It is all but impossible to traverse modern Brisbane and not have your sexual potency called to account. Billboards so big they have their own postcode inquire, in a vaguely threatening way, whether you want LONGER LASTING SEX? Commercial FM radio spices up its cookie-cutter playlists with confronting pitches for the priapic delights of ‘nasal delivery systems' and sex aid megastores. Ferried to and from school in their parents' hermetically sealed urban assault vehicles, the latest generation of happy little vegemites cannot escape the horrors of premature ejaculation and Paris Hilton's oral history as they come shrieking out of the stereo speakers at drivetime. It wasn't always this way. Not entirely. In the olden days, sex was a commodity but the trade was deniable, and furtive, and slightly nasty. Despite the obvious existence of a small but thriving red-light district in Fortitude Valley, the governing brutocracy refused to admit such things could even happen, while corrupt police officers trousered thousands of dollars a week in bribes from the small cabal of protected brothel owners, drug dealers, underground casino operators and, further up the food chain from property developers, all-purpose fixers and Armani-suited bagmen.
It was a great time to be alive.
Andrew McGahan caught it perfectly in Last Drinks (Allen & Unwin, 2000), his elegiac novel of the last spasmodic twitches working their way out of a dying body politic. And if you look hard enough, you can see the dim outlines of what was coming to eat Brisbane at the end of David Malouf's Johnno (University of Queensland Press, 1975).
But to be there – in at the death, or even better at the dizzying height of the system, just before it toppled, and to be young – that was the very heaven. I got my start as a baby writer thanks to The Joke, as the insiders referred to the system of pay-offs and protection which kept Queensland's non-existent, multi-million dollar vice trade in business. My first published piece, a two thousand-worder for Semper, the student union rag out at the University of Queensland, was a drunken, drug-addled trawl through some of the gaudier, spectacularly unmissable low points of the city's outré neighbourhood.
The evening began, as so many good times in old Brisbane did, with a visit to the World by Night strip club. We'd gone there because one of my flatmates was threatening to spend his entire postgraduate stipend on hookers 'n' blow and although we had no moral qualms about that, our share house budget would not have survived the adventure.
There were four or five of us, all liquored up after a long day's drinking, and having finished off the keg in our backyard we caught a cab into town looking for more. Of course, in those days getting a drink after hours in Brisbane meant either driving to the airport or handing over your hard-earned to the well-organised syndicate which ran the casino, the strip clubs and the fledgling heroin trade. They were scum, but according to legend you could get a free drink at the casino as long as you were betting. So in we headed, spilling out of the taxi onto the footpath in front of the greasy spoon downstairs from this joint. We thundered up the steps, all piss and bad manners, only to be stopped at the door by a grey-haired bouncer in an old formal dinner jacket who told us we weren't dressed appropriately.
This, for me, is one of the stand-out memories of those days – not the hypocrisy of a debauched political system gorging itself on corrupt payments from a flourishing vice industry, but the size of the tickets the industry had on itself. These guys were pimps and drug dealers and the lowest form of bottom-feeding mafiosa, but they were so tightly integrated into the power structure of the city and state that they felt relaxed enough to maintain a façade of genteel respectability around their illegal enterprise. Really, there was just something so James Elroy about the atmosphere of old-school, buttoned-down corruption carried on in the steam press of tropical heat that only served to increase the sense of moral and physical decay.
They may have been criminal scum, but they were a better class of scum than us.
Helpful, though. While the top table at the underworld banquet may have been closed to us, our money was still good enough to buy entrée to the cheap seats, which in those days meant the World by Night, a fabulously low-rent strip club with an even more skanky bordello riding bareback on the business one floor above.
The World should have been listed by the National Trust, had it not mysteriously burned down many years ago, leaving a raw, sandstone wound next to the Orient Hotel at the juncture of Ann and Queen Streets. Today it sits empty, weed choked and rubbish strewn, but back then it was the only place to be after ten in the evening. I was a regular, when poverty allowed, as were the off-duty detectives, the occasional Cabinet minister and even, on this occasion, one lone, lost, weepingly drunken left-wing academic at the table next to us.
I recall the shabbiness and down-at-heel Deadwood-like splendour of that dive with some fondness these days. Unlike the chrome-plated pokie palaces that have replaced it, the World was a strangely comfortable and inviting place. Unlike their ritzier colleagues at the casino, the World's staff took in all comers, and the bouncers were comparatively lightweight, the crowd comparatively well behaved, and the drinks only modestly watered down and relatively over-priced. It was possible to talk over the music and they didn't mind you nursing a drink for a while. The food was basic – hot chips and gravy if memory serves – but, apart from the naked women working the pole on stage, the place had an atmosphere of a scruffy but well-mannered English pub, a style of venue now entirely absent from Brisbane. ♦