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In Tasmania – Shakespeare’s excursion into the deep heart of this strange island

covers-in_tasmaniaIT WAS LATE on a cold Friday evening when I dropped into Desire bookshop. Cars’ headlights had been turned on and clusters of commuters, hands thrust deep into pockets and heads bowed, scurried homeward along the Corso from the ferry wharf. The day was drawing to a close and a chilling wind was blowing in from the sea. It was the kind of evening when you turn up your collar and hurry to wherever it is that you are going.

I was heading elsewhere, but as I passed Desire I turned in, just on impulse. Desire is an intriguing, Art Deco-inspired, second hand bookstore in an out of the way location opposite the Whistler Street car park. Desire makes up the quartet of my favourite shops in Manly, along with Candies coffee lounge (Candie is an American refugee who escaped to Australia decades ago; she has now sold the cafe but the name remains); Manly Food Coop and Heritage surf shop. Heritage’s owner set up the business after retiring from the music industry. He explained to me that he intended the shop to be an independent and authentic surf shop like those of the 1960s – the time of surfing’s birth as a subculture and popular sport – rather than like one of the chain of brand-name surf shops that populate the coasts.

In Desire, you notice the turntable on which the staff play jazz LPs, products of the age when music was recorded as a continuous groove stamped into platters of flattened vinyl. I was visiting the shop because I was after a copy of Kerouac’s Visions of Cody. They had his other works, many of them, along with Burroughs, Snyder, Ginsberg and the rest, but not the volume I sought. The Beats have their own special shelf at Desire.

Glancing around, I glimpsed a copy of Nicholas Shakespears’ 2004 book, In Tasmania. I had noticed it when it was first released but, although it looked intriguing, I resisted its purchase. Now, here it was and at a good, second hand price. I bought it. I never regretted doing so.

It is one of those books that are hard to put down. Although a work on non-fiction, Shakespeare has written it like a detective novel in which he traces people – figures historic and contemporary – by linking clues until he reaches a point of revelation. He does this with the actor Merle Oberon, who turns out not to have been a Tasmanian, despite her claims to being so. The 1930s actor, Errol Flynn, we know, was an authentic Tasmanian.

An island in time

But first, the island.

When I lived there in the 1970s I learned that this was no ordinary place. I spent a lot of time in the backcountry, mainly in the mountains that make up the elevated centre of this triangular landmass that fronts the swells of the Southern Ocean, There, I perceived that there was an ‘otherness’ to the place and came to understand that Tasmania really is a land apart. This, Shakespeare and alludes to when he writes that Tasmania is “…an island with an intensity of light but with dark patches deliberately concealed and not talked about”, and when he claims that “…something… gives the impression it was an outpost”.

David Holmgren, co-originator of the permaculture design system – another Tasmanian invention – suggested this otherness when he described the island as “a place where modernity and nature collide, both destructively and creatively”. Shakespeare quotes Tasmanian historian, Cassandra Pybus, saying “In Tasmania we tell stories to reassure ourselves we have not slipped unnoticed over the rim of the world”.

He hints at Tasmania’s difference in his discussion with two aged, unmarried sisters who occupied an old timber house in the island’s north-west. The sisters were small farmers, growing potatoes and vegetables and rearing livestock. They had never, in their lives, travelled further than Launceston, perhaps a little over a hundred kilometres to the east. Their produce was not sold – it was bartered with a business in the nearby town of Ulverstone. They exchanged their potatoes, bags of onions, eggs and the like for wire, groceries and their other modest and utilitarian needs. For people used to the global reach of digital communications and rapid travel, the lives of those two women must seem proscribed and limited.

Reading Shakespeare takes you into territory that is almost preindustrial in feel… territory that is, perhaps, just a little disquieting as if it is from some lost age, which indeed it might now be.

Beyond Ulverstone

Swansea is a town favourably situated across the bay from The Hazards, a low range of bare, pink granite peaks that make up the northern end of Freycinet National Park.

I recall Swansea as a stopover during a solo bicycle tour up the island’s east coast, and The Hazards as a climb to get to Wineglass Bay on the other side, a place where dolphins came into the shallow water only a couple metres from the beach. There, their dark eyes would look at we humans as we looked at them and wondered what ideas they formed of us.

Swansea is one of those towns the tourist encounters on their drive along the east coast. It’s a large town by Tasmanian standards but it’s typical of other centres on this island that have their own pace and that seeming, inward directed independence from the rest of the world.

It’s also the locale where Shakespeare has made his home. In doing so, he became one more creative in an island split between its past in extractive primary industry and an emerging economy that appears in the form of vineyards, tourism and a vital literary and artistic milieu. Somehow, this sharp divide seems more pronounced than in mainland states.

The Mollison link

But the link with the permaculture design system. It is in Swansea that the mention of one of the design system’s prominent people is made. Shakespeare, however, doesn’t mention permaculture in his book because it was not in that context that this figure appears. Rather, it is through his work in tracing the genealogy of Tasmania’s Aboriginies.

The setting is a discussion with a woman living in the town. Shakespeare was attempting to explore the vexed question of Tasmanian Aboriginality. He was interested in why some Tasmanian Aborigines claim to be fully Aboriginal when they also admit to being of mixed-race but wilfully ignore the non-Aboriginal side. As one said, it was more a political decision than a biological one.

Bill Mollison is lesser known today for his pioneering work in Aboriginal genealogy than for the design system he and David Holmgren brought into existence when their lives came into proximity in Hobart at the end of the 1970s. Even when mentioned in permaculture literature, this, Mollison’s other work, is quickly passed over as if it were some mere footnote to his greater work. But, Shakespeare seems to suggest, it really was significant and it caused quite a stir at the time.

The first of Mollison’s two mentions appears thus “ …Bill Mollison, a lecturer at the University of Tasmania, came to stay at Glen Gala. Mollison met Edna’s husband and was interested to know whether he had Aboriginal ancestry…”. It turns out that he didn’t. But Edna did.

Mollison’s second mention comes some pages later. “Mollison was doing research, speaking to families, and people started to talk.” Shakespeare quotes Greg Lehman: “I got hold of Mollison’s chronology and there was my family. Bang. This world I knew nothing about”.

Apparently, descendents of Tasmanian Aboriginies felt a stigma about their origins and many covered it up until the changing circumstances of the 1970s made it acceptable to be open about ethnicity.

Going beyond the present

Some say that the past doesn’t matter, that the future is all that counts. There is truth in this, but knowing the past can shed the light of understanding on the present, and this might be of benefit to us all.

It is this that Shakespeare explores in his remarkable book as he successfully links the past with the present. And make no mistake about it – Tasmania is a place with a rich past, and a sometimes hidden past. It is, as they say, a place apart with a sense of concealment, perhaps, that I suspect you have to spend time there to get the scent of. For me, it is this that comes across in Shakespeare’s book.

Publishing details

2004, Shakespeare N; In Tasmania; Vintage Books, Sydney. ISBN 1 74051 331 2.

Book reviewed by Russ Grayson, August 2008.

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