Simon Sleight Young People and the Shaping of Public Space in Melbourne, 1870-1914 (London: Ashgate, 2013)
[Simon Sleight is my colleague at King’s. He kindly invited me to launch his new book on July 19, 2013:]
In August 2007, a confrontation took place in the grounds of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne. The Dean Geoff Baron, lost his temper with a group of teenage skateboarders, insisting that they leave what he called the church’s ‘property’ but which they claimed as their space of play. Taunted and harried, and it seems having perhaps rescued some communion wine from being wasted, he unleashed a string of homophobic and racist insults, striking one youth and kicking a bottle at another. Unfortunately for Monsignor Baron, the incident was filmed on a cameraphone and put up on You Tube. It was game over Monsignor, who was forced to resign his post. But the incident provoked a debate about how children’s play space in the city had been encroached upon by commercial development on the one hand, and the reinterpretation of public space as ‘property’ on the other. It is with this recent incident, anchored with artful references to twenty-first century internet sources, blogs and online comment pages, that Simon Sleight introduces the key questions at the heart of his book.
These are two important theoretical claims. First that the age cohort is, or ought to be, as important a problem for social historians as class, gender, race and other categories, ‘age structures everyday experience in overt and subtle ways’ (p.3). His point is not that age is more important than these, but that how age is lived by people is a critical medium through which class, gender, and ethnicity are experienced. But second, connected to this, we need to pay attention to how age, class, and gender are lived in space, to the geography of social experience, to how territory, as Henri Lefebvre suggested, criss-crossed by overlapping individual and group trajectories constitutes the medium through which collective life is made and suffered.
Such a view has a particular purchase for late nineteenth-century Melbourne where among the consequences of the gold rush of the 1850s and 60s, which had brought large numbers of sexually active adults to Victoria, was a very skewed demographic pyramid. Over 40% of the population was under the age of 14, as contemporaries commented: ‘Melbourne was perspiring juvenile humanity’, ‘the whole place was boiling with boys’. This meant, Sleight argues, that the making of modern Melbourne in these decades, the ways in which people lived in this young city culled from the bush, was a product of children’s wilful exploration and occupation of its streets, parks, harbours and sewers. For if this book is, on the one hand, an important addition to the historiography of youth and the age cohort, it is also a contribution to urban history, a penetrating, and affectionate exploration of the adolescence of the city of Melbourne. Sleight shows how Bourke Street, Fitzroy Gardens, the Esplanade of St Kilda, the broad streets and narrow disreputable alleys were lived by boys and girls playing and working, earning and spending, breaking and being broken by rules. Through and beyond this, the book casts a significant shadow onto the larger story on to the origins of twentieth-century Australia where in its sombre final sections, we see children constituted as a problem, surveilled, supervised, ministered to, ‘rescued’, and ultimately in 1911 boys were subjected to compulsory military service. It is suggested, but Sleight is far too subtle a hand to force the point too heavily, that the kinds of semi-coercive solidarities imposed on the youth were part of a larger enterprise of discipline and repression through which Australian elites sought to organise and constrain the rebellious potential of their fellow citizens.
There is nothing that historians admire more in the work of their peers than the methods they devise to make resistant sources yield insights about the past. Sleight faced real obstacles here. Children create very few contemporary records of their experience, and are almost always only the objects of sources created by adults, including of course themselves looking back. What makes this book such an impressive one is the virtuosity with which Sleight has found and invented ways of attempting to map how children lived the spaces of Melbourne.
I remember still the morning when I first met Simon when he gave his presentation as a candidate for the lectureship here at King’s to which he was appointed. This is a standard ritual these days for all academic hirings in the United Kingdom, and involves candidates speaking to their research over 15 to 20 minutes. Many take this as an opportunity to rehearse their CV, the more shrewd ones use the time to show off their particular feats of research, showing us how they think and not just what they’ve thought about. Simon’s was one of the most impressive I can remember, a demonstration in an extremely short time of an extraordinary variety of sources and methods. He began visually with a classic painting, diaries, memoirs, advertising, novels and political documents, and most ingeniously mapping of the journeys of children through the city through the records of their delinquencies (stealing eggs from nests, petty theft and vandalism) which noted both where the crime happened and where the children lived, so allowing him to show the distances over which they roamed, and the paths which repeated themselves. It was a potent exhibition of a historical intelligence at work, and a teaser for what this monograph might be.
The book fulfilled that promise. It brims with ideas and with experiments, borrowing ideas from, and conversing with work in geography, anthropology, and sociology. But it is also overbrimming with a humanity, with a curiosity about and compassion towards how these boys and girls lived their lives, catching rats for thruppence a head, selling flowers, advertising brothels, gathering bottles and rags and metal to sell on, selling newspapers, drinking, fighting, rioting, flirting, promenading and parading. It is history from the perspective of the child, of that class of people who may obey or rebel but never get to make the rules, who have to find their way through the grid of a world impressed upon them by bigger and stronger people, such as the old men who forced children out of the bootblack trade and the other ones who forced them in to drilled regiments. It will be turned to by many kinds of historians and social scientists: an impressive debut.
As someone who is not an Australian historian, I was wondering how far the story of discipline and repressions which Sleight tells at the end of the book might be connected to a broader trans-colonial story? The same decade on which a grid of discipline descended on the Victorian youth also saw in other colonies Lord Crewe’s circular which restricted social liaisons between whites and non-whites, the beginnings of organised international prohibitions against cannabis, opium, and cocaine (1911 here also being a key date), Federal Australian penal sanctions against prostitutes dating from 1910. Perhaps it was the Edwardians, rather than the Victorians, who were the real repressors. Is it too much also to hear in the notes sounded at its end a tacit reflection on how the insurgent promise of a more recent wave of baby boomers was tamed and dammed in by new kinds of social discipline, the impress of consumption, debt, fear, new kinds of regulation and surveillance, the continuing colonisation of public spaces by forms of private property and social exclusions? In the grounds of St Patrick’s Cathedral one episode of this very contemporary drama unfolded. It is Sleight’s achievement to make us see a possible alternative ludic map of the future as a public territory through the spaces of the city’s past.