Welcome to Sunny Brisbane

William Holbrook

[This article was first published in print in issue 2 of sugarcane in October 2018, which was made possible by the generous financial support of The Alumni Friends of the University of Queensland.]


Ask me about the sugar cane That burns on summer evenings Just south of Innisfail, How its immense perfume Enters the deepest mansion of the soul: You don’t need wine, my friend, You don’t need rum.

- Kevin Hart "Sugar"

The sun, as Oscar Wilde told André Gide in Algiers, detests thinking, and Brisbane is sunnier even than Algiers. When you come home to Brisbane, thoughts yawn and lie down, and ideas stretch out, lazily. The special skill of Brisbanites is to turn ennui, on a long, hot day, into languor, and to obtain the sleepy kind of pleasure which thinking nothing holds. Whole summers, lifetimes, are spent idle, tanning, thoughtless.

The sun doesn’t inhibit violence, though: remember it was the sun that made Meursault kill the Arab. And thoughtlessness can be oppressive: Kevin Hart called the Australian intellect the “baleful Kimberleys of thought”; A. D. Hope declared it “the Arabian desert of the human mind.” Certainly there is another side to sunny Brisbane. In 1824, twenty-nine convicts, fourteen soldiers, and Lieutenant Henry Miller were sent by Governor Brisbane, acting under the advice of John Oxley, to establish a penal colony on the land of the Ningy Ningy nation (Redcliffe), where the worst recidivists were to be sent. But within a year the Redcliffe colony had foundered. The settlers moved up river to mian-jin (literally “a spike of land”), traditionally the territory used by the Turrbal and Jagera peoples when welcoming other tribes. Did Brisbane begin then? In 1825, when an ancient gathering-place was stolen and a prison built on top? Or was it the year earlier, when one of John Oxley’s party, while mapping Breakfast Creek, opened fire on some Turrbal men for stealing a cabbage-tree hat? Oodgeroo Noonuccal understood the brutality of “progress”. “Change is the law. The new must oust the old.” Now Coronation Drive flattens the land where the Turrbal lived along the river they called Maiwar. This first Brisbane seems long gone.

But where are any of the earlier Brisbanes? The Treasury of 1889 is a casino. The Trades Hall of the '20s was knocked down to make room for an IBM headquarters. The Brisbane of Thea Astley’s 1930s and '40s youth, “a shabby town, a sprawling timber settlement on a lazy river”, is gone as well. David Malouf — who generously contributed a poem to this issue — also thought Brisbane shabby: “Nothing seemed permanent here. A huge shanty town set down in the middle of nowhere. It wouldn’t have surprised anyone to wake up one morning and find that Brisbane … had died overnight. Its corrugated iron sold off for scrap.” The impermanence, at least, is recognisable enough — the apartment block stamped down today could be upsized tomorrow, and while some rangier, tin-and-timber houses still perch on ridgelines, they are outnumbered by squat, beige mansions which, like pudgy, pasty bathers, crowd the riverbanks, and are always being renovated, or flooded, or rezoned. Change is still the law.

This latest Brisbane, our Brisbane, is queer indeed — “stranger than all her sisters of the South”. Small-town restlessness and parochial pride linger on in a swelling, sprawling metropolis. Enormous air-conditioned towers peer awkwardly over fences at Queenslanders on stilts, nestled in overgrown gardens, the filigree on their verandahs chipped and flaking. Some things continue unchanged. When night falls, and mosquitos whine, and possums fight on hot tin rooves, in some places, between the cranes and tower blocks, you can still see, as Les Murray saw, “houses towering down one side of slatted lights seen under leaves.” The law can change.


About the author: William Holbrook is a co-editor of sugarcane.

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