Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 13, 2022

Adrift in Melbourne, Seven Walks with Robyn Annear (2021), by Robyn Annear

Yeah, Covid.

At last I have my Christmas present from The Offspring.  Postal delays meant it didn’t arrive in time for me to receive it at Xmas, and then there was The Covid Cup, a sporting event attended by The Offspring, which over time infected almost everyone who watched the game.  At first he didn’t visit just in case, and then because he was waiting 8 days for a test result which came back negative, and then because he went to another game he deferred a visit just in case, and then because he was self-isolating from everyone not just us, and then because he was very crook for a week, and then because his wife got it too.  It felt very good to see him f2f this week, and the book is a bonus…

I’ve got all of Robyn Annear’s (adult) books.  I was there at the 1995 Melbourne Writers Festival at the Malthouse to buy her first: Bearbrass, Imagining Early Melbourne, a book created using the shoe-box system of research.  That is, find all the interesting stuff that you can, and put it on cards in a shoe-box.  When it’s full, that’s enough.  Then there was Nothing But Gold: The diggers of 1852 (1999); and The Man Who Lost Himself (2002). Fly a Rebel Flag: The Eureka stockade (2004) was for younger readers; but in 2005 there was A City Lost and Found: Whelan the Wrecker’s Melbourne (on my TBR); and then there was a long wait for Nothing New, A History of Second-Hand (2019).  And now there is Adrift in Melbourne, Seven walks with Robyn Annear, (2021) which I like for the same reason I liked Bearbrass. Because it’s a quirky, humorous view of my city, offering an alternative history that lies behind our respectable façade.  And because Robyn Annear likes to remind us that gone doesn’t mean lost forever:

Vanished doesn’t mean gone.  In Melbourne — in any place — things change all the time.  Yet, the way I see it, nothing’s ever really gone.

Like other books of mine, this one deals largely in absences — of people, buildings, institutions and even lions that were here before us.  Lately we’ve been absent too.  But absence is no obstacle to memory.  This book is proof. (p.1)

A glimpse at the Table of Contents gives some idea of the style:

    In which we encounter women tight-laced,
    in pieces and seeking a place to sit down
    Collins Street east to Swanston Street via Flinders Street
    In which we stick close to the Yarra without
    ever seeing it and climb a hill that’s not there
    Federation Square to Little Collins Street west
    via Wurundjeri Way overpass
    In which we weave through Theatre-land, Chinatown
    and the ‘back slums’ with guest appearances by Joe Cocker
    and the ghost of James Brown
    Tivoli Arcade to Exhibition Street via Lonsdale Street
    and Parliament House

There are seven more walks to enjoy. All I need is a nice autumn day and a new pair of walking shoes since the demise of my Eccos, victims of all those hours of lockdown-approved exercise.

Annear calls herself an unfluencer:

I make no special claims for Melbourne: only that it’s the city I know best, having dug deep into it and walked it over and over.  Besides, I like the place. (p. 1)

Well so do I…

Do It Yourself Lockdown is no barrier to enjoying this book:

This book is ostensibly a walking guide, but you can drift just as well from a couch.  Armchair city-walkers can get their bearings using Google Maps and Street View.  Plus, there’s a Melbourne mobility map online (or in any Melways) showing the relative steepness of the city streets, so you can chart how much legwork you’re missing out on. (p.2)

Annear also recommends exploring digitally to see some of the disappeared places and people mentioned in the book. She lists too many repositories to mention them all, but do check out this one: 1945.Melbourne enables you to zoom over the B&W aerial photo of Melbourne to see how it is transformed in the present day.  The most striking thing to notice is the shadows cast by the multi-storey buildings…

But I intend to walk the walks, as I once walked most of the walks in Bearbrass.  I’ll start with a Waltz in Six Lessons, because it focuses on what was called the Thermometer End of Collins St, which predated the Paris End of Collins St.  I remember it from my earliest days in Melbourne.

Long before it was the Paris end, this was the thermometer end of Collins Street.  Doctors set up shop here from the 1840s, when the elevated city-fringe location would have carried healthful associations.  Of course, living ‘above the shop’, they made their homes here too.  Dr Godfrey Howitt was one of the first — literally.  His home and medical practice were at No. 1 Collins Street (‘Howitt’s Corner’) set in a rambling garden that extended all the way to Flinders Lane.  In fact, it was more like a farmlet, complete with orchard, vineyard and conservatories.  Howitt Lane, at the rear, marks the edge of the doctor’s garden, traces of which — overgrown camellias and a glorious spreading magnolia — survived right up to the 1950s.

Over time, doctors were joined at this end of Collins Street by dentists.  (p.19)

Indeed they did, and some still do. At 20 Collins St, (congenially close to Haigh’s Chocolates), Dr Coakley looked after all the Hill Family’s teeth until he retired. On the same floor in the Farmers Federation Building, was the specialist who removed my wisdom teeth back in the 1980s.  These dental practices are still there.

But well before that, I used to visit Miss Balfour on the other side of the street, who was an orthoptist whose practice was also her home.  She taught me exercises for my wonky eye, making me very happy when she recommended reading Dickens because it had small print. She had a beautiful glass bunyip on her grand piano, and she was my very first best friend in Australia.

By the time I was working at the State Film Centre in the 70s, the ‘Paris End’ had not yet succumbed to high rise. With my $22 per week salary I never dared venture into the boutiques but there was a fine little not-very-French bistro where I ate lasagne for lunch nearly every day.  In a vignette titled ‘Madame Brook and the Corset Case’, Annear tells us about a cause célèbre that took place not far from there…

In 1900, Buckley and Nunn secured the services of an authentic Parisienne couturière, in the person of Madame Gabrielle Brook, to keep its customers in step with the latest modes from Europe.  She lived at the Masonic Chambers at 31 Collins St. Madame Brook became the first and last word in Melbourne chic, and so it was that she was called to testify in a court case.

An American firm, Weingarten Bros of New York, launched legal action in three Australian states to stop the sale of a British-made corset which it claimed copied its own product’s patented ‘bias goring’.  Not only that: local retailers were accused of practising orchestrated deception. Enlisted as an agency spy by Weingarten’s Melbourne agents, Madame Brook went to Treadway’s department store and asked for a ‘WB Erect Form’ corset (the American brand) only to be fobbed off with a ‘WB correct form’, the cheaper British knock-off. (p.17)

Quelle horreur, n’est-ce pas? 

Madame Brook became an expert witness in a case which (in Adelaide) featured Sir John Downer recoiling from a dove-grey corset and was taunted by the opposing counsel: ‘I think Sir John should try this one on.  But not in court.) 

(BTW, yes, that Downer was the grandfather of Alexander ‘Dolly’ Downer often depicted in cartoons wearing fishnet stockings and garters).

Adrift in Melbourne is full of gems like this.  Get a copy, and I hope you don’t have to wait as long as I did, to receive it!

Author: Robyn Annear
Title: Adrift in Melbourne, Seven walks with Robyn Annear
Maps and illustrations by Simon Barnard
Cover design by Chong W H
Cover photo: ‘Paris end ‘ of Collins Street, 1958, by Mark Strizic
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2021
ISBN: 9781922330970, hbk., 268 pages
Source: gift from The Offspring

You can buy all of Annear’s books at Readings.


  1. I also got this book for Christmas (from the friend I am walking the length of the Yarra with) – we’re adding to our walking projects! I was thinking I’d review the book after doing a few of the walks.


    • #Snap!
      Yes, when I’ve reviewed books like this, (e.g. Melbourne Dreaming, by Meyer Eidelson, have you got that one?) I’ve usually done some of the walks because it’s better if you do.
      I need a walking buddy too. My friend who did all our 5k/10k lockdown weekly walks with me has injured her knee and is out of action for a while.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Far more enjoyable to share it with a friend (and I’ll hunt down Melbourne Dreaming – don’t have it).

        Liked by 1 person

  2. This sounds wonderful Lisa! I also want to plan some walks, now Spring is on the way here.


    • For me, it’s usually when summer is out of the way. For us in southeast Australia, (not where the floods are) it’s been a mercifully mild summer, but even so, walking the dog has to be done soon after sunrise because it gets too hot for me. In winter, I love a good long wind with the cold wind on my face (and rugged up well everywhere else).

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Sounds great … and worth the wait! Love quirky walking books… used to collect ones on London and had masses of them…they were great for helping to design pub crawls 🤭


    • He could have posted it to me, once it got to him, of course. But neither of us wanted to do that, because it wasn’t really about the book.

      I’ve done two walks in Bloomsbury from Literary London, loved doing that.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Sounds like a marvellous book,Lisa, and glad the Offspring is now ok!


  5. I love my Eccos too but have the same problem: I’ve worn out the tread on my two favourite pairs and the newer models don’t have the same feel. Sigh.

    I’ve never come across the shoe box method of research. I can see how it would work for certain kinds of books where you want the content to be a miscellany. Not sure how it would work for other kinds though


    • Hmm, that’s interesting about your Eccos. It must be a problem with the brand.
      It’s interesting hearing authors talk about research. A lot of them describe it as ‘going down a rabbit-hole’ and I can understand that now that the internet can take you anywhere. Not like my uni days when research meant sifting through half a dozen books to find what was needed to write an essay, and that was it!


      • The trainers I use for the gym have the same wear pattern so I don’t think its a problem with Eccos as such. A podiatrist I saw was raving about the pair of Eccos I was wearing when I saw them – thought they were extremely well constructed.


        • Still, you wouldn’t want to be wearing these on a five-day hike in the Aussie bush, and have them fail like these half way through.


  6. Hi Lisa
    I too bought “Bearbrass” at the Melbourne Writers Festival in 1995… was it really that long ago? It is one of the best books about early Melbourne, and I wonder how much of my enjoyment of it was due to the author’s eclectic approach. I must try to find my copy to re-read to see what I think of it today. And I will get a copy of Adrift in Melbourne…I like books about cities written by their inhabitants from an unusual perspective… my favourite is “Apple of My Eye” by Helen Hanff, written as if she were a tourist in her home town of New York.
    Best wishes


    • Gosh, Chris, we were there together! Do you remember the question the panel was asked? How much research is enough? (I can’t remember who the other panellists were.)
      That Hanff has a very clever title, eh?


  7. I hope you will tell us about these walks when you do them Lisa. I miss the light in Melbourne – it’s a softer light, the light here is quite fierce. I used to love it in the early evenings in summer; and hearing the trams rumble past; a lovely, distinctly Melbourne sound! What a delightful book to receive!

    I’m going to have to visit down there soon I can see!


    • Let me know when you do, and we can do one of these walks together!


      • Definitely Lisa, as long as we have cafe breaks (and bookstore browsing) along the way! I have a photograph on my bookshelf of us all at the Stokehouse at St Kilda beach and it was so long ago now! Brings back memories of happy summer evenings. I’m sure I was really meant to be a Melburnian!


        • Oh yes, and now we have Readings new bookshop to check out as well!!


          • I just had to look that up – my brother spends so much time in Queensland since he retired I am not kept updated on matters Melburnian any more! When I used to go down and stay we used to spend Sundays going out to lunch at different places and then bookstore and music store browsing – it was a delightful way to spend a lazy day!

            It’s always heartening to see a new book store opening!

            And I’m very glad you finally got to see your son!


            • Alas, music stores are a bit thin on the ground now. But bookshops we have aplenty:)


  8. You’ve reminded me that, pre-Covid, I too was walking my around the Sydney walks and attempting to write them up. What a great project! I look forward to hearing how you go.


  9. I don’t suppose I’ll ever do the walks, but I probably did bits of all of them in 1968-71, walking down from the University, living in North Melbourne and walking to Richmond, living at the rear of the Windsor Hotel and walking everywhere.


    • Yes, we did, in those days, walked everywhere. Sometimes it was to save the tram fare from Flinders St when it was the only station in the city, but it was more because we were used to it. As children we walked to and from school and we walked home for lunch in between, we walked to the library, we walked to the shops. Nobody thought anything of it.
      Not until mini skirts, that is. That wind tunnel that used to race along Collins St was vicious in winter in a mini skirt!


      • I didn’t have the tram fare, or I had something else to spend it on. In fact I’ve only rarely used public transport in my whole life, except the train to the footy.


        • I used to use the train all the time, to get to anything in the city. And I will again, when the pandemic is over. I can do a lot of reading on a train…
          We bought this house because it was within walking distance of the train, and we could walk to almost everything else that was important (shops, library, medical services etc).


  10. […] Lisa’s post on the book Adrift in Melbourne about Robyn Annear’s walks in Melbourne (here). How I wish there was a Hobart book such as this but of course Melbourne is so much bigger than […]


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