I can’t believe it’s been almost three years since we moved to Brisbane. It feels like just a short while ago that we said goodbye to our South East Asia holiday and flew to Australia. We were sad that our travels had ended and apprehensive of what was to come. We only had the contents of our backpacks to get by – a small stash of summer clothes faded from harsh detergents; too little to keep us warm in the cold, dry Brisbane winter.
We intended to trial Brisbane for six months and head to Melbourne if it didn’t work out. Melbourne had always been a strong contender for our destination, but the lifestyle, certain job prospects and the presence of good friends in Brisbane made the decision easy in the end. It didn’t take long to settle in and within three months we had jobs, bank accounts and Medicare cards. We had leased an apartment, joined a gym, and were forming tenuous connections with people who would soon become friends. So it worked out, and here we are nearly three years on.
About 12 months ago I picked up a battered book at the market, initially attracted by its retro cover photo of a dapper young man, and then by its description as a novel of “an Australian boyhood in the forties, of the pubs and brothels of the fifties [and] the sleazy tropical half-city that was wartime Brisbane”. The book was Johnno by David Malouf, and I had no idea that I had just bought an iconic classic written by one of Australia’s most awarded writers.
Johnno is the story of two friends who grow up together, attend school, university, and leave for Europe before finally returning to Brisbane. The complex relationship between the unpredictable Johnno and the insecure Dante is what drives the story forward, but it was the backdrop of Brisbane that made this a compelling read for me. Malouf grew up in Brisbane and he draws heavily on his memories to paint a vivid picture of the city in its not-so-distant past. Johnno and Dante’s adventures as young men occur along the banks of the dank and weedy Brisbane River, amongst the winos and tramps of seedy Fortitude Valley, within the winding streets of an unruly city and its weatherboard-and-beaten houses: “Brisbane is so sleepy, so slatternly, so sprawlingly unlovely”, thinks Dante.
Through Malouf’s writing I learned that cattle trains used to stop overnight at Roma St Station, that there once was a zoo in the Botanic Gardens, and that by the 1950s the Gold Coast was already “the centre of a wickedly alternative life”. So constantly present is the city that on finishing the novel I felt like I had read its biography: there were the descriptions of birthplace and genealogy, there the anecdotes of trials and triumphs, Dante’s analysis was like a biographer’s interpretation, and my own imagination filled out the photographs. So intimate was Brisbane’s portrait that I felt guilty for presuming that I had known this place.
In the minds of New Zealanders, Queensland is a lush, semi-tropical getaway. The theme-parks of the Gold Coast are a favourite place to visit, as are the pristine beaches of Noosa. If tourists make it to Brisbane, they rarely see more than pretty Southbank with its fake beach and bougainvillea-laden arched walkways, or glitzy Eagle St Pier and Queen St mall. Few get to know Brisbane’s shadowy past, beginning with its establishment as a penal colony, the displacement of its original inhabitants, a spectacularly dodgy state government in the 1970s-80s, and legends aplenty of organised crime, gang violence and dirty cops. And then there is The River, periodically thrusting itself on the psyche in the form of devastating floods, and which even when tranquil, shelters aggressive bull sharks.
It wasn’t until the late 1980s that Brisbane started to shed its infamous “large country town” sensibilities in the pursuit of greater sophistication. This recent facelift is alluded to by Malouf in an interview filmed for the David Malouf and Friends exhibition currently showing at City Hall. Malouf describes how houses were often built facing away from the polluted Brisbane River, which existed “like a dirty secret at the bottom of people’s gardens” (I’m paraphrasing). In contrast, the river is now a central focus for the city. Multiple bridges connect its banks, shiny City Cats cut sleek tracks through the water, and properties on the river-front are prime real estate.
About 18 months ago I wrote a post reflecting on my experience of “the city”, past and present. I was still unsure back then but much has changed since we bought our apartment and put down a shallow root. There’s also the fact that almost every time I pass over the river on my way to and from work, something still makes me pause and observe the river below and the bright city lights. It’s no longer the thrill of the new; more a self-conscious acknowledgement of being in this place. When speaking about the major influence of Brisbane on his life’s work, Malouf explains that “the world as you first come upon it, the place that first strikes you as “the world” stays with you for the rest of your life” (paraphrasing again). That particular world is elsewhere for me and nothing can replace it, but this place, which is not my home, has become a part of me (or I a part of it). Learning a few of its secrets somehow makes it more like home: it makes me feel like we have history together, Brisbane and I.
“I liked the city in the early morning… It was so fresh, so sparkling, the early morning air before the traffic started up; and the sun when it appeared was immediately warm enough to make you sweat. Between the tall city office blocks Queen Street was empty, its tramlines aglow. Despite Johnno’s assertion that Brisbane was absolutely the ugliest place in the world, I had the feeling as I walked across deserted intersections, past empty parks with their tropical trees all spiked and sharp-edged in the early sunlight, that it might even be beautiful…” (Johnno, 1975: 82-83).