August 2010

Arts & Letters

‘Brisbane’ by Matthew Condon

By John Birmingham

Cities have memories that outlive those who first held them. London will always recall the Blitz, Rome the glories of empire. Some memories are, of course, lost. Time, war, civilisational collapse all take their toll. But how do you explain a city that forgets itself in just one hundred years? How can a city whose first memories are but three lifetimes removed misplace its creation myth? In the opening pages of Matthew Condon’s lyrical meditation on his hometown, Brisbane, we discover that the northern capital – nowadays a thrusting, shiny, city-on-the-make – had become so disconnected from its recent origins that, within a century of John Oxley stepping ashore, the site of its original settlement had been forgotten or at least confused.

Not for Brisbane a confident proclamation such as Batman’s – surveying future Melbourne, he declared: “This will be the place for a village”. Even Sydney, our foundation city, which has eaten itself so many times that landscape and shoreline only vaguely resemble their original forms, has managed to set a nice brass plaque into the footpath outside a pub to mark the spot where Governor Phillip hoisted the Union Jack and ordered a volley of musket fire. For a long time Brisbane, cleaved in two by its serpentine river, “a muddy, twisting, restless thing that pushed out into the bay with its own sort of languid apathy”, seemed a city without a sense of place. It was and remains a city straddling a river offering no bearings. A river, writes Condon, that wanted you to be lost. And so lost were the city’s origins they are now marked by multiple, competing monuments scattered up and down that river.

Condon weaves forensic examination of the city’s ever-shifting history through intimate personal recollections of his childhood perceptions of the place. As with so many books set in Brisbane (David Malouf’s semi-autobiographical novel Johnno being the Rosetta Stone), the natural world presses in on the life of the city, creeping like vines gone wild, soaking memories with a steam-press humidity. This blurring of the built and natural environments seems to be a feature of both architecture and writing as we head north across this nation.

There is no great tradition of writing urban history in Australia, which means personal histories such as Condon’s, like the fiction of Malouf and Andrew McGahan, will have a life long after the authors themselves have passed on. Our academics have tended to concentrate on the frontier, the labour movement, the Anzacs and, recently, on relations between the Indigenous and their colonisers. But of the cities, comparatively little has been written. Condon’s Brisbane, one of a series by UNSW Press to address this shortfall, has a great beauty and depth that is missing from much academic writing.

Condon is neither an academic nor a historian. He is one of the finest writers of his generation, but one who has often been inexplicably overlooked. What an irony it would be if, having set some of his earlier darkly comic novels in Brisbane, this non-narrative should finally gather him the plaudits he deserves.

John Birmingham

John Birmingham is an author, a columnist and a journalist. His books include He Died With a Felafel in His Hand and Leviathan: The Unauthorised Biography of Sydney.

@JohnBirmingham

'Brisbane' by Matthew Condon, UNSW Press, 312pp; $29.95
Cover: August 2010
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