Why are Melburnians lining up outside in the freezing cold to see a few New York magazine editors? Bec Zajac elucidates upon a true trans-metropolitan love affair.
People in vintage Mary-Janes, stylish asymmetrical haircuts, Cat-eye glasses, woolen cape coats, black, black and more black are waiting in line. They’re talking politics, book clubs, the latest update on Adobe Creative Suite and the best drink specials in Brooklyn that evening.
Although they could be straight out of a line in front of an East Village cinema or a Williamsburg club, they’re not. They’re Melburnians and they’re standing in front of the Melbourne Town Hall on the opening Friday night of the Melbourne Writers’ Festival to see a few New Yorkers from The New Yorker talk New York.
This year, the Festival has accomplished the impressive feat of bringing five staffers from the world’s most esteemed magazine all the way to Australia. And Melburnians have gone crazy for it. The fourteen New Yorker events running over three days have attracted record-breaking crowds, a number of them have had to be moved to bigger venues to accommodate unexpectedly high turnouts, and the festival’s New Yorker Passes sold out within a matter of days.
Of course, New York is New York – one of the most visited, most admired cities on the planet and of course we’re talking about The New Yorker, arguably the most prestigious publication on the literary circuit – so it’s inevitable that they would be popular, but from where I stand, there does seem to be something particular about Melburnians that makes them bigger New York fans than any other city-dwellers I’ve come across.
In the queue for a drink at the Town Hall bar, I wonder, what exactly is it about New York for us Melburnians that makes us go gaga like it’s Monday night at the Nova, coffee cupping Thursday at Seven Seeds and the opening of a new Mexican food truck all rolled into one?
I decide to ask some of my fellow festival-goers this very question. Standing beside me waiting for our event to begin are Communications Professional, Bridie Mackay; Printmaker and Artist, Deb Taylor; and New Zealander-come-Melburnian, Stephen Mason.
Mr Mason begins:
“I agree it’s a bit of a cultural phenomenon — Melbourne’s love of all things New York. I have to admit that I’ve been susceptible to it. I think there’s a particular brand of Melburnians who are very interested in the creative and the political, and New York is a benchmark for all those things.”
Ms Mackay reflects:
“I think Melburnians like to see themselves as being very similar to New Yorkers, or as Melbourne being like New York in some way. We take a bit of ownership of it. Melbourne’s unique in Australia for the cold weather and maybe that’s why we identify.”
And Ms Taylor adds:
“I know I perceived New York as being this incredible melting pot, even before going there. I think in the Australian context, we probably like to see ourselves as that melting pot city, even if the reality might be a bit different.”
Later on, I managed to catch up with Festival director, Steve Grimwade, to hear his thoughts on the matter.
“I think Melburnians have looked overseas for a long time to find culture that is meaningful to them and to find places they can aspire to be like and, in many ways, New York is a city that you can aspire to be…
“If we just talk about publishing and literary culture, Sydney has all the big multinationals who do the mass market books — but most literary magazines come out of Melbourne, most of the literary publishers are based here.
“Melbourne still publishes, I believe, the same volume of books that Sydney does, but it’s done by a lot of smaller literary houses, so there is a different sensibility and I think that literary culture is probably the most distinct connection between Melbourne and New York.”
So whether it’s the weather, the aesthetics, the literary scene, or the aspirational aspect that does it for us Melburnians, let’s just say that when New Yorker editor, Henry Finder referred to Melbourne in his opening speech as “Manhattan’s sister city in the Antipodes,” we all gushed.
But, I thought to myself, is the feeling truly mutual? To find out I thought I’d check with the New Yorkiest New Yorkers in Melbourne right now, the staff of The New Yorker.
Henry Finder chats to me after his Friday signing. He comments:
“You can tell that Melbourne is a kind of cultural capital of Australia. People with a serious interest in and engagement with culture tend to gravitate toward Melbourne… I think the architecture here is amazing. There’s a lot of playful post-modernism but there’s also Victorian and Neo-Gothic modes… The scale may be different, but that same kind of vibrancy and the same kind of eclecticism is abundantly in evidence here.”
Longtime resident New Yorker cartoonist, Roz Chast agrees:
“I like those Art-Deco arcade buildings. They’re so beautiful. They’re interesting because they seem to have these big architectural ambitions but they’re built at like 2/3 scale. They remind me of Rockefeller Center but small.”
And New Yorker staff writer David Grann remarks:
“It’s a smaller city than New York, but it’s very cosmopolitan. Melbourne seems to have both an Arts culture and a literary culture and an interest in the world beyond, so, though the two cities don’t physically resemble each other, there does seem to be a similar cultural affinity….
“I think the difference is, perhaps that less New Yorkers are as familiar with Melbourne but, I would say, in our short visit here, I think the love affair goes both ways.”
The love affair may go both ways, but whether Melburnians will be headlining the next New Yorker festival is hard to say.
However, even if New York doesn’t feel the same way about us as we do about them, we can always take solace in some comments from Mr Mason, my fellow festival-goer, whom I spoke to earlier at the Melbourne Town Hall bar. He explains:
“I’m a New Zealander, originally — and where I come from, Dunedin, they have the same thing about Melbourne as Melburnians have about New York. In Dunedin, Melbourne is our New York.”
So, my fellow Melburnians, even if our home-grown line up doesn’t make it in the Big Apple, never fear, there’s always Dunedin.
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