The tourist is often accused of not seeing the ‘real’ place. He only sees it glossed up, in its best light. I’ve written about this already – how I distrust that language, the way some pessimists try to colonize reality, as if ‘reality’ is only ever in the ugly bits. But I’ve walked on so many streets and back lanes in Melbourne, and as I’ve told you, I’ve walked into so many galleries, that I’ve already seen the ugly bits! What a tourist ought to see is as many versions of a place as he can – and by God he should see the best bits too.
If you want to see Melbourne in its best light, I cannot recommend this enough: take a kayak along the Yarra River by night. On this night, my tour guide is the man who owns the company, Kent. His accent, to my ear, doesn’t sound Australian – but I have stopped trusting my ear in Oz. Just last night I sat at a dinner with six Brits, five of whom had only migrated recently. The last had been living here for twelve years. He is 42 now, but came when he was 30. The other five were shocked at this revelation. They did not know that this man was as English as they were. They remarked at how completely he had lost his Devon accent. I was a little bewildered, for I listened and I listened and all through the night all six of them sounded exactly the same! So it is with this unreliable ear that I think to myself, Kent doesn’t really sound Australian. Rather, his accent sounds almost American – but with less of that annoying twang, and a bit more charm. He later tells me he is Canadian. I could hit myself for missing the obvious, for isn’t this the definition of a Canadian accent? ‘Almost American, but with less of the annoying twang, and a bit more charm.’
Out on the Yarra, I worry that I am going to make a fool of myself. I have never kayaked before. But it goes well. I am amazed by the little foot bridges we can sail under, the yachts we can pass between. And the city scape is lighting up. We pass a bride in her white dress on a pier, taking photographs. Everything is beautiful.
Kent, who is steering the kayak that I am paddling, says eventually, ‘I actually spent a bit of time in Jamaica.’
‘A bit of time’ turns out to be an understatement. He means his childhood. He went to Mona Prep, did his Common Entrance, went on to Campion, all the way up to his CXC exams. I think, how strange it is that this man who is speaking with a Canadian accent, once would have sounded very much like me.
I ask what his family was doing in Jamaica. He explains that his parents were academics. His father’s field was religion; his mother’s was English and Communication. I am amazed again. How small the world is, that his father and mother should be interested in two of the things that have fascinated me so much in life.
And did I tell you that Melbourne at night, as seen from a tiny, tiny boat bobbing out there in the water by the Bolte Bridge is beautiful? It is something you should experience.
‘So why did you leave Jamaica?’ I eventually ask.
‘The violence,’ he tells me. ‘From where we lived we could hear the guns barking every night.’
I can only imagine. By my calculations, Kent would have moved to Jamaica at about the time that I was born. He and his family would have come just in time for the bloody 1980 elections. He would have lived through the early 80s somewhere near August Town. I was a child in Hope Pastures. Almost surely, there were nights when we heard the same guns.
‘What do your parents do now?’
Now, there is a moment of that kind of silence which is not silent at all. Because you hear the water lapping, and you hear the evening.
‘My father is dead, unfortunately…’
I feel my stomach drop because I already know the rest.
‘…he was murdered in Jamaica.’
And did I tell you that Melbourne at night, as seen from a tiny, tiny boat bobbing out there in the water, by the Bolte Bridge is beautiful? It is. It is so utterly beautiful. It is something you should experience. But on this night, I have arrived suddenly in another place. Somewhere uglier. And who knew that you could climb into a kayak in Melbourne, Australia, and be taken all the way to Kingston, Jamaica?
[PS. This is one article that I have found that mentions the murder of Rev Dr Cuthbert]