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Marvellous Melbourne

London journalist George Augustus Sala conferred the title 'Marvellous Melbourne' on a visit to the city in 1885. In the heady days of the Melbourne land boom the phrase struck a chord and it has reverberated, sometimes ironically, in the city's consciousness to the present day.

In 1885 Sala's name was synonymous with the new style of sensational journalism created by the 'young lions' of London's Daily Telegraph newspaper. His popularity peaked in the 1870s, and by the time he arrived in Melbourne in March 1885 on a lecture tour of the Australian colonies it was already in decline. During his visit he only left the Menzies Hotel to pay his respects to the Governor and to do the Block. His lectures, given in the Melbourne Town Hall, were not well-attended and his visit ended tragically with the sudden death of his wife.

Only in August 1885 when Sala's series of articles for the London Daily Telegraph, 'The Land of the Golden Fleece', were syndicated in the Argus did Melburnians discover to their delight how favourably they had impressed the now elderly lion of the London press. 'I found Melbourne a really astonishing city', he reported, 'with broad streets full of handsome shops and crowded with bustling well-dressed people'. The 1850s gold rush had brought a 'residuum' of 'real live men' who had 'made Melbourne what she is, magnificent and marvellous'. 'Marvellous Melbourne' echoed the themes of other more perceptive visitors - the city's extraordinary growth, its dominance over the other Australian capitals and its distinctively metropolitan ethos - but Sala's catchy phrase caught on. In 1888 the theatrical entrepreneur Alfred Dampier set his melodrama Marvellous Melbourne against the moving backdrop of the city's sights: Flemington on Melbourne Cup Day, Little Bourke Street and the Block.

No sooner had the phrase caught on than critics adapted it to express less rosy estimates of the city's progress. Sanitarians bemoaned the stinks of the still-unsewered 'Marvellous Smellbourne', and the mounting typhoid casualties of 'Murderous Melbourne'. Cultural critics attacked 'The Barbarisms of Barbarous Melbourne', such as larrikinism, bad manners and the universal obsession with sport. With the bank crash of the early 1890s, financiers had to endure the odium of having created 'Marvellous Smellboom'. The chorus of praise now became a lament.

It took the city more than a generation to recover something of the optimism of the land-boom era. In Victoria's centenary year, 1934, with the city mired in another depression, a publisher bravely entitled a book of souvenir photographs Marvellous Melbourne, claiming that the subject 'still finds apt expression in the happy one-time sobriquet'. In the 1960s and 1970s historians, including Robin Moore, Asa Briggs, Michael Cannon, Geoffrey Serle, Jill Roe and Graeme Davison, kept the memory of 'Marvellous Melbourne' alive. In 1971 the Australian Performing Group revived the title of Dampier's melodrama in a stage satire in which the excesses of the 1880s land boom found a contemporary echo in the city's more recent history of land deals. The Age journalist, John Stevens, later adopted the title for his weekly column covering the city's history and heritage.

Re-entering the lexicon of public relations agents, 'Marvellous Melbourne' broadened its scope and shed its ironic undertone. In 1990 a report by visiting English planning expert Francis Tibbalds, Marvellous Melbourne 2000, praised a 'historic, rich, mature Melbourne looking ... like bits of Paris or other European cities' and sought 'to rekindle the city's original confidence'. By the mid-1990s, under Premier Jeff Kennett, it again became the slogan of boosters seeking to reposition the city in the global competition for tourism and investment. Marvellous Melbourne: good value, great fun introduced the budget-conscious visitor to 'Melbourne - the world's best kept secret'. The Marvellous Melbourne holiday guide promised 'a city with a difference', while the Marvellous Melbourne night life guide described 'Melbourne's Exciting, Diverse, Adult and Alternative Scene'. Once synonymous with metropolitan sophistication, the much-abused title could even stretch to embrace the innocents of the far-flung suburban frontier. As Kath, heroine of the television satire Kath and Kim (2003), drives past the 'hot-spots' of Fountain Lake's 'Golden Mile' of shopping malls and car distributors, she exclaims: 'It's all here in Melbourne! It's Marvellous Melbourne!'

Graeme Davison