Landscapes of Childhood

Recently I read The Cartographer, by Peter Twohig, a kind of Boys' Own adventure set in (and under!) the streets of Richmond in the late 1950s. The eponymous 11 year old hero makes maps of his world: dangerous houses, enticing warehouses, mysterious tunnels, haunted parks. I tried to match up his maps to satellite maps of present-day Richmond, without much luck; but a 1977 Melways directory provided more clues. I found the power station, the factories and tram depots that the Cartographer described -- all gone now.

Coincidentally, one of the next books off my pile happened to be Deborah Forster's The Book of Emmett, and while the tone this time is darker and more adult, the decade the 1970s, and the suburb Footscray, the theme of a remembered Melbourne childhood continued. Perhaps because the setting was more recent, I recognised more landmarks: the Western Oval, the narrow streets of Footscray, the Chinese restaurant Poons where I've had lunch.

Last week Michael went for a wander around Cheltenham, the suburb of his 1970s childhood, and found lots of changes. The old tip is now a housing estate, the sprawling streets were he played cricket with neighboring kids seemed shorter, the shops he remembered had merged into each other or disappeared.

And then yesterday we drove through the Melbourne University precinct and I didn't recognise it. All these big new buildings, the Business School and the blocks of student apartments -- the shabby streets of my university days have all but gone. It doesn't take long for an urban landscape to alter utterly. And then the only places we can find those landscapes in is our memories and our dreams; or in the pages of other people's books.

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