The Godfather: Peter Corris on an island #1
I don’t know when I first developed my yen to live on an island. It may have related back to Robert Louis Stevenson, but more likely to a book that was a set text in my last year of high school. This was A Pattern of Islands (1952) by Arthur Grimble who had been the Resident Commissioner of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands (now Kiribati and Tuvalu) in the Pacific. As I recall it was a lively and agreeable book, a combination of amusing anecdotes, history and ethnography, which appealed to me strongly.
Between 1967 and 1973 I was a student and later a staff member of the Department of Pacific History at the ANU. I made two trips to the Solomon Islands, stayed in villages, travelled by canoe and small boat and enjoyed island life – the privileged, protected child-of-empire version of it. As it happened, Harry Maude, a senior member of the department, had succeeded Grimble as the Gilbert and Ellice Resident Commissioner.
So it was, as Grimble himself and Somerset Maugham, whose island stories were a great favourite of mine, might have written, that when Jean and I decided to move north in 1997, I suggested that we look for an island.
We had friends whom we’d known in Melbourne and Sydney who had moved to Brisbane and when we mentioned the idea of living on an island they were able to suggest one – Coochiemudlo.
This was a small sand island in Moreton Bay, one of several, of which the biggest and best known is Stradbroke Island. Coochie, as it is known locally, is about five square kilometres in area and about one kilometre (a short ferry trip) from the mainland at Victoria Point, south-east of Brisbane and north of the Gold Coast.
We gathered tourist and real estate information and made a visit to the island. We were very attracted by what we found – sandy beaches, a tiny commercial centre incorporating only a general store, a café and a real-estate agency that also served as a post office, plus sporting facilities – tennis courts, bowling and croquet lawns and a nine-hole golf course. The island had power and the telephone but no sewer and there were two motels, a small volunteer-operated library and a restaurant set apart from the other commercial buildings. We stayed a couple of nights and explored. There were only a couple of hundred residents, many of whom, along with schoolchildren, commuted to the mainland. The beaches were tidal, with shale predominating at times but sandy at other times and with clear, sparkling waters.
Land was cheap. We made arrangements to buy a one-acre block around the middle of the island, only minutes from three beaches (one side of the island was covered by mangroves) and the store, pier and ferry. We rented a small house only a few metres from our block and considered our options – to move a traditional ‘Queenslander’ onto the land as others had done, or to build. Some obstacles arose regarding the first course and we decided to have a kit house erected.
We engaged a building firm experienced in this kind of work, which involved transporting large quantities of material to the island via a barge. The firm’s executives and workers were Seventh Day Adventists, although we were not aware of this at first.
We settled in, accustoming ourselves to the slow pace of island life, and watched our house (the plan had been somewhat altered for the better by Jean) take shape. The builders lived in one of the motels for the first few weeks and then camped in the building when it offered shelter. They worked hard in trying conditions. On the first Friday Jean walked over with a slab of beer and the men explained that their religion prohibited alcohol. They traded the slab for soft drink. Never a swear word was heard nor was a cigarette butt to be seen on the building site. ‘They won’t dud you,’ said the electrician we engaged, and he was right.
The house was completed in a couple of months and we moved in with the dog Pancho and the somewhat eccentric, agoraphobic tabby cat Toby.
To be continued …