This week I went to the book launch of Lisa Lang’s Utopian Man. It is a fictional re-imagining of the life of E.W. Cole, the creator of the wonderful Cole’s Book Arcade. The arcade began as a small second-hand book stall in the Eastern Market in 1865 and eventually became an Arcade from Bourke Street through to Collins Street, closing in 1931. Within that time the arcade included its own press, which produced the famous Cole’s Funny Picture Books, its own set of coins, a cage of monkeys and a Chinese tea salon to name just a few of wild and wonderful things.
I’ve not read the book yet but I am excited by it for a few reasons. The first is that breathes life back into the story of the arcade. As a Victorian (as in the state, not the historical era) I am entranced by the wonderfully magical idea of the arcade but disappointed that the story of E.W. Cole isn’t more common place. Last year Lang remedied that slightly by publishing EW Cole: Chasing the Rainbow with Arcade Publications. It was a fantastic book and it’s great to see Lang follow it up in such quick succession while the story is still front of mind.
Another reason that I am excited by this is that it is historical fiction, based around Australian stories, written by a woman. Utopian Man was the joint recipient of the Allen and Unwin Vogel award last year with Kristel Thornell’s Night Street, based on the life of Melbourne tonalist painter, Clarence Beckett (1887-1935). I am keen to read this book. Again, because it is Australian historical fiction, but also because I have an interest in the stories of the tonalists, being not only a fan but a distant in-law of type to Percy Leason, a peer of Beckett’s.
It is wonderful to see so many Australian stories being published and reminding us of our very rich, and sometimes forgotten, creative past. As Lang has said:
When I first heard about Cole’s Book Arcade I was astonished: a multi-storey book arcade full of animals and fun park antics in the heart of Melbourne. And the man behind it was just as surprising, an eccentric humanitarian with a genius for promotion called Edward Cole. I could not believe it; I had lived my whole life in Melbourne and never heard of either of them. I had grown up on stories of criminal folk heroes and sporting legends – that was history, as I knew it. The Cole story radically altered my concept of the city and its past. Suddenly I saw a history full of colour and diversity: Turkish bathhouses, Chinese immigrants, séances, opium dens, entrepreneurs, conmen and grand idealists. And I wanted to bring it all to life on the page.
And it’s endearing that we have such wonderful female writers as role-models, especially given the recent shortlists in Australian writing awards.