Twenty-four hours on Parliament Steps

A study of place, February 2020

An ancient hill shaded by eucalypts, later the hunting of native animals, or worse. Then, gold for the picking. Today, dawn gilds the building that shades this place.

I sit on the steps of Victoria’s Parliament House, on moral high ground at the top end of town. Gold-flushed, rabble-filled Melbourne, preparing for self-government and throwing off the taints and taunts of a convict past, chose this eastern hill in 1851 for a rock-hard symbol of law, order, and invasion. Architects faltered through forgotten iterations until the weight of the white man’s stone hand lay heavy on the black earth, and construction began in 1855.  The Victorians did love their Greco-Roman edifices.

There are three sweeping stages of bluestone treads and risers: six steps from the street, then a carriageway for vehicles of pomp and pomposity; eighteen steps to a high plateau; sixteen final steps and this flight of basalt fantasy and pragmatism prostrates itself at the base of the west-facing colonnade.  The steps form one third of the building’s height and accord with Renaissance tropes of beauty. Step construction started in 1888 and the last ludicrously, gloriously ornate lamp was placed in 1891. From the start, electric lights!

Morning traffic volumes rise; Jolimont Rail Yards out of sight to our left; trams of the city circle route before us. Genteel Windsor Hotel napkins her lap and settles down to a breakfast of warm rolls and coffee while the doorman eyes another new century suspiciously.  Across the intersection, frowsy Imperial Hotel swills out last night’s spew and crumbs and throws open her doors for some clear air.  Princess Theatre shakes her dressing-room bins into a skip, and a flock of grease-painted tissues swirls into brief flight.  Establishment mistresses, pillared and pedimented in Melbourne’s rich youth, they flank and flatter Parliament House; sycophants basking in reflected authority. Parliament itself puts the kettle on and browses a stationery catalogue.  Around 9:00am, elected representatives will stride or lope, scuttle or totter inside.

These broad steps are made for public attention. The Relief of Mafeking was celebrated here, although no-one now remembers why. Monarchs over the ocean were mourned. Monochrome soldiers, grey-scale dignitaries, shadowy families, inhabited vast official photographs while silent fanfares skirled. Ten years after they won us the Great War, unemployed men were imprisoned for occupying these steps during the Great Depression.  More wars, but none as great; another long-lived queen.  Marches: against apartheid and combat; for peace, women, preservation, gay rights, land rights.

Conflict, authority and the white man’s inalienable right to dominate have been celebrated here; humanity and dignity are here lamented by Melbournians in their thousands, or hundreds; sometimes a lone, drowzy hunger-striker and their chatty late-night companion.

The pride of gold-engorged Melbourne is also now the most popular location for wedding photos in the city. These steps are having the time of their life.

Midday brings swarms of tourists, school tours, workmen; selfies, sight-seeing, sandwiches. The later sun sets a hot gold film over the ground; darkling rooftop bars begin to roar.

In the chill dark, the day’s heat seeps out of the stone to warm a passing dero, a group of theatre-leavers, a brace of police. Around 2:30am the rooftop bars stutter into silence.  The 4:30am tram is empty as workers chat in the underground.

The Western Victorian bluestone is barely aged, but the institution it serves is crumbling under the weight of corruption, technology, the morbidity of the biosphere. The old guard are already dead; they just haven’t learnt to lie down.

What have I learnt? I have learnt that you get a better class of rough sleeper at this end of town.

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