The inside word.. with Tom Ding

Setting up residence in the world’s most liveable city was an easy decision for UK native Tom Ding, and one which we in Melbourne are thankful for. Bringing us one of the first ‘adultcation’ experiences, Tom and a few of his friends set up the very popular Laneway Learning ‘cheap, fun classes in anything and everything’.

Why did you decide to start Laneway Learning in Melbourne?  Before I came to Melbourne, I lived in New York and came across something called the Brooklyn Brainery which offers cheap classes taught by members of the local community. It didn’t take me long in Australia to realise that Melbourne’s cafe culture was screaming out for something similar. We host classes and workshops in cosy cafes like The Little Mule and bars such as Ferdydurke, when they are otherwise empty. We held our first classes a little over a year ago and have hosted about 170 since then which now well out within a few days or sometimes just hours.

What is it about Melburnians that made you think this style of adult education would be a hit? People in Melbourne will try anything once. There is this culture of seeking out different things to do, and we’ve found that it’s a case of ‘the more unusual the better’. On a Monday or a Tuesday night, people want something social to do that isn’t the pub and that doesn’t break the bank. If they learn something along the way, then that’s a bonus. The geography of the city suits what we do too – the dense CBD and the web of laneways mean there is this huge surplus of great, independent venues that are very easy for people to get to after work. So many city centres are dominated by corporate chains – we are very lucky here!

What are the most interesting classes you have held?  We have a fantastic wine-tasting teacher called Clare Burder who has run a ‘One Night Palate Trainer’ class with us several times. I also love it when we get scientists to talk about their research and the latest happenings in their field. Recently we’ve had someone from CSIRO teach about Solar Power and a psychiatrist talking about Neuroplasticity. Then there are the really random ones; a few months ago we had Russel Howcroft, from the ABC’s Gruen Transfer, teaching twenty people how to yo-yo.

What other ‘knowledge’ based experiences around Melbourne do you know of?  It seems that there are lots of different things popping up these days. You have Melbourne Free University, The School of Life and A Centre for Everything who all have their own take on ‘alternative education’. Then you have variations on traditional classes: The Grey Eye Society describes itself as a ‘drinking club with a drawing problem’, and Dagmar Rousset on Gertrude St is a fashion shop by day and a French school by night. And then there are the big institutions that are also exploring new ways to bring people through the doors, from Melbourne Museum’s SmartBar evenings, to I, Animal at the Royal Melbourne Zoo. It’s an exciting time to live in Melbourne.

What are your favourite places to go in Melbourne?  The State Library of Victoria. It’s amazing how many people have lived here for years without having visited the dome and seen the collections. They have Ned Kelly’s armour, one of the world’s biggest collections of magic memorabilia and dozens of priceless books, and it is absolutely free. Melbourne is one of only a handful of UNESCO World Cities of Literature, and it is largely because of our library. Everyone should go!

Where do you go when your thirst for knowledge is making you thirsty? Ferdydurke is one of my favorites, located on the corner of a laneway off Lonsdale Street. I also came across a new restaurant/bar in Carlton last week, just behind Cinema Nova. It’s called The Town Mouse and is perfect for a post-movie discussion, with a glass of wine and a desert. Go for the chocolate tart with thai flavours.

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