I queue at the check in, weighted down by booklets I would end up bringing home unopened. Thirty minutes of inching forward, one bag lift at a time. Boredom sets in. I resort to singing, but this only brings looks of disapproval. Maybe it was the wrong song. I count the seconds between each little step forward, but it follows no pattern I can discern. I consider singing again, just for the human contact. The sparrows in the rafters argue noisily, no one else speaks. People struggle with their elephantine designer luggage having packed lock, stock, barrel and 56inch plasma TV. I wonder if I packed spare socks. We move forward. Thirty-seven seconds have passed since the last quantum of movement. Is this really the best we can do? Still in the hallway of a new century, facing the continued threat of global terrorism, global warming and global apathy, you still get treated like some form of criminal if you attempt to make conversation with the people around you. Some people claim that we are more connected than ever before but they are probably the same people who think that Facebook friends actually are and that using LOL in spoken conversation is cool, rather than a marker of deep and abiding stupidity.
We move forward again. Forty-nine seconds this time. My bag feels heavy. Loose objects slide across the floor towards it, small children gravitate towards it. I try to apologize with a glance, try to say “I didn’t want to bring this much stuff! Ray made me do it!!” Nothing happens for a while. Ninety-seven seconds. I can see the finish line, but there are six people between me and check-in. Six people? That could take hours. Between check-in and bag drop species have become extinct, glaciers have melted and, as far as I can tell, the sparrows in the rafters have evolved into a new species. Finally, I get to hand over my bag. There is another slight delay due to the scales breaking, and I suggest that they place my bag directly in the middle of the plane, just to be on the safe side.
After this I get to queue for a security check. Unsurprisingly, this takes a while. My bags are x-rayed, my coat turned inside out, the soles of my shoes are poked with a highly trained finger and my own soul is scanned for evidence of evil intent. My bag is searched for drugs, explosives, letter openers, nail clippers, WMD’s, things that go bump in the night, monsters under the bed, the big bad wolf, …………….
…………………farm yard manure, illegal CD’s, copies of Dan Brown novels and finally, surprisingly, I am allowed through. Maybe it was the singing?
The compass needle swings north and settles. The background noise falls away and then settles. I fidget in my seat and don’t settle. The hobbit in the seat next to me spreads to take advantage of the full 30 inches of seat space. He may have hairy feet, but he has no worries about DVT. Ah, economy, truly the full flowering of 21st century culture. Re-runs of Two and Half Men and Top Gear. A biscuit, with a texture like plastic cheese and a flavour that seemed to vary by the bite - first ginger, then chalk and finally it tasted of nothing more than disappointment and cost cutting.
Despite having my knee caps forced into my forehead by the seat in front of me I must have slept, for I was awoken by a suggestion that we should reset our watches. Set your watches back one hour and your minds….how does that go? There were no warnings about predatory animals, winged or furry, and so clearly the north is safer than the west! We circle the airport a few times and I wonder if my bag has slid off to one side, causing the plane to go into some form of death spiral, but it seems they may have been just waiting for a landing slot.
We touch down in Brisbane. Some pilots make their plane kiss the ground like a peck on the cheek - but this pilot seemed to go for the full tongue down the throat examination of the tonsils approach. More teenage than new age. It’s cloudy. I need a coat. It’s obvious that it’s been raining heavily. A worker seems to be shovelling hot chocolate out of a roadside trench. Damp one day, torrential the next? Queensland, exotic Queensland, rainforest, coral reefs, shrill chip shop owners from Ipswich who flee to Europe of all places to escape multiculturalism - well good luck! - Cassowary and palm cockatoos. This is exciting, bound to be interesting. A flock of birds around the taxi rank, partially hidden by ragged grass, turn out to be house sparrows. Ah.
The taxi engages warp speed and flashes through the post industrial waste lands that seem to be compulsory around airports. Eventually, possibly due to damage to the dilithium crystals, we return to a speed more in keeping with Earth physics and safe arrival. Outside the windows are storage areas for concrete pipes and iron girders, ranks of imported cars, an abandoned steel works, with a gap toothed smile of shattered windows. Layers of graffiti, overwriting and obscuring the intent of earlier authors. An archaeology of public sentiment, political protest and declarations of love.
Central Brisbane shines with the brash growth of all that is new. Cranes swing over building sites, mirrored glass buildings show off next door’s architecture. Builders in high visibility jackets clamber through a spider web of scaffolding that pushes itself and the buildings towards the sky. Faintly, you can hear the Earth weep as the resource boom booms and buildings grow higher and higher. In the dust on the building site windows somebody had written “Go Pies” and next to it was a request for people to reveal their chests (if you see what I mean). There is an article in today’s paper suggesting that Brisbane is the new culture capital of Australia. This either means Australia is doomed as a culture, or that somebody may have made a mistake! Yet for all of that, lines of bikes await riders, looking new and clean. I don't see anybody waiting to get on to them, but I don't see anybody sawing through the frames and carting them away either. So, despite the modernity, Brisbane seems more local and human, more trusting, than some places I have seen.
The hotel room was a picture of shiny, modern anonymity, made more so by the personalised greeting on the TV screen. I flash to the telescreens of 1984 and check my room number. It’s not 101.The room has a small window, through which you could extend your arm to about your wrist. That is the extent of the contact possible with the outside world. So I go for a walk. I head towards the Botanic Gardens, which are just around the corner.
Flowers bloom in the trees and a Hardhead - what a cracking name for a duck - floats in the weeds on the pond. It opens its eyes every now and then, checking for danger, looking for eels. Down by the river is a mangrove swamp, bubbling and popping like cooking soup as the waves wash back and forth. A White Faced Heron moves with deliberate stillness and infinite patience, hunting crabs and small fish. The roots of the mangroves trap flood debris and build new land. Here the roots of the Earth will be reinforced with witches hats, shopping trolleys and a collection of abandoned shoes which, mysteriously, all seem to be for the right foot. Future archaeologists will surmise a race of one legged people, forever stuck in contra-flows, but shopping none the less. Noisy Miners are just that, chasing each other, chasing dogs and harassing passers by. Clearly they have no respect for size or position, acting like reprobate teenagers. Birds crash and call in the upper branches of the mangroves, difficult to see despite them being only a few meters away. Eventually they reveal themselves as Fig Birds, with bold red eyes. As the light fails and I return to the sterility of my hotel room fruit bats glide and flap across the dulling sky. The view from my hotel window is better at night than by day - although the workmen hammer on late into the evening. As I walk home I pass a couple hand in hand by the park gate; the girl stands on tip toe and gently kisses her boyfriend and says "I'm glad you exist" - ah rationalist love - what a way to end the day.
Evening brings the flight home, back through the wastelands to the airport. I would suggest that you don’t press the “Yes I have dangerous goods” button on the check screens - it really does cause a great deal of hassle!
I’d spent 24 hours in Brisbane - but it was a conversation on the homeward bound plane that seemed to make most sense. Standing or sitting in rows and queues, ignoring the people around you, seems so typical, but at times it seems so wrong. As we stare down the problems of the 21st Century, the least we can do is talk.