Preston, Victoria, 2011 to 2016
First published in The Big Issue Australia in 2017 in Edition 547.
I lived in the not-quite-inner-north Melbourne suburb of Preston for five years. Most people know Preston from Courtney Barnett’s wonderful song DePreston, where a young couple decide to ‘look out further’ for a house, and end up at a deceased estate in an empty, depressing slab of suburbia. My own experience was a little different. To start with, I moved there from Ballarat, and believe me, Ballarat made Preston seem like the kind of pulsing, neon-lit metropolis depicted in Blade Runner. For the first week I wandered around dazed by stimulus, muttering: “People! Markets! A tram depot!” And then, after I’d calmed down a bit, I registered something else: Preston was undergoing gentrification, and my apartment block was located right on the boundary. Turn one way and you found restaurants and cafes and bars; turn another and you found used-car yards and paint stores, and an office equipment outlet and a leather factory. So I was able to observe, from quite literally outside my front door, the transition of Preston from one kind of suburb to another.
So, what was Preston like? Well, Barnett’s song starts with her observing some street-crime: she sees ‘police arrestin’ / a man with his hand in a bag.’ And in fact, Preston did have a rough side. Personally, I had stuff stolen from the car park of my apartment block four times. The first time I could understand: I had foolishly left my Fender Stratocaster in my storage cage, which in retrospect was like placing a photo of it on Gumtree saying ‘small town hick in need of life lessons: please welcome him to the jungle’. But the second time was bizarre. The thieves cut open the cage to take a commemorative coin, some notes and a small infant’s teething toy named Crabby. Six weeks later they brought Crabby back, still in the Tupperware container I had placed him in, leaving him neatly in front of the storage cage they had previously cut open. I have no idea why they returned it, and nor did the policeman who I called to explain it to. “I have never,” he said, “heard of that happening before.” “Maybe,” I suggested, “they felt bad? Maybe they’re trying to turn over a new leaf?” “Nah, mate,” said the police officer. “Not in Preston.”
Another time in the car park of my apartment block, two young New Zealand guys who had just moved here had to confront a thief trying to steal tools from their ute. The Kiwi guys were so new that they didn’t know to call ‘000’, and so they just chased the thief with their camera-phone into the foyer. They showed me the footage: the thief had a bedraggled beard and looked startled and panicky, and had his hand up to the camera as though he were Brad Pitt and the Kiwi boys were paparazzi. Confusingly, in the foyer he then had an asthma attack and asked them to help him off the floor. They did so, because they were kind lads – but they shook their heads as they told the story, as if bewildered by the pitiful feebleness of Australian thieves.
So yes, there was crime. But there was also charm. My local café had skateboards on the wall and a cuckoo clock that children would watch on the hour, and a gentle and introverted barista who played The Pixies and My Bloody Valentine and Lou Reed as he made the coffees. There’d be a furiously blue sky outside, and you’d be walking through sunshine and fresh air and smiling couples and start to feel that it was all a bit over-the-top and oppressively upbeat, and then walk into the café and find Dave playing Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart, and it was like coming home and receiving a hug. Though another time, I was in the café when Dave had gone to the football, and I was suddenly distracted – elevated, in fact – by this chirpy, happy, optimistic synth-pop which I had never heard before. I gushed about it to the waitress and asked to know who it was. “It’s Taylor Swift,” she said. “Don’t tell Dave.”
My local bar was run by a tough publican, an ex-actor and muso who could be gruff or charming, depending on his mood. “Do you get much trouble in here?” I once asked him. “No,” he said. “And don’t you fucken start any.” Yet when I saw him out, he would come up and talk about work or bourbon. Another time I took a friend to his bar, and we were joking that you could pretend to be anyone in bars, even rock stars, and the publican said yes, interesting, and that we should play some pool with the two guys around the table. We told the two guys our theory, and they agreed with us enthusiastically, and then claimed to be the bass player and sound engineer from Tame Impala. Ho ho, we all laughed, though they persisted with the claim and a check on Google images later confirmed it as true.
By the time I left Preston, security in the apartment block had improved. A new building manager had installed CCTV cameras. This differed from the previous building manager’s approach, which was to install a sign that said we had CCTV cameras, but neglect the costly cameras themselves. Since the new crew took over I’d had no more break-ins or thefts, though when I borrowed the building manager’s trolley to move out, and left it outside their locked office to return it, it was stolen. “You left it where?” said the building manager incredulously, as though I was from some particularly remote planet of the gullible. As I paid him eighty dollars for the trolley, again I felt the small-town hick – it was, I decided, a final punch in the guts from deceitful DePreston – but on the drive to Sydney, I saw I had a message. The trolley had been returned: they wanted to refund the money. I felt vindicated, even as I heard my policeman say: “Nah mate. Not in Preston.”
My second day in Sydney was Australia Day, and in the foyer of the Leichhardt Cinema I heard Courtney Barnett’s DePreston, on a track-list of Australian classics. Perhaps this is one of the main reasons why I get a kick out of the song. It’s not just that the lyrics are funny and sad and perceptive, and it’s not just that the tune is so catchy. It’s this: in the three years since the song was released, Courtney Barnett has been successful – as in real, international, no-way-fuck-off Brit Award and Grammy successful – which means for once, people in Los Angeles and London and New York might be sitting around listening to a song about where I lived, rather than my sitting around listening to songs about all the places that they live. So shuffle over, Fairytale of New York and Guns of Brixton and Straight Outta Compton. Because DePreston is here, and the 86 tram has a new stop on the world stage.
First published in The Big Issue Australia in 2017 in Edition 547. Re-published with permission.
YouTube clip via Milk! Records