To coincide with the Library’s Floodlines exhibition I have been exploring literary responses to past floods in Queensland. Today we look at a novel by Thomas Shapcott based on elements of the 1974 floods.
Thomas Shapcott is one of Australia’s most distinguished poets. He was born in Ipswich, Queensland, and attended the Ipswich Grammar School with his twin brother. He left school at 15 to work in his father’s accountancy business, but completed an accountancy degree in 1961. In 1967 he graduated in arts from the University of Queensland.
His first artistic impulse was to be a composer, but he turned away from music when he discovered a string quartet he had written unconsciously plagiarised another work. He then worked as a tax accountant, a profession that he pursued for 27 years. He published his first poem in 1956 and his first book of poems in 1961. By the time he sold his accountancy practice in 1978, he had published seven collections of poems, edited four anthologies, written a book on painter Charles Blackman and a number of libretti for composer Colin Brumby.
His prizes and awards include an Order of Australia for services to literature and arts administration (1989); the 1867 Sir Thomas White Memorial Prize for best book by an Australian; and the 2000 Patrick White Award. He also has a major poetry award, the Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize, named in his honour. He has published 15 collections of poems, as well as eight novels and over 20 libretti.
Flood Children, first published in 1981, was his first novel. Aimed at a Young Adult audience, the novel traces the adventures of 12 year old Peter, his younger sister Michelle and older sister Janni during the 1974 floods in Brisbane. The three youngsters have been left alone overnight in the care of 16 year old Janni, but in the morning they discover that rising flood waters have transformed their neighbourhood. They join Janni’s 18 year old boyfriend Don in assisting with the rescue effort in Don’s boat.
In this extract they are trying to rescue the headmaster of the local school and his family who are reluctant to acknowledge their danger from the rising waters. It is after this rescue that their adventure turns to danger when Don’s outboard motor fails as they are trying to cross the river to safety.
Cover of Flood Children by Thomas Shapcott
“Hey look, you kids.” Don swerved the boat towards the headmaster’s residence, an old Queensland house-on-stilts set in the middle of a bare allotment behind the main school buildings. It had always looked bare, but seemed even more so on this new brown horizon which, at this point, had raised the surface of the already flat brown paddocks by over a metre, submerging the few scrawny shrubs that had survived a succession of boisterous schoolkids and uninterested headmasters’ wives.
“There’s somebody in there still. Let’s go across and check it out.”
“Surely they would have moved out by now. The water goes right round them. They must have seen the creek rising days ago ; they’d be the first to see what was happening.”
But, to their amazement, they saw that the house was certainly occupied. Don quite enjoyed manoeuvring the boat up the front path, just fitting in between the posts of the near-vanished gate. They pulled up at the steps. The headmaster and his wife greeted them. They had been sitting down to breakfast and he was still holding a piece of toast with dribbly marmalade which he absentmindedly licked from his wrist as they talked.
“Mr Minnis? Gee, we thought you’d have moved out ages ago! Have you been listening to the news on the radio? They expect the flood waters to rise another five metres and we’ve been sent to warn people.”
“We saw it rising yesterday, and this morning here it was under the house. But it’d have to go a long way before it actually gets inside.”
“A lot less than five metres.”
“But the water here runs off very rapidly. We’ve often had flooding in the creek and it gets away in no time. Always does.”
“But there’s nowhere for it to get away to, now. Only into the river, and it’s pushing the water back up here – look, you can see it. This current isn’t even going downstream, it’s being pushed back up.”
“By George, I believe the boy’s right.”
“Come on, dear, your bacon will be getting cold.”
“No Mabel. The lad’s right. Perhaps we should think about what to do if the water does get higher.”
“Frank, don’t be ridiculous, how can it? I’m sure it hasn’t moved a bit since we got up this morning. After the first surprise …”
“But it is rising now.”
Boats in flooded Edward Street 1974
They eventually persuade them to evacuate.
“Let’s get as many on board this trip as we can.” Don sounded ominous, though he tried not to be.
“Shall Michelle and I stay here until you come back?” Peter offered. Michelle was delighted, as the prospect would give her a longer time with the cats.
“Good idea. Janni, perhaps you could stay too. I’ll come back as quickly as possible.”
As the sound of the motor died away across the long flatness of the water, Janni felt a terrible pang of aprehension. Peter and Michelle were happily making friends with the animals. Janni mooned through the strangely deserted rooms, crowded with all the signs of immediate and sudden departure – clothes littered everywhere, toys, the unfinished meal in the kitchen. The feeling aroused by the water beneath them at this moment was of a malicious and evil presence, waiting to swallow them up, waiting to swallow everything up, gardens, trees, park benches, litter bins, cars, animals, houses – a flood that had silently devoured perhaps one-eighth of this town already – and who knew how many other towns? – and was still hungry, filled with a hunger that would not be satisfied until it had consumed everything.
A gust of cold air blew in the open door. Beyond was the flat horizon. Wherever she looked, Janni faced the flatness of brown rising water.
Aerial view of flooding at Indooroopilly Reach 1974
Other articles exploring literary responses to past floods in Queensland -
Land speculation, advertising and flood : an extract from ‘The Dis-Honourable : a mystery of the Brisbane floods’ by David Hennessey (1895)
A daring rescue! : an extract from ‘The Dis-Honourable : a mystery of the Brisbane floods’ by David Hennessey (1895)
Visions of decay: the 1974 Brisbane flood in Manfred Jurgensen’s novel ‘The eyes of the tiger’
Bett : a tale of old Breakfast Creek by Mary Guthrie
Also don’t forgot our Queensland literature talk – On Our Selection and beyond: Queensland’s literary heritage in July!
Simon Miller – Library Technician, State Library of Queensland