I think where you’re from is less important than where you end up. I’m from a lot of places; I was born in Canberra, moved to Brisbane then out to the country when my parents divorced, jumped from rental to rental all over the shop. But through all this I was going to be a writer. It settled on me as soon as I learned to read. I dropped in and out of it for many reasons, but it was always a target on my horizon. My end goal was a state, not a location.
Finding where this version of me fit was a long road, and the last place I expected it to be was a town where most artists long to escape from.
I was 14 when I got my first job at a double dally event square in the middle of butt-fuck nowhere. Potter, one of the friends in my group of pasty, sensitive nerds, set me up to stay at his farm for the weekend of the event. My mum drove me out through dirt back roads and cow paddocks in the scorching summer heat to Potter’s two-story farmhouse somewhere out past Coominya. I was too awkward to wear shorts, and air-conditioning wasn’t one of the luxuries we could afford, so I remained drenched in sweat and Lynx Africa all weekend.
Potter’s dad was a wheelchair bound, nugget of a man dressed in a navy wife beater and a name brand Akubra. His skin was beetroot red, the wrinkles on his face caked with the dust of the long drought. He didn’t say a word to me the entire weekend. Potter’s mum fed us steak, eggs and bacon three times a day. I was shocked to have meals prepared for me, coming from a family of seven where the rule was usually to fend for yourself.
Potter’s dad drove us to the event in his specially built tractor, leaving his son to fill me in on the details. Double dally is a cow roping competition. Two cowboys ride out with an angry bull and try and rope it by the horns. Potter would sit at the start with a cattle prod to get the animal worked up. I would be on the other end, hanging onto the metal barricades and taking the ropes off to give back to the cowboys.
The event started at midday, in 45-degree heat. I didn’t have a hat or sunscreen, and my hand-me-down shirt and track pants made me stick out from the flannel-wearing cowboys like camo on a construction site. Potter had decided to wield a cattle prod in each hand, so the bulls were livid by the time they reached my end. They jumped and brayed in their metal cage as I tried to grasp the ropes looped around their sharp horns, while cowboys swore at me to hurry up.
An hour in, my middle-aged offsider was gored by a bull as he tried to lure it into the cage, leaving me to hold the fort as he was driven to the Ipswich hospital. I hung onto the cage for dear life, dehydrated and panicking, slurs and curses shot my way as I tried to hold back tears. Five hours later the first part of the event ended, and I climbed down covered in mud and scratches.
As the sun set, the bands started playing in the stadium. The music I normally listened to was the metal and emo cds bought for me by my more urbane sister, and this was definitely not that. Nasal bumpkin music blared over the speakers as I sat on the uncomfortable temporary seats. I had exactly zero money, so I couldn’t afford anything to drink or eat, my only consumption the maddening ear worms of the boys from the bush. As the music wrapped up around 10pm, we hung onto the tractor as Potter’s dad drove back to the house and then devoured another plate of pure protein.
The next morning, exhausted and nauseous from foul tasting bore water, I climbed back onto the cage for another shift. At midday the event ended, and I was ready to spend the rest of the time relaxing with my friend playing tabletop war-games. I was stopped as I went to leave, apparently part of the deal was cleaning up, and for the next few hours I emu-bobbed in the blasting sun picking up discarded cans of Woodstock and cola.
As soon as we were finished I called my mum to pick me up. The organiser for the event walked over to pay us and handed me a single 50-dollar note. I was halfway between raging and breaking into tears, but I looked at the gruff and ruddy cowboy and walked away, promising myself that I’d escape this rural hellscape as soon as I could.
My brother picked me up from my rural high school graduation in his blood red, v6 Cortina, and we peeled away from the school hall blasting Norwegian black metal at max volume. I deleted every number from my phone, and we started planning our escape. A couple of months later we secured a shitbox apartment in the city with my older sister, and we began new lives about 80km away from my folks’ house.
I got a job working for Subway at Indooroopilly Shopping Centre and started paying my own bills, rent and food. I had no bed, no computer or tv, and my only pieces of furniture were an old cupboard with a broken lock and a sunken foam mattress that stank of rum sweat. I shit-kicked for about nine months, making a couple of friends and drinking myself stupid, before I decided to go into a creative writing degree. I’d wanted to be a writer since I was about four years old but had never really considered it an option. Out in the sticks the career paths were either agriculture or military, and I’d had my intellectual aspirations bullied out of me through high school.
I quit my job, applied for an equity scholarship and began my tertiary education. I struggled before classes even started. My scholarship was for 2000 dollars a semester, and I hadn’t been living out of home long enough to qualify for Centrelink. I could barely afford my readings for class, and I fell behind on rent. There was no public transport where I’d come from, and I missed orientation day because I got lost trying to navigate the buses at the Cultural Centre.
When classes started I realised how out of my depth I was. I’d never been exposed to capital L literature before, my main fare was the shitty horror and serial killer airport novels that filled my folks’ bookshelves. In a rural high school you only get the dregs of culture. Art and intellectual pursuits paint you as a target. Music was country or west coast rap. Clothing was flannel or football jerseys. Reading didn’t hit the radar.
The culture I’d been exposed to was at best met with raised eyebrows in class, and soon I learned to once again keep my head down. I barely kept up with assignments and struggled to get my head around concepts in literary theory. I scraped by with passes and last minute long nights.
I struggled with friendships as well. I didn’t know any of the bands my new city friends listened to, and had nothing to add to conversations about the movies and books they consumed. I learned to keep to the edge of conversations, as I’d always done out in the country. Friendships in the city were a minefield in a different way, rather than being afraid to appear effeminate and intellectual, now I came across as backwards and low class.
My mental health and financial situation degraded quickly, and I ended up moving to further out for the cheaper rent. My brother and I found a cheap townhouse in Ipswich in the same retirement complex as my grandparents. I finally saw a doctor about my mental health and came out with a shiny new diagnosis. I deferred uni and got on the disability pension for anxiety. I’d dug my way to rock bottom and settled there with the rest of the silt.
Ipswich is known by Brisbanites as a shithole for many reasons, all of them absolutely correct. Every building in that city is in some way marred. Peeling paint, cracked concrete or dirty black stains. Even the weather is just a bit shitter, either 4 degrees hotter or colder than Brisbane, depending on which is less comfortable.
Parties there happened under collapsing old Queenslanders, with dirty Gatorade bongs and disenfranchised teenage fast food workers. Dress codes were clothing optional, and the main sources of income were armed robbery and operating heavy machinery under the influence. Even its politicians were well known for the pettiest of corruption scandals, embezzling public funds for Broncos’ memorabilia or parties at the only nightclub in town.
The last thing anyone in that fair place did was give a shit about anything. Sure, walking down the street was dangerous, and you were more likely to get pelted by a beer can from a passing Skyline than get a wave hello, but there was no sense of worth involved. People didn’t care where they sat when everyone was at the bottom of the barrel.
In this borderline post-apocalyptic, crime-ridden, bogan den I began my healing. I moved to a decrepit Queenslander filled with trash and mice and began to write. Free from judging eyes, and guarded by the anonymity of the internet, I could finally explore what I wanted out of my craft. I withdrew from uni and started writing a blog of memoir, fiction and curse filled rants. I smoked a pack a day of cigarettes, drank whenever I wanted and played videogames for days straight with my stoner friends.
And though none of this sounds like a good idea, and though I was miserable and severely mentally ill for a good portion of the time, there was something there in that shithole, something at the heart of it.
The friendships I made in that place were strong and real. They weren’t rural friendships, glued together by only the fact that there is no one else around to get shitfaced and be racist with. They weren’t the cultural ladder of university friendships, where I had to perform above my ability to feel relevant. They were just a space where both parties could be shit people and enjoy things together.
I think what really settled that place in my heart was that it never expected you to be something more, or different. Even though I was looked down on from the high perch of Brisbane, I found myself comfortable there. Pride didn’t have to make an appearance. I leant into this with my writing, and from this a voice started to form.
Free from trying to write to impress, I could write to express myself. My blog was a free space under my complete creative control. I could be honest there, and being honest became the strongest part of my voice. In a place with no culture, no pretensions and no romance about its aspirations, I was free to reveal that life is sometimes just a bit shit.
To the uninitiated, this comes across a simple and unrefined. Ipswich folk are seen as uncultured, outer-suburban bogans, and while they are all those things, there is a greater depth to explore on the borderline. In the country, the shit parts of life are never spoken of; you are expected to appear invulnerable. On the other side, in the middle class suburbs of Brisbane, torment is an affectation. You wear your difficulties as a badge to impress or distinguish yourself.
In Ipswich, despite their lack of ways to express themselves in a refined way, the hard parts of life are accepted, or at least laughed at. There is an understanding that life is just hard, and nothing will change that so you might as well laugh and get drunk about it.
Through my writing, I could find catharsis in humour. I’d realised I found my own situation funny. My wild backstory of a poor, seven-kid family scraping by in a setting where death was around every corner. Making obvious faux pas as a nervous train wreck trying to socialise with the cultural elite. And most of all I found myself appreciating the character I’d become, a rough as guts, smoking, drinking, extremely mentally ill writer. I’d come to find myself funny, a dangerous exercise, and found a place in the world where the only thing I wanted to be, the only thing I had to show to the world, was exactly who I was.
Author: Samuel Maguire is a Brisbane author and professional bipolar-haver. His debut novel No Point in Stopping was published in 2018, and he has had work published in Stilts Journal, Scum Magazine and currently works as an editor for Tiny Owl Publishing. You can find more of his fiction, poetry and brain-wrongs on his blog.
Artist: Nicole Jacobsen is a Brisbane artist, writer, poet, and aspiring editor who regularly finds herself re-befuddled by the difference between who and whom. Her background in Psychology emerges through character studies, obsessive bouts of self-reflection, and recurrent themes of mental health in her work.