29 January 2007

January impressions

Strange to be back in the saddle at work after nearly a month away. I cleaned the spam out of my email inbox and the total came to almost six hundred - offers to extend my penis, give me a loan, confirm the details of accounts I don’t have, and financially assist friends in Nigeria. Hassan, the man who called me almost every day of 2006, called.

But it has been an eventful month. In order, I:

1. Turned 38.

2. Took the family to Yarrawonga with a couple of friends and played with their band at a party in the back yard.

3. Sat in with ‘Perico’ at the Criterion Hotel’s excellent beer garden, facing the street and the lake on a very warm night. This included a couple of songs on my own, which was absolutely terrifying. It can’t have been entirely bad however, as the lady owner of the pub later refused to accept payment for a jug of beer I tried to buy, saying she liked my songs.

4. Became an uncle again.

5. Got married.

6. Played with ‘Perico’ at my wedding, which was almost as frightening as the Criterion Hotel experience. There is no more critical audience than your own family. I think I got away with it.

7. Took my family off to Tasmania for a couple of weeks, and made the mistake of forgetting just what it is like being in very close quarters with one’s autistic son for two weeks.

It was very enjoyable to be back in island state again, where I lived for an extremely eventful and difficult three years. I feel almost sentimental about the place, though not quite. It is certainly the mixed experiences I had there that have left their mark, but it’s also because like many small communities it does not welcome strangers in its midst very easily. I’m not talking about tourists, whose money is the arterial lifeblood of the economy, but rather mainlanders who come with the intention of making their mark on the place.

It’s difficult to blame them, as I imagine many come, like I did, with a slightly dismissive attitude – or at least very slightly condescending – expecting to be big fishes in a small pond.

I remember getting a delivery of firewood after living there for a little over a year, and the man picked me for a foreigner straight away. He asked how long I had been in the state, and I replied “about a year”. He said “another nineteen and you’ll be a local.” I knew he wasn’t entirely joking.

So, some impressions of the trip:

I am very pleased to see this elegant place much more prosperous then it seemed to me ten years ago, with more restaurants, cafes, museums and a general sense of guardedly optimistic development in the air.

I was very happy to see my dear friend Melissa Smith and her family again, fresh from giving a paper in Paris. As always she was sunny and irrepressible.

Port Arthur
I last visited the remains of the convict prison in 1996, the weekend before a demented local boy killed 35 people on a shooting spree. Because of those events, the place is particularly sharp in my memory. I was happy to see it had changed a great deal, with a large visitor’s centre and display and a much better car park. The Broad Arrow CafĂ©, where most of the murders took place, is now a shell, in an evocative and entirely appropriate echo of the convict ruins across the green. A garden and memorial now records the names of the dead.

We took a short boat voyage out into the harbour, and the guide was telling up the tale of some forlorn convict who was “transported for stealing an iron pot”. Bec leaned over to me with a quizzical expression and asked “Did she say ‘transported for stealing an iPod’”?

Strahan, Macquarie Harbour, Sarah Island, Gordon River.
A six and a half hour boat trip around the massive Macquarie Harbour, whose mouth (called “Hell’s Gates” by the convicts who were transported here) is no more than about fifty metres across, and faces west to the Roaring Forties. We went deep into the rainforest on the river at the southernmost end of the harbour, stepping out onto a platform which takes you into the forest, which is like something out of Joseph Conrad. I think of the hellish labour of the convicts who were forced to work in the mud and water felling trees for boat building, and the many whose bones probably still lie in the soil. Their records were marked “absconded, perished in the forest”.

I felt like crossing myself when I stepped onto Sarah Island again, once “the worst place in the English-speaking world” as Robert Hughes described it. There’s something about the place that instils quiet. I can’t forget that on this soil, men were flogged to death, and made murder suicide pacts with each other as the only way to secure escape from their existence, which was too terrible to bear. The ruins are being absorbed by nature once again.

As we approached the island, my eight year old son Tom rolled his eyes. “Not convicts again”, he said.

Henty Dunes
Parking in a little clearing in thick forest, you walk a short distance up to a startling wall of loose sand, climbing up out of nowhere at about thirty degrees. Getting to the top is like a workout on one of those horrible step machines they have in gyms. I felt like Sisyphus with his stone.

At the top, you are greeted with the astonishing sight of sand stretching before you to an infinite horizon. You can hear the ocean, and you catch glimpses every so often through the dunes, but after half an hour of walking it seems to be the same distance away as it was in the beginning. The experience is unnerving and a little nightmarish.

Tahune Air Walk
I was proud of myself after walking the entire length of the platform suspended metres above the rainforest canopy, even the cantilever section which floats out above the Derwent River and comes to an abrupt end, swaying freely in the wind.

A beautiful Georgian city, between the mouth of the Derwent River and the Southern Ocean, and the looming Mount Wellington. I have nothing but warm memories of this place, and the Salamanca market did not disappoint. A highlight for me was a visit to the Sidewalk Tribal Gallery in Castray Esplanade. This is simply the most comprehensive and powerful collection of tribal arts, including African Arts, I have seen in Australia. I look forward to the visit they are making to Melbourne in the middle of the year.


Anonymous said...

Happy Birthday and best wishes to Bec and you.

I am the Queen of F*%&ING EVERYTHNG...OK!! said...

Happy Birthday , and Congrats.
PLaying music in public....hmmmmmm, trick is NEVER tell any one about it,
I don't........OOOOPS, I mean I wouldn't, don't ,didn't, can't, wasn't me, was someone else,...........oh, shet!!!:(