Radical Brisbane Launch

Speech by Dan O'Neill


Radical Brisbane Cover
Read more about
Radical Brisbane.

I was fascinated by this book and absorbed in it over about three or four days of reading. It made me wish that I’d read it in 1967. It would have made a big difference back then.

It’s got some 50 chapters dealing with all periods of Brisbane’s history and many different locations in the city. I can’t possibly summarize it in a short speech. So I will try to thread my remarks on some of my responses to it as I was reading it.

It’s a history book, and it made me recall two strong feelings I’d had about Brisbane and history, one in 1961 and the other in 1967.

In 1961 I was in England for the first time and I went to a great many places that were absolutely steeped in history, places which still existed in the present but where great and memorable things had happened in the past. You could feel the history there in those geographical locations. It was palpable, strong. As a result of this I had the strong feeling that previously back here I’d really misunderstood what history was – I’d always thought of it as a straight line that you marched along, and as you went you left the past behind. In fact, however, as I now saw, you didn’t move along at all. And the past was still there, with you in the place. It was what Shakespeare had called it – a “dark backward and abysm of time” that continues to co-exist with you. It’s there at your back, and what you keep in mind of it, or fail to keep in mind, remember or don’t remember, is a big part of how you act now. So a crucial determinant of how well we live is how much we engage – Shakespeare again – in “remembrance of things past”, how much, when we are in the “sessions of sweet silent thought” – and this is a thought particularly pertinent to radicals – we “sigh the lack of many a thing we sought”.

The other feeling about Brisbane and history that came back to me was from 1967. As 4000 of us marched out of the university on a day in September, I remember thinking: “ This is good. At last we’re bringing the place into history, lifting it out of its provincial dullness. This is finally bringing it into a greater order of significance, a new dimension of reality.”

If only, as we encountered the phalanx of police, and sat down with linked arms according to our pre-arranged plan, I’d been able to realize that fifty-five years ago, in the same Roma St., a bit further on, in Market Square, not 4000, but 10 to 15,000 protesters had been set upon by the forces of the state over a similar struggle for rights. We weren’t taking Brisbane into history for the first time at all. We were already in history, bringing up the rear, observed by ghosts, who might well have been heard, by ears more historically sensitive than ours, asking “What took you so long?”.

Which brings me to the second feeling that I had as I kept reading on – an odd and unexpected feeling of becoming more solid, more integrated, more connected, more complete as I read. When I read chapter 5 about the Bread or Blood disturbances in 1865, when banks collapsed and hungry victims of the government’s economic policies confronted armed police and “hundreds were still contesting the police at 11p.m. when the latter were ordered to fix bayonets and advance” and found that the protesters were “broken up into smaller groups and pushed down Albert Street” and “resistance was not entirely quelled until around midnight”, when I read this, I couldn’t help thinking: “Hang on, I’ve been with groups of protesters confronting police in exactly the same spot.” We thought it was bad then, but it’s been worse.

If I had more time I could go through the book giving more examples of how it reconnects me to many places in the city, to the feel of the city, and to the past in the city. This is why absorption in this book is so different a form of absorption. What that experience of reading a good book usually does is to abstract you inwards, to detach you from what surrounds you. This book is extremely absorbing but it doesn’t do that. Rather it takes you back and out into the four-dimensional continuum of Brisbane in an extraordinary way. This city will never be the same to you again. “After such knowledge”, as T S Eliot says, “what forgiveness?”. What forgiveness, if we don’t struggle on?

As I said, I read the book fairly intensively, over a few days. It made the city surrealistic, drenched in blood. Aborigines are hanged on Wickham Terrace, the GPO site reveals a barracks full of badly mistreated female convicts, lower Albert and Margaret streets are full of Chinese being spat upon and bashed, even the Members’ Stand at the Eagle Farm racetrack is being set upon and trashed, workers are being attacked from whichever of the Trades Hall sites they walk out of, the auditorium of the School of Arts in Ann St. is full of right and left wing women brawling about Australia in World War One, while lower Ann St. is hosting full-scale Catholic versus Protestant riots, Kangaroo Point is full of larrikins fighting police, there are Conscription riots, and thousands of ex-servicemen and others are going across the bridge to attack revolutionary Russians in South Brisbane, while attempts are made at political assassination from the middle of the Nineteenth Century to the recent past in William and George Streets, and Australian soldiers fight Yank soldiers over Australian women all along Adelaide, Queen and Creek streets, as a real and yet intensely symbolic club comes down time and time again on the head of the only Communist ever to be elected to an Australian parliament. And I haven’t even mentioned the poor punks being got at by the cops in Caxton St. or the Rock ‘n’ Roll riot in and around the old Stadium building. Or the fact that you can now look into the City Beach Surf Shop in the Queen St. Mall and hallucinate convicts being flogged to death with the cat o’ nine tails, as someone comes up to report a sighting of Captain Logan’s ghost on the site of the Cultural Centre.

It all sounds like Bob Dylan at a certain stage of his career. And they say Brisbane has always been a dull town.

It’s just as well that the book provides also a calmer side. There are a few quiet radical bookshops in George St., Elizabeth Arcade, and Petrie Terrace, and the Unemployed Camp up on the Dental College site in Turbot St., and cultural refuges like the Barjai Group’s Lyceum Club opposite the GPO, and All Saints’ Hall for theatre, and a young Joanne Watson, one of the contributors to the book, amazing her elders with her hoolahoop on a table at the Wharfies’ Club. And there’s quiet journalistic work going on in Broadway Arcade, Adelaide St., in the offices of The Boomerang, and in William Lane’s house at 42 Quay St. There are even a few cool Nineteenth Century radicals like Francis Adams who are not anti-Asian. Then if you wait long enough there’s even Foco at Trades Hall. This is, of course, as long as none of these locales is yet being attacked by police or reactionary bigots or the right wing of the ALP, or closed down for lack of finance.

But, despite the impression that my account of my rapid reading may have given, it’s not just an unintelligible tale told by an idiot, a chiaroscuro of glare and darkness. When I came to p.226 I thought I’d found a clue to how it all works. The build-up to the Fred Paterson bashing helps to see certain themes that run through it. It’s March 1948 and Vince Gair, the future leader of the DLP, but now the Treasurer, has suggested (some of you will have heard the phrase more recently) a State of Emergency.

“Six days later, Labor Premier Ned Hanlon rushed through parliament draconian legislation that prevented picketing, marching and demonstrating, making it an offence in Queensland even to advocate strike activity. He also initiated a group within the police force that subsequently became the Special Branch. One of its first duties was daily surveillance of Brisbane Trades Hall.”

Later in the chapter we learn that early in 1949 this government “rushed the notorious Electoral Districts Act through state parliament, which would provide the basis for Bjelke-Petersen’s later undemocratic grip on power through the gerrymandered process of grossly undersized electorates in the Queensland countryside. In the process Paterson’s eighty-year-old Bowen seat was ‘redistributed out of existence’…”

The clue that I’m suggesting is to be found here is in the three elements of repression that this little sequence records for us: 1) denial of civil liberties, 2) use of the police as a paramilitary instrument of the executive, and 3) the gerrymander. Those three elements of repression were in a way simply the organization into a more stable and systematic form of the forces that you can trace in the situations depicted in this book as having occurred up to 1948, and they were built on by later governments who were equally or even more in favour of ‘business as usual’, and ‘the system’, what I suppose I can call, in front of an audience like this, by its proper name of Capitalism.

I said I would talk about the feelings aroused in me by the book. A third and final feeling was that what is offered to us by our own past as radical activists and by these re-told stories is a series of uncompleted projects guided by a certain existential thirst for justice, for freedom, for fraternity and sorority. Not a great deal of the real things that these people and we ourselves have fought for has yet been achieved. One could feel bad about that. But, really, the easiest and the best, the most hopeful thing, is to empathize rather with the repeated attempts, with the constant futures that are being envisaged. So I was fascinated with the successive generations of youth that are relayed in the book. Wordsworth once said it all: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,/ To be young was very heaven.”

Some of you were probably involved, as I was, in the Free Speech Movement in the Queen St. Mall in the 80s and 90s. How good then to find that we’d been repeating, on the same spot, a movement of 1913-1914, conducted there by very buoyant and colourful characters. Here’s the young Gordon Brown on p.151: “We were carefree, irresponsible, devoid of aches and pains either of the body or of the brain. At times we were so pleased with ourselves and the world that we burst into song.”

So, paradoxically, if you think of our existence and how it’s arranged (who knows why?) to have a past, a present and a future, the bit that matters, even for those of us who write and read about the past, is the present in so far as it’s dreaming of a better future. That’s what makes this book so good, its imaginative recreation of so many imagined futures, rejecting the past and the past’s grip on the present. This seems to me to be especially true, as a way of conceiving history, if you want to present it to those who want to continue to think radically. I have had occasion recently to be re-reading Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, and I was pleased to find that this way of thinking of the history written for and about the non-ruling classes was not just a fancy of mine. Let me quote him in conclusion:

The history of the subaltern groups is necessarily fragmented and episodic. There is no doubt that in the historical activity of these groups there is a tendency towards unification, even if only on the level of provisional plans, but this tendency is continually broken up by the initiative of the dominant groups, and therefore can only be demonstrated when the historical cycle is completed, if it concludes with a success. The subaltern groups are always subject to the initiative of the dominant groups, even when they rebel or rise up: only “permanent” victory, and this not immediately, breaks with their subordination. In reality, even when they seem triumphant, the subaltern groups are only in a state of anxious defence (this truth can be demonstrated with the history of the French Revolution at least up to 1830). Every trace of autonomous initiative on the part of the subaltern groups should hence be of inestimable value for the integral historian; the result of this is that such a history cannot be dealt with otherwise than by monographs and that every monograph demands a very great accumulation of materials that are often difficult to gather together.”

This seems to me to throw a great deal of light on why this is such a good and useful book. Its many authors have done very well this difficult job of accumulation and have produced excellent monographs. These are crucial for another necessary task of the “subaltern groups” that Gramsci speaks of in another passage. What these groups need , he says, is a “spirito di scissione”, a spirit of cleavage, to break with the past and be confident that they have an identity of their own, in the fulfilment of which they will group allies with themselves and produce counter-hegemonic perspectives with which to confront the hegemony of the ruling groups. A first step in the achievement of that sense of identity is to summon up remembrance of things past. For their having done that so well we are all in debt to the authors of this excellent book.