Hello to you reading my first blog. I am the author of The Last Gundir, a vessel that takes you on a journey of discovery into Australia’s past. This blog is the first of a 10 part series on my personal journey – fraught with heartbreak, joy, disappointment, frustration, gratitude, racial discrimination and happiness – to write and publish this novel. It talks about the beginnings of the novel and the importance of curiosity in your own lives. If you are after more information about me, there is a separate page (About the Author) on this website.
If you have grown up in Brisbane, you will know of a Boundary Street in Spring Hill and another one in West End. The latter is a very lively street containing numerous bars, a local brewery, three independent bookshops, two dance schools, a great many restaurants, a plethora of eateries from greasy kebab to healthy smoothie, bank branches, grocery stores, cafes, a quirky collections shop, vintage boutiques, several charity shops, a night food stalls area, a liquor store, a library and a number of businesses. Melbourne, eat your heart out for all the above can be found during a 9 minute walk on Boundary St. The area has a positive vibe about it and proudly celebrates Aboriginal culture. Aboriginal art is displayed on the pavement with a crossroads sign indicating the original names of various places in Brisbane. The junction with Vulture Street has a massive Aboriginal flag design on the tarmac.
But how many people look at the name of the street and ask themselves, “Why is it called Boundary St?”
I’ve met people who’ve grown up in West End and lived there all their lives who do not know the story behind the name. Those people have naturally lost their sense of curiosity as they’ve grown up. The child may have looked at the sign, turned to the parents and asked about the origins of the name. But few adults do. They no longer question their environment. Perhaps a structured education system with frequent exams over the years where one is taught to accept the one correct answer and reject all other possibilities is conducive to eroding one’s curiosity. Yet, it is curiosity that arguably makes the mind stronger. Those who ask questions and actively seek answers are exercising their mental muscle. They are keeping their minds fit and active. Curiosity is the engine of intellectual achievement. Every invention made to date has been achieved by those who have kept their minds curious. Without curiosity, directors of multi-national companies/government departments fail to see and recognise good ideas that pass right in front of their eyes (resulting in them procuring the services of expensive management consultancies to advise them – I know as I worked for one such consultancy). Curiosity is, I strongly believe, the key to open up new possibilities in one’s life.
(Boundary St is so named as, during the early years of the colony, it was the literal boundary fence across which Aboriginal people were not allowed to venture after 4pm Monday to Saturday or all day Sunday.)
I have always been curious about a region’s past. I spent my post-graduation gap year studying French Civilisation at the Sorbonne in Paris. (I missed out on the “Final year in Europe” option during my Masters at Imperial College and so I deferred my graduate entry to Arup by a year to go live in Paris for a year). As part of the course, we had to choose two electives to complement our French language classes. Whilst everyone in my class opted for French literature, French music and French art, I seized the chance to learn French History and The History of Paris. The latter fascinated me immensely. I was thrilled to learn how Paris grew from a small settlement by the river to a thriving village called Lutece to the elegant city we know today. I enjoyed the journey of learning about the city’s environment and the story of its iconic streets and monuments built under monarchies, republics (I lost count how many) and emperors. The streets of Paris were a testimony to its glorious past. Those lectures (and homework!) changed the way I looked at Paris and made me appreciate the city a lot more than tourists who get a superficial feel of the place.
In 2008, my career took me from London to Brisbane, a “sleepy village” where bush turkeys will casually stroll into cafes and ibises will make off with your pizza slice. I knew it was a relatively young city (the unremarkable church at the end of my road in London is older than the first colony) but I still wanted to know more about its history. How did Brisbane develop to what it looks like today? What was the story behind the surface of normal life? What did everyday life feel like for its previous residents?
And so, I spent $45 on a “coffee table” hardback book called Brisbane 150 Stories by Brisbane City Council. Each double page was allocated to key events of that particular year. The very first page was set in 1859. I looked again at the cover of the book wondering if I’ve picked up a Volume 2 by accident. No, there was no mistake. This book was only telling the story from the moment when Brisbane became a self-regulating municipality in a newly founded state (gaining independence from New South Wales). The colony was already 35 years old in 1859. I somehow felt mugged of the stories that took place during this time.
But there was another annoyed voice in my head. What about the Aboriginal society that existed here before colonisation? What stories took place during this time? Most Brisbane suburbs have an etymology in the local Aboriginal language so I knew the city’s foundations contained tales of a whole other world. A world buried beneath this city but with signs of its past still visible in places. Where are these stories, that extended back, not 35 years, not 100 years, not 1000 years, not 10,000 years but 60,000 years? What was everyday life like for the region’s first inhabitants? The entire world’s first inhabitants? What were their hopes and fears? How did they grow up? My curiosity was piqued and for someone like me, there was no going back.
Yet, the first idea I had for a historic fiction novel on Brisbane focused on the colonial years. Being a civil engineer, I wanted to set the story during the colony building years and explore the city’s struggles as it built roads, buildings and bridges. Having been evacuated from my flat in Milton during the 2011 floods, I wanted to write a story of adversity as the city strived to survive the early years. How did Andrew Petrie, the first civil engineer in Brisbane go about building a town that could prosper in such an environment? What’s the deal with that derelict windmill in the city’s centre? How did the first Victoria Bridge wash away? (In 2007, I entered a historic disaster writing competition for the New Civil Engineer magazine where one had to write about an engineering disaster to an audience of non-engineers. My creative writing about the collapse of the Tay Bridge to a storm won 1st place). My passion to write about Brisbane’s story was stoked.
But that voice in my head continued to whisper about the hidden world of the region’s first inhabitants, the original owners of the land upon which the city was built. It was a harsh voice that accused me of falling into the same trap as the Brisbane 150 Stories book. How could I write a story that does not start with the Aboriginal people of this land? Wouldn’t it be hypocritical of me to criticise that book but then not make the effort to learn about Aboriginal society? Are not the shelves of the local libraries and bookshops already full of books of Brisbane’s colonial past?
So, my journey of discovery into the hidden world began. I picked out a couple of reference books in the library and read published papers by various historians. I visited Indigenous themed exhibitions, listened to ABC RN Awaye podcasts and read articles on the Internet. I tried to read and listen extensively but ultimately felt that I didn’t have enough knowledge to write a story set in an Aboriginal society in the Brisbane region. A textbook on Aboriginal culture does provide knowledge but it is not localised. A practice or ceremony described on its pages may be applicable to say the Yolngu people (Arnhem Land in Northern Territories) but would not necessarily apply to the Brisbane region. Imagine wanting to write a book on English culture and using a book on European Culture as a reference. Concepts described would not necessarily be relevant or applicable to England. I gave up the pursuit and resumed developing the plot of my novel set in the British exploration and penal colony years of Brisbane. I had it all planned out with the story starting in London following a young girl who ends up convicted and transported to the penal colony.
Then one day, I was at the Brisbane City Exhibition Centre at 8am on a Saturday morning waiting amongst the impatient crowd for the doors to open. This was Bookfest, a bi-annual second hand book selling event. If you have not been before, allow me to paint the scene for you. Adults, teenagers and families are primed with shopping trolleys, wheeled suitcases and large bags. There are always amateurs who arrive with no bag and leave with repetitive strain injury in their arms. The Bookfest veterans have been sitting on the carpet since 7am. The double doors are the starting line. Beyond are a million second hand books (mostly priced at $1 and $2) set on 5km of table. I know very well, that my unique rivals exist in that restless crowd. That as soon as the large double doors swing open at 08:00, I will rush to the section that contains Terry Pratchett books and find my rivals already there scanning the books to find the ones missing from their collection. I swear I recognised one person from the previous Bookfest 12 months earlier.
“You picked that book up last year, I remember it. So leave it. Or else, there will be trouble.”
Browsing the Australian history section, I came across a tattered second edition copy of Reminiscences of Early Queensland. The worn cover depicted various painted images including a redcoat directing convicts (dressed in jackets, hats and pyjamas), a couple of Aboriginal spear throwers ready to strike, a dashing Englishman (as in rugged looks not running for his life), an Aboriginal toolmaker at work and an Aboriginal war dance. What’s not to like? I picked it up and casually browsed the pages.
I could not believe the depth of local Aboriginal knowledge in such a small tattered paperback. All of it was relevant to the Brisbane region. It remains the best $2 I have ever spent.
That voice in my head returned and whispered to write that story. I had no more excuses.