What esprit de flânerie had drawn him here he could not say.  But the image of it,—the rusted tracks, their ties overtaken by the marauding verdure; the red, unrolling rollingstock blocking tracks which vanished in the horizon of ruinous green,—seemed an apt metaphor for his life with women.

As afternoon segued to evening with the savageness of a cut, he saw himself as an empty, twilit platform where no woman would again alight, the unchalerous shell of a darkened station which would no more warmly receive the transitory train of her ambassade through the embassy set over the foreign country of his interior life.  A lamp which illuminated nothing; a sign which apprised no one of nowhere; a bench conveniently placed, and upon whose convenience no one rested and refreshed themselves:—Sometimes places, in their abstraction, resemble us more closely than do other people.

—Dean Kyte,
“駅の物語”
(Conte de gare)

I’ve always had a fascination with trains and train stations. You might think train travel a rather contradictory passion for a flâneur, the most freewheeling of voyageurs: Why should this epic pedestrian, drawn in his dreamy dérive by lines of random desire which sing out to his eye from every street corner, be inexorably attracted to the most restrictive and linear mode of movement through space, one which offers only limited scope for him to exercise his predatory passion for æsthetic investigation?

Hélas, if, like Walt Whitman, I contradict myself, then, dear readers, I contradict myself. As I hope the video and prose poem above attest, I contain multitudes. My soul is as large, as empty and as cryptic a labyrinthine structure as that palatial tomb which lounges alongside the Yarra, receiving and debouching visitors to Melbourne.

And it is certainly no coincidence that as a Melbourne flâneur, I should equally be an aficiónado of that kissing cousin of the train, the tram.

As an aristocrat of the gutter, a gentleman who makes his home in the street, to park my wheels momentarily in the tram, democratic chariot of Melburnians of every caste and class, and exercise my penetrating gaze over Collins or Bourke or Flinders streets from the very midst of them is to enjoy a flâneurial delectation which no other city in the world can offer to as extensive an extent. Verily, to make one’s royal procession up Bourke street on the back of one of these reines de la rue, shaking her bells at the milling mallers who make deferential way for her, is really to get a recherché experience of one of the world’s great thoroughfares.

I’m not quite sure what it is about trains and stations that has always attracted me to them, except that, as Sig. De Chirico seemed to apprehend in paintings such as Gare Montparnasse (1914), both the station and the train are places of dream.

Like Cole Porter, I get no kick in a plane. Flying too high with some guy in the sky is my idea of nothing to do. But lay me down in the gently rocking berceau of a roomette and let me nurse my dreams on that flux of images flying by the window, towns known and unknown, and I will feel myself swaddled in a womb of contentment.

Soon my month-long sojourn in Wagga Wagga ends and I reboard the train, bound for the destinations which are the purpose of my three-month voyage in NSW—Coffs Harbour and Bellingen.

Of course, the destination is a woman. Or women, as the case may be.

I’ve been nursing the dream of seeing Bello again since our second, soul-destroying lockdown in Melbourne last year. In the four months I was under house arrest in a West Melbourne hotel room, my restless esprit ennuyeux de flâneur confined to perambulations through dreams and memories inspired by old photographs and footage taken, as in the video above, during other voyages, writing the second draft of my current work in progress, set in Bellingen, Brisbane, and the Gold Coast, was one of the few things that kept me sane.

To get on a train and get out of Stasiland and into NSW as soon as the border betwixt them opened up again became an obsession with me.

When our ‘Dear Leader’, Mr. Andrews, deigned to release us last November, dangling a tentative morsel of liberty before us (albeit one bounded by a radius of 25 kilometres), my experience of coming out of deep freeze was the inverse of what my Melburnian confrères had complained of all through lockdown: I had lived tensely on my nerve endings for so many months that I felt a sudden crash in energy and an onset of depression at being abbreviatedly free, whereas most of my fellow Melburnians had had their dose of depression in the prison of their homes.

Almost the first thing I did as soon as I was out of the cage was to re-open lines of communication with a woman, the thought of whom, like Dulcinea, had been one of those few things which kept my windmill-wizened brain sane when it seemed eminently possible that the Victorian Government and Victoria Police would go full Stasi on us.

And, as you can imagine with these undependable dames, even a polite inquiry into one’s health was met with radio silence.

That, and freedom, and the American election all coinciding at once seemed to soak my vibe of every adrenal ounce I had needed to endure four months of lockdown in a state which had descended with frightening rapidity towards totalitarianism.

And it was in that state of physical and emotional exhaustion that I made the video above and penned the attendant prose poem.

Trawling through my footage, I seemed to find in the abandoned Trentham train station an image of my soul at that desolate moment. Trentham’s a little town, about halfway between Woodend and Daylesford, which reminded me a great deal of Bellingen when I had stayed there about two years before. As refugees from Newtown in Sydney ‘tree change’ to Bellingen, imagining a verdant, paradisal embassy of inner-city liberalism in the country, so Fitzrovians fleeing Melbourne are steadily driving the property prices in Trentham up above a million dollars.

I’m told you can follow the old railway ties, half-buried in the verdure, from the station to quite a good pub in the next town, but that was a flânerie too energetic for yours truly, being more in the way of a ‘hike’, and my Italian-shod soul demands a nature denuded by copious asphalt and good paving to support it. I probably walked no further towards the slaking refreshment of that mythical pub than where you find my camera set up in the first two shots of the video.

But in the image of an abandoned country railway station at dusk, and in the ghostly sound of a spectral steam train puffing along a ruined route down which no train could nowadays pass, I saw an image of myself, shagged and fagged and fashed on the threshold of middle age, my days as a ladies’ man now well behind me down that ruined pike, having decided that there was one woman left for me in the world to conquer or none at all, one whose tardy silence to my text seemed to leave me, like my camera in the video, lingering restlessly for a train that had been infinitely delayed—and maybe even derailed long before I had arrived at the terminus of this moment of realization that there was but one woman in the world I would deign to travel to the end of the line with.

That sense of the mood—and often the melancholy mood—of empty places which I have elsewhere called ‘the Spleen of Melbourne’, a dark, ponderous sadness about the unpeopled spaces of the city, the unfathomable, heart-breaking mystery of the real and manifest and visible which I and my cameras seem very sensitive to, was potent for me then.

I did eventually hear from the lady in question, and her perky obliquities were worse than if she had left me mired in my tristes mystères of unknowing and Jamesian speculation upon the multiple potential motives of her silence.

And I admit that, since November of last year, I haven’t been quite myself, and I certainly haven’t been at my best. I haven’t entirely recovered from that triple blow of sudden decompression from lockdown, a conversation unresolved and infinitely deferred, and the latest (as it then was) apocalyptic twist to the devolving screw of Western civilization which an American election in the time of Coronavirus represented.

Mostly since then I’ve just tried to beat back my spleen, tamp it down by blows and kicks and cudgels until such time as I could get on that train and find out for myself what goes on with this dame.

Now the train of months has just about drawn up to the platform, and I’m about to find out if this whole trip to NSW, assiduously planned, was worth the price of knowing the truth, or whether I would have been happier trying to decipher unhappy mysteries from the distance of another state.

The train and the station seem quite significant symbols for me in my writing, as in my life. My latest work in progress, a memoir of seduction, is about an occasion when I took the XPT from Bello (or Urunga, to be more precise) to Brisbane, partly to catch the last few days of David Lynch’s exhibition at GoMA, Between Two Worlds, and partly to slay myself in the kind of unfettered Daygame you can’t do but covertly in a small town.

I was all set to get on the train at around 11:00 that night when, an hour or two before I was due at the station, I had the romantic encounter, right there in Bello, I was going to Brisbane for.

I almost missed my train: the lady in question was showing me such a good time I almost blew off a whole trip to Brisbane just to finish what I had started with her. I didn’t sleep that night—and not because it’s damn difficult to do blanket duty on the overnight XPT: I nursed the memory of her kisses as the train rocked and rolled me to Briz Vegas, tried not to let their reality dissolve into dreams until such time as I would be able to write this totally unexpected victory down verbatim in my journal.

I’m now 93% through the second draft of that book, and last week I had a chance to get down to the commencement of the finale, my second round with the redhead, when I was back in Bello, finishing off the pleasure I had deferred for the love of art.

Possibly it makes a difference to be on this side of the border, to be this much closer to the place, both in space and time, for there was a moment, in rewriting the scene, when the sensual reality of the experience—not just her hand in my lap and mine under her dress, but the little park before the library with its globes of yellow light giving it a Parisian air, and the delicious freddezza of Bello in June, made more delicious still when you have the warmth of a woman in your arms—produced the same sensual frisson in me as I felt that night so many years ago.

I could see the place and hear it again. I could feel the chill, valley night which I’ll know again, after so many years’ distance, in another week or two. Having taken me away from a place where the spectres of myself in scenes of dead love with various women are still vivid in my memory, the train will take me back there.

If I were to connect the psychological network map of my amours morts, I think I would discover that women and trains and stations all seem unconsciously connected to me, and that, indeed, I can plot the points of some of the stations of my experience as equally the terminuses of my affairs with several women.

There was the French girl, never to be forgotten, and never, I fear, to be sufficiently honoured in the pearl-like words of peerless prose her soul deserves, whom I kissed goodbye with the heart-breaking knowledge that I would never see her again in this life at the turnstile to the Métro in Belleville.

A few hours hence, I would be getting on the Eurostar to London, and thence, by tube, to Heathrow, carrying the sacred chalice of her kiss across continents and time zones as I wrote the memory of her down in my journal.

The last girl who was of any significance to me before I gave up Daygame, I also saw off on the Metro—at Eltham Station in Melbourne. A Dutch girl of Persian descent, I still see her pretty, dark face framed with ringlets becoming as small as a postage stamp through the pane of the door as it flies away from me, back to Holland.

And as for the object of my fact-finding mission north of the border, the last time I saw her was when we were on a train together in Brisbane, far removed from the climes in which we had known each other in Coffs.

I remember writing to her in a belated birthday card about a year after that last rendez-vous that, when I had gotten off the train at Roma Street, I had not looked back at her—had not been able to look back at her—because I was looking forward to the next time I would see her.

After a lot of near misses in the intervening years, the moment I have been looking forward to may be imminent. The tragedy would be to discover that that last moment of loving vision I sacrificed for this next moment, and which I have looked forward to with anticipation, was really the end of our relation; that I missed my connection with her; and that, for years, I have been wandering around the tomb of Roma Street, not even realizing that I am in the terminus of love.

If you enjoyed the video and the prose poem, you can download the soundtrack from my artist profile on Bandcamp.

Sydney/Melbourne, Old Hume highway, Euroa. Shot on Kodak Ektar 100. Shutter speed: 1000. Aperture: f.5.6. Focal range: ca. 2.75m.

At 8:30 this morning, your Melbourne Flâneur ought to have been on a train to Wagga Wagga to commence three-and-a-half months of housesitting in slightly warmer NSW.

The dreary, year-long winter we’ve been suffering in Melbourne was one good reason to get out for a stretch. The other was the omnipresent threat of another totalitarian lockdown, always in abeyance, but the boom ever-ready to be lowered on us.

I had my ticket on the 8:30 XPT from Melbourne to Sydney booked on 10 March—more than two months in advance. But we had had a snap five-day lockdown less than a month before, in February, and there seems to be a pattern to these things: we get two-, or two-and-a-half months of freedom, and then the paternalistic ‘Powers-That-Be’ slam the steel shutter down statewide.

I figured there was a good chance I wouldn’t make my train.

I had just got back from Euroa, where the photograph above was taken, a rare exercise in colour for me and a kind of cry in the soul over the two, Proustian directions in which my life would be pulled in the month of May—towards Sydney, a ‘summery winter’, and freedom; and towards Melbourne, my ‘Paris-on-the-Yarra’, but a place predictively poised to tumble back into being East Berlin—when it was announced that after three months of no cases, another breach in hotel quarantine had occurred.

I was nervous. For two weeks, I kept my beady beads posted on two governments’ websites—on both sides of the border, monitoring what kind of extroverted sensing hoops I would have to jump through in order to be safely on the Sydney side on Friday 28 May.

Until Monday afternoon, all was quiet on the eastern front, the Melbourne side of Checkpoint Charlie, but my epic introverted intuition had told me well in advance that my luck couldn’t hold until Friday. When the Victorian Minister for Health, Martin Foley, announced with a barely restrained bourgeois glee on Monday afternoon that the two weeks of quiet had been a false flag under which the enemy among us had circulated, that ‘sleeper cells’ of Coronavirus cases had been activated in the community to simultaneously detonate terror among us, I felt a bomb go off underneath me.

My introverted intuition began deep calculations I was hardly conscious of. It had observed the pattern from three previous lockdowns, and this seemed just like our epic Lockdown 2.0—even down to the coincidence in date: ‘The Authorities’ (over whom, pray tell…?) had failed to get on top of the mysterious Wollert case; they had dithered around for two vital weeks; they would dither around for a few days more, playing around with ‘COVID-safe settings’ as they pretended to give a damn above the citizenry’s personal liberties; and then, at an arbitrary moment and without prior notice, they would panic and slam us back into lockdown.

From Monday afternoon to Friday morning seemed too far a leap to count on freedom—and my luck—holding. On Tuesday a.m., when I amscrayed out of my last scheduled Victorian housesit—in the City of Maribyrnong, begad!—and booked back to The Miami Hotel, there was a line of cars backed up past Ballarat road to get into the COVID testing station in Hampstead road.

Oy vey.

I tried to keep a cool head that day—not easy for as neurotic a customer as yours truly. Anything that smacks of extroverted sensing—of dealing with the world as a physical reality in real time—gets my pulse and respiration up. I consider having to deal with government dictats as being an ‘extroverted sensing activity’, because it wrenches me out of the world of abstract dreams and ideas, the platonic, Matrix-level reality I usually inhabit, and back into my body, back into the sensory here and now.

True to form, by Wednesday morning, case numbers and exposure locations had metastasized and exploded, and those deep calculations told me that today was untenable. By 6:00 p.m., there would be a lockdown.

The Government was mooting that more drastic action than Tuesday evening’s ramp-up in settings had not been ruled out—which my intuition told me, based on their past form in three previous lockdowns, was as positive a statement as they would make that they planned to lock us down or close the border before they actually did it.

Moreover, it was the tone of the Victorian Opposition leader, Michael O’Brien, that told me something was deeply up and some heavy hinkiness was due to go down. Despite the mandarinical statement of our grinning Chief Health Officer, Professor Brett Sutton, on Tuesday evening, who said we would not ‘necessarily’ require a lockdown with the more stringent settings he had advised, and the statement of the Acting Premier, James Merlino, on Wednesday morning, who stressed that these restrictions were merely to buy contact tracers ‘time’ in order to get the situation well in hand, I sensed a yelping desperation in Mr. O’Brien’s voice when he said that, by now, Victorians know how this usually goes, and we would like, in this instance, a different outcome to the three previous lockdowns.

That tone of desperation carried more weight with me, intuitively, than the mandarinical assurances of the State Government. In this regard, Mr. O’Brien is right: these guys have form; they smile reassuringly like mandarins in the morning, and by nightfall they have you in the hoosegow.

The point with regards to ‘form’ in imposing the ‘final solution’ of lockdown is this: The Victorian Government is like a poker player that cannot mask his tells. After three rounds of this, if your intuition is on-point, you can read in their mandarinical assurances, and in the pattern of days of dithering beforehand and then arbitrary panic when its too late, where the tenor of the Kahunas’ thinking is tending.

At 11:59 a.m. on Wednesday morning, I booked a ticket on that evening’s XPT out of Southern Cross, bound for Wagga. I still expected that before I could feel the wheels turning under me at 7:50 p.m., I would have been in lockdown at The Miami for nearly two hours—or worse still, they would turn me away at the station, telling us the border was closed.

Certainly, in those deep calculations, as my intuition assessed the Government’s tells, I knew that getting on the train today would not be an option. The situation couldn’t hold steady till then, and they would certainly call a lockdown before the weekend to curtail movement on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

For someone who hates extroverted sensing activities, and who had consequently had his life planned for an 8:30 a.m. departure two days hence for months beforehand, I don’t know what spirit possessed me in those six hours to get myself in order to roll under the wire for a great escape from Victoria on Wednesday night.

It was the introverted intuitive’s equivalent of a James Bond manœuvre: somehow, I predictively read an emergent situation and reacted to it, ahead of it, with an innovative, spontaneous evasive action in the physical here and now. That’s not bad for a guy who’s more like Woody Allen than James Bond.

I was not even reassured when, at 6:10, my prediction of a lockdown announcement was proven wrong. I ordered a cab, checked out of The Miami, asking them to hold my room in case there was some unforeseeable craziness between then and 7:50 which caused me to come back, and some ten minutes later I was in the cab at the corner of Bourke street, waiting for the lights to change, when a friend and client called me.

‘I’m going now,’ I said. ‘I’ve been spooked and I’m not waiting till Friday morning. They’re too quick to lock us down.’

My client/friend agreed. His view: they would wait to see Wednesday’s figures on Thursday morning, and then lower the boom.

I was not even reassured when I made it on the train. Five minutes from take-off time, the conductor came back on the line after delivering her usual spiel, but her usual sing-song delivery was replaced with new hesitation as she made an extra announcement.

This is it, I thought. They’re going to tell us we’re in lockdown and that we have to get off the train and go home.

Fortunately, she merely came back on to remind us of Mandarin Sutton’s indoor mask mandate of the day before.

When I saw the stately colonnade of Albury Station filing by the window round about eleven, I was filled, momentarily, with a wonder that had, for once, little to do with the cinematic possibilities which the longest railway station platform in NSW usually inspire in me: It had been a little over two years since I had last passed this way, and I had been plotting a break-out of East Berlin for nearly the last one.

Albury became my Checkpoint Charlie at that moment: I had defected; I was now in the West, out of the hideous, totalitarian nightmare which Victoria has devolved back into for the past year, as regularly and predictably as clockwork.

I had been looking forward to this seasonal stint in a slightly warmer winter for months. Like many people in Victoria today, I would have been devastated if this day, which I had planned months beforehand to start in Melbourne and end in Wagga, had been aborted by the Government.

I use the extended metaphor of the Cold War to describe the state of Victoria ‘lightly’ (though you can probably hear the poisonous venom dripping through the freezing irony of my voice, dear readers), but I mean it in deadly earnest, and if I didn’t treat the matter lightly with a Flaubertian burlesque against the bourgeoisie, I would certainly eviscerate the Government with my wit.

Even in the last month, where I have sampled a range of Victorian life from Euroa, to Geelong, to Melbourne, the State Government’s intrusions into privacy and liberty have become progressively so intolerable that, towards the end, like a child, I was literally counting the sleeps to this day.

With the Bond manœuvre, I stole a march on the lockdown, even got well-under the wire of its extension into NSW for incoming Victorian travellers. The issue is this: though I’ve got an ‘alibi’ for every scene of the crime the Government has so far listed, I’m happy to go along with my less fortunate confrères south of the border and comply with the stay-at-home directives in solidarity with their seven-day lockdown.

But I would much prefer to do it on this side of Checkpoint Charlie—exactly where I planned to be today.

Having the choice makes a big difference. I have to live and work in NSW for the next three-and-a-half months: I don’t want to start off the working holiday by being a bearer of bad juju, running amuck among the good burghers of Wagga with my unmasked mug. I’d rather lay low in the airlock and come out breathing easy next week, but being an Aquarian, I don’t like to be told what to do—especially by the Government.

So, the Melbourne Flâneur goes ‘on tour’ for the first time in nearly two years. I’ll be here in Wagga for the whole of June, so I’ll have plenty of time to walk the streets after I come out of the airlock next week. From what I saw of it by night, it looks like a beautiful town. My cameras are locked and loaded and ready to do some night-shooting.

Then, to my friends in Bellingen and Coffs Harbour, you will once again see my chapeau’d silhouette striding along Hyde street for two-three weeks in July. Then it’s on to Lake Macquarie and Sydney in August, and Nowra in September.

Hopefully, I will not have to do another Bond roll to slide back under the steel shutter into Victoria, red lights blinking and klaxons clanging.