Guest Post by Andrew Stafford

In a new post for the ‘Returns to’ series, Andrew Stafford isn’t crying a river for the loss of his children’s books.

I LOST my children’s books in the Queensland floods.

The story of how that happened is banal enough. They had not left my mother’s home since I left it. They remained boxed up in a couple of those snap-lock plastic contraptions, so full that the lid didn’t actually close anymore, but just sat rather pathetically on top.

Sometime in late 2010 I finally collected them, and dumped them in the storage room of my unit block in St Lucia, Brisbane.

I’d cast a glance inside the boxes as I unloaded them. It’s hard to say I treasured them: if I did, they wouldn’t have been treated so rudely. But there were some beauties there. Some of them my mother, who now has early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease, would have read to me.

For about ten minutes, I was caught up in a pleasurable fog of nostalgia, glancing through titles I hadn’t read for twenty or thirty years.

Some were obvious markers in my development. Dinosaurs And All That Rubbish by Michael Foreman, published the year after I was born, prefigured an interest in environmental politics. So did Dr Seuss’ The Lorax. Uhu, a favourite story by Annette Macarthur-Onslow about the raising of an orphaned owl who became a treasured family pet, helped kick off a long-standing fascination with birds. Even more so in this vein was Colin Thiele’s unforgettable Storm Boy, perhaps my favourite children’s book of all, although I wouldn’t have a hope of revisiting it now without weeping like, well, a child. Thiele was a truly seminal author. There was an undercurrent of fury in his best work that stayed with me, balanced by an exquisite eye for the natural world. He was the David McComb of Australian children’s writing.

There was Dick Roughsey’s classic story of Aboriginal creation, The Rainbow Serpent. Beautiful fables like Colette’s The Boy and the Magic. Paperbacks by all the big names of the time: Betsy Byers, Judy Blume, and Roald Dahl, Roald Dahl, Roald Dahl … And perhaps a hundred more I can’t remember.

St Lucia is a promontory of land cradled in one of the bends of the Brisbane River, a few kilometres south-west of the city centre. At the eastern end lies the University of Queensland. I live along Sir Fred Schonell Drive, the main thoroughfare to the campus. At the ground level of my ageing block of units are the laundry, garage and storage rooms; above them two floors of six units. I’m on the second floor.

It seemed inconceivable that the river could possibly be a threat until my downstairs neighbour, who is well into her eighties, pointed out the high-water mark of the 1974 floods. It was just below her ceiling – and my floor. And this flood, the radio kept warning us, would be worse than ’74. That was when the paralysis set in.

I was in denial. I faffed around, watching and listening as the news reports rolled in online and on air. By then it was emerging that townships in the Lockyer Valley had been devastated, with awful news coming through of whole families being swept away. This only sent me into a tailspin of confusion. The idea that every centimetre counted in a flood never occurred to me: if I was going to lose anything, it seemed as if I might as well lose everything. At least that way I wouldn’t have to make tough choices about the things I most cherished.

It was bizarre reasoning, and entirely inappropriate, but at that point everything was so surreal that actually engaging with the brutal reality of what was going on seemed impossible. That’s how I explain the cars left stranded under houses by people who simply couldn’t get their heads around the immense power of the forces that were about to engulf them.

Frankly, I needed a slap. Thankfully my younger brother arrived to give me one. (What else are younger siblings for?) It was he that helped get most of my worldly goods out, and the rest up as high as it could go.

Except for those children’s books.

We got out at 10.30pm, just as the water began to cut off sections of my street. I went to my partner’s house. The next day, we picked our way around the floodwaters via the back streets, to within about 250 metres of my flat:

[Picture of Andrew Stafford’s unit just after the flood peak. The high-water mark can be seen halfway up the metal railing; the peak of the 74 flood, by comparison, is indicated by the discoloured bricks higher up.]

In the end it was all for not terribly much. The waterline peaked below the ’74 flood. My unit remained unscathed. My downstairs neighbour has endured the loss of a daughter and two properties in her lifetime; now she had a metre of water through her house. She also lost a collection of love letters from her late husband, among hundreds of other possessions. Life really isn’t fair sometimes.

[Note the orange top of the phone box on the left.]

Sometimes I think about those lost children’s books. It does make me sad, especially as a writer. But I have never grieved them, and don’t plan to start now. I was lucky, and I don’t want to ever lose sight of that.

Andrew Stafford is the author of Pig City: from the Saints to Savage Garden (UQP), a history of Brisbane’s music scene during and post-Bjelke-Petersen era, and the creator of the blog Friction