What I've been reading

Johnno by David Malouf. The main interest for me was the setting, the Brisbane of the 40s and 50s, starting out as a combination of overgrown country town and sleazy wartime garrison town, then gradually metamorphosing into the repressed provincial city that I remember from visits in the 70s and 80s. Malouf mentions the closure of the brothels (where the protagonist creates some havoc) as an instance of this.

Of course, brothels and gambling dens continued to operate with the protection of corrupt police. This ultimately led to the collapse of the seemingly invulnerable Bjelke-Petersen government following the Fitzgerald Commission.

There’s not much left of either of the Brisbanes Malouf describes today. In fact, Brisbane seems both more sophisticated and softer-edged now than in the past.

The old country town and provincial capital were, it seems to me, grimmer and less friendly than the new city, with notoriously brutal police and an entrenched social hierarchy. The old police culture was pretty much destroyed by the Fitzgerald Commission, and the beneficial effects seem to have been more persistent than in NSW, where successive waves of reform have washed over the entrenched bedrock of corruption dating back to the First Fleet.

Brisbane’s private-school ruling class (of which the characters in Malouf’s book are on the periphery) is still around, but it’s been swamped by migration and rendered largely irrelevant by the shift of corporate headquarters to Sydney and beyond, leaving government-owned enterprises as the only really big businesses in town. With Labor in office, and (despite recent troubles likely to stay for some time, I think) the old ruling elite has money but not much power.

13 thoughts on “What I've been reading

  1. It’s a fabulous book.

    The old country town and provincial capital were, it seems to me, grimmer and less friendly than the new city, with notoriously brutal police and an entrenched social hierarchy.

    Leaving aside the political points, I’d argue that Brisbane was a much friendlier place 20 years ago than now. There’s a lot more pretention in the culture than there used to be.

  2. Always believed that civic hygiene was an over-rated virtue. All cities need an amount of amiable grunge to make them interesting. Maybe old Joh did you Qld’ers an unintended favour – or should that be flavour?

  3. Mark, my knowledge of Brisbane 20 years ago is limited to occasional visits and external impressions, so you’re better placed to judge than me.

    To me, at least, it’s strikingly friendly now, far more so than (for example) Cairns or Townsville which have some of the superficial characteristics of Brisbane in the 80s.

  4. Mark: I don not miss the 80s at all – ’89 excepted. It was not pleasant for me, then being a student of Churchie.

    But these days, I suspect my mother had it worse. She did her nursing prac in Montreal – she knew what a interesting city could be like. So imagine her doing tuck-shop duty among barrister’s wives from Ascot whose idea of personal growth was a bigger apartment in Surfers. There’s not much commom ground to connect. This sort of parochialism is one reason why it took her a decade and a half to get used to this city – somesometime in the nineties. That’s after living here for 14 years.

    John: one reason why the “private-school ruling classâ€? thing is in decline is that these days it matters a lot more if, and where you went to (and how you did in) University than what school you attended. That’s why most people sent their kids to the place – just for the tertiary entrance score. The parents knew it, the kids knew it, and the teachers knew it.

  5. To me, at least, it’s strikingly friendly now

    Interesting, my impression is exactly the opposite. I was surprised when I first arrived here to find it the first Australian place I had lived where a friendly smile and hello met with London-style dismissal. That only seems to have got steadily worse in my suburb (East Brisbane) where the once mixed set of residents seem to be being replaced by a monoculture of UAV-driving yuppie-rednecks who are visibly suspicious at the very notion of someone walking, unmotorised, down the street.

  6. I have lived in Brisbane all my life and ‘Johnno’ is one of my favourite books. It’s sad to witness the gradual erosion of our town’s quaint old character and buildings, along with the demise of all the lovely old festivals like the Spring Hill Fair, The Jazz and Blues Festival and LIVID.

    Brisbane has always felt self-conscious and second best. We never really appreciated the unique qualities of our big old country town that in the 1950s, Katharine Hepburn compared to New Orleans. Now we’re hell bent on building tunnels, engineering cultural and entertainment precincts and the most grotesque, tallest buildings we can, in an endeavour to emulate Sydney. It doesn’t help that we are a one paper town.

    The real life and soul of Brisbane is being squeezed out as the inner suburbs are transformed into a concrete, pokey out awning wonderland. I’d rather be unsophisticated than a pretender. Take Fortitude Valley as an example – it grew organically as a place for original live music to flourish. The BCC’s Valley Music Harmony Plan is a hotch potch of bureaucratic bollocks that will suffocate this struggling scene.

    Soon all we’ll have left are memories – but I’ll still be here – Brisbane’s my home and I love it.

    PS My husband and I love your site.

  7. I’m a life-long Brisvegan, since age 20 I don’t think I’ve been out of the place for a month in a single stretch.

    I’d have to say that I think Brisbane is actually friendly and mroe toleranr now than at almost any previous time – but then my experiences pre-1987 are colored by Joh Bjelke-Petersen et al effectively treating the city as occupied enemy territory.

  8. I am a pretty commited Sydney sider. However I grew up on a farm half way between Sydney and Brisbane so it could have gone either way.

    My sister recently moved to Brisbane so I visited recently for the first time in over a decade. I must say that I was impressed with the river and the cosmopolitan atmosphere that surrounds its shores.

  9. I read “Johnno” when I was an 18 year old and it is still one of my favourite books.

    Up untill this last year I have lived my whole life in Brisbane, never leaving for more than a few months. I returned home for Christmas and stood in “Borders” for about 20 minutes staring at a copy of “Johnno” trying to work out if it would fit into my carry-on bag with all the other junk I had to take back to Europe with me.

    In the end I didn’t buy the book, not because I was worried about trying to pretend that 20 kg of carry-on was actually 8kg, but because I was afraid that on re-reading the book I might not like it as much as I did when I was 18.

    I should have bought it…

  10. Love Johnno. It is a great favourite. I’m a many generational Queenslander living in Melbourne – and one thing I’m not missing is the racism from both the current ALP government and people like the Mayor of Townsville, Tony Mooney, and the bigotry of the National Party. Whoever you elect in Queensland you still get a situation that does not know how to respond to the needs and aspirations of the First Nations. The ALP wasn’t always like this. Bob Scott, a former Member for Cook, in the Far North could communicate. He knew what was happening. The current govt is so Brisbane-centric it doesn’t give a damn about the rest of the state – not even able to provide a decent four-lane flood free highway from Mackay to Cairns. What a pity that the New State for NQ movement is virtually dead. Pity Brisbane can’t become the capital of a new state of New England. Both states are allowed for in the constitution – as is the inclusion of NZ with its female PM.

  11. I haven’t read “Johnno”, but will do so now.

    I did really enjoy Malouf’s “Harland’s Half Acre” which from memory is also set in and around Brisbane. It’s been a while now. Fascinating themes about art and the artistic process.

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