The first forty-six years of my life were spent in Ipswich and Brisbane; the territory has imprinted itself at the deepest level of my being. The Queensland that my children and grandchildren know is still imbued with the same sense of place, though they make their own associations with it and the personal climate of their being is suffused with the atmosphere of now, not then. We do share this, though: to wake up in the morning with the freshness of air still to be beaten into by the sun, or to welcome the afternoon sea-breeze in summer as if it were an old friend, or at least something too good to be taken for granted. To live in that part of Queensland I come from is to know that everything is predictable, but nothing is. They say Queensland is a land of extremes, and within limits that is so. But there is also a sense that everything has happened before; wait long enough and the patterns become clearer – like the forty-year flood pattern that always takes us by surprise yet also seems inevitable.
I suppose this is why the political climate has touched us all so deeply, yet has not really touched us at all.
When politics has to compete with weather, I guess the answer is pre-ordained: the weather never loses. Weather has a way of coming right into the house or lurking under it, and your body has to come to terms with it (even with air-conditioning, you can only escape so far and for so long). Politics hits home in terms of whether you are employed, what transport is available or what tax is payable and on what. In other words, we take for granted the terms and conditions once desperately fought for. That is, perhaps, our most real homage to the past: we accept it as read, but we accept it anyway. Would our ancestors have asked more of us?
My grandfather came from an overcrowded London filled with Fabian ideals and a sense of possibilities. Queensland was presented to him as the place where class did not matter, where anything was possible in a young country, where all that was needed was energy, ambition and determination. He had all these qualities in abundance, and he never went back. But he did end his life in the sub-tropics still wearing a bowler hat and a spit-through collar. The union movement that had seemed so promising in his youth had become embroiled in self-defeating internal skirmishes (very like what happened to the Fabians in England) and he retired at sixty-five on a pension of one pound a week. So class did not matter – that was pretty true; but the young country was in fact very, very old and there were hard lessons still to be learned. We, his descendants, are still coming to terms with some of them.
Grandpa lived within his period – he could hardly do otherwise. I think he felt finally that his initial decision was more than justified. On the other side of the family, my first wife's mother, in the 1930s, did make the journey back ‘home' to England, only to escape as soon as possible and return. She could not stand the stuffiness and the conformity. Perhaps it should be noted that in Australia at that time the wearing of gloves and hats by women was, at least in some places, also de rigueur. Queensland had become more relaxed but perhaps not that much more.
WEATHER STILL HAS A WAY OF DICTATING ITS OWN TERMS in Queensland. Summer dominates. Winter is only an excuse, though frost can sting (and kill plants overnight) and I have never, except in Queensland, seen the milk at the tops of milk bottles turn to ice.
Summer and sweat; the awareness that clothing has to be a shelter, as well as a convention. It took a long time before my grandfather's bowler hat became an object of fun. I still wore neckties and buttoned-up shirt collars for many years into my own adulthood. I can imagine my grandchildren tittering at that. We are still in a state of learning exactly where we are. Sydney and Melbourne, those cities of the plains, are not really relevant, but how long has it taken us to learn that?
Many years ago, when I was asked to edit an anthology of contemporary Australian poetry, I felt I was in a position of privilege: I did not have to sign allegiance to either of those two self-glorifying cities; I could, as it were, sit on the fence and because of that I could be more objective in my decisions. When the book appeared, reviewers were happy though they did not salute the Queensland point of view – perhaps they did not have to.
It is interesting, though, that this state keeps producing figures of more than local, or regional, importance. At the moment we see that in politics, and various art forms, and I often think to myself that to grow up here, for all its isolation and apparent lack of opportunity, has been part of a necessary training in resolve and aspiration. Feedback is important too, especially for the young, and this is now available in a way that I myself never encountered at crucial stages of my career. Nevertheless, I did get feedback – even if it meant foisting myself on editors and established writers. With all the appurtenances of modern technology, the coming generation has much greater opportunity.
I wrote, in the beginning, about what I knew; that included very much the geographical fact of where I was and where I had been in those early years. Reading again, after nearly sixty years, the boy I was then, I still feel the confirmation of that voice, of that particular observation, and I know that despite the inevitable changes, what he saw and felt is still available to, say, my grandchildren. I did not know so much of life, or of the subtleties of human relationships (or the quizzicality of politics), but the part of Queensland I inhabited I did know, and all these years later I think I more or less got it right. The fact that some of my early poems, specific and located without effort in the particularity of place, were anthologised somehow confirms for me that I did get something right. What I got right was a mixture of the freshness of youthful discovery and the everlastingness of place, that climate and that terrain that still live within me somewhere and will not be extinguished.
I think of it as my Queensland, but that is presumptuous: it belongs to anyone who has seen it, felt it and lived in it, and has the appetite to find meaning in it. I welcome the new government and the political changes that have at last eased some of the whips and chains that we allowed to shackle us so easily, but most of all I salute and remember the Queensland that had very little to do with all that. The Queensland of the d'Aguilar Range, the Brisbane Valley, Cunningham's Gap and the rainforest there, all the landscape of the Fassifern and, yes, the mines of Ipswich and the miners and somewhere the people I grew up with – a rich history indeed, for it included so many people of German descent, of Welsh lineage and even Chinese, Aboriginal and Danish families. We settled down in Ipswich and our common humanity was defined by the hills around town and the occasional flooding of the Bremer River and the work of our parents in the factories, mines and mills – those have all gone now, or been mechanised beyond recognition, but the people still live out their lives in the weather of Queensland as if it were the only place to be.
Yes, my grandfather was right to come here. He once wrote to my father, a boy in the Battle of the Somme, and his letter was filled with the same joy and reverence for place that I instantly recognised. It might very well have been the initial inspiration for my own efforts at writing, and for getting that country out of, and into, my system. ♦