Utopian Man by Lisa Lang


This book of fiction centers on an actual Australian character I first encountered in The Secret Son by Jenny Ackland: a man named E.W. Cole known for the E.W. Cole Book Arcade in Melbourne. He was born in 1832 in England, migrated to Australia in 1852 and worked on the goldfields. He began selling books in a stall in 1865 and opened the Arcade in 1883 which eventually grew to have one of the largest stocks of books in the world. A band played every afternoon and the public was encouraged to read there as if it were a library, well, a noisy library. He was known also for writing Cole's Funny Picture Book and for printing books on horticulture in the Arcade.

Each chapter drops in on Edward, beginning in 1883 and moves through the years, with the intervals growing larger near the time of his death, 1918. We quickly learn that Edward is an admirable fellow, a believer in the progress of mankind, and a generous, independent-minded man. A few years after the Arcade opened, we learn about one of his enhancements to it:

Today it [the Arcade] is getting a fernery. Twelve months ago he acquired a building adjoining the back of his Arcade through a disused walkway, and was pleased to be expanding, though he viewed the walkway itself as dingy and drab. But it soon occurred to him to treat that space–technically city property–as his own. Within a month he had built a glass canopy to tie in with the Arcade's glass ceiling and to protect his customers from wind and rain. And today he is installing the masterstroke:  giant tree ferns from Mount Dandenong. The Arcade will have its own lush hideaway where city people can seek nature, and solitude.

In the early 1890s Australia experienced economic problems. His friend D'Ama, a fellow businessman warned him that he must reduce expenditures at the Arcade. Just when all the employees expected the worst, Edward called them together to announce that he is hiring a band to play at the Arcade. Rather than telling them who will be laid off, he asks for their help in providing the product everyone in Melbourne needs:

Good cheer! Plain, old-fashioned good cheer. It's in short supply everywhere, but we will soon have it in spades! It will set us apart and keep them coming through the door–whether they have money or not. Those with money will spend it here, and those without will remember us and come back when they do have a penny to spend. The band's role is to send a clear message: leave your cares and worries at the door. 

Eventually the arcade had a library, monkeys, a room of optical illusions. You have to love a man like him. 

Lisa Lang, Utopian Man, Allen & Unwin, 2010, 248 pages. Available from Amazon (I read the Kindle version).

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