Brisbane by Matthew Condon
Reviewed by Greg Doolan
‘Brisbane’… It’s not exactly a book title that screams out ‘exciting, gripping read’.
Then again, I was born and grew up in Brisbane (Queensland) and I may therefore be a little biased. I’ve never thought of Brisbane as being a particularly exciting city.
Nice? Sure. A good place to grow up? Check. Exciting? Hmmm… not so much, no. I was therefore a little sceptical when my older brother handed me Brisbane, written by local journalist and writer Matthew Condon, and told me to give it a go as it was a good and interesting read.
With ‘Brisbane’, Condon takes the reader to the city of his birth, looking back to the circumstances of the city’s founding and the role subsequent generations of civic leaders played over time in its growth and development. The theme running throughout the book and connecting its different parts as it jumps back and forth in time, is based around a simple question or curiosity – where did the founding surveyor of the city of Brisbane, John Oxley, first set foot on the banks of the Brisbane River, and why was the obelisk dedicated to this moment in history subsequently erected in the wrong spot by later generations?
Delving into the early origins of Brisbane, Condon uncovers some interesting facts and relays some of the many colourful personalities – both from the distant, and more recent past – that helped make the city the place it is today.
But ‘Brisbane’ is more than just an historical recounting and investigation. It’s also a personal reflection on the city that Condon recalls growing up in as a child and how Brisbane has changed over time, as he too has grown older. It also seems to be something of a personal lament on Condon’s part – his disappointment at the lack of culture and character in modern Brisbane and the failure of more recent civic leaders to protect the city’s history and built heritage.
As Condon charts his way through this personal journey he examines the different boundaries that exist at different stages of life – the family home; the local neighbourhood streets he knew as a child; and the wider city and river he explored as he grew up. And for me, at least, this is what I found most interesting and engaging about ‘Brisbane’.
It made me revisit a lot of my memories of growing up in Toowong in the inner western suburbs of Brisbane: what I saw as home and family, and as neighbourhood and city. Coincidently, shortly after starting to read Brisbane, the two old family homes I grew up in, in Vera Street, Toowong – my parents owned 41 Vera and my grandparents on my mother’s side bought 39 Vera – came up for sale and I was able to see online from the real estate websites how much the homes I remembered from my youth had been changed and renovated by subsequent owners.
And while I did enjoy reading ‘Brisbane’ for the most part, the further it progressed the patchier I found it – the broad scope of time Condon constantly switched back and forth between began to get tiring, and the focus on some periods of the cities history at the expense of others was deliberately selective – and the more engrossed Condon become in his personal lament about the loss of cultural heritage and the lack of care local residents hold for ‘civic history’.
As much as I enjoyed the excuse ‘Brisbane’ gave me to reflect back on my own youth and the old family home, Condon’s story is his own. While I recognise many of the things and people and places he describes, my memories are different. I grew up in a different house, in a different suburb, with different childhood and adolescent experiences.
And while Condon acknowledges that change and growth happens, he can’t separate or distance himself from that process. If it is not change and growth that he agrees with, then it is bad.
The Brisbane of my youth is very different from the Brisbane I like to go back and visit today. While I can still close my eyes today and see clearly the route from Vera Street, Toowong, up and over the hill and down Sherwood Road towards the river and to my old primary school, St Ignatius, and visualise every home and the names of the family friends who lived there – the Fosters, the Kellihers, the Hyghams, the Sullivans, the Stephens, the Fannings, and so on – if I were to go back tomorrow I doubt that walking the same route would be the same experience it once was. Houses, like ours in Vera Street, get sold and renovated and sold again. Families grow up and move one. New families and residents move in. That’s life.
‘Brisbane’ will likely be meaningful or resonate in some way with anyone who, like me, was born and grew up there. How meaningful or enjoyable a read will it be for everyone else? I don’t know, sorry. But I’d be interested in hearing from someone who would like to give it a try.