Dear Aussie friends,
Dear Aussie friends,
We want you to know how distressing J and I have found the news and images of Queensland in these last days and weeks. As far as we know none of our old Australian friends is still living in Queensland, although one dear couple, our former neighbours in Canberra, now live up by the coast in northern NSW and we’ve been worried by reports that the floods might have been crossing the state border. But the medium-term consequences will, we suppose, eventually hit all Australians, assuming that the fearsome costs of reconstruction will have to be shared equitably around all the Australian states, and anyway there can’t be many Australians outside Qld who don’t have friends and relatives there somewhere and who won’t be anxious for them; some indeed mourning.
It seems to us especially hard that a country as well organised as Australia, and a people as sturdily resourceful and independent to the point of bloody-mindedness as you Australians, should be struck down and damaged so terribly by a force of nature against which no advance precautions or ingenuity could have had any appreciable effect. Many potential victims have clearly been saved by the courage and resourcefulness of rescuers but others have suffered dreadful fates with friends and relatives powerless to do anything for them, a horrendous thing.
We watched with great admiration a press conference the other evening (well, it was evening here in London) by Anna Bligh, the Queensland Premier, whose courage and determination convinced me without any need to Google her that she must be a descendent of him of the Bounty and State House, Sydney (she is). I thought she was marvellous and her tribute to her fellow-Queenslanders brought tears to the eyes, as did the moving moment when for a few seconds she was choked with emotion and couldn’t go on. I don’t know how she’s regarded as a party politician and for all I know she’s a hard-bitten female version of old Bjelke-Petersen, but that evening, confronting a disaster of such epic proportions, she came across as a Churchill, to this red-eyed Pom anyway. If Ms Gillard (from Wales?) does half as well as valiant Anna, she’ll be all right. That, at any rate, is how it seems from far, far away.
Of course as we have watched the maps on television showing the areas of worst flooding we have been constantly reminded of so many visits in the past to Queensland: especially perhaps the long two- or three-day drives across a continent for Christmas holidays in Tugun, not a great beauty spot but with a fantastic beach and such good eating and drinking in easy reach. I used to sit and soak in the sun in the whirlpool (spa) on the roof of the block of holiday apartments where we stayed, watching the aircraft taking off from and coming in to land at the little airport at Coolangatta just down the coast, right on the state border. (That apartment block has been developed into a much more sophisticated amenity since our day, but the roof-top spa is still there!) On the last leg of the journey to Tugun we used to stop off at a Sizzler and eat a sumptuous meal (in 2006 all the Australian branches of Sizzler were closed when rat poison was found in their salads, but we didn’t know that at the time). We used to drive along the coast past Palm Beach and Mermaid Beach to Surfer’s Paradise, stopping off here and there for a swim and glorious sea-food lunches and suppers: all wonderfully vulgar and brassy and not for the fastidious. From Tugun we used to drive inland into the hills and valleys, exploring. We adored it all.
A couple of times we went up to Noosa Heads, which we loved, and once to Cairns, which we didn’t, much. We did an official visit to Bundaberg, were shown over the big sugar mill and rum distillery (of course), and had dinner with the mill manager and his family at their home (he and his wife told us sorrowfully of the terrible table manners of the Americans: they had had a young American exchange student to stay with them and she had horrified them by cutting up her food before eating anything, laying her knife on the edge of the plate and only then eating the chopped-up remains with her fork. Worse, she had been distressed and angry when politely corrected by her hosts). They complained also of the uncomprehending remoteness of their far-away government and it took us a few moments to realise that they meant the one in Brisbane – federal Canberra could have been on another planet.
We had a fabulous family holiday one year on Heron Island, with the best and most spectacular snorkelling in the world, and took in Gladstone and Yeppoon and Rockhampton before and afterwards. The island was almost wholly unspoiled in those days. Then there were so many good visits to Brisbane, often staying with our Consul-General in his lovely tropical-style suburban house, and visiting state ministers and parliamentarians and newspaper people and trade unionists and businessmen. Once, on a visit to Brisbane, I had a long talk over an excellent hotel breakfast with John Howard, who couldn’t have been more friendly and forthcoming or less pretentious, whatever one might think of his politics. I wonder if Wikileaks has laid hands on my subsequent reporting telegram. The modernisation and upgrading of Brisbane between our first stint in Australia (1973-77) and the second (1991-94) represented an extraordinary transformation. We wonder how much of that transformation has been washed away in just a matter of days.
It’s heartbreaking to think of what has been done in so short a time to, presumably, almost all these wonderful places which for so many years have been delivering such happiness to so many people. Remembering how quickly Darwin was rebuilt in more up-to-date condition after the devastation done by Tracy, we know that Australian can-do will get Queensland up off the floor faster and with less fuss than anyone else in the world could possibly do, and that Queensland Redux will be even more brilliant than the Queensland we used to love to visit. Nevertheless, what a fearsome task awaits them! How to know where to begin? Where will the money come from? Australia more than almost any other major economy has ridden largely unscathed through the global financial crisis, only for this to hit it. Fate is not mocked. Will there be an international Queensland Appeal? Or will the world look away on the pretext that Australia has the resources to rebuild unaided, and that what money can be squeezed from our own ship-wrecked economies is better spent helping the flood victims in Brazil and Sri Lanka, as if it was a zero sum game.
At any rate, this maudlin reminiscence is merely meant to tell you that Australia’s many, many friends among the Poms are watching in appalled sympathy, fingers crossed like plaits, in a few cases perhaps praying, the rest of us simply hoping that the nightmare won’t last too terribly long. What a shocking thing it’s been. We’re so sorry.
B and J
London, UK, 15 Jan 2011
Update (19 Jan 2011): The inimitable Australian expatriate Germaine Greer, in a long article in the Guardian of 15 January 2011, commented on the flooding of her native land in markedly different terms and tone from those of our letter above, which we had sent before we read Dr Greer’s piece. Although many of Dr Greer’s points of both asserted fact and vigorous opinion contradicted some of what we had written in our letter to our Australian friends, on careful reflection we have not judged it necessary, for the purposes of this post, to make any changes at all in what we wrote, apart from the addition of some hyperlinks and minor explanatory material for the benefit of non-Australian readers. But we sincerely hope that Dr Greer will be rescued without further delay from the Queensland tree in which she seems to have taken refuge from the flood.