Friday, March 17, 2006


Luca Antara, the book, tarries a while in the QVB, because, when I first came to Sydney, that's where the Public Library was. I was interested in telling a brief version of its history but as I was in New Zealand when I wrote that section, I got my material on-line. Now, preparing the Notes on Sources, I find that there is a book about the Grand Dame. The Queen Victoria Building 1898-1986, by John Shaw with photos by David Moore (among others), was written at the initiative of architects Stephenson & Turner, who carried out the restoration of the building in the 1980s. Lovely book. One of its glories is the archival photographs, which are not restricted to the building itself but cover many aspects of Sydney's CBD down the years. I was fascinated by the pictures of arcades, most of which were demolished before I came here. The Imperial Arcade, which resembled a theatre set; the Victoria Arcade, with its elliptical glass dome; the Royal Arcade with its Roman and Florentine echoes. Only the Strand Arcade now remains, along with the QVB itself which, although it is a free standing building, has many affinities with arcade buildings, for example, its glazed barrel vault roof.

I can't remember now where we'd been - perhaps to a concert or a gig - I do recall one night, late, wandering with my then wife into the newly restored QVB, which was wide open, brightly lit and vastly empty; this was before the shops had been tenanted or opened. There was distant music coming from the upper levels. We walked into each other's arms and waltzed together along the tiled floor of the promenade known as the Avenue. This floor slopes, there's a slight hill running down Market Street towards George Street, probably the old bank of the Tank Stream, and the makers of the building followed that fall. I'm no longer sure either if it was the same night or another - probably the same - that, climbing the stairs we found, on the top-most level, a function or celebration of some kind going on. Passing across the floor we encountered Barry Humphries, so shickered he could not stand up, being escorted, like an ocean liner by tugboats, by two gorgeous young women from one revelry to another. Or perhaps from revelry to bathroom.

After finishing the book I went and had another look at the QVB, and at the Strand Arcade. Beautiful structures, beautifully restored (Stephenson & Turner did the Strand as well), yet I couldn't help feeling a slight pang of disappointment. Why? I think it's just the dullness of the use they are put to, at least from my point of view. I can remember being absolutely fascinated by the arcades in Auckland in the 1970s, because of the strange variety of shops, businesses and other organisations you found there: erotica, philately, obscure foreign friendship societies, fortune tellers, dance academies and who knows what else. Whereas now what you find is the relentless shininess of contemporary consumer culture. Many wonderful things are there which you can buy if you want, but something else is lacking, perhaps aura, perhaps grime, perhaps a whiff of the disreputable. The QVB replaced the George Street Markets and was built as a market itself. In its early days it attracted palmists and mind-readers along with teachers of music, art and dance. Now mostly what you find are handbags, hand lotions, hand made chocolates. It'd be an awful confession to say that I preferred the QVB derelict and that isn't quite what I mean. I just wish there was less shininess, more texture, some fluid and chaotic tactility there.