Let’s go to Australia. We have family in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne. We’ll visit the three cities in turn, one week each. We’ll take notes and photographs to document our memories. Having started with Sydney, let’s fly on to Brisbane.
Nothing is more disorienting than to arrive in the middle of an unknown city. Everyone is attuned to its complexity except you. The compass goes haywire. Central Station feels scrubby, home to the rougher country they have hidden from us so far. Where do we go from here?
A meal, a taxi ride, a haven on the edge of the centre, and the vertigo recedes.
Brisbane is a river city. The curving water bisects the centre, separating central business district from central culture district. Ferries glide up and downstream, moving from bank to bank at each stop, setting the easy tone.
The South Bank is a marvel. Clearly modelled on London’s South Bank, with lessons learned. What is disconnected in the one hemisphere is connected here. Side by side are the Gallery of Modern Art, the State Library, the Queensland Museum, the Queensland Art Gallery, the Queensland Performing Arts Centre. Each runs into the other, belonging to each other.
Entering from the east we first follow a curving path of Bougainvillea, past strollers, readers, musicians, coffee bars, a beach complete with lifeguard. Dragon lizards scurry from our feet. Ibises monitor the tables, angling for leftovers. Beside, the river flows, and time slows with it.
Contemporary Aborigine art at the Queensland Art Gallery. It is beautiful as it is puzzling. I ask stupid questions of a guide, wondering what an art that is both representational and non-representational signifies, reducing myself to a philistine. What does it show when I cannot see what it shows? But it is beautiful.
Passing along the walls of other parts of the gallery, Western art seems to shrink by comparison. Or perhaps I should be looking at it differently. Art is not what we see but what we dream that we see.
Brisbane can make its cultural centres link together, but not so much its transport. Where Sydney flows, Brisbane stumbles.
As with Sydney, there is new building everywhere. New centres, new businesses, new bridges. The urgent need to grow, to be seen to be growing.
How right and fine to find the state library among this cultural parade. It is open and playful and used. Enter one way and what you see first is the play area. Enter another and you see the information room, PCs waiting for you, whoever you are. Everything is open. Everything feels light.
The newspaper reading room has just one person seated there, and no newspapers. But the rows of microfilmed newspapers warm the heart of a one-time news curator. The progression of time and incident, ordered and recoverable.
Quaint wooden-boarded houses outside the centre, some barely hanging themselves together, others immaculately preserved. There is an old world nestled among the new.
Signs warning passers by of swooping birds. It is Spring and magpies are defending their nests.
Dead possums in the street.
Painted traffic junction boxes are everywhere, triumphantly amateur. Anyone can sign up to paint a box near them. The guidelines say they must not have large blocks of a single colour, as this will only encourage the graffiti artists the boxes are designed to deter.
There are many bridges over the river. The commercial and business district is a grid of sloping roads. Surprise discoveries wait around very corner.
One million books, boasts Archive Books, the city’s premier second-hand book store. An impression rather than a certain fact, but long rows of ceiling-high books say you could wander here forever, questing for all that the world might have had to say about itself. I emerge – eventually – with Vernon Scannell, William Trevor, Gordon Burn, Henry King, Shiva Naipaul.
Naipaul’s An Unfinished Journey has his thoughts on Australia, the topic of a travel book that he was fated never to complete (he died of a heart attack, aged forty). He is as acerbic as his brother, unsettlingly so on Aboriginal aspirations in a modern world:
The flight into aboriginality, into blackness, is a flight into despair; an escape from the challenges of history.
I worry about Aboriginal tea towels as gifts for those back home. But they come with labels of authenticity and a photograph of the artist. All must be well.
A desperate search for postcards of a city strangely reluctant to promote itself. On obsolete media at any rate. In the broadcast world, Brisbane is home to Bluey, the world’s favourite blue dog. The world has unwittingly made Brisbane its home.
A detour around back streets takes us to pleasing corners, tucked-away housing, small businesses just about clinging on. A Latin American cafe that is little more than a shack offers us the finest coffee in town. Hello to friendly Diana from Colombia who served us. Good luck with all your adventures.
Back at the South Bank for an excellent exhibition on dinosaurs from Patagonia. The skeletons are monstrous recreations. The scale, of size and time, overwhelms. All those millions of years of eating or being eaten.
Tiny lizards, the inheritors, flit among the stones. That is all we are.
The world passes by, stops for a while to sip at its coffee, then moves on. Ibises seek out the crumbs.
Brisbane was a surprise. It puts culture at its heart. The easy, inclusive, adventurous tone then spreads outwards across the city. It is a good place to be.
But we must move on to Melbourne.
- Photographs from my 2023 visit to Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne are on my Flickr site