‘608 Brunswick Street, Fortitude Valley’ — a story about a share house in Brisbane in the late 1970s and early 1980s by Ian Curr
"No reason to get excited," the thief, he kindly spoke, "There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke. But you and I, we've been through that, and this is not our fate, So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late." — Bob Dylan, 'All Along the Watchtower'
608 Brunswick Street, Fortitude Valley, was a divided house on a gently sloping hill from the Valley to New Farm in Brisbane. It was divided into two flats so that the landlord, a city lawyer named Crawford, could maximise rent. He owned several houses in the Valley, New Farm and West End. In 1978 I lived with Alf and Dale in the upside flat. On the downside was a family from Toowoomba — a mother, her pregnant daughter, a baby and an uncle. Close by was Kent Street which ran beside the Brunswick Hotel and, at the time, was reputed to host more murders than any other street in Queensland.
I was unemployed. Alf, tall and lanky, always a stubbie in his hand, was a student at QUT and Dale, small, fair and quietly spoken, was registered at the Commonwealth Employment Service as a duck farmer. Dale was a shy, gentle person, considered and thoughtful, who had worked for Social Security, saved a little and moved out of town to raise ducks. For whatever reason, Dale decided to come back to the city and brought with him two huge fish tanks which we parked in the small lounge room that fell between his room and Alf’s. In the tanks Dale put several siamese fighting fish that were savage, often attacking a careless thumb or finger when you went to feed them. There were glass panels on top preventing these attacks and stopping the fish jumping full out of the water in such attempts.
Next door most nights there were fights and alcohol, often ending in people being thrown down the back stairs. These late night brawls were interfering with Dale’s sleep. One day he came to me saying that we would have to move out unless something was done about the neighbours.
Last time I had seen them in the doorway the mother and her heavily pregnant daughter, who was no more than 15, were struggling upstairs with a stroller and groceries. When I spoke to them briefly they seemed too busy with their own problems to give me much of their time — poor white undereducated people with no culture to give them strength, unless drinking is considered to be a culture.
Alf and I decided to tell Crawford (Snr), the garrulous city solicitor landlord, about the violent sounds coming from our neighbour’s flat. We were reluctant to do this. It felt like a breach of solidarity with our battler neighbours.
More unfortunate still, old Crawford sent his son to deal with the matter — Crawford Jnr was a prissy gingery haired upstart, a Guthrie-Featherstone type insurance lawyer. He told me that he would move them to another rental house his father owned further down in New Farm. I asked what would happen if they stood up for their rights as tenants. He said that he knew people who could take care of that, mumbling something about baseball bats.
Before we knew it they had moved out.
But when we read the Courier Mail newspaper the following week, we discovered that Crawford’s plan had backfired. The uncle had been killed. The mother and daughter were taken into custody by police on suspicion of manslaughter. Had the cops and media got this wrong? Had the two women taken reprisal against the uncle? What caused such drastic action? Was it incest? We would never know. We were living in the Valley of the Dead.
There must be some way out of here,” said the joker to the thief,
“There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief.
Businessmen, they drink my wine, ploughmen dig my earth,
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth.”
—Bob Dylan, ‘All Along the Watchtower‘
Dale moved back out into the country anyway, ducks were less complicated than humans. Sadly, he took his fish with him. Our flat was somehow dark, even a coat of light paint in the lounge room could not brighten it. The horrible green carpet and the cracked lino in the back kitchen did not help. Nor did the trip downstairs to the toilet and the laundry, a shared companionway with next door littered with discarded ‘tallies’ (26 fl. oz. beer bottles). The walls were vee jay tongue-in-groove board and the floor coverings would have best been discarded and the timber floors polished. My room at the very back of 608 was an add-on and the only place that would catch the northern sun, an advantage in winter but hot early morning in summer.
Dylan, a clerk at the Department of Social Security, moved in after Dale left. Dylan was an avid punter. Unlike Alf who was always drinking but not drunk, Dylan had bouts on the drink, once started he could not stop, he loved it so much. Dylan carried a small transistor radio around with him on Saturdays and had several accounts with the TAB. Dylan was a person of contradictions. A friend, Kate, made him some bed sheets but he never washed them, they stayed on his bed for months on end. Yet before work each morning he could be found in the lounge room ironing his shirt for work that day. Dylan could make a pretty good Chilli con Carne which he somehow managed to cook while winning or losing, as the case may be, on the races.
One time Alf and I gave our money to Dylan to pay Crawford the rent. But Dylan lost it at the races. We did not have enough left to pay the rent. And we did not want the mysterious baseball batters around administering rough justice. A friend suggested that we get as much as we could together and finance Dylan’s plunge on the next weekend’s races. He told us that Dylan wasn’t a bad punter but we had to keep him off the grog or he would get sentimental and lose the lot. One time he backed a trotter, Mao‘s Might, owned by some Builder’s Labourers in Melbourne. Dylan, a man of socialist ideals, no doubt tired and emotional but liking the horse’s name lost all his winnings. To this day he still can’t believe that Mao’s Might lost. He was probably equally disappointed in the failure of Mao to establish lasting socialism in China.
We set Dylan up in the kitchen with his trannie [not trannie = trans-sexual as nowadays, but in its earlier meaning, = transistor radio] and enough credit on his TAB card to watch him do his stuff. As the afternoon wore on, Dylan had his ups and downs at recovering our rent from the Totalisator Board. He had various systems. During the week he would follow the form guide in the afternoon Telegraph newspaper. He would find out how fast a horse would run the first two hundred metres in any given race. Depending on the distance he would disqualify from contention those horses that went out too fast or those that travelled the distance too slowly.
Dylan told me once that he intended to apply to the sociology department of the University of Queensland to do an honours thesis about the origins of statistics. His central theorem was that the industrial revolution together with concentration of people in cities led to more sophisticated gambling on races, cards, and games involving numbers and the like.
With the widespread popularity of gambling came the need for probability theory and hence modern statistics. I have no idea if there was any basis to his theory but I know that Dylan never did his proposed honours thesis, at least not on the connection between betting and statistics. He was a man of popular application of his craft more than academic inquiry. His highway was for gambling.
By the second last race Dylan was behind. We needed a result to win back the rent. He was starting to perspire; more because of his desire to it make up to us for his loss of the rent than from anxiety about our presence in the room.
Dylan had a betting system that he would employ when he thought that he knew the field well and needed to get big odds from the bookmaker. He would bet on trifectas. A trifecta is when a bettor gets first, second, and third in exact order. Dylan’s philosophy was grounded in the knowledge that trifecta betting can provide big returns for small outlays when you place your bet with the TAB.
On the second last race he bet on the trifecta. All three horses came home in the top three but in the wrong order! This left Dylan and us behind with only one race to go. Dylan’s winnings had been modest throughout the day. Now he was positively sweating. Lodgings for a student, a worker on the dole and a public servant lay in the balance. We huddled around Dylan’s transistor to hear the last race. The horses came through in the correct order. We had won the trifecta!
Afterwards Dylan swore off using rent money to bet on the horses ever again, the pressure was just too great.
But there was another type of trifecta on the loose in the Valley in those days, the political trifecta. Joh Bjelke-Petersen had appointed Russ Hinze as the minister for everything that included police, gambling and the like. Anything went in the Valley. Next door to 608 Brunswick Street was Belino’s massage parlour. After the murdering women moved out, a young woman, Louise, from Sydney took over the flat next door on the Angelo’s brothel side of the house. Louise worked at 4ZZZ formerly a student radio station, a onetime training ground for future ABC and National Times journos, now was gearing up for the 1982 Commonwealth Games protests. ‘Rock against Racism’ at Davies Park in South Brisbane was the next big gig.
Louise would park her latish model car, unlocked, in the back yard with an expensive recorder exposed to the harsh Brisbane sun in the back seat. Louise told me one day that she had witnessed coppers driving around the back of Angelos one Friday evening to get paid in cash by the brothel madame.
4ZZZ was an alternative radio station that obtained a special educational licence back in 1975 and played the Who’s ‘We won’t get fooled again’ at its first broadcast. It had grown out of the New Left’s experience of the Vietnam War, conscription, and women’s rights. Zed fled its haven at the University of Queensland student union building when threatened with eviction by a National Party UQ student president, Victoria Brazil.
4ZZZ was later housed in the old communist party headquarters, a modest building at 291 St Pauls Terrace, the Valley. The communist party leadership had decided to throw in the towel and liquidated its assets built up over a generation of workers, and sold “291” (as the building was known) to 4ZZZ for a song.
In more militant times ‘291’ had been bombed by a self-styled “leader of the fascist party in Australia, Gary Manghan. He was charged over the bombing, but was ultimately acquitted in September 1973. Manghan was let off by the court on a technicality despite very strong evidence against him. He worked at Bothwicks meatworks sometimes. The meatworkers union was led by communists back then and so the Special Branch needed a spy at the workplace and this budding fascist no doubt got the job. He was also involved in other crimes and prostitution. He was known to brag about how often he was given lifts to demonstrations and public meetings by the Qld Special Branch — demonstrations where he acted as an agent provocateur along with a man known as ‘the Skull’. The bombing of the People’s Bookshop occurred on April 19, 1972. Sixteen sticks of gelignite exploded below the floor of the Communist Party’s Brisbane office, lifting it almost six centimetres. Later the same evening, three rifle shots ricocheted through the Maoist East Wind bookshop in George Street, Brisbane.
One time I was at home in 608 Brunswick Street cooking spaghetti for tea when I heard a knock at the door. I went to the front door wearing an apron and holding some cheese and grater in my hand only to be confronted by a slightly pissed be-suited man in the doorway asking where the girls were. I said “Sorry mate, I don’t know what you’re talking about” and closed the door.
Anyway back to the Valley trifecta. Joh appointed Hinze as the police minister; Hinze supported Lewis, the police commissioner, and denied the existence of any brothels or illegal gambling in the Valley. If there were no illegal prostitution or gambling there couldn’t be any cops on the take, a pure political trifecta for Hinze and Bjelke-Petersen!
A liberal member of parliament, Rosemary Kiburz, said that she feared for her safety when Russ Hinze was around. One day a group of people were picketing the executive building over the lack of democratic rights in Queensland and Hinze drove past in his ministerial limo, giving them the forks as he went by.
Hinze was that kind of guy.
On another occasion Hinze was having his make-up done by a TV woman in King George Square and a prominent student radical, Dick Shearman, screamed out: “Look, Russ Hinze has an erection”. Dylan told us that a group of his public servant mates went to an illegal casino in the Valley one night. Next day’s Telegraph had Russ Hinze saying there were no illegal casinos in the Valley.
Brunswick Street was dotted with prostitutes openly soliciting, some stood beyond the next corner toward the Valley near the old Rivoli picture theatre that had been converted into a dry cleaners business, no doubt with workers sweating over hot irons out the back.
Australian inner cities are contradictions. Mansions with Rolls Royces driving through automatic gates down in New Farm, only a block away from lumpen proles in ratholes being killed.
Meanwhile police would raid rented houses in Kent Street and flush out Aboriginal tenants onto the street to arrest them for obscene language and cart them away. Down the road at the Village twin picture theatre Mad Max II starring Mel Gibson was playing. And further down Brunswick Street the roses of New Farm Park were just beginning to blossom. Meanwhile half a planet away in London a film critic pronounced Mad Max II to be the greatest film ever made. Little did he know what lurked out here on Brunswick Street.
Two petty crims, Stuart and Finch, were charged with firebombing the Whiskey Au Go Go nightclub in Fortitude Valley in 1973. They claimed to have been verballed by police and the firebombing was an attempt at extortion with police involved. Fifteen patrons and workers at the club were killed in the fire. Two musicians from a band called Trinity were also lost. Many people escaped by jumping from broken windows onto an awning and dropping 15 feet to the ground.
For some reason it took the media and judiciary another decade and a half to look seriously at the corruption of police in the Valley. ‘The Joke’ as it was called, began to crack. Police ratted on other police. Why the politicians chose to focus on the Valley and not the Gold Coast, for example, is the subject of conjecture.
The reluctance of the Fitzgerald Inquiry to attack the drug trade may have been part of the reason; for it was safer to investigate prostitution and illegal gambling than the murderous drug trade.
Of course it is all different now, 608 houses the Bank of Queensland; Angelo’s massage parlour has been demolished and replaced by apartments; terrace houses replaced Aboriginal rentals in Kent street and all the murdering and drugs goes on elsewhere. Or does it? Back then a former Special Branch officer, ‘Shady’ Lane, had been a local member of parliament, propping up the National Party government. These days a woman called Honore, a former Qld Council of Unions secretary, is reunited with the residents of her suburb, New Farm, by representing them as their member of parliament. One observer claims that the Sicilian mafia meet in Wynberg Lane before mass on Sundays, just beside the catholic archbishop’s residence in New Farm. For me this is stretching a long bow, unless, of course, you regard Italian catholics going to mass on Sunday in their suits and ties as an organised criminal conspiracy.
The Valley is still a violent place, no matter how many times they do up the mall. The old Daily Telegraph/Sunday Truth building has been renovated by one of the architects of 4ZZZ, only this time to house professionals in the inner city. Ironically, all the residents do is complain about the noise from the bands in the clubs nearby. Is it paranoia, or has nothing changed except we have moved from one millennium to another?
If you walk down Alfred Street in 2010 you will see buildings taken over by the ‘caring’ profession. A short street, you can read the words ‘Life’, ‘Hope’ and ‘Purpose’ writ large on the walls of three different buildings housing counselling services, a drop-in centre, clothes distribution and drug rehabilitation service. Walking down that street one day in July 2010 I heard a man say I thought I’d come in for a shave and a cup. Later on I asked him what he meant by ‘cup’. It depends on how you say it he replied. You can say ‘cuupp’! Or you can say ‘ceup’ or even ‘cuppie’.
When you say it, what does it mean? I asked
The man reaches inside his bag and produces a cheap white plastic enamel cup. ‘That’s it. I’ve answered your question’ he uttered an evasive answer in an evasive world.
But when I walked by earlier you said: ‘I haven’t had a cup for two weeks, I thought I’d come by and have a cup.’ The man then said a ‘cup of water’ as he sipped from a different plastic cup with cheap plonk in it. More evasion.
‘You see on the walls’ as I pointed at three different buildings in Alfred St ‘you see the words ‘Hope’, ‘Life’ and ‘Purpose’
– now what does that mean? What is that all about?
The cup-man, Jeremiah, says ‘the man who runs all this, his name is Phil, he wears a leather jacket – you see that sign City Care, well he’s the boss of that. But I let him know that I am not fooled so when I see him in the street I ask him ‘when can I come and swim in your pool?’ you know at his fancy house, I says ‘I want to swim in your pool and have a couple of beers and a BBQ when can I do that, Phil? And Phil he says ‘Soon’. Then Jeremiah and Bill together say ‘Oh Yeah, soon, sure!’
‘We know that is never going to happen says Jeremiah.
With this Bill lies down on the road and pulls 1970s style jeans over his track suit pants — Jeremiah says ‘you’re not putting them on over the top of them pants are you? Bill struggles with the jeans wriggling and squirming on Alfred street. J says ‘they’re flares just like mine’ So Bill stands up and pulls on a red polo shirt. ‘What do ya reckon?’ he asks, ‘what do ya think of these, com’on what do you think?’
I reply ‘deadly (he laughs) I like the colour (of the shirt)’ I say.
Then I say ‘I’m going now’. Jeremiah says ‘No, I like talking to you. What else do you have to say?’
I went to ask him more but he pulled me up and said ‘who are you and where are you from?’. I said I grew up on a farm in Moggill. He introduced himself as Jeremiah and said he was a Pitjantjatjara man from Alice Springs.
‘A country boy’ he said. I say that it was a dairy farm and J starts mimicking the milking of a cow I said yes my mum used to milk the cows. This is all before machines. J tells the story of his Irish grandfather who had cattle down in the Snowy just before the Snowy Mountains Scheme. His place was near Jindabyne. A man turns up and says ‘I’m gonna buy your property’. The next day, the contract signed and the price given, grandad died. ‘He died’. Granny said that the place was his whole life, the property, the cattle. He got money and was told to move out – next day he was dead.
“This is the place where they all were bred;
Some of the rafters are standing still;
Now they are scattered and lost and dead,
Everyone from the old nest fled,
Out of the shadow of Kiley’s Hill.”
— Banjo Patterson Under the Shadow of Kiley’s Hill
Poor granddad, he died.
Police walk up the street. I ask J and B If I can take their photo in front of ‘Purpose’. The coppers look around. A van stops in the middle of the street to allow me to take the photos. Police walk on ‘fucking Jacks’ says Bill. The van drives away.
Some months later Gumdale Wreckers came and tore down one of the buildings.
Alfred Street still had ‘Hope’ and ‘Life’ but ‘Purpose’ was demolished. But the Communist Party building ‘291’ still stands across the road housing radio 4ZZZ now nearly 40 years old.
All along the watchtower, princes kept the view
While all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too.
Outside in the cold distance a wildcat did growl,
Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.
— Bob Dylan, ‘All Along the Watchtower‘
[With thanks to E. for proofreading and editing]