One of the sweetest little tidbits of non-fiction I’ve read in a long time is Lisa Lang’s E. W. Cole: Chasing the Rainbow (2007). It comes as a tiny, slim-line volume, just a little bigger than the purse-size rectangular tins of lollies I used to raid at my grandparents’ as a child. Reading it is like eating sherbet: the prose fairly fizzes along. This is partly because Lang has such an eye for evocative detail: her descriptions of the Victorian goldfields in the 1850s and boom-time Melbourne in the 1870-80s so exactly fit what I’ve been reading and dreaming about lately, they took me by surprise. And the other reason the prose is so lively is because of the extraordinary, charming kookiness of E. W. Cole himself.
Here was a bookseller who acquired a Tasmanian wife in the 1870s by post, and who afterwards lived with her and a handful of marmosets on the upper balcony of his Bourke-street Book Arcade. Here, too, was a prominent man who opposed the White Australia Policy when it was instituted in 1901, and who wrote wistful tracts about the federation of religions and the abolition of the nation-state. How not to be seduced by Lang’s description of the way Cole reinvented the Eastern Market, taking over the lease after it had fallen into disuse? He restored it to the happy chaos it had once enjoyed, hiring brass bands in the afternoon, and cramming it full of stalls, offbeat acts, and sideshows. “There was a live dental show performed by the Great American Painless Dentist”, Lang writes (aha! another tooth-show!). “There were Madame Xena’s Shilling Shocks from Scientifically Controlled Electricity – Guaranteed to Double Male Vitality”, Madame Zinga Lee’s tarot-readings, lady wrestlers, phrenologists, “and for the young toughs, Charlie the Tattoo Man”.
My only misgiving about this book is that it wasn’t long enough. It was such a bite-size publication that I had finished it in barely more than the tram-ride to Richmond. So much of the material felt to me too condensed – but perhaps that it is only because I was enjoying it so much that I wanted more. Will definitely be interested in reading anything else Lang has written, having now whet my appetite.