Abridged history

bluelakeReview by Nick Mattiske

Book | Blue Lake: Finding Dudley Flats and the West Melbourne Swamp | David Sornig

Dudley Flats was a Depression-era shanty town in West Melbourne, on the site of today’s vast container terminal. Originally a bountiful wetland, as the city grew it became a marginal area of reviled swamp and a tip, a place for the city to turn its back on, a ‘vortex’ that sucked in the jobless and homeless. It would perhaps be forgotten without the efforts of historian David Sornig.

Like London’s Iain Sinclair, and with similar literary flair, Sornig has an interest in the liminal spaces not listed in tourism brochures. In Dudley Flats he finds an unsettling, slippery space that he likens to the ‘Zone’ in the centre of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker. Even today, Sornig notes, the area under the Bolte Bridge, which cyclists speed through on their way to work, is a strangely empty space, frequented only by the marginalised.

Sornig tells the story of its mid-century residents through three characters, notorious in their own ways, who were victims of xenophobia, racism and the cruel Kafkaesque tendencies of politicians and planners. These three lives Sornig pieces together from scraps of newspapers and government statistics.

He finds contradictions and ambivalence. The area was often ignored, but not always. The police kept watch, newspapers occasionally flared up with sensational news of deaths and there were intermittent efforts to clean it up.  But there were mixed reports of squalor and dignity. The residents were described as industrious and free, and at other times as freeloaders and criminals. They were teetotallers and drunks, violent and polite. They should be left alone and moved on.

These conflicted attitudes remain in our own times. Sornig mentions the homeless at Flinders St Station who, otherwise ignored, became too prominent for Melbourne’s civic leaders. But Sornig helps us see the marginalised as people, not just problems.

Available from Scribe Publications, RRP $35

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