Brisbane’s Suburban Charm

“I hate Brisbane. It’s nothing but traffic, traffic lights, bitumen, powerlines and car yards. Everyone’s in a rush. It’s ugly. It’s impersonal. In the country, everyone knows everyone else. I can’t wait to get back home.”

That’s what people from Queensland’s farms and regional towns sometimes say, after a reluctant and fleeting visit. They’re right about the ugly side of the city; but that’s not the whole story. Brisbane is a beautiful place, once you turn off those main roads with their frantic traffic.

It’s a city of hills and creeks and gullies. David Malouf wrote, “Brisbane is hilly. Walk two hundred metres in almost any direction outside the central city and you get a view – a new view. It is all gullies and sudden vistas.”

The hills can be a challenge. David Malouf also wrote, “Brisbane is a city that tires the legs and demands a certain sort of breath.”

It’s because of its terrain that Brisbane has so much green space. The creeks and river rise up in heavy rain and flood the banks, and debris across parks and walkways marks just how far the water came up. You can’t build houses on these flood plains. Instead there are sports fields, playgrounds, plantings, fig trees, bushland and pathways.

A disc golf goal on a course beside the creek at Moorooka

Scattered along the pathways and suburban streets are cute little street libraries and honesty boxes of home-made jams and pickles.

Street Library in an old fridge, Kelvin Grove

You can go from the top of Mount Coot-tha to the river, and even to Moreton Bay, on walking tracks or cycle paths along the creeks. Without leaving the city, you can find an octopus on the sand at Redcliffe or explore the mangroves at Wynnum.

An octopus washed up on Suttons Beach, Redcliffe
Along the mangrove boardwalk, Wynnum

Some quiet suburban streets and cul de sacs are secret heavens. I walk down them on a typically beautiful Brisbane day, and think, “People here must feel smug – they’ve found a perfect place to live.” Down every gully there is a green and peaceful park, often lovingly nurtured and developed by a local Bush Care group, and in many, a flourishing community vegetable garden.

Community garden, Moorooka

Almost anything will grow in a Brisbane backyard, from avocado trees to cacti, and there are mango trees and bananas, lemon and lime trees and hedges of rosemary.

In the occasional yard there is nothing growing but grass, which must take dedicated mowing over years on the part of the owners, in a climate where wattles and eucalypts, African tulips and coral trees, cassias and camphor laurels will grow without encouragement on any empty piece of land.

There are quirky sights in the suburbs, such as on an otherwise boring, 1960s block of flats in West End, where a creative solution to clothes drying has full-sized rotary clothes hoists, as normally seen in back yards, planted on each balcony.

Creative clothes line solution at West End

There are gardens with old-fashioned flower beds, charming letterboxes and quaint creatures among the plants.

Cute front yard at Tarragindi
At Holland Park, a letter box that matches the house

There is a collection of old engines in a sprawling Sunnybank yard.

Old steam engine, part of a collection at Sunnybank

There’s a skeleton guarding a rooftop not far from Greenslopes Hospital.

Skeleton on a roof at Greenslopes

Last year, in that strange time of lockdowns and isolation, Con and I went exploring on foot, and we saw the suburbs of Brisbane in more detail than ever before.

There are trees flowering all year round, but they are most spectacular in Spring: jacarandas, silky oaks, flame trees and poinsettia, and the natives: sterculia, huge spreading tallow woods and gums.

Jacarandas in Norman Park
Sterculia in bloom, Mt Gravatt

I’ve begun a new Pandemic project: to collect all the colours of frangipani. They grow easily from a broken-off piece, left to dry in a dark place. Carrying a plastic bag to stop the sticky sap dripping, and seeking low branches hanging over front fences, I now have acquired pieces of red, yellow, apricot and deep pink-flowering trees. I’ll plant them in a row in a new stretch of garden beside the house. They’ll be a reminder of a challenging time, when I found comfort in walking the suburbs of a beautiful city.

Frangipani, Woolloongabba

Queensland Songs

Song making is an ancient Queensland art. Songs have always been part of every Indigenous celebration and every mourning ceremony, and song lines were like maps guiding people across country.

By contrast, whitefeller Queensland songs range from nineteenth century convict times to the twenty-first century.

The best of those Queensland songs, the most evocative of its time and place, is the haunting Moreton Bay, about convict life in Brisbane in the late 1820s under the notorious commandant, Captain Patrick Logan.

 

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Convict Brisbane

 

The first European settlement was built along what became William Street. Captain Logan’s house was here, and this part of Brisbane is still the home of government offices.

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Convict era Brisbane seen from south of the river. Image: State Library of Qld

The huge state government building at 1 William Street is near the site of the commandant’s house.

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Looking upstream towards 1 William Street as it was nearing completion

Now the Queens Wharf high-rise development is going up on William Street.

The flogging triangle was located in the convict barracks at the top of what is now Queen Street.

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Convict life in Brisbane Image: Museum of Brisbane

The Brisbane River loops around this raised stretch of land, down past what is now the City Botanical Gardens, past the New Farm, and past Eagle Farm. Convicts worked on all these farms.

Moreton Bay

 One Sunday morning as I went walking
By Brisbane waters I chanced to stray
I heard a convict his fate bewailing
As on the sunny river bank I lay
I am a native from Erin’s island
But banished now from my native shore
They stole me from my aged parents
And from the maiden I do adore

I’ve been a prisoner at Port Macquarie
At Norfolk Island and Emu Plains
At Castle Hill and at cursed Toongabbie
At all these settlements I’ve been in chains
But of all places of condemnation
And penal stations in New South Wales
To Moreton Bay I have found no equal
Excessive tyranny each day prevails

For three long years I was beastly treated
And heavy irons on my legs I wore
My back from flogging was lacerated
And oft times painted with my crimson gore
And many a man from downright starvation
Lies mouldering now underneath the clay
And Captain Logan he had us mangled
All at the triangles of Moreton Bay

Like the Egyptians and ancient Hebrews
We were oppressed under Logan’s yoke
Till a native black lying there in ambush
Did deal this tyrant his mortal stroke
My fellow prisoners be exhilarated
That all such monsters such a death may find
And when from bondage we are liberated
Our former sufferings will fade from mind

Western Queensland has always been a tough place: even more so in the years of the Great Depression, when people, especially men, had to leave home and travel in harsh conditions to find work and collect rations. In Sergeant Small, a swaggie jumps a train in Mitchell, heading for Roma. When he arrives there, he is tricked by the local sergeant into revealing his hiding place, ends up in court and is sentenced to thirty days.

mitchell railway station
Passengers on Mitchell Railway Station Image: State Library of Qld

 

The “Weddings Parties Anything” version captures the spirit of the time.

Sergeant Small

I went broke in western Queensland in 1931,
Nobody would employ me so my swaggy days begun
I headed out to Charleville, out to the western towns,
I was on my way to Roma, destination Darling Downs

And my pants were getting ragged, my shoes were getting thin,
When we stopped in Mitchell, a goods train shunted in,
The engine blew her whistle, I was looking up to see,
She was on her way to Roma, that was very plain to me.

I wished that I was 16 stone and only seven foot tall,
I’d go back to western Queensland, and beat up Sergeant Small.

As I sat and watched her, inspiration seemed to grow,
And I remembered the government slogan, ‘It’s a railway that you own’
So by the time the sun was setting, and night was going nigh,
So I gathered my belongings and I caught her on the fly.

And as we came into Roma, I tucked my head down low,
And a voice said ‘any room mate?’ and I answered, ‘Plenty ‘bo’
Then at this tip this noble man, the voice of Sergeant Small,
Said, ‘I’ve trapped you very nicely, you’re headed for a fall’

I wished that I was 16 stone and only seven foot tall,
I’d go back to western Queensland, and beat up Sergeant Small.

The Judge was very kind to me, he gave me thirty days,
He said, ‘Maybe that would help to cure my rattler jumping ways’
So if your down and outback, let me tell you what I think,
Just stay off the Queensland railways, it’s a shortcut to the clink.

I wished that I was 16 stone and only seven foot tall,
I’d go back to western Queensland, and beat up Sergeant Small.
I’d go back to western Queensland, and beat up Sergeant Small.

 

Songs that evoke a familiar place and atmosphere often find a lasting place in the culture.

Sounds of Then, better known as This is Australia, written by Mark Callaghan, was inspired by his memories of living with his family in the canefields east of Bundaberg. After its release in 1985 by the rock band Gang Gajang, it soon became an iconic Australian song. As Callaghan said in a 2002 interview with Debbie Kruger, “The song is actually about how smells and sounds and sensations can rekindle a memory – which is what music does so successfully for people.”

lighning over cane

From Sounds of Then (This is Australia)

…That certain texture, that certain smell,
Brings home the heavy days,
Brings home the night time swell,

Out on the patio we’d sit,
And the humidity we’d breathe,
We’d watch the lightning crack over canefields
Laugh and think, this is Australia.

The block is awkward – it faces west,
With long diagonals, sloping too.
And in the distance, through the heat haze,
In convoys of silence the cattle graze.
That certain texture, that certain beat,
Brings forth the night time heat.

Out on the patio we’d sit,
And the humidity we’d breathe,
We’d watch the lightning crack over canefields
Laugh and think that this is Australia.

To lie in sweat, on familiar sheets,
In brick veneer on financed beds.
In a room of silent hardiflex
That certain texture, that certain smell,
Brings forth the heavy days,
Brings forth the night time sweat
Out on the patio we’d sit,
And the humidity we’d breathe,
We’d watch the lightning crack over canefields
Laugh and think, this is Australia.
This is Australia…

Songwriters: Mark Callaghan / Graham Bidstrup / Chris Bailey / Geoff Stapleton / Robert James / Kay Bee

Sounds of Then (This is Australia) lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group

Cattle and Cane, from Brisbane band the Go-Betweens, 1983, has the same lovely, nostalgic Queensland feel:

cattle and cane

Cattle and Cane

I recall a schoolboy coming home
through fields of cane
to a house of tin and timber
and in the sky
a rain of falling cinders
from time to time
the waste memory-wastes
I recall a boy in bigger pants
like everyone
just waiting for a chance
his father’s watch
he left it in the showers
from time to time
the waste memory-wastes
I recall a bigger brighter world
a world of books
and silent times in thought
and then the railroad
the railroad takes him home
through fields of cattle
through fields of cane
from time to time
the waste memory-wastes
the waste memory-wastes
further, longer, higher, older

Songwriters: Robert Derwent Garth Forster / Grant William Mclennan

Cattle and Cane lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group

For something contemporary, and a completely different view of Queensland as seen from south of the border, here is comedian Sammy J’s 2019 song, inspired by the result of this year’s Federal Election: Queensland, we’re breaking up with you.

Reading Queensland

I like reading books about places. It adds extra layers of enjoyment to my travels, in Queensland and beyond. They can be learned and literary books, or lighter romances and mysteries; but sharing in the experiences of others, especially when they’re good observers, helps me to get under the surface of a place.

These are just a few of my favourite books about Queensland.

Please add other titles in the comments section. I’m always looking for more.

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Fiction

  • “The Commandant”, Jessica Anderson. Fine, literary, perceptive novel of convict imagesBrisbane under Captain Logan. Brutality and death in the penal colony as observed by the Logan womenfolk. 

 

  • Affection”, Ian Townsend. 2010. Historical novel set in Townsville in 1900 when the affectioncity was under threat of the plague. Doctors enforce unpopular measures to prevent it. (Dilemma of scientists: if they succeed in preventing a threatened disaster, people will say it wasn’t a danger in the first place.)

 

 

  • “Carpentaria”, Alexis Wright. A magnificent literary saga of the Gulf of Carpentaria, written by an Indigenous Australian with a unique and fullsizeoutput_3e0caccomplished voice and an authentic image of the land, its people and its mythology. In the tradition of Xavier Herbert.

 

 

  • “The Birdwatcher”, William McInnes. A sweet, wise, grown-up love story set in Far 9780733632976North Queensland. Some ‘60s nostalgia, poetry, and lots of birds.

 

 

 

  • “My Island Homicide”, Catherine Titasey. Set on Thursday Island, this is a likeableimages romance/detective novel. Authentic language and background in a fascinating part of Queensland.

 

 

  • “Ryders Ridge”, Charlotte Nash. An enjoyable rural romance set inryders north-west Queensland. Red dirt, big hats, doctors.

 

 

 

  • “The Grazier’s Wife”, Barbara Hannay. 2017. A multi-generation rural romance setthe-grazier-s-wife on the Atherton Tableland. Cattle, rainforest, Singapore, antiques, a secret will.

 

 

  • “Boy Swallows Universe”, Trent Dalton. 2018. Enjoyable, scary, boy swallowsuplifting, suspenseful story of growing up in a crime-affected family in Brisbane. Darra and Bracken Ridge, Boggo Road Gaol and City Hall. Violence and love.

 

 

  • “Border Watch”, Helene Young. 2011. A FNQ romantic thriller Northern-Heat1written by an ex- airline captain and Border Patrol pilot. One of several novels by this author set in Queensland including “Safe Harbour”, 2014, and “Northern Heat”, 2015, which is set in Cooktown.

 

 

Non-fiction

  • “Lonely Planet – Queensland and the Great Barrier Reef”, and “Lonely Planet – Australia”. The first covers the tourist areas and the coast; the second covers the inland areas of the state. Lots of interesting local information.

 

  • “A History of Queensland”, Raymond Evans. 2007. Interesting scholarly in-depth account by a well-known historian ofimages Qld life and development from earliest human habitation to the 2000s. 

 

 

  • “Love in the Age of Drought”, Fiona Higgins. 2009. The memoir of a loveSydney woman who marries a farmer from Jandowae, on the Northern Darling Downs. Love, drought, life in a small town, the black soil plains west of the Bunya Mountains. I lived here as a teenager.

 

 

  • “Brisbane”, Matthew Condon. 2010. Affectionate, memoir-style look at Brisbane, its history, condon brisbanearts, way of life and unique qualities as a lively sub-tropical city, by a journalist who knows the city well: its good and its bad. (Part of the “Secret Life of Your City” series about State Capitals.)

 

 

  • “Birdsville”, Evan McHugh. 2009. Dust storms, bogs, sand dunes, race meetings, rescues,images locusts, building a golf course in the desert: a Sydney freelance writer and his graphic designer wife spend twelve months in Birdsville.

 

 

  • “Conspiracy of Silence: Queensland’s frontier killing times”, Timothy Bottoms. 2013. imagesHarrowing account of the acts of violence that accompanied pastoralists’/investors’ seizure of Queensland pastoral land from Aboriginal inhabitants.

 

 

  • Tom Petrie’s Reminiscences of Early Queensland”, Constance Campbell Petrie. tom petrieRe-published 2014. This important 1904 book details life in Brisbane and South-east Qld from 1837, when little Tom Petrie arrived at the convict settlement of Moreton Bay with his family. Local Aboriginal people, their foods, customs and language, as well as convict life and early white exploration.

 

  • “Cairns: City of the South Pacific. A history 1770-1995”, Timothy Bottoms. cairns-city-of-the-south-pacific-history-productInteresting, ambitious, detailed work.

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