This photograph was taken probably in the late 1940s or early 1950s. You could take a shot from the same position today though there would be two significant differences. Firstly, the foreground would be filled by the blur of fast-moving traffic. Secondly, the two buildings in the middle and to the right of the photograph would no longer appear, replaced by an eight-to-ten storey apartment block dating from the late 1960s or early 1970s. Renfrew Court, the building on the left would be the only unchanged feature.
The building in the centre was a guest house and its address was 195 Beaconsfield Parade, Middle Park, an inner suburb of Melbourne. Behind the photographer is the beach on Port Phillip Bay. The guest house was owned by my grandmother and it was the place where my parents lived when I was born. It extended back for some distance into the block and at the rear there was a further bungalow. I’m not sure which part of the house my parents lived in or how many rooms there were but my grandmother had the large front one with the balcony.
She had become a landlady through necessity. In the first decade of the twentieth century she had become pregnant out of wedlock and had married in a hurry. She was ostracised by several members of her family who were well-to-do business people of Anglo-Welsh extraction named Hughes. The man she married was also well-off, though he wouldn’t, in any case, have been approved of by her family. His name was Isaac Barrow and he was an English Jew who, with his brothers, ran a company that made printer’s ink for the newspapers. He was also eccentric and severely disciplinarian. He made one of his children lay out the pebbles in the driveway so that the long ones were all parallel. The same child was shut out of the house (for all he knew permanently) for some misdemeanour at a very early age. In the late 1920s the family, now with four children, moved for a few years to Wellington, New Zealand. When the depression hit, Isaac Barrow began to show further signs of instability. The family moved back to Melbourne and in 1932, Isaac was confined in the Mont Park Asylum. He stayed there for eight years. My grandmother didn’t visit him, though my mother did, in the company of the man she later married (or so I’m told: it is all rather murky). In 1938 he died of an overdose while undergoing an experimental drug therapy. So, from the early thirties my grandmother ran guest-houses.
195 wasn’t the first of these, but it is the one I know the most about. Its location, relatively close to the city and even closer to the docks meant that it had a number of unusual guests. One of these was John Sangster, later a renowned jazz drummer and vibist. He left, short on rent, and I still own several of his art books (four of the late 1940s Penguin series and a monograph on Picasso by his secretary Jaime Sabartes). Another guest, Murray Archer, was a subsequently well-known news photographer. The most intriguing inhabitants were an impeccable couple under an assumed name. Only after they had left the guest house did we discover that he was Freddy Harrison, a local gangster who, only a year or two later, was machine-gunned down by rivals in daylight near the Port Melbourne docks.
Around 1954 my parents bought a house of their own twelve miles out of Melbourne. So I grew up in the suburbs where my places of fantasy became the mountainous area where my father grew up and the inner-urban places my mother had lived in. As soon as I could, I moved back to the inner-city and as often as I could I would visit the country (often enough not to turn the place into an imagined idyll).