How it all goes together

One of the things I said I wanted to do this year was to write regularly – and that has taken different forms throughout the year, but I’ve found it has been really worthwhile. Being a personal blog, the content here has changed over the course of the year. (I’ve also done some private writing for my study, as part of a Period of Discernment with the Uniting Church in Australia, and as part of a pilgrimage to Lake Mungo.) On this blog recently I’ve almost only been talking about tabletop roleplaying games, particularly Dungeons & Dragons, but earlier in the year I was also posting a lot more religious-mythological Bible content, stuff I’d been observing in my neighbourhood, opinion pieces about the proposed homeless ban in Melbourne, stuff about migrant-settler-colonial identity in Australia…

Sometimes people tell me I’m doing an awful lot of different things, but in my mind all of those stuff comes back to one thing, and that’s critical engagement with stories. As my collaborator Matt Valler has been saying,

‘Every city is full of hidden stories that quietly enforce the rules we live by. Labyrinth uncovers those stories so that together we can rewrite the rules.’

We need to be able to engage with stories in a critical way because they can shape our society for better or for worse. (And it’s often a lot more complex than just good stories and bad stories!)

Anyway, that has been my focus, and I hope that gives an idea about what holds my year together!

Religious-mythological story
This year it’s been really helpful having regular contracts with the Victorian Council of Christian Education, illustrating resources written by my friend Beth Barnett. (I also did a little bit or writing for the season of Lent early in the year.) What I like is that VCCE are really in favour of critical reflection on the Bible, not just in academic institutions and not just for adults but for the whole church. Personally it’s also been helpful just having regular stuff to work on so that I can improve my skills and reinforce a regular practise of drawing – which makes it easier to pick up other religious-mythological work with groups like Scripture Union Victoria, Gembrook Retreat, Baptist Union of Victoria, Surrender and Melbourne Welsh Church.

Story through gaming
The discipline has also meant I’ve been able to start expanding into doing tabletop roleplaying illustration through Owlman Press (I’ll be playtesting our new game Phantasmagoria next week) and Encounter Roleplay (my new Dungeons & Dragons adventure King Dawutti’s Legacy is now available to our Patreon supporters). I find there’s often also cross-pollination between the two, because a story from the Abrahamic mythologies might provide a structure or a setting for an adventure, or the elements of a parable might provide an idea for a monster. In the new year I’m excited about some new gaming projects that I’m currently working on thanks to connections with the #DnD community on Twitter.

What interests me most is how our games often draw on stories that are already part of our society, but invite us to engage with the creatively. I think there are also opportunities to experiment in how we cooperate with others or engage in conflict at the table. It’s been great getting back into a regular rhythm of hosting games (and getting to occassionally play!) with a fairly diverse group of players.

While I’m talking about gaming, I also need to mention that I’ve appreciated being able to continue working with Evan at Rival Sky. I don’t play most of the games we sell (I do play Star Wars: Imperial Assault a little bit) but it’s really helpful having something to do that’s regular, dependable and practical. (You might be surprised how therapeutic the physicality of packing parcels can be!)

Story in the real, physical world
I think physicality is really important. I don’t think our engagement with story can stay in the realm of reflecting on Biblical mythology or participating in narrative through games. I think it has to have an impact on our actual world. With Labyrinth we’ve been inviting people to do this kind of critical reflection on stories in the city streets, as we have done in Melbourne for a long time. It’s been great being able to see this practise continuing in Melbourne as Urban Seed (where I learned this practise) has been gradually winding up, and seeing experiments happening in London, Dallas and Washington DC. Reflection on the stories needs to lead to response, and for some of us that has meant engaging with the government and wider community about the homelessness ban that was proposed by the Lord Mayor Robert Doyle.

What we do in our home is also being informed by reflecting on our story. Our household, the Indigenous Hospitality House (named in honor of the hospitality we’ve so often received from Aboriginal and other Indigenous peoples) is a response to the story of our colonial history and the to the question ‘What does it mean to live on stolen land?’ In recent years we’ve been trying different ways of inviting other people to reflect on and respond to that story and question, because we think it’s something our whole society needs to grapple with. Early in the year we released a book as a way of sharing some of our learnings and inviting others into reflection. Mehrin and I got to take some time out to participate in the Yingadi pilgirmage to Lake Mungo with Vicki Clark, a Mutthi Mutthi woman who helped set up IHH at the beginning. As we finished up this year we have a few people leaving our household, but the three of us who’ve been living there for a while feel encouraged to have others joining us – especially since a few years ago we weren’t sure where we’d find enough people to keep operating!

In 2018
I mentioned at the beginning of this post that this year I participated in a Period of Discernment with the Uniting Church. My sense throughout this period has been that what I need to be doing is spending time near the boundaries of the church and out in the wider world, where people are engaging with and responding to the stories of our world. (I think that fits within the scope of the Uniting Church’s understanding of what a deacon does.) I expect I’ll be continuing these practises and seeing where they lead.

‘The dead centre of town’

When I lived in Ferntree Gully with my parents, my dad made the same joke a number of times when we passed the cemetary. ‘It’s the dead centre of town!’ I can remember being in the car with one of my cousins when we passed a cemetery and he made the same joke. I wonder if he heard it from his dad?

This afternoon as I was walking home I passed the Melbourne General Cemetery, which is quite close to our house. Sometimes I walk through it, but this time I walked around the outside. I think it’s kind of sobering passing the resting place of the dead and considering the wieght of all the lives lived.

My understanding is that the earlier cemetery was in the location where the Queen Victoria Market now stands, and that there are a whole lot of people buried there, unmarked. I don’t think it’s good for a society to treat the dead in that way. I think it gives the living the impression that they too could be forgotten and walked overwithout a thought some day.

A Murrumbeena Local

As it’s a public holiday here today, I thought I’d take a break from writing something myself. Instead I suggest you have a look at my friend Ann’s new blog, A Murrumbeena Local. I was lucky to get to spend a little bit of time in the Murrumbeena community, which is currently being impacted by the construction of the skyrail. Ann’s looking at how to support the community and the local businesses through the construction process.

A secretive square in Carlton

Today as I was walking through Carlton I walked down a laneway where I know there to be a hidden space. If you know Carlton well you might recognise it. A fairly non-descript laneway opens up into a carpark, which I think has a bit of a different feel to the rest of the neighbourhood. It almost feels like a kind of rustic public square, hidden away behind Lygon Street.

It’s in the middle of a dense, urban area, but one of the residents has covered the ground floor of their building with a print of an ivy-covered wall.

It seems like something you’d expect to find in the country. It’s as though the resident has sought to create a sense of privacy and solitude in the city.

One the other side of the space, some folks have dragged out some furniture and seem to have been gathering together in the space:

The ivy-covered fence and the circle of chairs seem to me like opposite ways of inhabiting a neighbourhood.

Do you prefer one more than the other?

Taking the posture of a guest

As more privileged people getting involved at the margins of society it can be easy to bring an invasive controlling posture into marginal spaces. I think that when we become aware of that, a helpful response can be to think of ourselves as guests in someone else’s space.

It might be a geographical space. For example, I’ve been wanting to get more involved in the work my church does at the housing commission flats in our neighbourhood, so I’ve just been hanging out at the drop-in centre there with some of the people from the flats. One of the older folks there who’s lived at the flats since they were built has been hosting me by insisting that I sit at her table and introducing me to other residents. I could insist on getting busy volunteering, but I think it’s respectful to be directed by one of the locals and take the time to grow trust. I expect that if that goes well there’ll be opportunities to help at some stage, but that the relationship might be more equal and mutual.

It might also happen in a social space. For another example, I’ve been wanting to be involved in supporting folks in the CBD who have been sleeping out, particularly as the parts of the media, the mayor and a decent chunk of the public has turned against them. Since I worked for ten years with a community development organisation in the CBD who worked with people who were homeless I know a fair few people who’ve been homeless and some who are currently homeless. However, as I’ve never actually been homeless myself I want to be careful about jumping in thinking I know what are the best things to do about the problem. I think it’s better if I can take a lead from people who are currently homeless or have been in the past. So last week when the police were moving people on from Flinders Street station I was trying to take a lead from people I know who have been homeless or are currently. That ended up meaning that I was mostly just trying to be a calm calm presence in the space and look out for opportunities to support the people who had been sleeping at the station. I ended up doing similar on Tuesday during the Future Melbourne meeting. There was a lot of activity going on outside the town hall to protest Robert Doyle’s plan to ban sleeping out in the CBD, so we were just trying to create a bit more of a peaceful and welcoming space at City Square.

How do major roads impact your neighbourhood?

My old phone, which had been going for about three years was on its last legs, so I was planning replace it. It was getting to the stage where it would sometimes only last for a couple of hours before it would go flat. I was going to try and see if I could get a Fairphone 2 via a collaborator in the UK, but after Christmas their turnaround on orders really slowed down, so I thought I’d just keep an eye on the Fairphone project for the future.

Anyway, I looked into what other options were more ethical, and found something I wanted to buy. Turned out there were only two places in Melbourne that had the deal I wanted, both out of the city a bit. So I looked up the closest location on my phone and headed out.

Just after the train arrived my phone died, so I’d seen a map of where I needed to go, but when I left the train station there weren’t really any helpful streetsigns. There was a highway passing over the railwayline, and a small street going underneath. I walked along the highway in one direction for a little bit to see if I could see any signs of the shopping centre I was looking for. Walked for about then minutes without being able to see much. Walked back towards the station and then walked along the highway in the other direction for a bit. Wondered about crossing over to the other side of the highway and whether I might be able to work out where to go from there, but there wasn’t really anywhere safe to cross. I ended up walking back to the bridge and going under the bridge to the other side of the highway. I walked towards a hardware store, and once I got to the hardware store I was able to see a big sign further down the highway, advertising a whole lot of stores, including the one I wanted. So I walked along the highway towards where the sign was. I took two rotations of light changes to safely cross the highway. Once I got to spot where the sign was I found myself in an area full of government department offices with a road running through the middle. In the distance I could see a sprawling carpark and some shops. I dodged traffic to cross the road. Saw another person almost get hit by a car as she crossed further down. Walked for about five minutes across car parks to get to the shopping centre.


This experience showed me a bit about how dependent I am on a phone to find my way in an unfamiliar neighbourhood. But it also made me wonder whether it was intended as a neighbourhood? It seemed like little thought had been put into making the area navigable for local people on foot. What was being prioritised was getting people through the area (via the highway and railway line) and getting people to the government service offices and warehouse shops.

Even in our own neighbourhood, which I think is pretty easy to get around, it is noticeable  how much busy roads break up the area and make some places harder to get to. Last week we went to visit our neighbours, who live in the same street as us. However, there’s a highway that separates our houses. When it’s not busy it’s easy to cross safely, but when we visited last week it was very busy, so we had to walk a couple of blocks down to cross at the lights.

What role do major roads play in your neighbourhood? What kind of relationship do you have with them?

FIDO in Fairfield

Yesterday I was out in Fairfield and saw the Fairfield Industrial Dog Object (FIDO), a public artwork I’ve seen many times. I was a bit early to meet the person I was catching up with so I took some time to sit nearby and have a look around, see what I could find to read about the artwork. (The most accessible place I could find information was Wikipedia.)

Apparently when it was commissioned by the Darebin City Council in 1999 it faced a lot of opposition from folks who believed that local councils should focus on practical, everyday things. Its also been criticised by Sydney’s Revolutionary Council for the Removal of Bad Art in Public Places who apparently threatened to burn it down, but some may consider this a badge of honour.

For a long time it wasn’t operating (the tail and ears are supposed to move in response to visitors, and it is supposed to bark) and more recently it seems to have been making chicken noises, which is not what I expected. The original rationale for this artwork is that it should provide a friendly presence looking down Station Street and a watching over the community. Dogs are companions, assistants and they keep watch for us, and apparently folks in this area really like dogs. (The park bench nearby has engravings of people with dogs as well.)

If you live in the area, or if you’ve visited FIDO, what is your relationship to FIDO?
If you’re not familiar with FIDO, what do you think the presence of a giant dog would say to you about the precinct?

Random encounters with neighbours

When I was living and working in the city, there were a number of people who we shared our back laneway with. There were the people who slept there occassionally. There were the people who went there to inject heroin or amphetamines. There were the tourists and suburban folks who wandered in thinking they could get through to the next main street. There were the folks who brought the bins through from the serviced apartments. There were the council cleaners. There were church folks who’d come in and out through the back door. And there were workers from a Japanese restaurant who’d have their smoke break in the laneway.

What I found was that some of these groups were hard to get to know and others were easy. But there was also a group in between who I think just needed consistency. I don’t think I ever got much of a response from any of the people who worked in the serviced apartments, and I never got to know any of them. But it was a different story with the restaurant workers.

When I moved into the area I was looking out for opportunities to be present to others and to get to know neighbours, but also aware that a lot of people may not be in the city for that purpose. So with the restaurant workers I started off just trying to make eye contact with them and nod acknowledgement when I saw them. When I started to consistently get a nod back, I started to wave and say hello. What really changed my relationship with these neighbours though was going away on a holiday for a couple of weeks. When I got back one of them said, ‘Oh, you’re back! Where did you go?’ From that point we introduced ourselves, and it suddenly became comfortable to loiter and chat together when they were on their break.

Over the last couple of years I’ve become less involved with the city and more involved in the area where I live now. I’ve really enjoyed beginning to get to know some of the locals around Carlton and Carlton North. If I walk down Rathdowne Street I’ll often see our nextdoor neighbours. If I walk Lygon Street I might see one of the workers from Kathleen Syme Library. At the housing commission flats I might run into someone I know from church or from my time working at Credo Café in the city.

In my own street the other day I recognised someone I’ve never met, but have often seen at the library. He was patting one of the cats, which seem to be repopulating our street. I smiled and said hello and he said hi. I don’t know if he recognised me, but he might next time.

Pokémon GO and re-enchantment of space

A few days ago I wrote a short post about Pokémon GO, and I have been reflecting further on the game. I have noticed some folks saying, ‘It’s sad that people need a game to get you them outside, exercising and socialising.’ I wonder about why it is that some of us need a reason to go out, exercise and socialise? Might it be because in our society the outdoors had become an empty, meaningless space? One of the things I think Pokémon GO is doing is re-enchanting users’ experience of place. When a user walks around their neighbourhood there is suddenly something more, something magical, something invisible to the naked eye going on. I think that street art can have a similar impact.

I also think that we can experience something similar by mapping the stories of the neighbourhood, by paying attention to the stories of our neighbours, by learning the history of the places, and by paying attention to the stories being told by our architecture, monuments and advertising.

Laneway Labyrinth – Carlton North

A labyrinth is a winding path, a bit like a maze, which can be found in many old cathedrals. People used to walk the path of the labyrinth as a kind of virtual pilgrimage. Many experienced it as a journey toward the divine, at the centre of the labyrinth.

The streets and lanes of our neigbourhoods can make interesting labyrinths. These are public labyrinths, travelled by many people every day.

If you would like to take part in a contemplative walk through Carlton North’s laneway labyrinth, we will be meeting at 7pm on April 8, outside 907 Drummond Street. The walk will go for about an hour. There will also be time to debrief over a cup of tea afterwards.

Since it is now getting colder in Melbourne, you will probably want to be prepared for cold and possibly wet weather! I also recommend wearing closed-toed, sensible shoes for walking in laneways.

Cost: If you can chip in $10 for the walk, this helps support me to organise more things like this.

If you’re interested in organising a Laneway Labyrinth walk in your area, let me know!

For more info contact Chris Booth – / 0400641747