Almanac Book Review – How the West was One: Memoirs of Melbourne’s Western Suburbs

With typical real estate hyperbole, a home in the Footscray street where my father grew up was recently described as ‘located at the Paris end.’ I can’t recall which particular aspect was regarded as having this enviable position: was it proximity to the clump of KFC and Indian restaurants in Barkly Street; the ugly Housing Commission towers fronting Gordon Street; or the end where indeed my dad’s family lived,which faced western suburb landmark Kinnear’s Rope Factory? (The former rope factory isn’t quite the Eiffel Tower).

For those of us who’ve always lived in the west, seeing its transformation into a hip destination is still bewildering. Announcing that you live in Footscray, Seddon or Yarraville now brings nods of approval and smiles of admiration rather than confusion or a raised eyebrow. And frequently, now, there are wistful statements such as:

‘I’d love to live there. If only I could afford it…’

The Soraghan family had no such sentimental attachment to those cramped inner west suburbs, filled with dingy factories. I was six when we made the epic trek from Sunshine to a brand new home, in Deer Park, right on the very edge of the city. We were proud, even smug, at leaving these dowdy suburbs behind for expansive spaces.  There were only a handful of homes between us and the rural town of Melton; endless paddocks filled with our Deer Park emblem, the purple thistle shimmered at the end of our street. (We hadn’t fully escaped the factories: ICI was at the less desirable end of the street).

Sure, it was mildly disappointing that we didn’t have the sewerage, or even a septic tank (think about it) but we soon acquired a swimming pool. Okay, it was from Clark Rubber, yet it comfortably accommodated 10 people, and was handily located only a few metres from that outside dunny. And at night, we were mesmerised by the sight of what Dad told us were ‘fairy lights’  – the twinkling of the vast Altona petrochemical complex, which could be glimpsed across the kilometres of flat paddocks, and, later, from the newly built Westgate Bridge.

It was only through following the Footscray Football Club that I came to the realisation that there were suburbs that looked different from ours.  In my teens, I became old enough to travel to exotic locations such as Princes Park, Lakeside Oval or Moorabbin; even more daringly, once a year we travelled across the Maribyrnong to a world of Californian bungalows and peaceful streets, to be inevitably thrashed by our mortal enemies from Essendon.

And only when I began leaving the western suburbs cocoon to go to university, did I understand that the contempt – or perhaps worse, pity –  that many felt for our perennially unsuccessful team from the west was matched by  the reaction when the inevitable question: ‘Where did you go to school?’ came up. ( “St John’s Braybrook” was definitely not the answer that was expected).

A new book: How the West was One is a celebration of stories much like that of my family’s. It is  a loving and proud acknowledgement of a western suburbs heartland, and a vanishing way of life. I was struck by the similarity of many of the tales. Most of the authors had no sense of disadvantage or deprivation about their upbringings. But there is a definite sense that the west of our childhoods was a world apart, and to my mind, a distinctive voice, a humour, a resilience, a shared astonishment as we grew up to realise that there was another world beyond the west; that there were people who saw us as battlers, as disadvantaged, or barely knew the west existed at all.

The gatherers of these stories, lifelong friends Sue O’Brien and Karyn Howie point out that our tales are often a mosaic of nonlinear personal recollections, dreams and anecdotes. They don’t always start at the beginning; they are individual perspectives which mightn’t be recognised by others but still ring with truth, each page containing vivid and sometimes poignant details.

The stories are sentimental yet unvarnished. They are filled with nostalgic detail. Haberdasheries. Billiecarts. ‘Wogs.’ Backyard incinerators. Bonfires. Nuns who were free with the strap (I haven’t counted, but surely there is a disproportionate amount of Catholic  tales compared to others?)  Exotic trips to Chinese restaurants in Barkly St Footscray (cautiously, the Soraghan family preferred to from the ‘Australian menu’ on the only occasion I remember us making the trek).

There are moments which made me laugh out loud with recognition: the indignant honking of car horns at the North Sunshine drive-in if, as happened too frequently, the projectionist forgot to change the reel. There is western suburbs parochialism and those moments when our worst suspicions that we were looked down upon from those people in the leafy suburbs were confirmed ; a story of being on a tram in South Yarra and hearing matrons ‘cooing with relief that Jeff Kennett had been elected and ‘one of ours’ was back in power, just as it should be.

Writer and director Rob Sitch has written a perceptive  foreword which reminds us that the west was not just a backwater but in many ways with its thriving industries, the heartbeat of the story. (Rob, of course, was the person who affectionately captured the endearing suburban dagginess of the west in his movie The Castle; the wallpaper in that famous house also featured in our Deer Park kitchen). He also memorably describes Kinnears Ropes as ‘belching steam like Willy Wonka’s factory.’ I remember that factory in another way: as one of the places where workers did a whiparound in 1989, pooling their money to save their beloved Footscray Football Club. No rope is manufactured there any more; it’s slated for yet another office and apartment boutique apartment complex in the newly groovy west. All the more reason why this lovely book, with vivid memories on every page, should be treasured.

It’s fitting that all money raised by How the west was one will go to the charity Western Chances, which provides scholarships to support western suburbs kids in their education. You can buy it here.

Meanwhile I regret to report that my home town of Deer Park has still not featured as an up-and-coming suburb and does not appear to have acquired any streets reminiscent of the Champs d’Elysees. It can only be hoped that my tribute to my childhood there: The land of the purple thistle, featured in Karyn and Sue’s wonderful book, helps to redress this imbalance .



(illustration of my story from the book: the infamous Deer Park pool)


More info on this book is at


Author of 'The Mighty West: the Bulldogs journey from daydream believers to premiership heroes.' Available at all good book stores and probably a few mediocre ones as well. Indoctrinated as a fan of the Bulldogs at an impressionable age. Caught unawares by the 2016 premiership, I have been blogging about being a fan and sometimes about the actual on-field performances of the Western Bulldogs at Twitter @bulldogstragic


  1. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Wasn’t there a lion park near Deer Park?

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