcomers Dick and Dorothea join the rest of the gang, bundling themselves into woolens and spending the season joyfully building an igloo. For a while there, being a British child of the 1930s seemed to me the most acute and impossible of aspirations!)

In the Southern Hemisphere, we have no such wintry traditions to fall upon, no cultural memories or customs that can universally and instantly conjure winter warmth for the soul. There must be something, then, far more intrinsically pleasurable and quixotic about winter than these snow-glutted images suggest, for Melbourne still hums in the glum above-zero-Celsius rain. The city neither retreats grumpily indoors nor remains too-optimistically in the streets, for there are public events and personal endeavours to be found in and out. This is the season for traipsing cosily through the National Gallery’s much-loved yearly Winter Masterpieces exhibition, as well as for sitting under a poncho at the football with a cup of tea in shivering hands. This is the season for catching up with neglected books, and for taking spritely walks with turned-up collars through the city’s gardens.

Perhaps part of the pleasure of winter is the achievability of its goal: where summer is about becoming less uncomfortable—escaping the heat, healing sunburn, and resting hot heads—winter is simply about becoming comfortable. Melbourne is not a pleasant place to be in the height of summer; on an airless tram in January, there must be more than a few minds longing for the southern signifiers of the winter months: a solid spate of rainy days, fires in pubs and the resurgence of dark ales and warmed ciders, blooming camellias in the Botanic Gardens, and the leaves of plane trees making carpets of the streets.

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