Open Letter to St Kilda Historical Society

This is to register my deepest concern about the proposal, put forward in the December issue of St Kilda Times, that the Society’s name be changed to (a) St Kilda Heritage Society or (b) St Kilda Heritage Group.

First, the concept and study of history is an ancient discipline, a recognition of the continuity of the present as springing from the past. It is about connection and recognition of what has gone before. It is a word that says much, that is in turn, commonly understood and accepted. Although the Society has had a name change in the past, neither the words nor the concept were altered in any meaningful way because Historical Society of St Kilda and St Kilda Historical Society mean the same thing. This sort of word shuffling is lampooned in Monty Python’s film Life of Brian (1979) in regard to different liberation front organisations of ancient Palestine, which are essentially the same regardless of how they shuffle the words in their titles. It is no coincidence that most of the Python team came from a scholarly background and brought a fine appreciation of both language and history to their work as comedians.

Heritage is a much softer word than history, it is such a broad word that it means little and suggests no particular discipline. In 1990 a group of Elwood residents in the Shelley-Ruskin-Addison Street area formed the Elwood Heritage Group. We did this in a bid to stop the replacement of two houses in an intact Between-the-Wars streetscape with a multi-unit development. The group was an ad hoc community effort, organised overnight and having no official status. It was a wonderful thing and achieved a good result because that streetscape is still intact. Nobody questioned our formal status as an organisation because the name doesn’t suggest anything more than an informal assortment of individuals concerned in some unspecific way with preservation of an unspecific past or something handed down.

Historical societies are recognised as serious, worthwhile, formal organisations of often shared affiliations and broad community significance. All the other historical societies, especially the big players, won’t be racing to change their names. To abandon the concept of ‘historical’ is to abandon our own heritage as a society. The word ‘group’ suggests a loose affiliation, whereas ‘society’ suggests a body to be reckoned with. Societies are usually incorporated bodies with formal affiliations and recognition.

What concerns me most is the attitude manifest behind the name change proposal. At a time when the architectural/building fabric of Melbourne is being eaten up by rampant destruction and overdevelopment, when “old” has become synonymous with worthless and undesirable, when ‘new, new, new’ is the war cry of the assault on anything not produced last week, do we really want to throw away our own history in this attempt at rebranding and repackaging? Is the product so down on sales that we need to give it a makeover? Maybe the product is no longer wanted, maybe no-one cares any more about history – maybe they no longer know what it is, because those of us who do have done such a poor job of peddling our interest – but whatever the case, changing a name does not solve a problem.

Name changes of organisations/businesses usually signal the end of what has gone before. If the members of the St Kilda Historical Society want to wind it up, so be it. The Society’s charter is on the web, why was it not included alongside all the spruiking for the notion of heritage as a concept of dealing with ‘now’, ‘contemporary’ and ‘forward-looking’? A significant name change represents a significant change, in this case abandoning the past. The very reason I joined the Society was because I believe in the importance of knowing, understanding and preserving ‘history’ and ‘history’ is many things, all of them with ‘heritage’ value. ‘Heritage’ on the other hand, is an amorphous term, equally signifying the bad things we have been left with by the follies, misfortunes and wrongs of the past. The greed of our present consumer society will leave a heritage of waste and destruction and because it will be our heritage to have no historical societies, we will have no understanding of what happened and how we all ended up where we did.

Why even keep the name St Kilda? The municipality no longer exists. Call it the Port Phillip Heritage Group and really plant a stake in the future, a future in which the St Kilda Historical Society can be a quaint footnote on the fusty page dealing with the past. If you are going to kill it off, could you please give it a fallen hero’s burial, some respect and a chance for all of us to move on in our different directions. I do not want to be a member of the new ‘group’ and shall refocus my interest on the National Trust, which values history and heritage without compromise or embarrassment in the face of the newfangled and marketing groove-meisters peddling their throw-away philosophies.

Blazenka Brysha
Life Member, St Kilda Historical Society

Our heritage: In Barkly St, St Kilda, a new multi-unit development is squeezed onto a small block of land, until recently occupied by a very old, locally unique, weatherboard house. The plane tree in front was illegally mutilated, before the house was demolished. The pot plants were attached by someone to indicate that there should be growth on the now-dead limbs.

Coming Clean

In our time-poor, electronic entertainment era, not many people have hobbies any more. It’s true, if you don’t count craft, that fiddley pursuit of turning bits of stuff into other stuff, which you don’t need and your friends dread receiving as gifts. My hobby has always been cleaning and although I don’t have as much time for it these days as I would like, it is never far from my thoughts. Recently I read that toothpaste is good for cleaning gold. I’m keen to try it.

And that brings me to the increasingly vexed question of cleaning products. While it is transparently obvious that the world of craft is manipulated by nefarious economic interests wanting to profit from (mostly) women’s weaknesses for the sensual delight of manipulating texture and colour into more texture and colour, it is equally true that corporate ogres lurk everywhere, ready to capitalise on (mostly) women’s weakness for a clean home. You can get into a lot of psychology at this point but I would say to the psychologists, when is the last time you wet-dusted the tops of your architraves, turned out your kitchen cupboards and thoroughly cleaned the corners of every room in your home?

Cleanliness is a virtue and with the flux of all absolutes in our post-post-modernist intellectual climate, we need to hold on to some standards. And just when you want to say, a bit of dirt never killed anyone and that many cleaning chemicals are potentially very harmful, I would say, exactly! Freshening up your rubbish bin with a spray can remains a problem, although ozone-depleting CFCs have been banned and the temptation to reach for a can is quite understandable. How many times has the family pet done such a good job of licking clean your dinner plate that you only needed to give it a spray of Australia’s favourite surface disinfectant to put it straight back into the cupboard? Very energy saving because you use less water and other chemicals like dishwashing products, not to mention power, be it electricity for the dishwasher or just that unfashionable animal product, elbow grease.

Like many people, I am seriously concerned about the damage we consumers do to our planet. Actually, just the other day, a friend sent me an email showing astronaut Sunita William’s photos of the world from space and the night shots showed the electric light glow from major cities, which means we are now also spreading light pollution into space.

The photos are from 2007 and the picture would be more lurid today, for Melbourne at least, if you consider all the development that has been taking place recently. We have a thing called “Melbourne 2030” that aims to dramatically increase the number of dwellings in areas known as “activity centres”, which is roughly anywhere within cooee of a shop or a public transport route. Closest to the city, you get the huge glass towers but there are even “apartments” – stacked, multi-storey flats – going up as far afield as Boronia, 30kms from the CBD. Then we also have all the new estates spreading on the outskirts of our megatropilis. That’s a lot of new light beaming up but that’s OK because much of it is from fluoros and they are energy saving.

Still, I can’t help worrying about the light streaming from concrete box extensions that are filling up every backyard where I live in Elwood, 10 km from the city. Being architect-designed “masterpieces” costing more to build than the much-vilified estate McMansions, they also feature the “smart block” mentality of reducing the outdoor size of the home environment. Since land is at a premium, many dwellings have done away with all outdoor washing lines, not just that aesthetic abomination, the clothes hoist. You don’t need them thanks to the clothes driers, which stack so neatly on top of your European 6 star rated front loader washing machine. That’s the way to live now and all the new residential towers and multi-dwellings are leading the way. And how could we forget the air-conditioned, year round comfort of 22° temperatures that you can set and forget? I don’t think that can be seen from space, yet.

Everyone agrees we need to clean up our act; getting consensus is the trickier bit and as long as we are bewitched by tough ducks tackling the filth in our toilet bowls, this won’t happen. As long as we are willing to believe that smearing toxic chemicals on the hard surfaces in our homes is the way to clean, we can’t whinge too much about all those corporations destroying our world and now, outer space. Nothing sends a message to the Big Boys like not letting your bucks pad the banana in their pockets.

You can still be spotlessly clean while saving both money and the environment but you need to do more than put a copy of “Barbara Lord’s Green Cleaner” (Bas Publishing, Melbourne) next to your six copies of the Tao Te Ching. You need to change the products you use for cleaning. Shock! Bi-carb soda, vinegar and soap actually work.

I’ve known about the power of soap since I was at school, when our geography teacher, Sister Theresia went on and on about “poll-you-tion” and how you only needed soap instead of all those detergents constantly advertised. She also used to say, “Girls, two things you don’t have to tell your husband: who you vote for and how much you’ve got in the bank.” That nun rocked.

Vinegar and bi-carb have only become my cleaning captains in recent times. But mea maxima culpa. Among other toxins, I’m still trying to use up a squirtey cleaner I bought more than six years ago in an effort to inspire my teenage daughter in her assigned household chore of bathroom cleaning. This product’s catch cry is “Shock” and its claim is that it actually works. The real shock is that it requires the same amount of work as any other product, including vinegar. Oh, also that I believed its claim and also that in the intervening years it has chewed through two other plastic containers but not lost any of its very pungent smell, which caused my daughter to refuse using it in the first place. There’s only about 100mls left and I’m slowly releasing it into the environment by cleaning with it, which is preferable to dumping it into landfill.

As a special surprise for my daughter for Christmas, her present includes, “Vinegar 1001 Practical Uses” (Abbeydale Press, 2009). For myself, I’m getting a new “wow chamois” that can suck up half of Port Phillip Bay. I need it to replace my super soaker that has worn out thanks to repeated flooding resulting from my water saving efforts in the laundry. The wow cloths come in a pack of eight, so, I’ll be able to give away a few as Christmas presents. For Tony Abbott, our newly-elected leader of the federal opposition, I’ve got one of my homemade shaker packs of bi-carb so that he can clean up his act and stop people being mean to him.

Blazenka Brysha


Correction. The following quote is from a note sent to me by my friend Dave Burton, who has a background in engineering/science and is an air transport professional: “What constitutes light pollution in space? I understand the concept as it applies to your backyard in Elwood, but space really doesn’t mind at all about a little bit of light. The light put out by the earth would not even register compared to the light put out from the sun. You said “we are now spreading light pollution..” Ever since there has been light in cities (late 1800s) light has been going into outer space, so is this a case of “if a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it..”? One last thing on the space angle, the Space Shuttle and space station, where the photo would have been taken, orbit at a height of about 330 km – Melbourne to Albury type distance so the fact that light from the cities can be seen from that distance with an uninterrupted overhead line of sight doesn’t seem particularly surprising.”

I am delighted to be 100% wrong in this case and I confess my concern about “light pollution” is principally to do with the unnecessary burning of fossil fuels in generating electricity that is used needlessly. But even if the power was generated by all the wind harnessed from Question Time in our state and federal parliaments, I would still be negatively critical of anyone’s desire to light up suburban backyards like a sports stadium for a night game. Humanity’s lack of respect for nature is nothing new but never before have we had the means to do so much damage to our environment.

Despite that, there is so much we can do as individuals in our own spending and living patterns. Business will always be business and its raison d’être is to make money but you can choose to withhold your money. You can also use your intelligence when shopping. Recently, at the local supermarket, in the cleaning isle, I found “Cleaning Vinegar”, costing just under $3.00. Reading the label, I learned that it was just vinegar. Generic white vinegar in the condiments isle costs about $1.20 for the same quantity. Perhaps the “cleaning” vinegar was really what is called “industrial vinegar”, which is incredibly strong and I believe quite nasty to ingest or get on your skin. Because it carried no warnings, I presumed this “cleaning” vinegar was similar to edible vinegar – either way you’d be foolish to use it because the ordinary, edible white vinegar is, in fact, what the green cleaning literature recommends.

an excellent Australian site for cleaning up our environment: