Familar Face in Foreign Lands - Day Two

The next day I creek my eyes open like pistachios and, after some buggering around in various parts of town with A, my tourism man, I head to an art tour with B. This largely involves trying to keep pace with the diminutive little Italian as she buzzes from one place of artistic interest to another around Melbourne. The trips are planned a week in advance, though the itinerary kept secret from the tourist in order to avoid inevitable preconceptions about artists or their works.

Melbourne is one of the top six cities in the world for street art and, while still technically illegal, the council have provided areas dedicated to the cause. These spaces tend to be intensely colourful and creative but with the unfortunate habit of larger, more elaborate pieces being ruined by the cancer of tagging.

Amusingly, Melbourne is, or rather was, also home to an original work by Banksy. After some debate about the pictures' authenticity, it was decreed an original and a piece of plexiglass installed to protect it. While this may have fended off the rain and birdshit, it did little to protect it from a large amount of silver paint that was poured down the inside of the plastic.

Before long, I'm being led into a dingy studio to meet N, a sculptor, and M, a jeweller who's been resident in this same place for 20 years. And it certainly looks that way; the place is a marvellous jumble of paint brushes and tools and paper and scalpels and toys and 1940s ballads.

N's speciality is carving shapes into books, which might sound like the work of a troublesome teen, but is actually quite a skilled process. He has a big exhibition coming up and feels quite nervous about it. Marcus, meanwhile, is much more extroverted and blasé about whether or not things go well from one day to the next. The place is filthy with creativity; for both the men, their artistry and their life are one and the same. Perhaps it's the relative squalor and faint hint of grass in the air, but something about it all reminds me of going round to older friends' flats to listen to band practise and new demos as an impressionable teenager.

Next stop is a painter's studio in the suburbs. We talk about the creative process, about how much time it's possible to spend just thinking, rather than actually working, and about how being an artist isn't a choice, but a life that chooses you. I wonder if my writing is at all comparable: if someone told me I couldn't do it any more, could I simply slide into something else, or is it a bigger part of who I am? If it is, why don't I find it easier? Why can't I dedicate myself to it more? Why, quite simply, am I not better at it?
Thus the self-doubt starts on the train back into town with Bernadette. To distract myself from this morbidity, I play peek-a-boo with a kid of about four or five. Her mum smiles at the interaction.
"What's your name?" Asks the wean.
I tell her and ask hers.
"Allana. Where are you from?"
"Me? I'm from Dubai."
"Dubai? Where's that?"
"It's a place where bad men like me go to make money. There's a lot of cars and sand." Here her mother's gormless grin fades to a look of mild concern, so I put a lid on it. Even with a pre-school child I can't mask my contempt for the place. Poor A has already made up his mind never to visit, despite clearly having an interest in seeing the carnage first hand and, upon learning of some of the preposterous facts and figures, exclaiming "Fair dinkum?!?" again and again without any hint of irony.
I follow B to a cafe for some cheese, wine and a debrief. With that out the way, we then get talking about Spain and inevitably Ibiza and inevitably narcotics. Before I quite know what's happened, I'm loudly recommending that this 34-year-old woman with a history of brain trauma gets herself to the White Isle and gets feral on the digits.

That ends an altogether weird, but fascinating afternoon after which I go to the Crystal Club for complimentary canapés (which I eat enough of to cover dinner) and drink. I sit alone at a table across from a slightly sinister poker player, his minion and their professional girlfriends, who get $100 each pocket money to accompany a pat on the arse as they head out. Wearing dark shades for no obvious reason, with greasy blond hair slicked back from his wolfish face, he looks like he’s fallen out of a gangster movie into the real world. When we find ourselves standing next to each other at the feeding trough and he offers me a prawn, I can’t help feel a bit scared.
A bottle of wine later, I'm in the casino. As someone with a diabolical history as a gambler, I've avoid these places – in fact I've only ever been in one before, for a friend's birthday with £17 that I lost in half an hour. I've only once tried to get into another one at the end of a night out – I accidentally-on-purpose got a knock back by falling out of the taxi and squealing like a Deliverance tribute act. But now here I am, my entire week's allowance in my back pocket, quite drunk and with no one to regulate my behaviour. It can only go two ways, but I surprise myself by not turning a cent.
Instead, I walk around surveying the misery, becoming self-righteously smug towards the rows of unhappy punters. There are the Chinese with their super-stressed looks of desperation; and there are the pensioners refusing to slope off and die in dignity; and – look! - there's a gaggle of stupid white macho dickheads who are essentially doing nothing more than trying to prove that they know better than their friends, the casino and all of human history. I leave rich but depressed and decide to take some drink to my hotel room instead. Head nodding as though I'm having vertebrae progressively removed, I collapse onto my enormous bed and blink into immediate unconsciousness.