I moved from Brisbane to Sydney in 2009, two days after I’d received my degree and one month after I’d decided that Brisbane and I were no longer compatible. I’d had enough of the limited job opportunities in the arts sector, the relentless humidity, the lack of cultural diversity. So I packed my belongings, settled on a new career aspiration (book publishing), and made my exit.
It took about a year for the thrill of the unknown to wear off. Just as I was learning how to make my way around big, bad Sydney, life for me began to slow down. I had settled into a new house in Sydney’s inner west, found my first full-time job, and felt for the first time that I had friends in my new city. But these things – job, house and social life – were a checklist, to be completed upon my arrival. Without the pursuit of them to occupy me, a self-doubt I hadn’t realised I’d been quashing began to surface. I began to miss the very things I had loathed about Brisbane: its public transport network and the inability to travel on it without running into an old colleague or schoolmate; the polite, patient suburban motorists; the slight drawl of the Queensland accent. I was wracked with guilt – of deserting my encouraging, supportive family, and of the message I had inadvertently sent my closest friends: Brisbane isn’t enough for me, therefore neither are you. Confused by these contradictory emotions, I quickly lost trust in my memory of my home town.
To counter this distrust, I decided to embark on a literary journey of rediscovering Brisbane. I armed myself with a collection of novels by my favourite Brisbane writers, which included David Malouf, Venero Armanno, Thea Astley, Andrew McGahan – you know, the experts. I was determined to unearth the town they alone seemed privy to – the town that seemed brimming with secrets, shady pasts and heady subtropical evenings.
In doing so, I felt a little like Romeo in Armanno’s gritty love story, Romeo of the Underworld. Ex-Brisbanite Romeo Costanzo returns home after a two-year stint in Sydney to find his beloved teen hangout, the iconic hilltop dance hall, Cloudland, has been unceremoniously demolished. When I made a similar, first return-visit to Brisbane, I discovered a shortcut had been constructed from my house to the Gateway Motorway, and a new surf-clothing chain store had popped up in my local Westfield. Oh the banality.
As I read, I wondered if I had somehow missed out on the ‘real’ Brisbane? Was it because my parents chose to raise us in safe cul-de-sacs and uniform housing estates of south-east suburbia? Would I have connected more to Armanno’s Brisbane if I had spent my formative years in the lush, leafy oldness of New Farm or Auchenf lower, with its multicultural city life – local eccentrics, well-placed greenery, scandals and history that hung thick in the air (not unlike the scent of jacaranda)?
In David Malouf ’s first novel, Johnno, narrator Dante returns after years abroad to discover post-World War II Brisbane in the midst of a makeover. Victoria Bridge is being relocated, freeways are being constructed along the river to ‘remove forever the sweetish stench of the mangroves that festered here’, and Dante reads these coming changes as a sign – from those behind the council by-laws dictating the revamp – of contempt, or small-town embarrassment. It strikes me as odd that all those years ago Brisbane had tried so hard to prove itself to the other cities in such a way; did any good come of it? Not that I could see. I couldn’t imagine a mangrove-filled Brisbane city; I’d only ever seen mangroves on primary school excursions to Moreton Bay.
Inner-city Brisbane suburbs, of course, have gorgeous names. The tiny pocket next to Fortitude Valley is called Spring Hill, and I spent most of my late teens and early twenties there. A close friend of mine lived on one typical residential road, called Wedd Street. It was lined with overgrown lawns, charmingly run-down Queenslanders and discarded, holey couches. Its residents survived on whiskey and lentil soup (gazpacho on Sundays), and it was here I learned the meaning of the word vegan.
Through this one friend, I gained access to many new ones: an unkempt collection of young inner-city dwellers. These Wedd Street Kids fascinated me – they were like real-life characters from the Beat novels I was so obsessed with. My friend’s guitar-wielding housemates would carefully paste obscure film posters over kitchen walls to hide the cracks, but ignored spilled tendrils of two-minute noodles from weeks ago, air-dried and collecting in corners of the olive carpet. Each Wedd Street Kid was either an aspiring musician, artist or filmmaker – whether a doe-eyed youth, fresh from high school, or a restless Norwegian film student pushing 30. They were passionate about making the world a better place in the ways they knew how, and I often came away from Wedd Street having learned from them a little more about a gross injustice occurring in the world, maybe even having signed a petition or agreeing to march in an upcoming protest. But on the whole, these people were struggling students, whose Centrelink allowances barely catered for their diets of weed and soy cheese.
Late last year, I finished reading Andrew McGahan’s Praise. It’s a novel about a young Brisbane man in his early twenties, Gordon Buchanan, a sometime poet and Arts dropout who quits his bottleshop job early into the novel. His co-worker, Cynthia, is aff licted with eczema; she’s smarter than your average barmaid. She becomes involved with Gordon in a potent and destructive relationship. Together, the two explore ways of entertaining themselves and searching for meaning in their depressive surroundings.
Praise mostly involves sex, alcohol and the unpredictable nature of their relationship, oscillating between lust and cruelty. Yet Gordon and Cynthia are an intriguing mix of apathy and sensitivity. McGahan’s 1990s Brisbane is hopeless, its youth forsaken, and its welfare system a little too easy to take advantage of. Even the affluent university suburb of St Lucia, where Cynthia’s family lives, is unimpressive and unmemorable.
Finally, here I had a writer telling the unadorned truth: that Brisbane was irrevocably dull. And maybe it was Gordon’s limp and greasy hair, or maybe it was the rolled tobacco he chose to smoke, but Praise made me recall my Spring Hill friends. Despite the superficial similarities, the Wedd Street Kids were everything Gordon wasn’t. Sure, they seemed to embody a ‘starving artist’ philosophy like Gordon, marrying their bookish intelligence with survival in a town that had so little to offer them. But they kept trying where Gordon had given up. And they possessed a collective earnestness that Gordon lacked. During my university years, I couldn’t tell if I was dubious of the Wedd Street Kids’ authenticity, or simply impressed by their lifestyles – so different from my suburban middle-class upbringing. Having read Praise, I decided my obsessive complaints about Brisbane’s insular stagnancy had blinded me from what were in fact incredibly interesting experiences and people.
The various faces of Brisbane presented to me by other writers weren’t right, weren’t what I expected. I wanted to relate to their description. Instead I felt alienated. I was relying on these stories to fix my broken memories, and couldn’t understand why they weren’t doing it. While I could see truth in McGahan’s grimy, grungy Brisbane, I couldn’t personally relate to his characters’ experiences. In addition to this, I felt like I was betraying the city I’d grown up in by not having any fondness for it.
But I had detested Brisbane when I lived there. To my curious teen self, it was embarrassingly lacking in many ways: limited fashion, options, dichotomous high-school peer groups (you were either ‘popular’ or ‘weird’, and each group came with an arbitrary set of hair accessories, music choices and extracurricular interests), and not multicultural enough for me – I often felt like the ‘token dark-skinned person’ of my friendship group. There were small reactions, such as the raised eyebrows towards my curry puff lunches, and frustration as I entreated my friends to help me concoct elaborate lies to avoid my parents’ strict rules, but looking back, it was most likely borne out of my own insecurities. I didn’t realise how typical to Brisbane this tokenism was until I moved to Sydney and found a complete absence of it. Is this what ultimately drove me into my reading adventure? Had I grown, through a lifetime of reading romantic novels about place and time, to resent my decidedly unromantic upbringing? Armanno’s novels had struck me in many ways, but most significantly through their descriptions of Brisbane. Having moved away hastily, and on a whim, I believe now that if I searched hard enough I would find my own romanticised Brisbane years, in which there would be traces of Malouf ’s sleepy mangroves, Armanno’s haunting prose, or perhaps Andrew McGahan’s Praise-like grunge.
There’s this scene in David Malouf ’s Johnno with a description of the Brisbane River that makes me shudder. Not only because the swelling water, floating dressing-tables and gaping witnesses depict eerily similar scenes to the recent south-east Queensland f loods, but for Malouf ’s lyricism in capturing the water as an entity: ‘The river, usually placid enough with its rainbow-slick of oil and its bubbles of ferment popping in the heat, boiled up now into lighted peaks like the sea, and its roar could be heard from tramstops half a block away.’ Johnno and Dante are quietly observing the water, when Johnno decides to jump in, treading water between all the floating debris. I scream ‘untrue! ’ in my head. This doesn’t match my version of the river.
The high school I attended was perched on the riverbed. This particular body of coffee-coloured water represented the intimidating, broad-shouldered rowing girls. You didn’t want to look at them the wrong way in class – they’d been up since 5am, manoeuvring through the countless dead bodies (courtesy of school legends) and God knows what else in those murky waters. It’s the tiny ferry that took you from Dutton Park to the UQ Lakes before Brisbane City Council constructed a bridge across it, rendering the ferry useless.
There wasn’t much poetry to my version of Brisbane, and when I read Johnno I was left mesmerised and angry. Malouf had searched for and found the lyricism of the city. Once again, it was that familiar feeling of being cheated out of something – even his subtropical nights with heat rising through the pavement sounded exotic. Coming home from school, tying your skirt up Malaysian coconut tree-climbing style like your father taught you and laying on the living-room tiles was the humidity of Brisbane I remembered. Trying to casually cover your sweat mo while talking to your crush of the moment was the humidity of Brisbane I remembered. Again, I wondered: why did Dante seem to find what he was searching for, while I was stuck with a prosaic childhood I would rather forget.
But Dante realises something about Brisbane, something that transcends the generations: ‘Elsewhere I might pass for a serious adult. Here, I knew, I would always be an aging child. I might grow old in Brisbane but I would never grow up.’ In that final sentence, he defined my entire experience of living there, and at the same time why I left.
For me, Brisbane is the city that became loveable as soon as I was no longer living in it. It has grown to be a city I’m now able to understand with rounded perspective. Like my relationship with my parents, it improves with distance. My warped and fading memory of this place has been shaped by great Brisbane writers, and without them I fear I would have continued to resent the city, while secretly aching for its small-town charm.