The rainy season


I was in Brisbane last week for a wedding in a registry office. I used to think that a rego office wedding would be really cool and chilled out, but the ceremony in Australia made me feel actual rage.

Since Australia’s Marriage Amendment Act 2004, celebrants are required to give an explanation of the nature of marriage, which includes this text:

“Marriage, according to law in Australia, is the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.”

Which pretty much has “So there, homos” after it in invisible ink. When the celebrant read it out, I had this moment of “Wait, did he actually say that?” In a normal situation if someone was saying dickish things like that, I’d walk out or make an angry tweet, but it’s not cool to do that at your brother’s wedding.

I felt a bit like a naive New Zealander and I wondered if this it was just accepted in Australia. But I googled it and found various Australian couples wanting advice on what they can add to their vows to not alienate their gay friends and family.

It makes me appreciate the freedom that New Zealanders have in the world of weddings. Dudes and chicks can get hitched in any pairing, if they want to. Yay, New Zealand.


Talking about the weather

Eagle Street Pier on a rainy afternoon.
Eagle Street Pier on a rainy afternoon.

It rained a lot in Brisbane, but Brisbane does rain well. I think this is because a lot of the infrastructure that makes the city comfortable in the filthy hot summer months, also works during the wet seasons. So the covered walkways that protect summer pedestrians from the baking Queensland sun also work as rain shelter in March. The various city malls, arcades and underground routes likewise let people get around without being bothered too much by the cruel outside world.

It’s a good umbrella town. It’s unlike Wellington – where using an umbrella is a sign of mental illness – or Auckland – where using an umbrella is an unwelcome admission of the truth that no one likes to face: that Auckland is rainy as. Brisbane happy faces the rainy weather, everyone uses umbrellas (and not just in black!) and malls even have free umbrella wrapping stations so you don’t end up dripping everywhere.

There’s something really satisfying about being out in the rain but not getting wet. Maybe there’s a basic human instinct that’s all “SEEK SHELTER!” but it’s very liberating to be able to ignore that and just get out and do regular stuff without fear of getting soaked. Though it seems Queensland still hasn’t figured out how to protect against hair frizz.


I went to the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art. After I’d been thoroughly impressed by the epic faux taxidermy of Cai Guo-Qiang, I wandered upstairs and discovered something kinda wonderful.

It was a video work called King: A Portait of Michael Jackson by Candice Breitz. She’d selected 16 hardcore Michael Jackson fans – none of whom could really sing or dance – and filmed them singing and moving along to the Thriller album. So there were 16 TV screens playing the video vertically, each TV playing the audio track of the individual depicted on screen. The end result was an amateur chorus of Thriller.

The singing sounded surprising gentle, like Anglican church service singing. I think that was a combination of the amateur singers not being able to project their voices, along with nerves and being unable to replicate MJ’s unique high-but-tough voice.

Some people were well into it, others did that thing where you kind of mumble the verses but go hard on the familiar chorus. Because there was no music playing, each song started with the performers jiggling about and it was fun to guess the song. Suddenly everyone gets all tough-guy and, oh, it’s “Beat It”. The zombie hands come out for “Thriller”.

It was a dorky but spectacular experience. As hilarious as it was seeing all the daggy dancing and wobbly notes, there was something incredibly uplifting and life-affirming about sitting in a dark room while 16 people suddenly burst into “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin”.

This video is the whole darn thing at 42 minutes long, so feel free to just watch a little bit.

QLD4: Shelved

So, I was halfway through posting the tales of my October visit to Queensland when it started to rain. And it rained quite a lot and started to flood all over the state. The fake beach I visited turned to mud, cars were swept down rivers, houses collapsed and people died. So it all seemed a bit weird to keep on with my tales of the fun time before the floods came; those simpler, drier times.

But slowly Queensland is recovering. In a lot of places things are back to normal; in other places things will never be the same. So I reckon now’s a good a time as any to keep on telling my Brisbane stories, looking back at how sometimes it’s the ordinary things that can seem most exotic and end up being most memorable, like going to the shops.

I was meandering around the central Brisbane shopping area and came across a Borders book store. It was a fairly ordinary Borders, only there was a big gap in the shop. The music section had recently been cleared of stock, leaving a mass of empty CD shelves.

The death of the CD

Whenever I discover the closure of a music retailer, I always feel a little conflicted. Part of me is cheering “Viva la digital revolution, bitches!” and gleefully buying digital tracks of my favourite little bands that otherwise couldn’t afford to press CDs, but another part of me is deeply sad at the loss of the ’90s-style record shops I grew up with, all those racks and racks of music.

For Borders, ditching the CDs department probably isn’t that much of a big deal, but it probably also means that elsewhere a little record shop has also closed, taking with it some of those nice record-shop experiences. Oh well.

The mall called. My bro and I ventured out to Westfield Chermside, which is pretty much like any big mall you might have been to. I was excited to visit this particular mall because it had an Apple Store. As it happened, I needed a new cable for my iPhone, so I took the opportunity to shop there.

The place was swarming with people, most of whom seemed to be cheerfully fondling iPads. I found the cable I needed and looked for a till. The long counter at the back of the store was the Genius Bar thing, but that’s not a sales area.

I couldn’t see anywhere that looked like a sales point. I wondered for a moment that if they didn’t actually have any tills, perhaps they could just, like, intuit the money from you.

But no. Eventually I stumbled across a queue of people and at the end of the queue was a staffer standing next to a piece of minimalist furniture with a Mac on it. This was the till and they were happy to take my credit card.

One of those

Across town, we also paid a visit to the IKEA, which is still a huge novelty for me in this IKEAless land in which I dwell.

Somehow we ended up entering the IKEA maze from the exit-end, and so travelled against the carefully constructed retail flow. This meant starting with the kids area and ending with tiny-apartment ideas, which actually worked better for me.

There’s one thing that I really covet at IKEA – the Billy shelf system. It’s a really simple range of bookcases, and is one of their global bestsellers. I have books – I have too many books – and I have an inadequate bookcase I bought from Freedom furniture in 2001 (ex-display model, ’90s curled metal flourishes). All I want is a simple bookshelf like the Billy. It will house all my books and some decorative items too. Oh, globalisation, why dost thou foresake me, etc?

Instead I bought some $1 picture frames and tried to block the joy and simplicity of the Billy.


Brisbane has brilliant public transport. I borrowed a spare transport pass from my bro and enjoyed easy travel on the bus, train and ferry services. Any New Zealand dickface who thinks that trains are some sort of Edwardian antiquity that has no place in modern New Zealand, should be forced to spend a week in Brisbane riding the trains. They are splendid.

There was a curious disruption to the ferry service while I was there. A troubled man (a New Zealander!!!!) had tied up his yacht to the central ferry terminal – one of the ones that was later to be munted by the flood – and threatened to blow up his yacht. “I’ve got supplies and reckon I can stay awake for two weeks,” he told the local paper.

But it ended 16 hours later with a fire, a stabbing and the police eventually subduing him. He later claimed to have been suffering from marijuana-induced paranoia. New Zealanders, don’t smoke that reefer – you’ll end up mucking things up for Brisbane commuters.

But when the ferries were running, making the short trip from the city over to Kangaroo Point was a real pleasure, especially at night. It’s all lit up, looking like a proper fancy city, making me feel like I was in Brooklyn, or Devonport.


QLD2: Some culture

The Queensland Cultural Centre is a cluster of cultural institutions housed in hulking concrete behemoths. I like a good solid concrete building, so I was delighted to explore these structures.

I first paid a brief visit to the Queensland Performing Arts Centre, and saw an exhibition of ballet costumes. Expertly crafted costumes, that are designed to both look amazing on stage as well as last the wear and tear of daily performances, are a treat to see up close, but there was one thing I wasn’t quite expecting to see in detail. I gazed up at some Swan Lake tutus suspended from the ceiling and came face to face with a sea of beige gussets.


The Queensland Museum had a very strong emphasis on natural history, including a long tableau of taxidermied animals. This seems to be the challenge of modern museums – what to do with all those stuffed animals, without looking like a weird Victorian-era cabinet of colonial oppression.

It was an adequate museum, but it seemed like they were desperate for some more space to really bust out and expand beyond the olden times collection.

Next door is the Queensland Art Gallery, which was just grand. It’s a really big ol’ concrete building with high ceilings and they allowed photography in most areas, which is really pleasing. My fave was stumbling across a dark alcove playing Martha Rosler’s uber cool domestic performance videos “Semiotics of the Kitchen” and “The East is Red, the West is Bending”.

And the QAG has a really enjoyable expansiveness to it. It involves a lot of walking around, but there’s the sense the the art is allowed to just hang out and be itself without any obligation to necessarily be fun or educational.

Queensland Art Gallery

A little further along the river is the Gallery of Modern Art, which is the largest contemporary art gallery in Australia. Yes, even bigger than the actually-not-all-that-big-when-you-come-to-think-of-it Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney.

The GOMA was in the midst of a retrospective exhibition of Valentino, so the place was swarming with ladies who lunch, and there was a huge queue for tickets. I couldn’t be bothered queuing, so I went off to look at all the free bits.

I stumbled across the finalists in the Premier of Queensland’s National New Media Art Award, a competition for art that uses “video, digital animation and gaming, robotics, sound and interactive technologies”. #nerdgasm. These included a series of clever mash-ups of hip hop culture with B-grade sci-fi movies (this is known in the biz as Afrofuturism); a robot that spookily danced around a dimly-lit room; and a fruity woodland animated adventure that uses the viewer’s face as the main character.

By the time I’d finished with the free part of the gallery, the epic Valentino queue had shrunk to a lone dude, so I bought a ticket.

The centrepiece of the exhibition was a room full of frocks, and all around the room, ladies were buggin’ out over the dresses. It was amazing to feel the buzz of excitement in that room. Now, I appreciate that Mr Valentino has an eye for design and has designed many fine feathered frocks, but while I was all #nerdgasm at the new media art, I wasn’t quite feeling it for the gowns.

The exhibition was a carefully designed labyrinth of commerce, with an exhibtion-access-only restaurant halfway along, and an exit through a massive giftshop, with all sorts of lovely frock-related souvenirs. And I’m just going to confess this: I bought a Moleskine notebook. Ok.

V is for Valentino

Finally down this end of the river was the State Library of Queensland. I tried to do some sightseeing, but it’s a really serious proper research library. It was really quiet and I even felt that the simple act of walking around was grossly instrusive. Not wanting to disturb anyone’s serious study, I left.

But there is a library that welcomes mucking around. Across the river in the CBD, Brisbane Square Library is the central branch of the city library. It’s a bright, bold new building that’s really fun to be in.

If you’re returning a book, you can follow its progress via conveyor belt to the sorting room, with the help from mirrors and CCTV. The building is full of fabulous mood lighting, and there’s free wifi for all members. It just feels like a good place to be, but despite all the attractions, at its core is books, books, books.

Book belt

It’s really tempting to compare the fine cultural institutions of Brisbane with those of New Zealand cities, but it’s hard to fairly compare them. For a start, Brisbane has money. It’s a boomtown with that little bit extra to add the final polish. A library doesn’t need to have a fun CCTV and conveyor belt. A performing arts centre doesn’t need to have a museum. It’s nice when they do, but it’s more important that a library has books and that a performing arts centre has good performance spaces.

QLD1: Wheel around the Brisbane

I’d been to Queensland twice before – once in 1988 as part of a family jaunt around Australia, and the second time in 1991 in one of those Gold Coast holidays people take when they’re feeling masochistic. My brother lives in Brisbane now, so I decided to pay him a visit in the spring of 2010.

My 1988 visit to Brisbane revolved around World Expo ’88, where the former dock land on the south bank of the Brisbane River had been transformed into exactly the sort of magical land that a World Expo should be. It contained an eclectic mix of buildings, showcasing what the participating countries of the world felt was important to show off.

The New Zealand pavillion at Expo ’88 was highly regarded, and featured a faux native forest, seats that looked like mini sheep, and paua-esque cladding on the outside. Yet when the pavilion was brought back to New Zealand for retirement and opened to the public out by Auckland Airport, the magic was gone. It had somehow become a tacky tourist disaster.

Expo ’88 had left me with a whole lot of memories but no way of revisiting them. Once the expo was over, the entire site was dismantled, and the area has been impressively redeveloped into South Bank Parklands.

Box of mementos

There are a couple of remnants of the expo, though – the Skyneedle was bought by a local celebrity hairdresser and moved to his HQ a few blocks away, and the Nepal Peace Pagoda still stands, complete with a mini shrine of Expo ’88 memorabilia.

But remaining as only a fuzzy memory is the Knight Rider car, the cheeky Canadian AV presentation titled “Not Another Government Movie” and the annoying guy at the Australia Post pavilion who told me I couldn’t sit down on the floor, even though I’d been on my feet all day and my legs were aching.

Wheel of Brisbane

But the South Bank site has bold new attractions to lure in the visitor. I was drawn in by the Wheel of Brisbane, like a scaled-down version of the London Eye. I figured that it would help me get oriented with the city, and its name sounded a bit like “wheel of fortune”, which gave it a slight exotic carnival (and/or TV game show) flavour. I paid the $15 admission fee and boarded.

As the wheel rotated around, a recording described sites of Brisbane. The wheel isn’t all that high and there aren’t all that many things to be seen from its location, so the choice of scenic sites were a little sparse. Oh look, another bridge.

Things got really surreal when the “Inspector Gadget” theme suddenly started to play. I tried to guess what this might signify. Could it be that a famous Australian inventor had a workshop nearby? No, the connection was that the 2003 straight-to-video film “Inspector Gadget 2” was filmed in Brisbane, including a scene on a nearby bridge. I don’t think anyone’s in a hurry to nickname the town Brizzywood.

Ignoring the commentary and looking down on the ground, I could see some drama involving an ambulance. It turned out that a toddler in a pram had rolled into the river, but fortunately had been rescued by a passerby. This was probably the most interesting thing I saw from the Wheel of Brisbane.

Faux beach

Back on flat land, I went for a wander along the river and came across the beach. Because Brisbane River isn’t really swimmable, there is a fake beach to enjoy at the river’s edge.

Lush white sands, palm trees, clear waters – it’s everything a dream beach ought to have, only with skyscrapers providing the slightly less idyllic backdrop. It feels like the sort of thing that wouldn’t be out of place in Dubai – a giant fake beach because it’s too hard making the real beach nice.

I couldn’t reconcile the 1988 South Bank of my memory with the one I experienced in October 2010. But that seems perfect – the one thing that world expos and world fairs are good at doing is creating weird memories in their young visitors. So I’ll keep my old memory of the plastic raincoats, the foot-massager machines and the nice lady in the England pavilion, and I’ll add some new memories of the Wheel of Tourism, the Little Dubai Beach and the quite nice Nutella crepes I had at a cafe along the river.