In the real world we all abide by certain rules. Take me for example, I am what you might call the classic non conformist. Tell me to stand over there and I will rejoice in simply standing over here instead; a door marked EXIT ONLY is simply too irresistible for words. Yet, even I have boundaries; some form of moral and social framework I feel compelled to follow now and then. Well, I’ve experienced Melbourne’s laneways for the first time and frankly all that is now out of the window.
How can you run a retail establishment without a sign in sight? How can seemingly random businesses come together under one roof and thrive? How can an artist even begin to think about showing a piece of work that’s invisible, let alone hoping you will chuck a load of water over it!
If all this sounds remarkably baffling, well, welcome to my world. Melbourne’s laneways are truly extraordinary. These narrow spaces squeezed in-between the architectural bedrock of downtown and originally created for supplying goods to the businesses there, have rewritten the rulebook on normal business practices and flown in the face of conformity. Nothing, and I mean nothing is what it seems to be.
I’ll give you an example. Wandering down a random laneway I encounter an open door. I peek inside and glance a small blackboard depicting the words ‘Captains of Industry’. This is curious. I think to myself. I take the stairs and find myself in a bustling bistro, enveloped in the smell of fresh coffee and the chink of cutlery on plates.
But there is more to this that meets the eye. Along one wall, a shelf of shoe moulds leads to a shoemaker busily crafting a pair of fine leather brogues; next to him is another room with a full size barber’s chair with associated accoutrements and at the end of the room, a bespoke tailor, discreetly discussing patterns and cloth with a customer. It seems I had stumbled across Melbourne’s famed Captains of Industry no less. A pair of handmade shoes, a suit, a shave and a made to measure lunch. Genius.
It seems the very act of signposting is frowned upon. Those who need to know, know. So you just need to know. Simple really, but it certainly seems to work, a myriad of entrepreneurial businesses seemingly thriving on staying hidden!
And what about that invisible painting? Yes, a literal blank canvas was sitting on its own on a wall next to a coffee bar. “Let’s pour some water over it” whispered my guide, Fiona Sweetman, a lady who knows Melbourne’s laneways like the back of her hand. Her company Hidden Secrets Tours will take you around parts of Melbourne unseen by the human eye. So not one to miss such an obvious non conformist opportunity I got her to pour for me and the full majesty of the author’s imagination appeared before my very eyes.
Melbourne’s 200 laneways, names like Meyers Place, Bennetts Lane, Cohen Place, Sniders Lane and Market Lane are a journey of discovery: stuffed with artistic graffiti to artisan boutique retailers and of course all those magical coffee bars. Take a wander, but make sure you look around very carefully. If it’s hidden, it’s going to be a treasure well worth uncovering. Just don’t let anyone else know.