Excerpt – Brisbane River Anti-Memoir
In his book Anti-memoirs, 1967, Andre’ Malraux wrote: ‘What is a man? A miserable pile of secrets.’ There are certain things people expect from reading a memoir and those often are not the same things I expect when I read an anti-memoir. Memoir readers tend to expect a narrative arc, which goes more or less smoothly from A to B. On the way they expect to find something new, with a before and an after – an epiphany. My book doesn’t fit that mould. Real lives are lived more messily. My book has revelations throughout, more of lived experience than of character development.
This book is an anti-memoir, with the author’s recollections of living beside a river and people he could have met, with other luck, who are introduced to help him tell his story. I wrote my story not wanting to dwell on the question Who is the narrator? Because authenticity in many passages is derived from wide sources, rather than from the anti-memoirist’s narrowly lived experiences.
Anti-memoirs are books that ‘de-self’ the writer. In some places, I have taken myself out of it, while still having my protagonist use the first-person voice to relate the physical world, with contrived characters and faked conversations, without disclosing much about myself. This anti-memoir is more about the reader than the author and his associates. When you read it, hopefully you will think to yourself ‘That’s something I’ve thought, too’, or ‘That’s how I feel’, or ‘Now I know how I would feel if I had lived by that river.’
CHAPTER 1 FIRST IMPRESSIONS
It was 1965 and I was 19 when I glimpsed a lifestyle I wanted and set a goal for my future. I was at Windermere in England’s Lake District, admiring waterfront mansions, luxurious amidst tranquil beauty. They contrasted with my childhood home on a farm in Somerset, by the sea, rustic and utilitarian.
‘How good it would be, after seeing the world, to retire from the fray to a place like this,’ I said to a student companion.
Exclusivity was a small part of it. I wanted to live beside water surrounded by wild hills.
In the years following, I emigrated to a job in Canada, travelled in Latin America, studied at London University and lived in Australia. My interest in living near water continued and I became keen on sailing.
I left the UK partly for adventure and partly from alienation by nanny state overreach, restricting opportunity for my engineering training.
‘The bureaucracy of collectivism is too limiting,’ I said. ‘I need freedom, competition and individualism.’
I walked ashore from the liner Australis in Sydney, with Carol, my Australian wife and our baby Sarah, in 1976, when I was 30. On the ship, immigration officials had indoctrinated us to get jobs, to buy a house, have barbecues, go to the beach and pay our taxes.
Carol’s parents collected us from the quay. As we drove along the highway north from Sydney, I was shocked by the dry conditions. When I turned on the TV at our overnight motel in Grafton, a small town, I was appalled to see a farmer shooting his emaciated livestock. It reminded me of photos from the liberation of Auschwitz.
‘The animals are starved and without water,’ I said to the receptionist. ‘Does this happen often?’
‘Almost every year,’ she said.
‘. . . several times usually,’ my father-in-law put in.
‘How do the farmers keep going?’
‘After rain, there’s food,’ he said. ‘The animals get fat and breed like crazy. They can’t be stopped.’
‘Aren’t there limits on numbers of farm animals?’ I asked.
‘Yes. Droughts cull the excess. Either that or they drown in floods.’
‘Overstocking, I call it. How cruel is that?’
I knew it was rude to criticize when you are a visitor, but the condition of the animals was shocking.
‘No-one likes it, but it’s nature’s way,’ said my father-in-law. ‘Don’t let it bother you, er, Chance.’
Chance is my name.
‘Why did they call you Chance?’ asked my mother-in-law.
‘My mother was sure she would have a girl. When I was born a boy, my father said it was chance. ‘It’s a name that will bring him good fortune,’ he said.
‘It’s worked for me so far,’ I said. I was usually optimistic and I appreciated that I had had many opportunities.
We drove on north, along the Pacific Highway.
‘Why are the highway and railway bridges constructed from timber?’ I asked.
‘Flood water comes up over the roads. Stone bridges would block water from flowing under them.’
It was hard to believe this dry country could ever have that much water on it.
Australian conditions were unlike those on my family’s farm in the UK. Within a short time of arriving in Australia, I had encountered drought, bushfires, cyclonic winds and temperatures in the 40s. But it was several years before I experienced flooding rains.
In the UK, the weather was more predictable. Farmers could usually count on raising and selling their animals and crops. The major variation was the amount of subsidy paid by the government. Returns in the UK were not large, but they were reliable.
Harsh conditions and disasters occurred in Brisbane infrequently. There had been a flood in Brisbane in 1974, but a few years later most people had forgotten it. The climate was usually congenial, allowing an outdoor lifestyle with wonderful parks, forests and the best beaches in the world.
For several years after we arrived, Queenslanders regaled us with stories of deadly snakes, poisonous insects and lethal fishes. We were hesitant to explore the bush at first, until we realised that scaring immigrants was part of the culture. Newcomers’ fears entertained the locals and the spinning of unlikely yarns was an art, called ‘rubbishing’.
Understandably, Australians styled their homeland as ‘the lucky country’. Extreme conditions were played down and adverse conditions could be avoided with forethought and precautions.
Today, after living in Brisbane for 46 years, my first impression of a harsh land has mellowed. There are hazards but much that is good. I am fortunate to live here. I haven’t suffered flooding of my home nor bushfires. My resilience has developed as I have gradually become habituated, by trial and error, facing catastrophes with a will to survive. When I arrived from England, in this dry land, I had no inkling of how riverside living would dominate the next 46 years of my journey through life, until today.
I had graduated from university as a chemical engineer. Later, I had spent four years as a research student in management science. My employers liked my curiosity and imagination and let me loose to explore whatever took my fancy so long as there was the prospect of developing a profitable project from it. My managers didn’t understand my skills but I gained a reputation for strategic analysis that they used to leverage their own promotions.
My bosses asked me to investigate ideas they had and my investigations would unfold opportunities.
‘If you don’t have the answer yet, you need to do more work,’ one said.
I explored at my own speed, until I arrived at actionable conclusions.
My analyses progressed from design of chemical plants, to coal export projects and alternative mining methods. As an analyst, I assumed freedom to investigate hallowed ground, confronting icons and promoting new ideas that were sometimes perceived as heresies. The company wanted a lackey, not a creative engineer like me. I made a break away and became a high school science teacher. I analysed teaching and learning methods, wrote student textbooks, developed online teaching and rationalised assessment methods.
My career teaching science succeeded in baffling school managers, because I wanted success for every student in my class, with lifelong learning. I liked to teach theories in the contexts of their discovery. I analysed relationships between ideas, developed hands on practical activities and set investigations that developed a love of science.
Since retirement I have been writing novels. I write stories about various fiction topics, applying a kaleidoscope of post-structural philosophical viewpoints, especially Heidegger’s existential phenomenology (4).
My work as a science teacher coincided with flooding of the Brisbane River in 2011. I investigated possible causes and mitigation methods, explaining to students what had been done and possible improvements that would reduce impacts. My interest developed into systematic exploration of the question students asked: Can flooding of the Brisbane River be prevented? The question was of most concern to those who lived beside the River, as I did. My findings are reported as a narrative in this book.
After the flood in 2022, my approach morphed into existential concern with how mechanisms for controlling floods, such as dams, could be influenced by political and technical leaders. The second part of this book looks behind the science method I used in the first part, analysing the potential of the Brisbane River by phenomenology. Responsible authorities could use my conclusions to develop technologies to reduce flooding of the Brisbane River.
Waterside living in a hot climate can have a cooling effect, but it can be offset by flooding peril. The extreme conditions can be manifest at the same time of year in Brisbane. They are opposed concerns, but individual experiences vary widely. I will attempt to find a balance in advantages and disadvantages of riverside living.
Many people are tempted to buy a home near a river. My experience could advise investment in waterside real estate. My philosophy accepts a remote possibility of disastrous flooding offset by near certainty of delightful living for decades.