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Edition 32

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Essay

The flood

JUST A FEW kilometres west of the brass lions and clock tower in Brisbane city's King George Square, over a patchwork of corrugated iron and great crowns of poinciana and fig trees, is a little crosshatch of streets on the floor of a suburban valley. The streets – Nash, Elizabeth, Baroona, Beck and a handful of others – are flanked on three sides by the steep ridges and folds of nearby Paddington, Bardon and Auchenflower. The fourth, and open, side runs through neighbouring Milton and down to the banks of the Brisbane River, less than a kilometre to the south-east.

This crosshatch used to be a suburb: Rosalie. Latin for rose, some say. Yet it lost its official status in 1975, downgraded to a locality and subsumed into the renovated century-old houses, boutiques, restaurants and bars that today constitute trendy Paddington, with which – since the demotion – it has shared a postcode.

It is still known to locals as Rosalie, named after a pastoral station owned by John McDougall, a member of Queensland's first Legislative Council of 1860. McDougall, when in Brisbane, lived in nearby Milton. The word Rosalie lives on in neon and paint down in its dogleg shopping village. Here, the residents still talk about taking a trip 'to town', even though you can see the CBD's mirrored towers from some of its streets. Old-timers will recall blacking out their windows during World War II, as if it happened yesterday. There are photographs of men and women performing gas mask drills in Gregory Park, opposite the Milton State School. While the trams have disappeared, the tracks still following their old line beneath layers of bitumen, Rosalie has a passenger shelter from that era that suggests, just by looking at it, overhead sparks and small hole-punched cardboard tickets. In Rosalie, this vanished suburb, the past is powerfully there, and it's not.

I have known this place my whole life. My grandparents Freda and George – both migrants from England – married and moved into 120 Beck Street in the 1940s. Both lived there until they died. It was my mother's only home until she married. My great-aunts and great-uncles lived across the road. Growing up, I knew the names of just about every family in every house on that street, and what went on in those dwellings, dark beneath the house at night and upstairs the windows filled with dull yellow light.

As a child in the 1960s and '70s I explored the suburb's few streets. I had my hair snipped at the local barbershop, sitting up on a little worn wooden plank placed across the chair arms, and I remember being entranced by the jar full of combs and scissors leaning in a pale green liquid. I gawked at the petrol station because somewhere along the line I had picked up family talk that its owner, a racing car enthusiast, had been beheaded in an accident. Sometimes my grandmother and I took the long trek up Elena Street to Woolworths, a fancy modern supermarket complex with an escalator. She carted a two-wheeled shopping trolley up those steep hills. At the top of the ridge you could look back and see the miniature valley that opened onto the river, and the sun hitting the tin roofs of Rosalie.

I played in the old Buick under the house that my grandfather left behind when he died, eight months after I was born, in 1962; climbed the great poincianas; heard the woosh of gas from the burner in the bathroom when my grandmother prepared a bath. I can close my eyes now and see the precise shape of the long dark scar on the tub beneath the single squeaky tap, where the water had over time worn through the enamel.

Beck was a broad street of tin and wood Queenslanders full of families who had not moved for decades. From the top of the street, at the foot of the gardens belonging to the grand white and pink-trimmed Government House, across Nash and on to the T-junction at Baroona Road, where Beck ran into Gregory Park and ended, everybody knew each other.

Rosalites yarned over the back fence. They shared food when things were tight, painted each other's houses, fixed a broken toaster at number 110 or made a dressmaker's dummy for the lady in number 73. They had vegetable patches and chickens. One had a resident horse, the flatulent Lizzie. Men worked late at their benches under the house, and drank XXXX in tall bottles at the kitchen table as they studied the race guide. Sometimes they'd catch the Governor, Sir Henry Abel Smith, walking his dogs down the street. They always said g'day.

And the women, in memory, all wore floral nylon dresses, some with stockings hitched to just below the knee. They wandered about the suburb like rolling blooms. They smelled of 4711. They still worked a copper under the house and pegged clothes to lines that sagged on wooden props. The migrants, like my grandmother, were soft as clouds, in constant retreat from the sun and heat. The locals were made of leather and wire.

 

THIS PLACE, OVER time, became a foundation landscape for me. It became my Brigadoon. It was a place that I knew, even as a child, held the myths and secrets of my family, and to understand it was to understand myself. I have spent a lifetime attempting to unlock its hold on me, so much so that when I returned to live in Brisbane several years ago I set up home just a few hundred metres from Beck Street.

Today there are just a few survivors from that older Brisbane living in the street. One, Mrs Guy, still sits at the open front window of her Queenslander, as she has done for as long as I can remember. I can drive past and look up and see her, and know that beneath that puff of white hair there are memories of my mother as a child, and my grandfather, who I never knew; and observations, in another time, of the gestures and transactions and drama and repose of the family across the road, my family, that all contributed to who I am.

Her view from that window is now of blocks of flats and renovated homes and sail shades and bifold doors. And down at Rosalie Village the old cinema and the local butcher shop with its sawdust floors and the barber with his spinning red and white pole have been replaced by American-style burger grills, fine dining and organic meat outlets.

Gentrification washed through Rosalie in the 1990s, and left old Mrs Guy alone on her treeless corner block, peering out at a different world. She was there during the great flood of 1974 when, after weeks of rain, the river broke its banks and poured through the back of Milton, that fourth, open side to the valley, up Frew Street and into Gregory Park. Then it kept coming, along Baroona, up Nash, and finally into Beck.

I was eleven at the time of the flood. I had never experienced one. Nobody in Beck Street had either. The last major flood disaster in Brisbane had been in 1893, so there were very few people, if any, alive in the city who held memories of that event, which washed people and bridges and homes out into Moreton Bay.

It was for a time exciting, as new experiences can be, to see the water creep up Beck Street. My grandmother, who had known only European weather as a child before landing in the tropics at the bottom of the world, did not appreciate the gravity of the event. She had railed against Brisbane's blast-furnace heat and sticky humidity since she came off the boat, in 1925. It needled at her, this annual torment, and despite her best efforts she and Brisbane weather never reconciled. (She died in a mercifully frosty air-conditioned hospital room on the Gold Coast.)

In 1974 she naturally reacted to the flood not as someone who had forgotten the history of this little herringbone of streets in Brisbane, but as someone who did not know that history existed. She was completely unaware of what the river could do. She stood her ground, high up in her stumped workers' cottage, with her dark English stand-up piano and battered aluminium teapot beside the Kooka stove and her caged blue budgerigar, Bluey.

She would not be moved. For good or ill, this was her home. Even when the river water, a soup of silt and brown-edged frangipani flowers, lapped at her bottom front step, the girl from Reading was not leaving.

Then the water rose to such a depth that rescue workers were crossing her front garden in a tin dinghy, calling for her to evacuate, and in a flash she was scurrying down those steps, the caged Bluey and his noisy mirror bell in hand, sailing away in only the second boat in her life in which she'd been a passenger.

 

FOURTEEN PEOPLE LOST their lives in that terrible event. In a city of just 900,000 people, those who weren't directly affected knew of somebody who was. Our dining table, for months afterwards, was full of stories of family friends and my father's work colleagues who had 'gone under' in the flood and lost everything.

The people of Beck Street soon returned to their usual routines. Up in the big white governor's house, through the trees, Air Marshall Colin Hannah resumed his garden parties. Children went back to school.

I look back on those few days now as a memory sealed off and preserved forever. For that brief moment the people of Brisbane were removed from their own lives, reefed from them, and focused just on the river, and the survival of their fellow citizens and their houses and the goods and chattels they'd accumulated over a lifetime. The clock didn't measure work hours and tram timetables during those suspended days, but the rise and fall of water.

For a period, the city's context vanished. Gone were thoughts of the bombing of the local nightclub the Whiskey Au Go Go and the murder of fifteen people just the year before, or Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen's consolidation of power following his hard stand on street protest marches and the work of the Special Branch, or Valley Diehards' thrilling last-gasp rugby league premiership win over Redcliffe a few months earlier.

Instead it was relentless rain, dark water, yellow car headlights, emergency vehicles, boats and life jackets, candles and sandwiches. And objects, hundreds, thousands, cut loose from their contexts. Then it was over. It left, in the minds of everyone who had witnessed it, a feint sepia watermark.

The floods of 1974 were epochal for dull, dreary Brisbane, so much so that we have celebrated the water's height in public art, signs and plaques across the city. Houses affected thirty-seven years ago still have ghostly high-water lines on stumps and beams under the house.

Rosalie went under in 1974, and I have always had a suspicion that the flood was in some way responsible for washing away its suburban status the next year. That the huge, unthinkable volumes of water that January, down from the Brisbane Valley, the Stanley and Bremer rivers, and countless creeks and rivulets en route to the city, simply swept through Milton and into Beck, and erased it from the map.

The only way Rosalie could return – in the way of Brigadoon – would be for another flood to pay a visit, to reconnect it to 1974 and 1893 and 1890 and all the other floods that, following an ancient template, had visited this little pocket of the world at the bend of a brown, unremarkable river.

Then came January 2011.

 

BRISBANE TODAY IS a city of more than two million people. As old Mrs Guy has been sitting at her front window the city has hurtled ahead and become something she wouldn't recognise. It has confounding traffic problems, supermarket queues, gang and drug violence, stratospheric rental costs, elite suburbs and their opposite, and a suburban creep that is heading north for Noosa, west to Toowoomba and south to the New South Wales border.

It is a city with a young demographic. It is a city that takes back many of the expatriates that shunned it early in life and gifts them a family-friendly metropolis without the frenetic edge of a Sydney or Melbourne. It is a city that takes in early career professionals who can't find an open door in the southern capitals, and who can short-cut their way to practical experience in the sunshine.

Brisbane, with these multiple points of flux, feels like a young place permanently looking for itself – the opposite of what used to be true in the 1960s and '70s. In my children's lifetime it will be part of a massive conurbation from the Sunshine to the Gold Coast.

It is not there yet. It is still a place where the multi-billion-dollar CLEM7 tunnel, Australia's largest underground motor vehicle carriageway, can open and almost immediately teeter at the edge of financial ruin through lack of use. Who's going to pay a few dollars for a road toll in Brisbane? Hobos still live in the old Botanic Gardens in the city, as they have done since the government gardener Walter Hill started tilling the soil there in the mid-1800s. The XXXX brewery in Milton still, when the wind is right, sends out a bouquet of hops that can blanket several suburbs. And the river still floods, given the right conditions.

Brisbane sits on a flood plain. The Indigenous people always knew this. Surveyor-General John Oxley, charged with founding the colony of Moreton Bay, first nosed a rowboat into the Brisbane River in 1823, then returned in 1824 to found the place proper. Indigenous elders told these white explorers of floods that submerged today's West End.

During that first excursion, in 1823, Oxley journeyed up the river to Goodna, near Ipswich, then turned around and headed for the bay where his ship, the Mermaid, lay at anchor. He came back in 1824 with the colony's founding party, and looked for a suitable site for the future city.

Oxley once more traversed the river and on 28 September came ashore east of what would become known as the Old Western Creek, a stream that ran beneath today's Coronation Drive at Milton. He wisely followed the creek inland for about a kilometre in search of fresh water for the future city, and came upon 'a chain of ponds watering a fine valley', as he recorded in his Field Books.

Part of this 'chain of ponds' would later be dubbed Red Jacket Swamp. Today it is Gregory Park, across from the Milton State School, and the chain covers the grid we know as Baroona Road, Nash Street and Beck Street, all the way up to the pinched gullies of Birdwood Terrace. The 'fine valley' was created by the ridges of Paddington, Bardon and Auchenflower. Oxley had wandered into Rosalie. He deemed it a suitable location for the settlement.

The following year, however, in 1825, Moreton Bay's first commandant, Lieutenant Henry Miller, set up camp on a high bluff downstream from Oxley's recommendation, and that elbow of land became the future CBD. An obelisk, inaccurately placed, was erected at North Quay to commemorate Oxley's landing. It still stands today, a sandstone pin about 700 metres from Oxley's actual landfall.

 

BRISBANE AND HISTORY have a complicated relationship. It is, for whatever reason, a forgetful city. It has no great attachment to historic buildings and monuments, yet howls indignantly when they are demolished. It has legislation ostensibly to protect its past that reveals hidden loopholes when it is actually tested. Brisbane, the young city, is more interested in tomorrow than yesterday.

Of course Oxley followed the water when he stepped ashore near the Old Western Creek. Of course he found swampland and a chain of ponds. For millennia, that's where the river, on this coastal floodplain, has always rushed into on breaking its banks. Just as it has always washed over areas we now know as Jindalee, Brookfield, Fairfield, Rocklea, Yeronga, Graceville, Indooroopilly and West End. That's precisely where it inflicted its greatest damage in 1974, and 1893, and 1890, and on deep into the past.

Rosalie has always had problems with water. It was inundated in the great flood of 1893. The Queenslanderreported: 'Going from Milton towards Rosalie one finds most of the houses on the left have suffered, and that the whole of Rosalie flats have been underwater. Far up...in the paddock is a building lying on its side, deposited like a matchbox in that position by the silent but overwhelming force of the flood. In Rosalie the general appearance is as though a mighty hand had played chess on the flats, with houses for pieces, and in a moment of anger brushed them carelessly into a confused heap.'

In February 1925 the Brisbane Courier carried the article 'Drainage Matters. Neglect at Rosalie.' At a meeting at the local tram terminus a council candidate, LH Tooth, expressed dismay at the appalling state of the drainage and playgrounds in Rosalie, and how the suburb had to continually address water channelling. In 1932 the Brisbane City Council investigated the need for a stormwater drain beneath Beck Street.

But we forget, especially in this restless place where history finds it hard to take root. And here, in the young city, we are at least two generations from 1974, and all of the city's new inhabitants, squinting into tomorrow, just wouldn't know about the floods of 1974; and if they did happen to see one of the many plaques and markers around the city they might find it cursorily interesting, but it wouldn't be something that triggered in them a change of life every time the rain fell hard across the city. There are more people in the city today without the watermark of 1974 than there are people with it.

Which is why – with the exception of Mrs Guy, sitting at that window, her yard saturated, the water rising and rising further down Beck Street beyond Nash Street – the floods of 2011 took almost everyone by surprise, again.

 

THE 2011 DISASTER had its origins last year in North Queensland, drenched throughout September by what meteorologists called a 'La Niña effect'. Then it just kept raining all the way to Christmas, when Cyclone Tasha crossed the coast at Cairns.

For the next two weeks the people of Brisbane turned on their nightly television news and watched as regional towns on the coast and in the west slid under the floodwaters. It was impossible to see a pattern, to join the dots and know that the end point of this catastrophe would be the city of Brisbane. Something happening in distant Theodore or Emerald couldn't logically conclude in Brisbane. It wasn't a narrative that made sense.

On Monday, 10 January, though, it is not an exaggeration to say that the collective consciousness of Brisbane altered. That's when we saw the images of the carnage in Toowoomba, up on the Great Dividing Range and just a ninety-minute drive away. The pictures and stories of children being swept to their deaths, and cars lifted and thrown through the town, and then that horrifying weight of water cascading down into the Lockyer Valley towards Brisbane did, in an instant, tell everyone in the capital that something deadly was on its way.

By chance, the afternoon before I had taken my family for a stroll along the banks of the Brisbane River at West End, close to the heart of the CBD. The children had been cooped up in the house for weeks with all the rain, and we jumped at the first opportunity of a break in the weather. We walked about a kilometre to the Gallery of Modern Art, perched on the river bend at Kurilpa Point.

Already the river was nipping at the concrete pedestrian walkway and it was running at a pace I had not seen before. Perhaps it was the old watermark in me, but I knew something unusual was happening. I told my son dozens of times to stay away from the edge of the river. Don't be so overprotective, my wife said; let him run. My wife was born and grew up in Sydney. She didn't have the history.

 

WE GOT DRENCHED and my son, wet to the bone, declared it the best day of his life. Then, the next day, came Toowoomba.

On the Tuesday I went back to West End to see how high the river had come. It was impossible to retrace the path of our Sunday walk – it was well and truly underwater. The rowing sheds on the river's edge were going under. Hundreds of people were stacking sandbags.

I looked to the river again, and it was faster than when I last saw it. This time it was carrying debris.

What astonished me were the numbers of young Brisbane people gathering to photograph the rising waters. They stood in groups and watched it in silence, as if taking in a movie. They took pictures of each other in front of it. I met a Buddhist monk on her regular afternoon walk. Was she concerned? I asked. What can you do, she said; life goes on. She was from interstate. She didn't have the history.

Wednesday, 12 January was a magnificent summer day. It was hot and humid and exactly what you'd expect of Brisbane at this time of year. But the river was roaring through the city now, and the lower sections of GOMA and the State Library of Queensland were submerged, and numerous streets in West End were closed and guarded by police officers, and in the CBD there was frantic sandbagging and business men and women packing equipment, computers, crates of wine and even sides of beef into vans and utes.

Much of the CBD had lost electricity. Parking meters had been removed. Underground car parks were filling with water, or already full. I spoke with a restaurateur who'd just opened his latest eatery at the bottom of Edward Street. He was pale and sweating, and he had the look of a person who could not comprehend what was happening, and why the day before his downstairs kitchen was producing Wagyu steak and duck ragù and now it was underwater.

I asked him if, when he embarked on his Brisbane restaurant adventure, he was aware of what had happened to the bottom of Edward Street during that other major flood, in 1974. He was from England, he said, and didn't have a clue about what happened in Brisbane in 1974. He didn't have the history.

On that Wednesday, around 1 pm, I was standing at the railing of the Victoria Bridge with hundreds of other onlookers, peering down at the river. Pontoons swung around Kurilpa Point and smashed into bridge pylons. Whole tree trunks sailed past. The water, a cacky brown, seethed and hissed and caught the sunlight. It smelled like dirt.

As I watched my mobile phone rang. It was my wife in tears. She said a friend had just heard a rumour that Wivenhoe Dam, eighty kilometres up the Brisbane Valley and built after the 1974 flood to help protect the city from another similar disaster, was not going to hold. What should we do?

She was at home with our two children, just a few kilometres away in our wooden house near the chain of ponds, and I felt nauseated. Should I have evacuated the children? What if the dam wall breaks? Would the millions of litres held by Wivenhoe traverse this far if they were suddenly let go? Had I doomed my family without thinking ahead and making adequate preparations?

The river peaked on the Thursday. Thousands of homes were inundated. Evacuation centres were full across the city. That weekend the river finally went down, and once again left us covered in a sheet of mud that gave off not an odour of mud itself but of garbage.

By early the next week the river was its quiet, dull, brown, dreary old self. For the first time since I'd returned to live in this bright young city that constantly tries to reinvent itself, it looked to me shabby and ordinary and tired. If the city had to be identified by colours, Brisbane was ordinarily green and silver and purple and red. Now it was brown and grey. The flood had leached its palette and stolen its sparkle.

I wondered then, and still do, whether Brisbane's status as some New World City, its flash and twinkle, its grasping for some sort of cosmopolitanism and modernity with a subtropical twist, wasn't all a surface illusion. It felt, momentarily, like the city I couldn't wait to escape from in the mid-1980s. With the trimmings scoured off and hurtling into Moreton Bay the place had, to my mind, returned in an instant to its perhaps inescapable and immovable bedrock. This has always been a tough and extreme landscape, its white settlement born of hard graft, violence, incarceration and death. Since the flood, much of the city felt dead too.

 

RECENTLY I WANDERED through Rosalie, the village ravaged by the floodwaters and businesses still closed more than five weeks after the flood, and I thought of modern Brisbane and its phenomenal growth and how, with a built environment that much bigger than 1974, it seemed logical, despite the muscle of Wivenhoe up in the valley, that flooding would continue to beset this place.

I turned the corner into Beck Street – something I have done countless times over the past forty years or more – and thought of Oxley's chain of ponds beneath my feet. When there was no Brisbane city, the river flooded the same way. And it followed its template not long after settlement, and when I was a boy, and in January just past. That's history, even in a place staring into tomorrow.

I approached my grandmother's old house, now renovated and almost a different building to the one that sits on concrete stumps in my memory. I stood out the front and looked through the fence at under the house, where the old Buick used to sit, flat tyres and all, alongside my grandfather's workbench. It's been built in now, with rooms and French doors. There's a carport too, filling most of what used to be the front yard. But to the right, as high as the top step of the house, the same frangipani tree I knew as a child continues to grow strong. Much of its trunk went under in 1974, and it's still here throwing off its perfume.

I turned and looked across the street to Mrs Guy's house. There she was, sitting at her front window.

I waved. She waved back. She may no longer recognise much beyond that little white wooden window frame. But Mrs Guy and me? We have history.


From Griffith Review Edition 32: Wicked Problems, Exquisite Dilemmas © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

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