Tag Archives: Melbourne

Review: Capital by Kristin Otto (AWW Challenge #3)

For my third book of the Australian Women Writers Reading Challenge, I decided to go non fiction, and picked up Kirsten Otto’s Capital. The book traces the political and social life of Melbourne from 1901 to 1927, the years that Melbourne was Australia’s capital city while Canberra was being built.

As you can tell from the dates, this was a tumultuous period of Australia’s history. The joy of becoming a single, federated nation with our own parliament led to a robust and thriving society. Patriotic feeling was still surging when hostilities in Europe broke out in 1914 and Australia went to war in support of Great Britain, still considered the Motherland at the time. The war years were brutal, but in many ways they helped to form Australia’s image of itself, and of course its image to others. Post-war reconstruction of a shell-shocked country occurred against events like the influenza epidemic that killed more people than the war had, and the police strike of 1923, which led to three days of rioting in the streets.

Before I picked up the book, I was hesitant, thinking it might focus on the political arena in those nearly-three decades. However, Otto has done a marvellous job of bringing the whole era to life. It’s not just the story of the men who built this city and nation. Significant men and women in politics, business, architecture, the arts and sciences are all followed.  The story of Melbourne is the story of people like E W Coles (of the Coles Book Arcade), HV McKay, Janet, Lady Clarke, Dame Nellie Melba, Helena Rubenstein, Violet Teague, Percy Grainer and his father John, who built the Princes Bridge, architects Walter Burley and Marion Mahoney Griffin and newsman Keith Murdoch.

Melbourne’s story is told through these ‘characters’, most of whom I know something about—but in these pages I learned more! Of course, these great entrepreneurs and philanthropists all knew each other, and names weave in and out of different aspects of the history. When some of them, and their sons, go to fight at Gallipoli or at the Somme, you feel very invested in their fates.  Sometimes it’s a little hard to keep track of everyone and how they know each other, and a fold out diagram of the names would have been helpful, at least for me.

Each chapter covers a chunk of years, and starts with a chatty precis about the significant events in those years. The tone is brisk and informative and occasionally humorous. In the first chapter, several pages are devoted to analysis and art appreciation of the two major portraits painted of the opening of Parliament in May 1901. In some chapters, she touches on how events are affecting sections of the Indigenous community, particularly the community that lived at Corranderk. Visits from folks like Harry Houdini and Nellie Melba’s frequent ‘farewell tours’ are all given space alongside the politics and business of the city.

Otto’s history is lively, and while it’s not delving into the everyday life, it gives an excellent account of the men and women who built and influenced Melbourne in the first three decades of Australia’s nationhood. Those names and their achievements still resonate today. If you are keen on Australian history, and on Melbourne in particular, this is a lovely addition to your reading.

From here, I need to find John Monash’s biography: he was an engineer as well as a general, and sounds like a thoroughly interesting man.

Capital is published by Text Publishing. You can get the book from them directly, as an ebook from Readings or as a Kindle edition at Capital: Melbourne When It Was the Capital City of Australia 1901-27.


Narrelle M Harris is a Melbourne-based writer. Find out more about her books, iPhone apps, public speaking and other activities at www.narrellemharris.com.

Interview: Warren Bonett at Embiggen Books

Bucking the trend of bookshops closing down, Embiggen Books threw open its literate doors to the people of Melbourne in August 2011. Warren and Kirsty Bonett brought their arts-meets-sciences store from Noosaville in Queensland to Little Lonsdale Street, opposite The Wheeler Centre, for family reasons. It’s definitely a win for Melbourne!

I spoke to Warren in mid-August about Embiggen’s approach to life and its future plans.

Narrelle: What’s the philosophy behind Embiggen Books and the kind of books that you stock?

Warren: We focus on science as a pretty big area, but our primary thing is where the arts meets the sciences. Our MO, if you like, is a cross pollination of ideas. We got in a lot of neuroscientists to talk in the shop up north and we will do the same down here. They have a lot of things to say to people of all disciplines. You’ll find Proust, for instance, was particularly interested in the mind and there’s been a lot of cross-fertilisation between Proust and neuroscientists in the way that they think about thought itself and the brain.

N: What kind of ficton will you stock?

W: There’s quite a lot of science fiction in there, but what I’ve done is actually keep all of the different genres together from literature through to sci fi, horror and crime, because I think that the distinctions between the genres is shocking at best. It’s all a bit artificial. Science fiction or crime tends to become called literature after a patina of age has given it a bit of respectability.

Fiction is a good example of people being able to stumble across something that they weren’t really expecting to find or look for. Someone might come in for a Dickens and walk out with Doctorow instead. That idea, to me, goes to the heart of the store.

N: The store is making me think of Jules Verne, HG Wells and the whole Victorian era with that idea that the sciences and the arts not only don’t have to be separate but perhaps shouldn’t be separate.

W: I think they’ve both got to transform. Once upon a time you had the Renaissance-type individuals who didn’t really specialise but just applied thought to a wide range of disciplines. I think we’re at a point where that is almost impossible now. But some of my favourite artists and the most stunning artwork you’ll see today are coming out of people like mathematicians and engineers.

I think in some respects it behoves the arts to catch up with that, in that we can’t just rest upon our laurels and say “I’m a creative type, therefore I don’t have to pay attention to this stuff.” I think if you’re a creative type, it’s your responsibility to pay attention to this stuff.

So that’s my take on it, and steampunk and the Victorian era is really classic for it. The great icon of steampunk and in the sciences is Charles Babbage, possibly one of the top five most brilliant people the world has ever produced. His discoveries and his work are absolutely mindboggling, and he really did cross over between multiple genres. For instance, one of his favourite things was automata. That art that has really been lost, where you make a robot, effectively, out of clockwork.

I’d love to have some in the store and be able to represent artists that do the work in here. That would be fantastic.

N: Is that something you might consider in the future, having mini art installations?

W: Up north we actually did have a gallery attached to our bookshop. It just so happened that this space wasn’t really suitable for it. But we will conduct one and two day exhibitions, where we have a particular artist come in, some plinths and things through the store, by invitation only.

N: Is there anything particular you’d like to say to readers about your store and what they can expect of the experience?

W: It’s our mission to keep the culture of bookshops and having somewhere where you will be provoked in thought very much alive. We will have more events than most bookshops tend to, but we’ll bring in the people who are running the synchrotron or scientists from the Florey Institute in order to try make those things more accessible to people.

You don’t have to go to university or a specialised centre to see that. And that’s what we want to permeate throughout the shop. If you’ve got any ideas about anything that is worthwhile and rational and reasonable out there about the world, we want to help people connect with it.


Embiggen Books at 203 Little Lonsdale St, Melbourne is open Monday to Saturday, and late on Thursday and Friday nights. Follow them on Twitter @EmbiggenBooks.

Embiggen is also now stocking titles from Twelfth Planet Press, including the first three 12 Planets anthologies, Nightsiders by Sue Isle, Love and Romanpunk by Tansy Raynor Roberts and The Thief of Lives by Lucy Sussex. It also stocks Sophie Cunningham’s Melbourne. So what are you waiting for? Get yourself in to Embiggen Books!