Life on the Margins: a review of Blue Lake

By Liam Fallon | 17 Apr 19
Oswald Barnett


Blue Lake: finding Dudley Flats and the West Melbourne Swamp

David Sornig

Scribe Publications

It begins with “A Hymn”: a preface that brings us with humpy-rattling, time-warping speed to ground zero of the eponymous Blue Lake. We are introduced to the supporting acts of this story: Elsie, Jack and Lauder. They grovel in their derelict dwellings. Groan in their drunken stupors. Shift in their meddling shadows. As the author forewarns: “They’re the people we’re going to get to know.”

It is true. Through David Sornig’s sprawling, era-traversing expose of the lands just west of Melbourne city, that lie between present-day Docklands to the east and the Maribyrnong to the west, Dynon Road to the north and the Yarra to the south, one gets to know these forgotten vagrants intimately.

But one shouldn’t be distracted by these three. The true star of Sornig’s sordid story of neglect, squalor and life on the margins is the setting itself. Blue Lake is an attempt to discern the history of a place so bereft of understanding it defies identification.

Sornig wonders at how “no one has heard of it. It’s difficult even to give people directions into finding where it once stood.” He floats between a raft of names to describe the area: Dudley Flats, Batman’s Swamp, West Melbourne Swamp, Blue Lake. As if revelling in this ambiguity, Sornig settles on “the Zone” as the catch-all moniker for the area; a choice that does nothing to lessen the confounding confusion hovering above these invisible lands.

The swampy marshlands that once comprised the Zone feature in John Batman’s earliest writings of what would become Melbourne. He described “a large marsh about 1 ½ mile by 3 or 4 long,’ inside which was ‘a large lagoon…upwards of a mile across.”

Then, as with long before, it reeked of “desertion and despair”.

Ever since Batman’s portentous arrival, the question of what to do with the area has troubled Victorian authorities incessantly. Some imagined its use as a revamped recreational park. Others considered its location between the city and the bay perfect for commercial purposes. It would go on to house rubbish tips, army exercises, weapons testing and slaughterhouses – not to mention dozens of slum dwellers. Like its name, its use was malleable. It was a home to some and a dumping ground to most. It was never exclusively one thing and not the other.

Sornig himself admits to envisioning the Zone in his own mould. A child of Melbourne’s west, he recalls mundane commutes into the city suddenly filled with intrigue as the train stuttered between Footscray and North Melbourne – the heart of the Zone. Then, as with long before, it reeked of “desertion and despair”. Sornig equates his childhood memories of the Zone to its namesake in Andrei Tarkovsky’s classic science-fiction film Stalker. When Sornig writes that the Zone in Stalker “appears to be alive. It’s conscious of something,” he reveals as much about the Zone from his own imagination.

Like the peak-hour train from Sornig’s youth, Blue Lake shuttles between eras with metronomic frequency. One moment, we are on the banks of the Maribyrnong River with German ex-sailor and social outcast Lauder Rogge. The bayonet-sharp stab of his war-time starvation is palpable enough to make your tummy rumble. Later, through Sornig’s own memory, we stare fearfully into the suspicious eyes of a dockyard security guard, an uncomfortable interaction the author recalls from a recent fact-finding excursion into the now repurposed Zone.

Jack Peacock, described by Sornig as “a rich man in poor clothes”, was an entrepreneurial, if not industrious tip scavenger and horse trader in the Zone. Before his assumption of the rather undignified title of “King of Dudley Flats”, Peacock “was a boy, native born, entitled to lad about”. This ladding saw him into trouble with local police and, one day, even boarding a ship bound for New Zealand on his way to school in St Kilda. These early transgressions, while benign enough, foreshadow a life on the margins; a square peg in a round hole. By the time the Great Depression hit, his ties to family would have withered and his move to Dudley Flats – the part of the Zone just west of modern day Docklands – would be complete.

If Jack was the King, Lauder Rogge was the pauper. Lauder left Germany and everyone he knew as a young man. He joined the Kaiser’s navy until a medical discharge saw him work aboard ships that ultimately brought him to Williamstown. Medical reports lodged after his seafaring days illustrate a man bound to this new land by his incapacity to escape it. “After 1900 Lauder would never again,” except for a year of internment in a concentration camp during WWI, “live any further than five miles from the place he declared himself to have come ashore”.

Rogge would buy a small boat and, following a series of financial hardships and harrowing run-ins with war-time patriots and police, find himself moored permanently in the southern marshes of the Zone.

Perhaps more than any other character, Rogge provides Australian readers with a mirror with which to evaluate their own nationhood: one built on allegiances to empire, war-time solidarity and an unbendable exclusion of the Outsider. As we recount Rogge’s experiences of intimidation and violence within an unaccommodating society, the Zone’s allure to its inhabitants is underlined. To many, the Zone was comforting.

More so than Jack and LauderElsie’s descent into the madness and squalor of the Zone is portrayed as a failure of society

To Elsie Williams, the Zone was the final act in her own Australian tragedy. Elsie was born to Afro-Caribbean parents in Bendigo at the turn of the 20th century. The coincidence of Elsie’s birthday and Australian Federation falling in the same year is instructive. Both would be defined – and in Elsie’s case, tormented – by a nascent nationhood built on explicitly racist foundations.

Yet despite the inevitable prejudice that Elsie and her family would have confronted in this country, her story is dotted with moments of hope. Sornig reels off a raft of Sliding Doors moments: what if Elsie, “who’d stood on the precipice of fame, but never took the leap to the other side”, had hung on to her fledgling singing career? Would she have followed the American troupe she briefly toured with back Stateside and become a jazz-age star? And what if her sailor husband hadn’t jumped ship on their marriage, not even a year old?

These questions appear at every turn in Elsie’s life thereafter, to haunting effect. More so than Jack and Lauder, Elsie’s descent into the madness and squalor of the Zone is portrayed as a failure of society; one “heavily buffeted by deeply rooted forces of prejudice – both official and quotidian – that were determined to deny [Elsie] opportunity.”

By the time these fleeting moments of hope had faded, Elsie would have achieved fame of a different sort. “Black Elsie” is what they’d call her. Her run-ins with the police made the headlines. She was known to carry a razor blade and a mean temper. With each courtroom appearance and record of public drunkenness, we are reminded how close she came to avoiding the indignity and loneliness of death in the Zone.

Sornig relies upon a wealth of historical documents to reconstruct these disparate narratives into a holistic story. Newspaper advertisements, obituaries, op-eds and news articles from The Age, Herald Sun and Argus, and magazine profiles and gossip pieces, are used in conjunction with government records. Given the often illegal behaviour of the Zone dwellers, court and prison records paint an intriguing, if not disturbing picture of the at-times violent relationships between them. Sornig skilfully matches these official records with paintings, maps and even some early footage of a West Melbourne tip bonfire.

It is unfortunate that Blue Lake quickly forgets the indigenous archeology of the area, despite Sornig’s early warning against doing so. He writes that in a “badlands story” such as this one, premised upon the dispossession and exclusion of the Wurundjeri-willam and Yalukit-willam clans from the area, the critical moment between pre and settlement is when “the earth is upturned, and over which the miasma of colonial consequence hangs.” Yet there is little reflection upon these consequences for the traditional owners of these lands thereafter. Sornig dives headlong into the cartography of the area instead. He does convey the mournful nostalgia held by some settler figures for the gradual disappearance of the “blue lake” in the area, however these accounts “regret the loss of an aesthetic and recreational experience”, much less a culturally and vitally important Aboriginal place.

At its core, Blue Lake seeks to investigate how this wild and unruly patch of land so close to Melbourne was able to resist control.

Blue Lake does hark back to the early settler period toward its conclusion, drawing in contemporary historical works, such as James Boyce’s 1835, which critically re-evaluates the principles upon which Melbourne was founded. In this way, he deftly entwines historical accounts with revisionist perspectives, melding and contrasting them to create a multi-perspective recounting of events.

Perhaps it is necessary to adopt such an approach when revisiting a place that has undergone so many facelifts and reinventions. This is clear in the consistent allusions to the obscure geography of the area. We are led to imagine the beauty of, as one observer described it, “a real lake, intensely blue, nearly oval and full of the clearest salt water.” As if by the swift stroke of a bureaucrat’s pen, the lake is decimated by industry, smokestacks and rotting things. This intrusion of man into nature is central. Rivers were moved, islands made and unmade. The silt of canals dug up and blown sky-high across the ancient marshes of the Zone.

At its core, Blue Lake seeks to investigate how this wild and unruly patch of land so close to Melbourne was able to resist control. To contemporary minds, it defies belief that only in the last 50 years or so the Zone began to succumb to the beautifying advances of modernity.

Yet that’s just the story Sornig so dutifully presents: a place at once vulnerable and resilient. This refusal to submit to forces of control – governmental, commercial, or otherwise – is what is most essential to the narrative, and indeed the individual characters that inhabit it.

If their refusal to conform to a socially acceptable existence killed them, Elsie, Jack and Lauder would have accepted death. All three would stay wedded to the Flats or the Swamp or whatever it was they called it, until the end. Perhaps they called it home.

Even now, as monolithic concrete dockyards choke up the Zone’s ground, and busy tollways shadow it in a pall of smog, Sornig argues the Zone “does not fit in to the new order, even as the old has been erased from it. The only way to have it conform…is to ignore it. To become blind to it.”

Alas, through neglect, the Zone was controlled. But thanks to Blue Lake, it may finally have its own place in Melbourne’s identity.