“Warrior” by Libby Connors

warriorThe relationship between blacks and whites on the early Queensland frontier is a major theme of Turrwan, so I was delighted when historian Libby Connors published Warrior earlier this year. Connors’ work is a significant contribution to this state’s historical record and while non-fiction may not be everyone’s cup of tea, I can thoroughly recommend Warrior if you are an amateur of Australia’s past and the “non-war” the Aboriginal people waged against the invaders of their country.

Connors explains how the different tribal groups of South-east Queensland interacted and reacted to the white presence on their lands. She points out that British policy was to treat the Indigenous people as citizens of the empire and therefore subject to colonial law. However, the majority of politicians, bureaucrats and ordinary citizens were incapable of recognising, let alone understanding, that the native peoples had their own system of traditional law with all-encompassing guidelines that had to be followed. Neither could the Aboriginal people understand the whites who came unbidden to their lands, an unthinkable breach of etiquette under Indigenous law.

With the closing of the penal colony and the opening of Brisbane to the general public in 1842 came an influx of new settlers which led to an increase in conflicts between the opposing factors. Dundalli, the central figure in Warrior, was a Dalla man from the Blackall Range inland from the Sunshine Coast. He was a lawman given the task of resisting the invaders and organising payback for crimes committed by the whites against his people. The notion of payback is central to Aboriginal thinking as it preserves the carefully constructed balance of their culture and society. If harmony is not restored through an act of retribution, the door to chaos and the disintegration of their way of life is thrown open.

Connors skilfully outlines Aboriginal and white politics, highlighting the conflicts between the different Aboriginal groups themselves and how this led to certain tribes using the whites to punish their traditional enemies. Dundalli was a big, powerful man greatly feared by both the whites and the Brisbane Aboriginal people – it was a member of this last group who eventually betrayed Dundalli to the police. Dundalli, a hero to the Aboriginal people to the north of Brisbane, was arrested and imprisoned for six months before being brought to trial. Evidence of a dubious nature was presented and deemed enough to sentence him to death. He was hung in Queen St where the GPO stands today, exhorting his people to exact revenge on the man who denounced him.

Life on Queensland’s early frontier was fraught with uncertainty and danger, fear and violence. Connors has done a wonderful job of unravelling the complexities and nuances of the white invasion and Aboriginal resistance, the writing is fluent, the narrative compelling.

PS I had to smile when I saw the cover for Warrior as I had thought to use this same watercolour by Conrad Martens for Turrwan.

The Novel & Brisbane Part 4: Transformation

bris1888slqMany writers fled Brisbane during the Joh Bjelke-Petersen era (1968–87). Queensland has been represented in the past as a cultureless backwater inhabited by rednecks. The state was perceived as being of no interest, a rural backward society caught between its violent frontier past and an artificial present. However, this negative image, while still valid for some, has changed radically since the World Expo in 1988 and the demise of Bjelke-Petersen. By the end of the twentieth century Brisbane had begun to reposition itself as a cosmopolitan city with a healthy cultural base.

A number of factors have also contributed to this transformation. The population has increased through migration, Queensland’s image as a tourist destination has been enhanced through sophisticated marketing and the government has invested in cultural organisations and practitioners. At the same time, Queensland writers such as Venero Armmano, John Birmingham, Nick Earls, Andrew McGahan and Simon Cleary among many others have played a central role in changing how Brisbane is perceived. For McGahan, the city is far from ugly. In his novel, 1988, he describes his return after a stint in the north:

The glow in the sky. Orange streetlights. Outlying suburbs. It was beautiful. The highway turned onto the six-lane arterial. We came in through Oxley and Annerly, flowing with the traffic. Then the city highrises were in view, alight, multi-coloured. Brisbane. It was impossibly beautiful.

The negative qualities of Brisbane, as portrayed by writers like Malouf in Johhno, have old queenslander toowongbeen refigured by other writers, and Malouf himself, so as to portray Brisbane in a positive way. One transformation in particular was how the old wooden houses became to represent all that was good about the city. The “Queenslander,” as the house is known, was epitomised in Malouf’s 12 Edmonstone Street (1985), where he describes the building as “a one-storeyed weatherboard, a style of house so common then as to be quite unremarkable; Brisbane was a one-storeyed weatherboard town”.

Contemporary writers may be reconfiguring Brisbane in a positive manner, but the question still remains of why so few historical novels have been written about the colonial era in Brisbane. Is it due to a collective will to forget the early history of Queensland, especially the “birthstain” of the penal colony and the desire of emancipists and their descendants to hide their convict origins? This denial of our convict past was deepened by a desire to forget the way early settlers treated the Aboriginal people—the massacres, the poisonings, the diseases. The frontier violence in Queensland has been replaced by the notion of the brave pioneer taming a wild country and has been collectively forgotten in the same way as our convict past has. Australians are unwilling to treat with this period because they would need to look deep within themselves and confront the demons that are unleashed when one people dispossesses another.

Even so, since the 1970s, more and more family historians have been searching the archives and discovering convicts in the family tree. Now people are accepting their convict ancestry to the point that it has become a badge of honour for some. We are also beginning to recognise and acknowledge the suffering the whites caused in their early interactions with the Indigenous people of Australia. Then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s “Apology to the Stolen Generations” in 2008 is one example.

And has literature itself unwittingly played a role in putting novelists off? Indeed, as we have seen, a thread of negative images of the city runs through the novels discussed in earlier articles, from The Curse in 1894, which depicts a city in decay, to the myth of the hostile country portrzigzag stayed in Penton’s Landtakers and then the city concealing its past in the follow-up Inheritors. The line continues through the works of Malouf: Johnno, Anderson: Tirra Lira and Astley: Reading, who paint Brisbane as uninteresting, a place to flee from. Does this sense of Brisbane as not worthy of attention still haunt the collective subconscious and reinforce the desire to forget the city’s past? Nick Earls, author of Zigzag Street (1996), which is set in Brisbane, says that, “[f]or years I wrote things and deliberately avoided setting them in South-East Queensland because people didn’t seem to do that and the area didn’t seem to be regarded as worthy of carrying a story.”

And so our writers escape from Brisbane to look elsewhere for their stories. Two contemporary historical novelists who have lived in or around Brisbane have turned towards the “old country” to tell their tales. Kate Morton has chosen to set her novels in England, flitting back and forth from the present to the first half of the twentieth century, beginning with The House at Riverton/The Shifting Fog (2006) through to The Secret Keeper (2012). M. K. Hume, who grew up in Ipswich, is consumed by ancient history which, as she says on her website, she “loved to teach . . . using stories to bring the ancient world to life for my students.” Hume has written two trilogies centred on her “first love, King Arthur, and the legends of the Arthuriad.” It seems the wonders of our distant ancestors in Europe are more attractive to writers than what happened in Brisbane in its early days. That is quite understandable, but more and more people want to learn about Brisbane’s past. However, only time will tell whether or not historical novelists turn their eye to the colonial era and do justice to the city. Brisbane has changed much since those far-off days of a tiny settlement tucked into a bend in the river and ringed with an endless sea of vegetation and later its image as a cultureless backwater where nothing ever happened. Now the city has begun to embrace its past more than ever and has become a place to move to, not to escape from.

The overall survey shows a common thread in the early writings from Praed through to Penton. Whiteness is either questioned or affirmed, while inter-racial relations on the frontier and in the city explored. A number of these works, White or Yellow? in particular, raise questions of national identity. Another thread links novels written in more recent times, from Malouf to Cleary. In these works, the built environment features along with the landscape and Brisbane takes on character as a place in the hearts and minds of its inhabitants. Anderson and Shaw represent yet another strand of novelists (to which I belong), whose “settler accounts,” like Penton, take place in colonial times and explore various aspects of the period. What stands out in many of these works is the way the river is depicted as defining the city, an essential part of its character.

Turrwan has little in common with some of the early works set in Brisbane, especially Turrwan 300dpi011White or Yellow? and The Curse. However, like many of the works cited in this analysis, Turrwan explores relationships between Black and White on Queensland’s frontier. In contrast, Anderson’s The Commandant makes little reference to the Aboriginal people except as a vague presence until the murder of Logan. Yet, there is a similarity between my work and Anderson’s in that we both use fictive characters who confront well-known historical figures. Despite the fictional content, I, like Anderson, have strived to respect the historical record. Barry states that in The Commandant, “[t]here is great authenticity in the factual background of the novel.” However, as we saw earlier, Penton was wrong with the dates in Landtakers, and as shown earlier, Shaw was inaccurate with historical details in Mango Hill. These may simply have been details overlooked by the authors, but it does reflect negatively on the historical veracity of the works.

From the foregoing, it is clear that Australian fiction writers have neglected the early history of Brisbane and that my novel could help fill this gap. No historical novels have been set entirely in Brisbane and its surrounds in the period covered in Turrwan, that is, from 1830 to 1862.

So novelists, to your pens.

Eliza Fraser: Birth at Sea

460px-Eliza_Fraser_portraitEliza Fraser’s survival and rescue after being ship-wrecked on the island that carries her husband’s name are well-documented. The historical record shows that the Petries met Eliza and her husband Captain James Fraser on the Stirling Castle on the way to Australia from Scotland in 1831. In Turrwan I recount that Mary Petrie and Eliza became friends on the long voyage to Sydney. What follows is a section I cut from the book as it was getting too far away from the main storyline. Tom Petrie is with his mother Mary saying goodbye to the Frasers as they set out on their ill-fated voyage.

 

Eliza Fraser would also lose a baby, and more, several years after our arrival in Sydney. On a bright sunny day in 1836 I went to the wharf with Mother to say goodbye to the Frasers, who were sailing with the tide on the Stirling Castle, the same boat that had brought us from Scotland. In the midst of the bustle, Mother embraced Eliza awkwardly, the girl’s huge belly getting in the way. The tears flowed freely as the two women parted.

“Now you take care of yourself and the little one, you hear?” Mother ordered between sobs.

“You’re a born worrier, Mary. Everything will be just fine, you’ll see,” said Eliza, trying to lighten her departure. But everything would not be fine.

Eliza’s husband James stood beside her. Some twenty years her senior, he was in poor health and looked like an old man. He was extremely thin and wiry; Mother wondered how he wasn’t blown away when he was on deck. His dark mahogany face wore the signs of an unknown disease he had caught on one of his voyages to the southern seas. How he managed to run the ship was another mystery to Mother until she knew the man better. Fraser had a will of steel and had learned to live with the aches, pains and limitations of his malady. He still had his sea legs though and they carried him on his daily rounds of the ship. His second in command was a competent mariner and could be trusted to keep the ship in good order and on course.

James tried to spend as much time as he could spare with his beautiful young wife, still surprised that she had chosen to marry him when she had the pick of some of the most eligible bachelors in the land. Mother had asked herself the same question when she was introduced to Eliza at the Captain’s table on the Stirling Castle.

Eliza detached herself from Mary and waddled up the gangplank on the arm of her spouse, who ordered the crew to cast off as soon as his feet hit the deck; the tide would not wait. Mother wrung her hands on the dock, unable to shrug off the sense of uneasiness she felt about this trip. The boat drifted with the current, men scurrying aloft in the rigging, the sails unfurling with a flap in the light breeze. Eliza gave a last wave to the blurry figures on the wharf and turned to see the ship thrusting towards the Heads and the open sea.

Mother heard the full story of what happened next from Eliza when she eventually returned to Sydney. On their way north they called in at Dunwich on Stradbroke Island to offload some supplies for the settlement at Brisbane. A few days after leaving Moreton Bay, the Stirling Castle ran into a storm. Eliza was propped in her bunk, surrounded by cushions as the ship heaved and slewed, at times falling through the air to slam with a terrific thud on the surface of the ocean. Eliza thought they would all drown, but the sturdy boat managed to rise again on the next wave. Fixed to the foot of the bed was a bucket that Eliza had used until there was nothing left to bring up, her retching upsetting her baby, who pommelled her insides in protest.

Captain Fraser was also bedridden, assailed by an excruciating headache, when he felt the sickening crunch of the hull against the unforgiving jagged reef. He leapt to his feet, the pain forgotten as he donned his vest and struggled to his wife’s side. Eliza’s eyes were wide with terror as James made a feeble attempt to reassure her that the ship was solid. Then he cried “I have to go aloft,” and staggered out of the cabin.stirling castle wreck

“There was nuthin’ I could do Cap’n,” the mate bewailed when Fraser joined him at the wheel. “The bloody wind is too strong and has blown us way off course,” he went on, assuming no blame for their dire situation.

With an unearthly wrenching sound, the mainmast snapped and plunged into the sea, dragging the ship dangerously low in the water. The pounding waves would soon make mincemeat of their craft which was firmly wedged on the reef, Fraser decided.

“Ready the lifeboats, man. And get the crew on deck. Be quick about it, we don’t have much time.”

With the aid of a sailor, Fraser managed to manoeuvre his badly afflicted wife into one of the longboats where she cowered between the seats in a grey huddle as the rain lashed her face. Against the odds, most of the crew got off the doomed ship. As the storm abated, they set sail towards the south.

The first contractions shook Eliza when the lifeboat hit the water and bobbed like a cork in the tempest. In the small flimsy craft, Eliza gave birth surrounded by her husband and his crew. Her cries of pain were lost in the sea, the men silent and afraid, haunted by their own terrors, which the obvious distress of the woman heightened even further. They were all relieved when the child was finally born, the captain bravely adopting the role of midwife. Eliza was exhausted by the labour and the stress of the wreck. Her milk dried up and the poor baby died in its second day. The tiny body was wrapped in a cloth and confined to the deep.

spearing of fraserEliza was delirious when they came ashore on a long wide beach fringed with thick lush vegetation. The island on which they had landed would later be named after her husband who was either killed by the blacks or died naturally, no one seems to know. Eliza spent several months with the aboriginals before she was rescued and brought back to civilisation.

 

 

A Place to Escape From: The Novel & Brisbane Part 3

the delinquentsTwo novels of note with Brisbane as the setting were published in the decade following Vance Palmer’s works (see earlier post “Brisbane: A Prison Within a Prison”): The Delinquents (1962) by Criena Rohan/Deirdre Cash set in the early 1960s, and The Slow Natives (1965) by Thea Astley set in the late 1950s. The Delinquents is a work of social realism that explores the experiences of two young lovers, teen rebellion and sexual promiscuity in the experimental years of the 1960s. The couple share an old Queenslander in the West End in Brisbane and the authenticity of life in an Australian city nearly a half century earlier is a feature of the book.

David Malouf’s Johnno (1975) describes the Brisbane of the author’s childhood in the post war years and is now perceived as the quintessential novel about Brisbane. Malouf, speaking of Johnno in the 2000 Neustadt Lecture, reinforces the notion of an under-represented Brisbane in literature and outlines his reason for writing about the city:

It was about growing up in my hometown, Brisbane, a place that for some reason had never till then got itself into a book—or not anyway in a form that had brought it alive in people’s minds and stuck. I wanted to put it on the map; to make it, in all its particularity, a place that would exist powerfully in the lives of readers in the same way that Dickens’s London does, or Dostoevsky’s Petersburg. (“A Writing Life”)

However, throughout Johnno, Malouf paints an unsightly picture of Brisbane, which Dante, johnnothe narrator, describes as “a place where nothing happened, and where nothing ever would happen, because it had no soul. People suffered here without significance. It was too mediocre even to be a province of hell” (118). Brisbane was a place to escape from, as Dante, Johnno and their friends do, with many of them going to Europe, which Malouf implies is better than Australia.

Johnno set the stage for the way the city was portrayed by writers in the years to follow. Since Malouf, numerous novels have been set in Brisbane, with many, such as Jessica Anderson in Tirra Lirra by the River (1978) and Thea Astley in Reaching Tin River (1990), depicting the city as backward and uninteresting, a place “to escape” from.

Malouf’s influence is still evident in one of the most recent books to feature Brisbane, Simon Cleary’s The Comfort of Figs (2008), where the author has continued in Malouf’s footsteps. Cleary’s novel is set in the present but is in part historical as it also depicts the period surrounding the construction of the bridge in the late 1930s. The Comfort of Figs is a love story and explores themes of forgiveness and self-understanding. At the start, young Canadian Freya Adams is slowly discovering the hidden layers of the city through her lover, Robbie O’Hara. The following is how she sees “her adopted town” not long after she meets Robbie:

A city of a mithe-comfort-of-figs-cmykllion and a half, stretching, growing. A city reaching further outwards, towards the bays and the forests and the mountain ranges she’d glimpsed from the airplane window, but couldn’t grasp when she first flew in. So much water, so many trees, so many ridge-lines. A developing city, and a place of rough politics, hard to detect. A city shaking off the past it seems half-embarrassed by. (16)

The last sentence of this extract reflects Penton’s portrayal of Brisbane towards the end of the nineteenth century in Inheritors (1936). This inability to deal with the past, according to Cleary, is still present in the twenty-first century.

Like Johnno, Jessica Anderson’s The Commandant was published in 1975, and is the first historical novel to be set principally in Brisbane. However, it is restricted to the period surrounding Captain Logan’s death in 1830. Anderson describes the arrival in Brisbane of Frances O’Beirne, the seventeen year old fictitious sister of Logan’s wife Letty:

Again they were rounding a long point defined by the winding of the river. The gardens lay on its eastern side, and when they left them behind, and came within sight of the western bank, Frances, like Amelia herself, brought up her hands and clapped them. The row of houses set in gardens, the smoking chimneys, the tall flagstaff and spirited fluttering flag, the barge crossing the river, the windmill on the hill. The cluster of people on the wharf, all this seemed to her the essence of homeliness and familiarity. (35)

The sense of welcome expressed here by O’Beirne differs sharply to the shabbiness evoked by Penton in Landtakers set some fourteen years after The Cothe commandantmmandant.

In The Commandant, Anderson has woven fictional characters into a historical account of life in Moreton Bay Penal Colony—as I have done in Turrwan—in 1830. By that time, Commandant Patrick Logan had gained a reputation as a harsh disciplinarian hated by the convicts under his rule. Anderson uses Frances—a somewhat naïve humanitarian—along with others such as Dr Cowper (a historical figure) to provide an insight into Logan and the workings of the settlement where they are all prisoners. Despite Frances’s early positive depiction of the colony, it was still a place to escape from, as many convicts did. In speaking of Moreton Bay Penal Colony, Mamie O’Keefe claims that,

[o]f the approximately 2062 men, 504 are known to have absconded, many of them more than once, over 700 separate abscondings in all. This is more than equivalent to one man in every three going once, and even though most of the absences were brief it clearly provided the authorities with a problem, to which various solutions were proposed.

The desire to flee Brisbane, as expressed in many novels set in the city, is perhaps, in part, an ingrained remnant, a persistent leftover from the convict era where escape was on the minds of a great number of prisoners.

 

Turrwan Book Launch

mr header

TURRWAN

Richard J Carroll

A thoroughly Australian tale of coming of age, adventure, love, and payback, based on the real-life figure of Tom Petrie, and set against the historical background of colonial Australia.

Turrwan 300dpi011

6.15pm Thursday March 12

FREE event with complimentary refreshments

Mary Ryan’s Milton

Park Rd, Milton

Please RSVP to the

bookshop on 3510 5000

 
 

 

 

 

 

Turrwan Review

The following review has just been posted on the website Throw the book at us.

Turrwan by Richard J Carroll

Reviewed by Rob Kennedy

The Story

Turrwan means great man, and this book is a fictional account of a great man. The story begins and ends in 1909; set mainly in South-East Queensland. The leading character is based on the real-life figure of Tom Petrie. We watch Tom grow from a boy into a man in this harsh land, and build his own unique character and understanding of the world. His family and a ruthless, vindictive convict named Grayson play strong parts in this book, but the heart of the story is about someone who tries to and does understand, protect and care for Aboriginal people and their culture. It’s an adventure story, a love story, and a story that is about the life of a great man and humanist.

The Review

Richard J Carroll knows how to write and how to tell a clear and entertaining story. His writing is very effective, and professionally constructed and edited. He communicates in a deft, subtle manner that reminds me of the likes of Patrick White and Kate Grenville.

His writing is a pleasure to read and he has a distinctive style. The story he creates in Turrwan is a clean, easy to follow construction. The parts that really shine are his portrayals and understandings of Aboriginal people and their values.

Throughout the book the main character, Tom, battles with the harshness of the colonisers and the confusion surrounding of what is right and wrong for survival in this land, as the laws of a new world are imposed on a traditional people.

Tom develops close friendships and a love for the Aboriginal people he encounters. Even though some are against him, he recognises why and tries to make the best of every situation. When he falls in love with a young Aboriginal girl called Karawara, both the Aborigines and his family are unsure of this union, but then it ends tragically, and this changes Tom’s life.

He goes out into the greater world than what his territory offers him, and does what many men did at that time. In gold fields, pubs, confronting weather and conditions, he tries to block out what happened to him – but can anyone ever succeed in doing this?

Tom finds love again later on in the book, and they start their new, self-sufficient life out in the bush. But old situations and enemies come back to try and take his life away.

This book was a pleasure to read. I only wish more first-time authors could write like this. I’m surprised it was not picked up by one of the major publishers. Turrwan is Carroll’s first book and I’ll certainly be looking out for his next.

Conrad Martens-327384

Brisbane: A “Prison within a Prison” – The Novel & Brisbane Part 2

landtakersThe first half of the twentieth century saw few novels written about Brisbane, or even Queensland. Three historical novels stand out in this period. The Romance of Runnibede by Steele Rudd aka Arthur Davis was published in 1927. Set on the Darling Downs in the mid-nineteenth century, the book narrates the lives of squatters and the Aboriginal resistance to the white presence, but there is no mention of Brisbane. Brian Penton’s Landtakers, the Story of an Epoch, published in 1934, also explores squatter life and the treatment of the Aboriginal people from the 1840s to the 1860s. Landtakers relates the life of Derek Cabell, a young English immigrant who arrives in Moreton Bay in 1844. Penton describes Brisbane:

Red earth and blue sky met in the jagged line of a near horizon. In the middle of this vault stood the settlement—a prison within a prison. Shanties built of black bark twisted by the fierce sun, with crazy-shaped doors and glassless windows. Jail and barracks of stone. A yellow stone windmill. A long, dusty, empty street. Sheep, a few cows, pigs, wide patches of yellow Indian corn. At one side of the valley a river shimmered in the sunlight; at each end of the valley the bush. Into illimitable blue distance it faded, across unexplored mountains and plains, grey, motionless and silent.

Here Penton evokes a sense of isolation in a vaguely intimidating landscape from which there is no escape from the “prison within a prison.”

Penton has played with history, as he describes convicts in chains and other aspects of the penal settlement. However, Brisbane was no longer a penal institution in 1844 as the prison was closed down in 1842. Only the first chapter of Landtakers is set in Brisbane, where Cabell’s anger at the loss of some sheep boils over in a bar. His opinion of the land was echoed by many of the first settlers: “’I hate it,’ he said pathetically. ‘I loathe it. It’s so different from England, this eternal, cursed, colourless bush.’” Perhaps this myth of a hostile country is also partly responsible for later depictions in literature of the inhabitants of Brisbane, like Praed, wanting to escape to a better life in Europe.

In Landtakers, Cabell is bitter about his situation and prospects for the future, and blames the land for his failures. Two years after his arrival, he drives a mob of sheep and cattle 600 kilometres northwest of Brisbane where he establishes a huge holding. Over the years, Cabell commits atrocities including the massacre of Aboriginal people. Landtakers provides an unabridged view of life on the Queensland frontier and an image of the pioneer as an anti-hero. The role that landscape plays in shaping how we perceive a work cannot be underestimated. Landtakers, in the words of David Carter,

shows a landscape that is almost gothic, that sometimes seems positively malevolent in its own right not merely the scene for malevolent human action. Imagining Queensland as a place of gothic haunting, guilty secrets, sexual repression, and violence—the other side of paradise—is a surprisingly strong theme in literature.

Inheritors (1936), the sequel to Landtakers, evokes this idea of guilt and suppression as it takes aim at the political corruption in Queensland and portrays Brisbane towards the end of the nineteenth century as being obsessed with hiding its not so glorious past of deceit and lies.

It was not until the mid-twentieth century and Vance Palmer’s Golconda (1948), the first of golcondaa trilogy partially set in Brisbane that some form of continuity in using the city as a setting developed. The three novels, including Seedtime (1957) and The Big Fellow (1959), are loosely based on the life of Ted Theodore, a Queensland politician, and span the period from the late 1920s to the 1950s. The main protagonist, Macy Donovan, starts out as a union organiser in the new mining town of Golconda in outback Queensland and later rises to become premier of the state. It is not until Seedtime that Palmer gives life to Brisbane with some parts being shown in more detail. In the following passage from Seedtime, Donovan has just left hospital after recovering from a knifing:

A sense of exultation was making Donovan feel light-headed as he left the hospital behind him and sauntered down towards the North Quay. Morning showers had washed the streets clean and a cool, bright wind was moving in from the Bay; there was even the tang of the sea in it. Winding through the massed spread of buildings in the city below, the river showed in streaks of silver and where it widened into a broad reach along the Quay the dark blobs of small cargo-boats could be seen like moving water-beetles through the bamboos of the Esplanade.

Here Palmer uses the rain, the smell of the sea, and the river to evoke a sense of well-being in the city.

In the next instalment, I look at David Malouf’s Johnno and Jessica Anderson’s The Commandant, amongst others, continuing the theme of Brisbane as a place to escape from.

The Perfect Setting

As I have written elsewhere, knowing the country used for the setting of a novel through personal experience is of immense value to an author. In my present work, a sequel to Turrwan, I needed a secluded hideaway for the villains and realised that the property I had lived on for seven years was perfect as a starting point. The following is a piece I wrote for a university course and which I have subsequently adapted and used in the first draft of the novel.

Just 30 km from the centre of Brisbane, Cedar Creek winds its way to flatter lands after cascading down through the rain-forested slopes of Mt Glorious. The gorge opens out onto a secluded valley surrounded on all sides by mountains (Glorious, D’Aguilar, Samson, Lawson). The beltanacreek clings tightly to the flanks of Mt Glorious on one side while the northern side opens to more gently undulating lands before rising steeply to the rock escarpments south of Mt Samson. Away from the creek the trees have been cleared and kikuyu grass planted for dairy cattle. The verdant meadows laze peacefully in the sun, while contented cattle chew their cud in the shade of the bushy wattles that hedge the fields before tallowwoods and blue gums take over, lining the gullies and ridges with hues of green. Huge megalithic granite boulders hide amongst the vines, and further up the slopes lantana lurks in the shadows, impenetrable.

cedar ck googleThis special place was my home for seven years. Like a bowl, it collects the summer rains that fall on the mountains and is therefore greener than lower areas. The mountains also cast wide shadows across the valley keeping temperatures a few degrees cooler than Brisbane. You can feel a sense of protection in a womb-like embrace, the power of the place is almost tangible, you can taste it in the twinkling pool, smell it in the yellow wattle, you hear it in the screech of the white cockatoos and the busy chattering of multi-coloured parrots. When it rains the clouds blanket the landscape, so close you can almost touch them as the mists rise with the heat.

The creek is named for the magnificent red cedars (Toona australis) that once abounded. Unfortunately, many fell victim to the demand for the quality timber much appreciated by furniture makers. An old disused sawmill, nestled beside the creek where it first enters the valley, remains as a witness to their passing. The red cedar is one of the few native Australian species that lose their leaves in winter. The vigorous growth of spring-green leaves are a delight to behold, you can almost feel the life force pulsing within.

Cedar Creek is a measure of the climate and the physical features waterfall cedar ckof the area. One year it never stopped raining – the earth was literally weeping, spilling giant tears into the creek. The locals say it used to flood just about every year, and it certainly never stopped running for months on end as is the case these days. Rare are the times now that you hear the boulders rumbling and crunching in the roar of the flood that can drown the unwary in the turbulent, mud-brown flow. In a tragic accident not long after we moved to the valley, a 14 year old girl trying to save her dog fell into the swiftly flowing waters and drowned. I remember an earlier time helping our kids across the same causeway with the help of a rope. The power of the water was incredible.

Over time the creek has carved its way down to a rocky bottom with deep holes, waterfalls and rapids alternating along its length. The water is always cool and refreshing in the heavy summer heat, and the creek is a popular picnic spot. Shady trees cling precariously to whatever their roots can find and somehow resist the regular pounding of the flood; at their feet, reeds and grasses grow amongst the sand and stones. Light filters through the overhead branches and dances in the bubbling cascades. And if you’re quiet at dawn or dusk you may be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the shy platypus. Tiny fish dart in the shadow of a sunken log while the cicadas thrum, ever present in the background.

As with elskids in cedar ckewhere, the inevitable development came with its roads, fences and houses popping up on the landscape. Now the noises of the surrounding bush are often pierced by a passing car or the iconic mower as progress enters the valley. The property I lived on has now been carved up into two hectare lots and is no longer recognisable as a dairy farm. I have since moved further down the creek (outside the bowl) to a house on a hill overlooking the valley. My connection to the creek is still strong, albeit different. I don’t spend as much time actually in the creek or along its banks as before. I suppose it’s because the kids have grown up – they were always wanting to go for a swim, so I had to go with them – and where I now live the creek is less accessible.

Cedar Creek has been a part of my life for the last 18 years. Even if I move away from this area, it will always remain as the defining element of those years. I count myself lucky to have had this opportunity to get to know such a beautiful area.

 

A Welcome Stranger

The straps of my backpack dug hard into my shoulders as I trudged zombie-like in the sweltering heat. I was hitch-hiking across the island of Crete and had been dropped off in a small village miles from anywhere. A number of houses and sheds nestled beside the main road, but motorists hardly seemed to notice their presence as they rushed by in a cloud of dust and roaring motor without a sideways glance. I walked to the outskirts until I found a spot on the road where cars could pull over, and dropped my load to the ground with a sigh of relief. A low stone wall and a few sparse shrubs provided the only shade, but it would have to do because my legs felt like jelly and refused to go any further.greek temple 001After several hours under the relentless sun, I was beginning to wilt and thought I’d never get out of the place. It was slow going trying to get a lift in Crete as there were few cars. And those that did come, hurtled past me, unstoppable express trains. The village seemed to be asleep, the population swallowed by the imposing stone walls of their houses, the only sound the constant thrumming of countless cicadas.

A movement in the shimmering air caught my eye. Coming down the street from the centre of the village was a woman, clothed in black from head to toe. She was middle-aged, the olive skin of her face bore the marks of the elements and the passing of time. She was carrying something in her hands, maybe a tray I thought, covered by a spotless white cloth.

Imagine my surprise when she came directly up to me and offered the tray accompanied by a torrent of incomprehensible Greek. I had no idea what she wanted until she lifted the cloth to reveal a loaf of freshly-baked bread, whose rich aroma filled my senses, evoking the image of my uncle’s bakery and the smell I adored as a child, of loaves direct from the oven. A block of Fetta cheese, tomatoes, olives and a bottle of orange juice decorated the tray. I was flabbergasted. As I took the tray I tried to thank her with my few words of Greek, but she waved me away, turned on her heel and headed back the way she had come. Still in a daze, I sat down to my feast, famished. I unfolded my knife and cut the bread. Food had never tasted so good.

I was deeply touched by the generosity of this unknown woman who had gone out of her way to be kind to a passing foreigner, especially so in my case as I had long hair, a bushy beard and dusty clothes. More than 30 years after the event, I still recall this moment of kindness with great humility and endless thanks. To know there are selfless people in our troubled world kindles joy and hope for the future.

The First Novel Set in Brisbane

fernvaleWhile the colonial history of Australia has been widely represented in fiction, from Marcus Clarke’s classic For the Term of His Natural Life, first published in 1870, to Kate Grenville’s The Secret River (2006), Brisbane has been largely neglected.

The first Queensland novel, Fern Vale, or the Queensland Squatter, by Colin Munro, was published in 1862. Set for the most part on the Darling Downs in the years before separation in 1859, the book is a pastoral romance which describes the social interactions between squatters, and the treatment of the Aboriginal people. At one stage, one of the characters passes through Brisbane, but nothing is said of the settlement. It was not until 1881 and the publication of Politics and Passion, by Rosa Praed, that Brisbane appeared in fiction. Although Praed’s book is only partially set in Brisbane, it is important because it is the first novel to make reference to the city at any length. Politics and Passion is the first of 16 books set in ‘Leichardt’s Land,’ which represents Queensland after it became a separate colony in 1859. The author describes Brisbane as follows:

Leichardt’s Town is curiously situated upon three peninsulas, lying parallel with each other, and formed by the snake-like curves of the river which divides them. The city lies in the middle, and is called the north side in contradistinction to South Leichardt’s Town, with which it is connected by a bridge, while Emu Point, the suburb where Mrs. Vallancy lived, faces it again on the opposite bank.

Praed, who was born and grew up in Queensland, explores life on theRosa_Campbell_Praed frontier, squatters, politics and relations between black and white in the expanding state. Growing up, Praed’s ambition was to escape and go to Britain, a theme later explored by David Malouf and others in writing about Brisbane.

Only a handful of novels with Brisbane as the principal setting were written before the end of the nineteenth century. According to the John Oxley Library (JOL) website, The Curse and its Cure (1894), by Thomas Pennington Lucas was the first novel to be set in Brisbane. In the first volume, The Ruins of Brisbane in the Year 2000, a man sailing up the Brisbane River in the early twenty-first century tells the story of the city’s decay. The narrator describes a civil war between Queensland and the other states, the massacre of the Aboriginal people, the 1893 floods, and the ‘curse’ that leads to Brisbane’s downfall—the selfishness and greed of the people. Volume two, Brisbane Rebuilt in the Year 2200, describes how ‘the city is rebuilt with love and transformed into a Christian utopia of peace, prosperity and good health’ (JOL).

However, I believe that another work of fiction set in Brisbane predated The Curse and its Cure. In 1888, William Lane published White or Yellow? A Story of the Race-war of A.D. 1908, a work of speculative fiction, in serial form in the Boomerang. In the novel the Chinese take over the parliament in Brisbane in 1908, but are eventually expelled by an uprising of the white population. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Lane was an influential figure in Queensland political and literary circles. His work reflects the ‘repressed violence’ and the ‘pathological national need’ in Australia’s search for identity. In White or Yellow?, John Saxby, one of the leaders of the white revolution to expel the Chinese, proposes a solution to the problem, which is adopted by all and implemented:

‘Let us strike while the iron is hot and before they are ready. Let
us terrorize them so that they will never recover. Let us convince
them that we are desperate and that their only chance is to obey.
We can fire Chinatown. . . . We can burn down every Chinese
store and house and plough up every Chinese garden. We can
hang every white man who is a traitor to the whites in this war.
And we can start to do this throughout Queensland, perhaps
throughout Australia, this very night.’
‘And the Chinese themselves?’ queried Dow, while the other committeemen leaned to listen breathlessly.

William_LaneThis genre of narrative found its roots in public paranoia and contributed to a fear of being invaded that can still be felt in the present. Perhaps White or Yellow? has been forgotten and not recognised as the first novel to be set in Brisbane because it appeared as a serial, and even more so because it was an obviously racist invasion story.

Another candidate for the first novel set in Brisbane could have been The Land and the People published by W. Edward Graham under the pseudonym Austin South in 1891. However, only two chapters of a work in the vein of Lucas’s futuristic utopian Brisbane were published and it is not known if Graham ever finished the novel. The next novel to be set in Brisbane was The Dishonourable (1895), a popular courtroom drama and murder-mystery/romance that takes place during the devastating flood of 1893. Its author, John David Hennessey, explores the corruption that was rife in the worlds of politics and business in the city at that time.

In a future post I will look at other authors who have written about Brisbane including Brian Penton, David Malouf and Jessica Anderson among others.