Brisbane libraries are busy places these days. Even some Australians use them. For a large tribe of young East Asians on working holiday visas, living four to a room in West End, libraries are a godsend. And of course, those other young folk, the international students paying us sixteen billion dollars a year for the privilege of a dubious diploma with an Australian address, libraries are the Terra Australis version of sweatshops where they labour to secure the family’s prosperity back home. I don’t begrudge them, even when study time slips into SM text-friend time. After all, their Australian doubles are mostly somewhere else, on a beach or in a bar.
I spend a fair bit of time in Brisbane libraries. It is a generational accident. Ridiculously fit at 66, I am forever writing stuff that nobody will every read, studying for a career that never was and could only happen in the next life, or just perversely finding out about new things. Granted, as a self-respecting 66 year old I should be a waddling mass of failing protoplasm, kept alive with seven day boxes of different coloured pills, TV addicted and blowing any surplus from smokes and tinnies of beer on a weekly spin with the pokies. It’s a shame, but I just can’t be typical about this. I have to learn and grow. On the other hand, looking at the four walls of a small rented room, the nearest to luxury that a pension allows, gets one down after a while. So sometimes I have this unreasonable itch to go out into the wide world again. Sitting in a subway train for the fifteen minute ride into the city, I mouth my Chinese vocabulary practice and try not to look too hard at the forest of tattooed limbs sprawled akimbo all about. They think I’m weird too. Queen Street mall pulses with an international caste that definitely belongs more to a 4-to-a-dormitory backpacker world than the wet dream fantasies of corporate executives and city councilors, hoping to attract an Armani suite and Christian Doir handbag set. That’s cool with me. Queen Street is free entertainment without events organizers, breathless press handouts and $120 entry tickets to keep the riff-raff out.
And so to the library. Libraries. There are a couple of them. The City Library has hours brief enough to make a bank clerk weep with envy, and taped announcements in five languages every few minutes to watch your belongings. Still, if luck’s in I can find a quiet spot on the third floor to work for a while. The view over the river is pretty special too. Across that river is the State Library, part of a very large and impressive arts complex. A State Library, hmm. This is no suburban corner place for grandmas to get their weekly novels. Nope, a State Library is a hush hush place for Serious Research. Isn’t it? Well no. Not in Queensland anyway. The Queensland State Library is actually a large, open plan childcare entertainment centre. You know, face paint, games, a professional storyteller who can belt it out just the way kids like it. And of course, an army of squealing ankle biters. Now I happen to be very fond of kids. They even like me, usually. In this Queensland library environment though, I have to admit I’m a failure, an evolutionary reject overtaken by the political correctness of the age. When it comes to creative thinking, or parsing the meaning out of a treatise on technical linguistics, while simultaneously fighting off the multi-decibal assault of kids and carers, well I can’t cut it. Yes, it’s my fault. It must be. After all, the library staff themselves, in both libraries, go around talking in loud voices. As trained professionals, they must know best that an up-to-date, fully correct person does not need silence in a library. A couple of times I’ve shyly asked about this, and sensed the withering outrage and pity that the fully correct Australian official type reserves for paedophiles and train ticket cheats.
Not to worry. I’ve solved it. Solved the problem of surviving in Brisbane libraries. As usual it was the Chinese who came to the rescue. Wandering distraught in one of those Chinese-everything shops which have clearly thrived from those of us living on pensions and unemployment benefits, I came across a treasure. Disguised in bubble wrap, looking entirely orphaned in a landscape of $2 plastic plates and $1.95 dog toothpaste, I came across a $3.95 pair of industrial ear muffs. You know, those big head cups full of foam or something that gents in fluorescent vests wear while they jack-hammer concrete footpaths. Perfect, unbeatable. So then next time one of those haughty, bleating officials heaves in sight, or a scrum of shrieking kids hijacks the carpet, I’ll just rip out my shiny bright orange industrial ear muffs and stare them down.