Bourke-st 1860s, and latter-day Fortitude Valley

6 Nov

Out in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley last weekend I got to thinking about the fascination I’ve had lately for accounts of mid-Victorian street-culture. Melbourne’s Bourke St seems thrillingly eclectic in the slummer-journalism of the late 1860s, with its ballad-sellers and telescope man, its factory girls and colonial braggarts too big for their patent-leather boots. (Well, it does when Marcus Clarke writes about it in his nasty-funny and mannered prose, anyway; misogynistic but horribly seductive, damnit, as that man must have been).

It’s easy to allow such descriptions to inform everything one thinks about Victorian cities, as if Bourke-street might somehow stand in for all Melbourne, Soho all of London, the Bowery all of 1830s New York. Such places weren’t representative then, however – and that’s what I was thinking last Saturday night, out in the Valley.

All of Brisbane CBD’s clubs and bars are squashed into a couple of blocks in the Valley, it seems. Past midnight the mall is rampant with bodies, and with people running pellmell through the traffic on the roads at either side. I stood for a while in an ATM queue while a busker played blues-lite before an audience of maybe eight or nine escapees from a nearby bar, standing unsteadily in front of him. I was thinking how normally I wouldn’t think of this as remarkable. Scenes of happy drunks  in the street hardly create the bohemian thrill, the self-conscious air of being a participant observer, that Clarke felt on his exploits in Bourke-st. It was only having read his work so recently that I took on that self-consciousness myself, noting a forty-something punk in greying mohawk, and a twenty-something Jim Morrison-cum-John Lennon wannabe, decades out of his time (round sunglasses, black denim, ostentatious joint, long hair), walk past. Mostly, of course, there were teens and those not long out of their teens, lots of girls in fake tans and potato-sack minis (what is it with all those baggy empire-line tops masquerading as dresses?) and boys with oversized biceps and colourful Ts.

One wouldn’t try to make such scenes stand in for ‘urban life in Brisbane’ in its totality today. But somehow for me – and not just me, I think – descriptions of the devil’s own nights in Manhattan, or the Moulin-Rouge in Paris, or Henry Mayhew’s darkest London, or the Rocks in 1880s Sydney, come to inhabit a wider terrain when it comes to imagining cities past.


(Gratuitous latterday Bourke St shot from Julia Shiels’ fab blog City Traces:

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