Part of a series in which leading Australian authors write about their hometowns, this unique and evocative exploration is part memoir and part guide to Australia’s Brisbane. Intertwining personal stories with the city’s historical past, this account paints a portrait of the contemporary transformation of the city.
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About the Author
Matthew Condon is a journalist with the Brisbane Courier-Mail and the author of numerous books, including The Ancient Guild of Tycoons and The Lulu Magnet. He is the recipient of the Steele Rudd Award for short fiction.
Read an Excerpt
By Matthew Condon
University of New South Wales Press LtdCopyright © 2010 Matthew Condon
All rights reserved.
Then one day the boy started building a replica of his own city under the house.
There was meagre light down there, in the shadowed wedge, but on summer mornings little knives and coins of it flashed through the Monstera deliciosa and spoon lilies that grew at the sides of the small box-shaped colonial. Things lived in that dark space and left curious tracks in the soil. And at the approach of violent afternoon thunderstorms that rolled in from the west across the ranges, the sloped earth seemed to hold its breath, the elephant-eared plants trembled, and it quickly became cold and gloomy.
The boy was too young to work from maps. In the few years he'd been sentient to the world around him, much of what he knew about the city he'd seen from the broad open windows of trams on excursions with his grandmother, through the grime of school bus windows, from the back of the family's old Holden station wagon. He was aware of the memorial to the city's founder, had been across the river, and been walked by the hand through King George Square in front of the city hall and looked up at its clock tower. The first time he heard the massive clock strike the hour it felt like the start of his life.
So he began his replica city with the clock. He used an old timber off-cut for the tower, and drew wobbly faces and hands on its four sides, adequate but hardly reflecting the city hall proper, that beautifully creamy, sandstone centre to his universe with its green lions guarding the heavy bronze doors, its grand columns, its auditorium beneath a monstrous copper dome, and the imposing tower with, at its tip, an illuminated globe that shone on the clouds at night. He liked the way the shadow thrown by the tower moved over the nearby buildings and streets like a sundial. Every time he looked at his handmade clock tower he remembered how the vibrations of the bell quivered through your body and how, as he understood later, that very moment in time, the time of your city, passed into you.
Street grids emanated from the base of his hokey clock tower, broad enough for a Matchbox car, and with other bits of wood and discarded seedling containers he reproduced some of the city buildings he knew – the McDonnell & East department store, the Regent Cinema, the Treasury, the Bellevue Hotel, Parliament House, the Museum, Cloudland and the Black Cat Casket Agency, with its string of sneaky felines on the shop-front awning.
Next came the serpentine river, a muddy, twisting, restless thing that pushed out into the bay with its own sort of languid apathy. This was a river simply to be crossed. It offered no poetry. It was illegible and dangerous. From its source in the mountains, its path to the coast was gently wriggly at the beginning, but by the time it approached the city it took wild perambulations, before it straightened out and relaxed closer to its mouth.
This was a river the boy lazily squiggled through his own private city with the swing of a stick, the tap water he filled it with giving it a remarkably similar hue to the real thing, before it was sucked into the soil.
He was nonchalant about the river because he was perplexed by it. On the few occasions he'd seen it, he could never make out which way it flowed. Sometimes it looked to be heading west, and other times east. Once, it appeared to be flowing in both directions simultaneously. He didn't trust a river like this. And it was not a river that offered you bearings. It was so peripatetic it gave you no precise sense of place, no fixed location. It writhed and slithered with such drama it was disorienting. On purpose, the boy thought. It was a river that wanted you to be lost. He would become lost on it, and fear for his life, but that adventure was a few years away yet. And there was, too, the curious story of his great-grandmother who had drowned in the city in the 1950s, though it was something so on the periphery of his perception, not heard, exactly, but cobbled together from whispers as meagre as spider web, that it might have been something he'd made up.
Under the house, the boy never bothered recreating the bay, because who ever bothered with the bay? It could have been myth for all he knew, some prehistoric slew of mud and islands that existed just off the page of a storybook or an explorer's map – that place of sea creatures and shadowy animal–humans that came alive when you closed your eyes.
He marked the houses of both sets of grandparents with paddle-pop sticks. He signposted his own home, the little wooden colonial, with a piece of pink granite he had unearthed in the backyard. He built the low hills of Mount Coot-tha with cupped handfuls of loose soil, and with various lengths of splintery fruit-crate wood he erected the four television towers. He forested some of the city's outer suburbs with small snapped-off gum leaf clusters, attended by a handful of gritty plastic cows and horses. He didn't touch the city's mysterious frontier, a place of insect hieroglyphics in the soil, of forgotten bricks, balls of dust and hair, possum droppings and bobby pins that had fallen through the cracks between the floorboards of the house.
Purveying his replica, he might hear from upstairs heavy footfall heading down the hallway of the house, and the imaginary shopkeepers and bank clerks and office workers and pedestrians out and about in his city might dash for cover at the approach of thunder. Music from his mother's big black piano in the front room would drift down and anoint his metropolis with a festive holiday air and have its inhabitants whistling at the tram stops. And when laughter rained through the wooden floorboards from the walnut cabinet television set, everyone in the boy's town smiled because winter was almost over, or the state cricket team had won an important match, or it was a Friday, and all the way home men thought of bottles of Dinner Ale frosty in their refrigerators.
At night, in his small room at the rear of the house, he thought of his city. He loved this little room, with his desk and its bulb light and tiny globe of the world; and the navy camphor box with his favourite rocks and fool's gold fragments inside; and his plastic Viking; and his series of small war adventure books. He loved how he could open his curtains and see in the distance the blinking red light on one of the television towers. He thought it was somehow associated with the eternal light of the Sacred Heart on the altar of the church at school. He was not fond of the heavy wardrobe at the foot of his bed, for on several occasions he had woken in the night to see one of its doors wide open, and standing in the doorway a shadowed man in a felt hat, his face black and infinite. He had once screamed at the sight of the Dark Man, but no sound came out of his mouth.
The idea of his city downstairs always made him happy. What were its citizens doing now? There'd be some at the movies, and others hopping on and off the trams with their intermittent showers of blue sparks from the web of wires that hovered overhead, and other people in cars zooming past the memorial to the explorer who found the city site, and others walking up the hill past the old convict windmill or daring to enter the botanical gardens with its creaking hoop pines and the great fleshy wings of its fig trees, and others having coffee in the warm cafes near city hall, and maybe others touching the cold bronze of the lions' noses and tails in the square. His grandmother would be boiling that battered little singsong kettle of hers for a cup of tea before bed, and across town his grandfather might be finishing one of those potboilers he liked, their covers bright with long-legged women showing a hint of brassiere, in the recliner rocker on the front veranda. Possums would be silently stepping onto chilly corrugated-iron rooves. Brush turkeys would be lurking through backyards like the ghosts of children. Men would be sitting at their workbenches downstairs, their boots covered in wood shavings, having a last cigarette for the evening. Young women, their lipstick red and fresh, would be poised in large window bays waiting to be asked for a dance in the cloud-shaped hall on the hill. And the river would be flowing backwards and forwards in the dark.
The boy knew this city of his, just as children are aware of every rock and tree and flower in their home garden; every ant nest, toad hideaway, and foreign paw print in the exposed earth; the sound of every door, the tone of a latch, the whistle of a water pipe in their house. In his mind he had pieced the place together from stories he had heard from his parents and his grandparents, pictures he'd seen in the newspaper, and the grey images of his city on the television. Though he had never physically explored all of it, he knew it.
He had been born here. This was his home. Brisbane.
* * *
I have known it all my life – the large, dull, rectangular granite obelisk that marks the exact location where explorer and New South Wales Surveyor-General of Lands, John Oxley, set foot on the northern bank of the Brisbane River in 1824 and proclaimed a settlement site. This was the white birthplace of my city, the Caucasian holy ground, and although I had never actually stood before the obelisk, it had always been there for me, somehow, like an unremarkable freckle on the body.
In sharper relief in the mind's eye is Oxley himself, just in his early 30s and a devout Christian. His black-and-white profile – a miniature portrait rendered by an artist unknown – is as familiar to generations of Brisbane children as the A-flat of the city hall clock chimes, or the feel of summer bitumen heat through the soles of school shoes.
Oxley, it seems, wasn't a popular subject for colonial artists. That one image of him I remember from textbooks in the 1960s remains the perpetual reproduction. In the picture he appears almost boyish with his full bottom lip and helmet of pitch-black hair, tufted up in a lick above his forehead. He has a long, thinning sideburn on the left side of his face that hints at a lad straining towards manhood. His left eye looks both sleepy and watchful. Overall, though, he appears to be a good boy. It's nice, to have a good boy as the father of your hometown.
As for the obelisk, it is possibly the most unimaginative foundation stone of any city in the western world, a great 2.5-metre-high lump of grey rock, lazily chiselled and almost entirely featureless. Its back is turned to the river, its front to the North Quay sector of the CBD. Aesthetically, the obelisk says little more than 'X marks the spot', a cross in a forgotten children's fairy story. Screwed into the rock is a plaque that reads: Here John Oxley Landing to Look for Water Discovered the Site of this City. 28th September 1824.
The idea for the obelisk was conceived in 1924 as part of the official Brisbane Centenary celebrations – a moment, according to local chroniclers, temporarily flush with civic pride and affection for the past. It was purchased with leftover money from a state government fund set up for the Oxley commemorations.
A beautifully produced book to mark the occasion – the Brisbane Centenary Official Historical Souvenir – opens with an epic poem commissioned for the party. 'The Brisbane River – Oxley's Coming, 1823' was written by local laureate Emily Bulcock (sister of novelist Vance Palmer), who penned much commemorative rhyming verse in the 1920s and '30s. Curiously, the work elucidates Oxley's first journey up the river in 1823, rather than his second visit the following year that consolidated the site of the future city. Still, it gives Bulcock the opportunity to exploit the frisson of first contact, to see Brisbane – this Eden – through foreign eyes, and her lyrical narrative swings between the plunder of Paradise and the glory of a built civilisation.
Our lovely stream has fired no poet's song;
And though long centuries have seen her flow
Her age old past to silence doth belong
Ere Oxley came a hundred years ago.
Bulcock writes of the 'great white chief' seeking a stream, storming 'this Arcady' and spoiling 'the dream'. When Oxley arrives, 'the wild bird of Freedom fled away'. Then, suddenly, there is 'a sweet young city laughing in the sun'.
And round her, as around Jerusalem,
The circle of the mountains God has set;
Wherein she sparkles, a half-polished gem,
We scarce have wakened to her beauty yet.
Inside the commemorative souvenir is a further account of Oxley's second journey and the discovery of the settlement site. It notes that Oxley visited the future location of Customs House; however, 'the first centre of activity ... was a little further up the river, and it was close to the position of the Victoria Bridge [near North Quay] – there the chief buildings of the settlement soon began to arise.'
It goes on to congratulate Oxley for his site choice. 'The river has everything to do with the enduring permanence, growth and prosperity of the city, and it would be a bold man who would deny the prescience, or was it fate, which led Oxley, on his second choice, to fix upon the peninsula which is Brisbane.'
And in the 1924 book – perhaps inspired by Ms Bulcock's effusiveness – there is wild poetic flourish in the prose. 'The river always was, and is, a thing of beauty and a joy; one could almost wish that we were pagans, so that we might, as the Romans did, erect statues in appreciation of our river God.'
Jerusalem. The Romans. River gods. The great classical allusions hardly match the stolid lump of surviving granite in Oxley's name. In those days of shovel-nosed trams and fewer cars in the Roaring '20s and Depression '30s, the obelisk quite possibly attracted the historically curious with its little skirt of low cast-iron fencing. Frank Hurley, the legendary photographer–explorer–mythologiser, seemed to find it worthy of his lens. In his restless meanderings across the country after the Second World War, when he produced endless postcards and souvenir booklets for the major capital cities of Australia, he snapped a well-dressed young couple before the obelisk, standing stiffly and reading the plaque in the early afternoon. They look attired for the theatre, he in his baggy suit, and she in long skirt, mohair short-sleeved top and headscarf.
One recent winter day I, too, decide to stand on the exact location where Oxley scrambled ashore and founded Brisbane. To get to the obelisk, you must head up Makeston Street from Roma Street until you strike the T-junction with one of the city's busiest peak-hour thoroughfares – also called North Quay. Here, several lanes of traffic feed in from Coronation Drive and Hale Street in the west and funnel vehicles either into the CBD or onto the Riverside Expressway heading south. For pedestrians, it is a dead zone of sterile apartment buildings and a police credit union. There is little human traffic here, for the stretch of bitumen fronting the obelisk has been left stranded by the expressway. It is one of those eerie corners of a city that feels to have died.
The obelisk itself is half-hidden under a stand of pollution-filthy trees and hemmed in by a steel safety barrier.
Here John Oxley Landing to Look for Water Discovered the Site of this City. What are we to make of this simple, unpunctuated sentence? To a schoolboy it would present as straightforward and logical. But today it seems worded to suggest that the discovery was somehow accidental. That young Oxley stumbled upon the settlement site. He lands, looking for water, before discovering. It makes the discovery sound incidental. A surprise. Not a decision from a visionary, however wet behind the ears.
And there is something else about the iron-forged declaration. The wording seems clumsy, unconfident. There is a tremor of hesitancy about it. Perhaps it's just the absence of the commas. Perhaps it's the supposition of the memorial-plaque author to be in Oxley's head, a century after the explorer, with water at the forefront of the surveyor-general's mind. Water was a priority, but weren't there other considerations – geography, river access, timber, Indigenous inhabitants? Perhaps the author – a public servant, a member of the local historical society – was under duress, constrained to work within the small parameter of the plaque. Still, something doesn't feel right about it.
Excerpted from Brisbane by Matthew Condon. Copyright © 2010 Matthew Condon. Excerpted by permission of University of New South Wales Press Ltd.
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