Tagged: writing

Tribute to Andrew McGahan, Brisbane Writers Festival

I’ve said for a long time that Praise was to Brisbane literature what the Saints’ album (I’m) Stranded was to music. In fact, I first made this analogy on the last page of my first book Pig City, a book in which I quoted Andrew at several key points.

Why the comparison to Stranded? It seems pretty obvious to me. The rawness. A voice that blew away all the surrounding bullshit – the boredom and stasis and sweat of Brisbane – with short, bullet-tipped sentences.

Demolition girls, nights in Venice. Paralytic tonight, Pig City tomorrow.

Praise described a town I recognised, but hadn’t been in for very long. I got here on Christmas Eve of 1986 on a Greyhound bus. It took a while to find my feet, and my way around. On the surface, there didn’t seem to be much happening. Underneath it was a different story.

Praise is a bit like that, too. There wasn’t much of a plot, but all the main characters seemed to be in various stages of losing it. That was a good metaphor for Brisbane around that time. Those characters and Andrew’s language were what gave his debut its narrative propulsion.

There was, naturally, a precedent.

“Brisbane is so sleepy, so slatternly, so sprawlingly unlovely! I have taken to wandering about after school, looking for one simple object in it that might be romantic, or appalling even, but there is nothing. It is simply the most ordinary place in the world.”

That was David Malouf, in Johnno, which I didn’t read until many years later. His book was celebrated, but spoke of a time decades before my arrival in town. I confess I found it harder to connect with, but I suspect that was mainly generational.

In Praise, though, there was this corresponding passage:

“Look at this city. There’s nothing happening. There’s no one on the streets. How can you stand it?”

“Things are happening, you just have to look a little harder. At least no one bothers you. There’s worse places than Brisbane.”

“There’s better.”

To a degree, I was still seeing Brisbane through my Melbourne eyes. After a few more years, I did what so many young people in Brisbane do: I left, this time for Sydney in early 1997, shortly after Andrew’s second novel 1988 was published.

I interviewed Andrew around this time, for a Sydney magazine called Juice. (That would, by the way, be the very same magazine that JB here once paid a personal visit disguised in the character of Jack Podesta, from the Never Fail Debt Collecting agency.)

Andrew was legendarily shy, but that didn’t make him hard to talk to. He was generous with his time and encouraging of my writing. That said, at that stage, he was unsure whether or not he would stick it out as a writer himself. 1988 could have been his last book.

I’d needed to get away from Brisbane, even though it was exploding with new energy. I came back a few years later, my tail between my legs. But I’d also been surprised by my adopted home town’s gravitational pull.

Maybe Queensland, as Andrew wrote in Last Drinks, was an addiction. “Maligned and scorned by the rest of the country – but still, it infected the soul somehow, [demanding] love of those it bore and bred,” he wrote. It got under my skin, too, and I was just a blow-in from the south.

I needed a reason to be back, though, and had an idea centred on the town’s music history, intertwined with politics. Around the same time, Last Drinks came out. Andrew’s book told me I was onto something. Brisbane had started picking at the seamy threads of its own past.

Coming after 1988, Last Drinks proved a few points, perhaps most of all to Andrew himself. He could write a plot, and his dramatic and linguistic range was bigger than anyone realised, himself included.

I wrote about Last Drinks in 2001, in a small UQP journal of new writing called Imago. It wasn’t coincidental, I wrote, that the character of Charlie died in a power station, for the genesis of Last Drinks was in the SEQEB dispute that paralysed Queensland in 1985.

But that, as Andrew explained, was about more than union bashing on Joh’s part. It was about business contracts and big money. Or, as the character of Marvin McNulty put it, “Favours, George. It was all about doing favours.”

A game of mates. A joke. The joke. Marvin was like a cartoon character, but then, Queensland was governed by people who made Yosemite Sam and Wile E. Coyote look like super-brain geniuses. It was a genre-busting mash-up of historical fiction and murder mystery.

That sort of hybrid was a direct inspiration for Pig City.  These days I describe that book, in shorthand, as a book about Brisbane, a love letter to my adopted home town. I’m not sure if Andrew would have regarded Last Drinks as a love letter. You could even read it as hate mail.

But he cared deeply about Brisbane, and this state, even as he describes its shimmer of light and haze and heat and the familiar itch of sweat on his scalp. You had to love Queensland, he wrote, for all its peculiarities and contradictions.

Again, I’m reminded of the Saints. Take it two albums down the line, from (I’m) Stranded to Prehistoric Sounds. Of Brisbane (Security City): “Thirteen hot nights in a row. The cops drive past, but they move slow.”

Like the band, Andrew had expanded his vocabulary. The sentences were getting longer. The writing seethed with atmosphere. The heat, he wrote, “took on a moral quality as well, it sank into your limbs and your heart, made everything slow and confused”.

But there was nothing confused about the prose. Andrew’s vision had sharpened. Time and growing confidence seemed to have given him perspective and clarity on his work, and on Queensland. Last Drinks contained this description of the state’s parliament:

“Queenslanders were always wary of the more sophisticated types – they liked their representatives to be awkward and stumbling. They mistook it for honesty. So much so that the Queensland parliament sometimes bordered on a sideshow collection of the ugly, the misshapen and the incoherent.”

At the time of Last Drinks, Peter Beattie was the premier. Beattie, never one to maintain the rage for long, had encouraged a rapprochement with the state’s history. Federally, though, Pauline Hanson was the member for Oxley, Bill Hayden’s old federal seat.

The prime minister, John Howard, had won power in 1996 on a slogan perhaps many have forgotten: “For all of us”. Liberal historians saw it as a modern appeal to Menzies’ “forgotten people”. Others heard a dog whistle: “For all of us – but not for them.”

Hanson had been disendorsed by the Liberal Party prior to Howard’s election, but her narrative – incoherent though it was then, and remains now – was an early expression of white victimhood, co-opted by Howard to devastating effect.

The narrative goes that the opening of opportunities to those who had been marginalised – women, Indigenous people whose ownership of the land had been recognised in the Mabo and Wik decisions – posed a direct threat to the country’s white colonisers.

And for those who’d come across the seas, our plains were no longer so boundless, and we weren’t about to share them quite so willingly, as Howard made clear post-Tampa: “We will decide who comes into this country, and the circumstances in which they come.”

This was all grist for The White Earth – for many, Andrew’s greatest book. It’s hard to argue, even if the scene of a Neo-Nazi rally on the Darling Downs, country that Andrew knew intimately, seemed to me to be a slight overreach at the time.

Fifteen years later, it looks downright prophetic. We haven’t had a Neo-Nazi rally on the Downs yet, to my knowledge. Instead, we had one on St Kilda Beach.

Not that The White Earth was any kind of polemic. Andrew by then had moved to Melbourne with his partner Liesje, but his language, shapeshifting and subtle, remained rooted in the strange poetry of Queensland. This was some new kind of (Deep) Northern Gothic:

“The great House groaned, a long, anguished sound, the wrenching of timber and stone. And then, with slow majesty, the blazing line of the roof began to sag inwards. For a tortured moment it held, and then thunder filled the air as it collapsed from one wing of the House to the other. Flames exploded from the windows, and a great fireball belched out through front doors and across the garden, black with smoke and flying debris. Then only a great bonfire remained, roaring within the roofless walls, towering up into the night, and defying the rain-drenched sky.”

He eschewed poetry and subtlety in Underground. The book sees Canberra obliterated in a nuclear attack. There was a glee in Andrew’s writing at this point, not just at the idea of metaphorically obliterating Canberra, but pushing the limits of what he could get away with.

“True, normally I’d be wary of being so overtly political with a novel,” he wrote on a website attached to the book. “But this no longer seems the time to be polite or indirect in fiction, or artfully diffident. It’s time to confront the danger of what’s going on here, head-on.”

The book was, he told me in an interview at the time, “a very cartoonish kind of thriller, chock-full of conspiracy theories”. Published in 2006, with the Cronulla riots still fresh, Underground was a worst-case scenario of where a never-ending war on terror might be taking us.

Not that he was Nostradamus. A new values-based citizenship test featuring Donald Bradman was already on the agenda. But how could Andrew somehow predict a scenario where, for a time, no one even wanted to play cricket with us?

That interview was the second and last time I spoke to Andrew. I lost touch with his work after that, as his work shapeshifted again, into science fiction and the Ship Kings series for young adults. And I went back to driving cabs, for a long while.

But my acknowledgement of my debt to Andrew is long-standing. I’m not sure if Pig City would have existed if not for Last Drinks, and I’m not sure I would have started writing seriously at all, particularly from and about Brisbane, if not for Praise.

I couldn’t have imagined, 15 years later, I’d be asked to pay tribute to him here. I’m honoured to, but I also wish there’d never been such a reason to do so. Perhaps we should pay tribute to the living more often.

Quoting the Saints one more time, his work hit me like a deathray, baby, from above.

Speech for Andrew McGahan tribute at Brisbane Writers Festival, 6 September 2019