Reviewed by Wendy Lipke
Annabel Lloyd, Archives Co-ordinator, told Matthew Condon, ‘So many people contact us wanting to know about the real history of Brisbane…But there is hardly anything. It’s hard to know where to point them to’ (46). The book without an index. We know from our school days that John Oxley’s mission was to find a place for a convict settlement. But where exactly was this new settlement to be? The large, dull, rectangular granite obelisk at North Quay, which few people know about, says that this was where Oxley went ashore. But was it really! The wording and location of the obelisk troubled the writer, who has always needed to know the how, when, where and why of history. He was ‘the boy who admired John Oxley, the boy who revelled in his town’s convict history’ (26). Here was a puzzle to be solved.
This book contains the author’s early memories and information gained from extensive research of original papers, poems, art, interviews with various local historians, family histories and other documents. Even ex-convict, jack-of-all-trades, and prolific diarist, Thomas Dowse, provided much valuable information. He wrote for the Brisbane Courier in the 1970s under the by-line ‘Old Tom’ and had much to say about his recollections and gossip from early settlement days.
Condon’s book is anything but a dry history book. It is about the emotional contacts people have had with this city which was once called Edenglassie (81). Not everyone was drawn to this town. For some, in its earlier years it was ‘scraggy, low-built and premature… far from picturesque… (more like) a town that is but half dressed’ (99). Even earlier Governors had little expectations for this settlement. Governor Gipps in 1842, on seeing Andrew Petrie’s plans for the town, ordered that the streets be trimmed back… it didn’t need grand avenues as it had a future only as ‘a paltry village’ (105).
For many who had abandoned their hometown and later returned, it was obvious that this place was ‘unlike the great seething, rejuvenating, reincarnating cities of the world. Time here seems to move slower, and the distance from founding to present is less’ (47- 48). For many years Brisbane was described by southerners as a large country town with no culture.
Yet, the author, like many others, discovered that there is a unique light in Brisbane which you keep with you and measure all other cities by (52-53). ‘For decades after first settlement the city had an awkward relationship with time’, and only with the arrival of the clock in the Brisbane City Hall tower, ‘did the people of Brisbane live their lives in synchronicity with the rest of the world’ (58).
When referring to his childhood, Matthew Condon refers to ‘the boy’, in third person, but when recording his findings as an adult the writing is in first person. The information revealed, unlike other books of history, is not in chronological order. Information flows from present to past, and back again, sometimes quite abruptly, following particular themes. Interesting observations are included in this book that would not be found in other histories. ‘At the point where the old Western Creek now emerges into the Brisbane River…is a set of small concrete steps… On the steps is an old canned-fruit tin for the cigarette butts of the restaurant’s chefs and waiting staff’ (24).
The author goes on to highlight various officials who had an impact, positive or negative, on this, his hometown. The reader learns that Premier Sir Joh Bjelke Peterson, the peanut farmer who held the reins of the state for twenty years, measured his success as premier by the number of cranes on the Brisbane skyline, often at the expense of iconic buildings. Premier Peter Beattie wanted to ensure that Brisbane became a liveable, family-orientated city and so came up with a plan for a series of pedestrian bridges across the river. Beattie, then his successor, Anna Bligh, poured 1.7 billion into the North Bank super development in the 2000s. Bligh even mooted selling off Queensland’s assets to keep the place afloat. Among the many influencers were Mayor Clem Jones, who removed the trams in favour of buses and who brought office towers to the CBD and sewerage to the suburbs. He was given the title of ‘the father of modern Brisbane’.
For those readers who wish for a brief linear history of Brisbane, Condon provides this on pages 242 to 247 as he answers questions for his four-year-old son. Again, in pages 274 to 280 there is a concise list of things that happened in the life of Brisbane. Some have been discussed in detail, but most have just been listed.
Did Condon satisfactorily discover the story of the obelisk? And did he find the index to the city? Only he can answer that. A visit to the Toowong Cemetery, once known as the Brisbane General Cemetery, was most productive. ‘Now after a couple of hours on this hot morning the man, who was the boy, realised that the cemetery was, in a sense, the story of Brisbane’ (282).
What this pocket-size book does achieve is that we now have a comprehensive history of Brisbane, albeit tangled up with the author’s memoirs, with the information all in the one place. And it is timely because Brisbane is no longer anything like the place destined to be a ‘paltry village’ and it continues to change at remarkable speed. Daily, residents in the suburbs, find original homes disappearing to make way for multi-residences. I, myself, have witnessed four old homes disappear to make way for a structure to house 92 residents. It can only be hoped that as this ‘progress’ continues the uniqueness that once characterised Brisbane does not all disappear.
Matthew Condon first published this book in 2010 and in his 2020 edition he has acknowledged the changes of the past decade. In 2020 the government and city council have embarked on a massive suite of road and tunnel projects that have turned much of the metropolis into a construction site. Hopefully, Brisbane will not become just like any other city.
This is an important book which records the changing face of Brisbane. It is a personal history of Brisbane. It is full of interesting facts which could only have been found from extensive research or experience. A fascinating read.
by Matthew Condon
Paperback | Nov 2020 | NewSouth | 9781742237190 | 320pp | 178x110mm | GEN | AUD$29.99, NZD$34.99