Letter from Melbourne

Letter from Melbourne

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Ben Cousins

The beauty and madness of Ben Cousins, the comedy and drama of Pam Ann’s birthday and an education in Aboriginal art were the highlights of  a whirlwind week in Melbourne.

Melbourne is often seen as Australia’s most European city. It’s viewed by many as classier than Sydney, claiming a groovier art scene and a lively sporting culture. It’s consistently ranked as one of the most desirable cities to live in, but how much can you soak up in 4 days and what’s the best hangover cure?

I was lucky enough to get booked for a DJ gig in Melbourne, giving me a choice opportunity to hang out somewhere sunny for Christmas. Not only that, but the two-week jaunt offered a window onto Australia’s cultural casserole. So, what did I learn? The news story ruling the media, and far more important than the credit crunch, was the Ben Cousins comeback.

Hot mess

Never heard of him? He’s a professional Aussie Rules football player who’s a cross between Lindsay Lohan and David Beckham. Like Beckham, he’s a respected player, sponsor-magnet and undeniable pin-up. Like Lohan, he’s battled various drug addictions and is renowned for erratic behaviour.

Once the captain of The Eagles, he was demoted after abandoning his car, fleeing from a roadside breath-testing unit, outrunning police on a major highway and swimming across a river to elude capture. He’s been linked to massive ecstasy hauls, 5-day coke binges, drug dealers, gangsters, shootings, overdoses, relapses and brawls in the street. Did I mention that he’s really, really hot?

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Media scrum

What’s not to love? The fuck-up footie star arrived in Melbourne the same day as yours truly and caused a frenzied media scrum as the news broke that he’d been drafted into the Richmond Tigers after a 12-month ban by the AFL. Initially, there was disappointment that the screaming fans, demented paparazzi and army of bodyguards were at the airport for someone other than myself, but all was forgiven when his dishy face and Popeye biceps honed into view. Suddenly, the fuss made sense.

For the next four days, Cousins’ apparently drug-free grin was on the front of every paper and led all the news reports on TV. The story was so engaging that even now, despite being back in the UK, his welfare, recovery and ability to play is still a great concern for me.

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DJing in Eureka Tower

Drag queens and maniacs

Twenty-four hours after my confused arrival, the time came for what may be the most glamorous DJ gig to grace my CV. The party was held at Eureka Tower, which when measured either by the height of its roof, or its highest habitable floor, is the tallest residential building in the world. It’s almost twice as tall as Canary Wharf.

The occasion was the 40th birthday party of Caroline Reid, creator of the comic character Pam Ann. Held on the 89th floor, the party kicked off at sunset. Obviously, the view was astounding- almost like a religious experience. Populated with drag queens, designers, DJs, trans girls, promoters, models, maniacs and lushes, the panoramic vista across Melbourne was complimented by an equally colourful scene on the inside.

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The pain of champagne

With the kind of hangover one might expect from drinking champagne for 7 hours, it was time to seek solace in the arts, so the following day was spent at the National Gallery of Victoria- The Ian Potter Centre. The ground level of this huge building is devoted to the indigenous Collection, which delivered my very first lesson in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art.

Well labelled, very varied and brilliantly curated, I spent an entire morning getting a crash course in both contemporary and historical styles of indigenous art. After an hour’s break for lunch, I plunged back in again, working my way through the Australian Collection and the Joseph Brown Collection.

The latter happens to be the single most generous donation of work to a gallery in Aussie history. Brown was an artist, soldier, scholar, connoisseur, businessman and art dealer who made a bequest of over 150 pieces, including paintings, sculptures and works on paper from colonial times to the present day.

I’ve occasionally argued that today’s Australia is a cultural void, where the (white) lack of struggle, high standard of living and geographical isolation tends to create a scene that’s cheery, unchallenging and hollow. However, the same can’t be said of the rich culture that existed long before whitey rocked up. The indigenous work proved beautifully abstract, deeply philosophical and almost beyond the understanding of us modern monsters.

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Rennie Ellis

 Snapping hookers

Also at the NGV was a photography exhibition by Rennie Ellis titled ‘No Standing Only Dancing’. Ellis was THE social photographer throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, snapping hookers, strippers, club freaks, celebrities and families at the beach. The exhibition was rude, hilarious, compulsive and inspirational lots of people having unselfconscious fun, captured at their peak.

Despite my brutal, pounding head, it made me wanna go out and dance the night away, all over again, which of course, I did. At the end of the night, I learned that the Melbourne sunrise is very, very, very bright.

First published The HospitalClub.com 29 December 2008

 

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