A Literary Cities piece on Brisbane, by Khalid Warsame.
Let’s begin with a memory. I am standing in the humid square of our porch, bare-chested and barefoot. The trees are shifting restlessly and this old Queenslander, perched atop a hill like a fragile and long-limbed insect, creaks and sways with the wind. The city is unfurled below me. I feel like an antediluvian figure, stooped and staggering on a bluff, with the Lord’s work beneath him. And Brisbane—Brisbane is potent in this memory. Bright buildings shoot up like stalks of bamboo dotted with inner fires, the bright XXXX sign of the brewery nearby pulses in the darkened corner of my gaze like Gatsby’s green light, only redder and imbued with altogether different notions. The wind whispers up the hill and prods the faint and ecstatic tide of sound from the nearby stadium into my ears gently, yet also insistently. It is my last night in this house and I think to myself, ‘Take note, you fool, because this is the closest you’ll ever get.’
I’m in Sydney right now as I write this. Sydney is a stranger to me, and I am never comfortable here. I duck into a bar on Glebe Point Road out of a sense of vague obligation: I’m in Sydney for two nights and I’ve walked the streets well, but I am yet to sit somewhere and just be. The view outside is a familiar one. The vaguely alienating towers of the CBD loom in the background. In the foreground, there is that familiar compositional counterweight: trees, cars, people, lights ... the street. It all seems vaguely antiseptic to me. Too sentimentally arranged.
It’s hard not to think of a city as a composition, as a formal object to be considered as a whole. But a city is none of these things. A city is not a living thing.
A city is merely the collection agency for persons and, sometimes, for the idea personhood. It’s a repository. The natural world can exist without us and will exist for countless eons after us, but the city is a fire that needs constant stoking and prodding and interrogating. Otherwise, it will disappear into nothingness, into memory. Do you remember Carthage? Do you remember Troy? Who can say they even existed? But it’s hard not to think this way. It’s hard to think of a city as an un-living thing that also, inexplicably, breathes and grows and fits neatly into the attendant metaphors of the living world.
Not too long ago I was walking along Stanley Street in Woolloongabba when I noticed yet another high-rise apartment building under construction. I’ve been working in the inner south of Brisbane for some years now and I thought I knew the area well. A stone’s throw from the Gabba, near the PA Hospital, Woolloongabba is a broadly bent slice of land shot through with busways and expressways and exhaust fumes. I paused in front of the gaping hole being filled with concrete and gazed for a moment at all that movement, all that equipment and steel and men in bright helmets buzzing around, and I realised that I couldn’t remember what used to be there before the land was cleared. Right at this moment of realisation, I felt myself changing slightly. I felt something within myself shift to accommodate a new version of this block of land. A memory erased, a city rearranged. There wasn’t a trace of yearning for what used to be there.
All of Brisbane is like this. There’s an unsettling carpet of impermanence that sits over this city and to evoke a place in a thought is to refer to a past version of it that doesn’t exist anymore. The people here are less nostalgic than most. Our city has only just emerged from adolescence into the full bloom of adulthood. Nobody really wants to remember the Brisbane of just a few years ago—with its uncluttered streets, and stifling lack of anything interesting to see or do. There’s a nervous energy here: things are getting bigger, and the facades are getting grander and taller and did you know that there’s a new American burger place in the Valley? And another one in New Farm? Australia’s ‘New World CityTM’ didn’t you know? All of your friends are no longer leaving Brisbane—isn’t it great?
It’s sweltering in West End. We’re outside a new café on Vulture Street. This café, like all new things in Brisbane, is acceptably profane—the fit-out is sophisticated, the kitchen is open all day on Sundays, and the wait-staff give the impression of being better off than you are. Of course, the café sits under a gleaming new apartment building. I tell my friend Nathan that I am working on a piece about Brisbane.
‘Brisbane? A literary city?’ He is, of course, dubious. If there’s one thing that unites the people of Brisbane, it’s the raised eyebrow. Even I’m guilty of it, despite the fact that I haven’t lived in Brisbane long enough to build up that reflexive suspicion. The writer Bri Lee, in her Literary Cities piece on New York, briefly touches on this aspect of Brisbane:
“Brisbane celebrates a particularly vicious kind of tall-poppy syndrome that sniffs out creative go-getters. In Brisbane I sometimes feel like there’s an Eye of Sauron at the top of the Stefan Sky Needle. It watches me, waiting for me to take a creative risk, then at that moment when I’m struggling to explain my professional goals to some lawyer at a cocktail party, it rains down a cynical hell of doubt and self-loathing.”
This aspect of the city is one borne of insecurity, and as many young creatives know well, it can be stifling. Brisbane is the third largest city in a sparsely populated country. It doesn’t have the beautiful harbour and the exclamation point of Sydney, or the coolly distant hipness of Melbourne. The people here still remember Brisbane when it was Bris-Vegas: tacky, provincial, and unimportant. And maybe that’s why we’re in such a hurry to overhaul everything? Maybe that’s why we’re also suspicious of change?
I find myself in Milton on an errand. Milton is a place I know well. It is where my old share-house of two years overlooked the Castlemaine-Perkins brewery, it is where I’d spend many nights standing in the humid air of my porch, bare-chested and barefoot, nursing a stubby and gazing upon the bright red XXXX sign and the city beneath it. And though it had been less than a year since I had lived in Milton, less than a year since I had gazed down on this slice of land above the river… nothing was familiar. There were new buildings everywhere, and newer buildings still under construction. For some reason, though, this doesn’t make me feel stifled, or worried, or insecure. Just the opposite.
Khalid Warsame is a writer and editor who lives in Brisbane. He is the fiction editor for The Lifted Brow and Festival Coordinator for the National Young Writers Festival. He tweets at @kldwarsame