Australia's frothy city

How Melbourne's cafes resist corporate assault and keep faith with a rich past.

I felt instantly cooler when I moved to Melbourne, in more than one sense of the word. I grew up in Australia and spent the best part of 30 years there, but before Melbourne I lived in Perth: the hot, remote Western Australian city named, with typical colonial inaptness, after the dour, cold Scottish one. Perth calls itself "the most isolated city in the world" and so it seemed. Cosmopolitan Melbourne, from 4,000 kilometres across the desert, kept beckoning me until I was able to move there in my early twenties.

Melbourne is unusually cold for Australia, and frequently wet, which allowed me to stride along its streets in melancholic fashion, wearing the Polish greatcoat I had bought on a trip to Europe. And when I wasn't wandering the streets I was sitting in cafes. I think it was Julie Burchill who called cafe-loafing and the associated pastime of "people-watching" a sign of likely perversion. The latter is a dubious term, but why not spend your life in cafes? We all die soon enough.

Besides, English cafes are so unattractive - filters of grease and disappointment or, increasingly these days, cloned corporate cupboards - whereas Melbourne has some of the best cafes anywhere. In fact, Melbourne was once the epitome of a stifling, transported Englishness, and that cultural trait perhaps lives on in the city's vast suburbs. But the prim conformism was diluted by the boatloads of Mediterranean immigrants who arrived in Melbourne after the Second World War: all those Greeks and Italians who, in many cases fleeing virtual serfdom in their homelands, emigrated to Victoria, the state of which Melbourne is the capital, to fill a huge demand for labour.

Melbourne has the third largest Greek population in the world after Athens and Thessaloníki, and that first mass generation of (voluntary) immigrants - "wogs", as the Australians called them - arrived with irresistible culinary alter natives to the brutalised British food on which most of the country was still subsisting. They also introduced the idea of cafes in which such food would be readily available, along with wine and fresh, strong coffee. Indeed, some Melbourne cafes still look as if they belong in their countries of origin - the venerable Mario's, for example, a suave meeting place on middle-class, bohemian Brunswick Street and the acme of a certain kind of Melbourne waiter's ambition - but others have absorbed their Australian surroundings to form a fascinating hybrid.

Someone once called Melbourne the most European of Australian cities; I think the more interesting truth is that Europe and Australia have in fact interbred here, to produce an alluring kind of unpretentious, untubercular sophistication.

Cafes insert themselves like mice into every nook and cranny of the city. It may simply be competition that is fostering the creativity that makes each establishment so pleasingly un- uniform. Switchboard is a tiny place tucked away off the main drag of Swanston Street that has incorporated the brass and Bakelite devices of its original, eponymous function for its signature look. Nearby Pushka, down one of the countless alleyways that criss-cross the city centre, is even smaller: a polished-up cubicle carved into the corner of a grimy old warehouse serving espressos and delicious, fat sandwiches next to a bevy of giant industrial waste bins.

The Galleon in Saint Kilda - an insalubrious quarter described perfectly in In My Skin, Kate Holden's recent chronicle of her descent from the bourgeois Melbourne intelligentsia into smack addiction and prostitution - is the prototype of another sort of Melbourne cafe. With its cement floor, Formica tables and smattering of posters and flyers, it looks like a shack inhabited by a not-too-successful writer, yet it is so popular that the lease is apparently worth millions. Saint Kilda also specialises in another kind of cafe: throwbacks to mid-century central Europe, the window displays groaning with "Chocolate Koogelhoupf", "Hungarian Dobosh" and other pre-calorie-counting delights. Jewish refugees set up many of these Kaffee und Kuchen stops. In other cases, they became psychoanalysts - Melbourne is thick with them.

I liked the cafes in Melbourne when I lived there; I mourned them when I moved to the UK. "Nice town," Isaiah Berlin purportedly said on arriving in Oxford. "But where are the cafes?" In Britain, there are too many cafes to count now, of course, but they are overwhelmingly identikit, assembled in the absence of a real cafe culture. Melbourne cafe life has been so vital by contrast, and the city has also long fought the corporate octopus that has slithered over Britain, depositing its bland food- and drink-vending spawn.

Melbourne has a history of left-wing militancy. The Australian Council of Trade Unions is headquartered there, and some of the most resolute protests against John Howard's industrial relations policies were staged on the Melbourne docks. Citizens also took to the streets in their hundreds of thousands when the Liberal (that is, conservative) leader Jeff Kennett, a bumptious figure with a characteristic Brylcreemed hairdo, was elected premier of the state of Victoria and - after sacking 50,000 public employees, closing hundreds of schools and selling off A$29bn of public assets - began to dismantle the welfare state there seemingly single-handedly.

But ultimately, the protests against Kennett were unsuccessful. I wrote speeches for him as a civil servant (it paid the rent), as I did for his eventual Labor successor Steve Bracks, who has continued to aid the shareholder takeover of Melbourne.

I noticed on two recent trips back to the city how deeply this process has advanced. Everything in Melbourne now seems to have a cor porate tag: the city's main stadium, the Telstra Dome, is named after a phone company, the Australian Grand Prix is prefixed by ING, and the fashion festival has a 'Oréal label. Hoping for a revolt against corporate blandness is perhaps uncool, but in Melbourne it may be time for the coffee drinkers to rise up.

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Gaza: The jailed state