The cracks are how the light gets in

by Natasha Cica

TASMANIANS BANG ON about 'place' a lot – at least some of us do. Maybe because Tasmania can be so affecting and beautiful, as a place. Certainly it was the resonance of one of Tasmania's significant sites that drew me back here in 2006. The lure was the remarkable tale of Lake Pedder in Tasmania's untamed southwest wilderness, flooded in 1972 to build a dam for a hydroelectric scheme – and of the efforts by post-World War II Lithuanian émigré and photographer Olegas Truchanas to save it, working with a circle of Tasmanian landscape painters, including Max Angus, Elspeth Vaughan and Patricia Giles. Their campaign paved the way for later conservation successes, and led to the formation of the world's first greens party. One result of my relocation was my book Pedder Dreaming: Olegas Truchanas and a Lost Tasmanian Wilderness (UQP, 2011). Another was a re-emplacement of my own professional and personal life in Tasmania, after twenty years in places like Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, London and Cambridge.

'OMG??! You need care packages?' came one text message. Perfumed parcels still arrive in the mail; keep them coming, there's still no David Jones in Tasmania, never mind Shanghai Tang. Other feedback was more categorical: 'You have committed absolute professional suicide.' Certainly there have been times in recent years when I've contemplated turning tail. Remember, too, that David Walsh's spectacular Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), now widely viewed as Tasmania's existential if not economic salvation[i], wasn't even a hole in his Berriedale sandstone back then.

Mainly all there was, really, was this thing about'place'. And islands. All quite lovely, in the way the word 'mainland' referring to continental Australia has enduring romantic appeal (continental anywhere, really; I type this staring at mainland Tasmania from Bruny Island, off its southeastern edge). 'Islomania' is one of the hooks that drew me too; a leading and poetic proponent of the island studies genre is retired Tasmanian academic Pete Hay, whose off-grid coastal shack his family generously shared with me on re-entry.[ii] Island-ness is also one of the enduring ideological legacies of former Melburnian and Maoist Jim Bacon, Labor premier of Tasmania from 1998 to 2004. In a headland speech that many still consider a turning point in building a more confident sense of what being Tasmanian may mean – including after Tasmania's gay-bashing nadir of the earlier 1990s, whose backlash went global, and the 1980s economic slump that pushed out many of the best of my generation – Bacon rebranded Tasmania not just as an island, but as a culturally rich archipelago of 334 islands. This pitch inspired many Tasmanians to engage with 'progressive' politics. It also directly delivered government-funded projects like the Ten Days on the Island arts festival, initiatives that drew on and opened up deeper wells of expression of Tasmanian identity.

 

BACK TO 'PLACE'. Everywhere's a place, isn't it? What's so special and different about this place – or at least more special and different than all those other places where people live, love, fight, work, struggle, build, celebrate, remember and forget, die, and are remembered or forgotten? Perhaps I ask this because of my family background. You wouldn't guess it from my name – 'How long have you been in Tassie, dear? Your English is great!' – but my mother's family has been Tasmanian since the 1850s. As financially degraded and politically agitative Irish immigrants from Tipperary, the Dwyers settled and worked on the land in the Huon Valley in Tasmania's southeast. A while later they seem to have married into an Aboriginal family from the D'Entrecasteaux Channel, but no one really talks about that. My mother talked about it a lot on her deathbed, though, fastening on memories from the 1950s when she was doing teacher training in Hobart. Stories of catching a boat from town with her friend-and-maybe-cousin Mary, to visit a Bruny aunty who'd cook mutton bird, and fishing for endless scallops, crays and flathead with more maybe-cousins, and breathing air so clean it made you dizzy.

Scrolling back again, in Tasmania's late nineteenth century tin mining boom some Dwyers relocated to Derby in the northeast. The family was aspirational, but the success of its forays on the northern front was mixed and certainly not instant. My great-grandfather was one of the dirtish-poor men rescued from the disastrous 1929 flood of Briseis tin mine by the local Catholic priest, Father Gerald Fitzgerald, and my mother used to recount the way her grandparents' small house would shake when mine sirens sounded. A generation or two ahead, John Beswick, deputy premier of Tasmania in Ray Groom's Liberal government in the 1990s, wrote his part of our rambling clan's history in Brothers' Home: The Story of Derby (2003). It includes an entry about another great-grandfather of mine, Oscar Bottcher, who 'was a Swedish immigrant, although his family is said to have originated from Germany. Family tradition has it that they were descendants of Johann Friedrich Bottger, an alchemist who discovered the secret of porcelain making in 1709, the discovery of which led to the establishment of a porcelain factory near Dresden, home of the famous Dresden china.[iii] Oscar had a mining lease and then ran the Branxholm Hotel. He married a Beswick -and one of their sons, Carl, married Rose Dwyer. Carl was a farmer and herd recorder in Derby and later Scottsdale – I have one of his footy medals, a little bronze map of Tasmania; and a handful of his Websters shares. Rose was a teacher at Scottsdale's government high school – I have her biscuit recipes written in old copperplate, they're heavy on the butter; and a photograph of her wearing a mortar board at her graduation, unusual for a woman and wife of the time. My mother Elizabeth was their fourth child, born and raised on that farm with cows and spuds.

Already in this slice of my Tasmanian family story, you find personalities from a weird and wonderful assortment of places. Which place is most special and different? And is Tasmania really the whitebread monoculture the statistics describe? In a recent appearance at the Inglis Clark Centre, analyst George Megalogenis put some confronting demographic facts on Tasmania's table – the percentage of Australia's overall population born overseas is 26.1 per cent, but in Hobart is just 13.9 per cent, tracking merely one third as ethnically diverse as Sydney and Melbourne. Megalogenis rightly pinpointed this as a key challenge for Tasmania, connected with our potential to develop economically, including in relation to the Asian region. In rising to that challenge, with which places should Tasmanians identify? With which place should anyone in my own family most identify? Derby or Dresden? Scottsdale or Stockholm? Where does Tasmania's famed regional parochialism sit in all this? University of Tasmania Vice-Chancellor Peter Rathjen, originally from South Australia, says he finds our north/south tussling 'like a cold shower… I don't think Tasmanians really understand how discouraging and de-energising it can be.' Should I flap the flag of Devonport on the north-west coast, where I was born in 1967, of Hobart where I went to high school, or of the Channel suburb of Blackmans Bay (yes it really is called that) where I received my primary education?

Or of my current home on Dennes Point at Bruny's northern tip, with its soft-focused views across the water to Tinderbox and Mount Wellington beyond? I'll run with that for now, there's cool mist floating through the bush across silver-grey water, and I can hear those flathead singing, each to each…but given the under-acknowledged influence in Tasmania of incomers from what used to be called continental Europe, including from Baltic nations and southeastern Europe, why not throw in a slice of that Old World life? Specifically the former Yugoslavia, my father Marko's first homeland. He came to Australia on a boat in 1960 via a camp run by the United Nations in Italy, spent time in another camp in Bonegilla at Albury-Wodonga, laboured in places like Mount Isa and Port Kembla. He met my mother in 1965 in Tasmania and has lived here ever since. Whoever writes the Balkan bookend to Beswick's compendium might anchor it in a place about the size of Derby, a village called Duboki Dol, in the Krajina in Croatia. That tale would take in Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, federalism, nationalism, communism, occupation, ethnic cleansing, emigration, murdered uncles who didn't survive the Nazis, and a Jewish aunty and some partisans who did. And another home of ours, a farm in Vojvodina in Serbia – in the heart of a fertile plain full of sunflowers that rolls under a big sky up to Hungary – so small and remote that driving there you literally fall off the sat-nav. That's a special and different place as well.

 

AS YOU CAN see, Tasmanians tend to bang on about 'family' an awful lot, too. I have watched my compatriots' accounts of our intergenerational positioning on this island-the-size-of-Ireland bore outsiders to tears. These genealogical excursions bemuse blow-ins who think a decade's a huge commitment to anything, anywhere or anyone. They can't see how this habit can generate useful markings of territorial turf, especially against incursions by mercenaries, missionaries and misfits. This backward and downward focus, this heaviness with our history, is a key part of the Tasmanian character. Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy nailed another part of what underpins it in his opening line of Anna Karenina, 'Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.' Australian historian Manning Clark brought that human truth closer to home: 'I visited Tasmania at the end of 1933. There one golden day on the Derwent, near New Norfolk, under a gentler sky than I had known in Melbourne and Sydney, with Mount Wellington as a gaunt, majestic back-drop to the scene, I sensed that here was a society haunted by ghosts from the past – a society of people in which many things they had inherited from the mighty dead live on in them. I sensed then some contradiction between that gaiety in the very air, and some darkness in men's minds.[iv]

I unpack Clark's point in Pedder Dreaming:

It takes time for most newcomers to grasp this reality and its implications. Latter-day free settlers are fast seduced by Tasmania's astonishing light – and all but the most misanthropic get a genuine thrill when the local butcher, baker or candlestick maker calls them by name, then asks after their child or their dog. People here take time. They notice, they remember, and they compare notes. It's exactly this which can be the grit in the eye as well as for the oyster… Tasmania's island population remains small. It also features an unusually small number of distinct family bloodlines, and relatively little demographic churn. This means that everyone in Tasmania is, or ends up, somehow connected. There's really no such thing as an arm's length observation, negotiation, or appointment, nor a private one, at least not the way you might understand them in other places, which means that everything from parliaments to playgrounds work differently too.

Extending this further, 'Tasmanian society can be unusually and unreservedly open, yet still, somehow, closed. As quixotic as its weather, Tasmania is both a place of deliciously warm embrace and cold hard slaps to the face, often in the same day or hour.[v]

 

THE 'DARKNESS IN men's minds' identified by Clark has translated into some very bad attitudes and interactions indeed. Recall the coffin-like wooden dunking boxes for punishing disobedient convicts on their banishing sea voyage to Van Diemen's Land, on display in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery throughout my childhood; the 'panopticon' for surveilling and regulating convict behaviour, a theory of philosopher Jeremy Bentham which underpinned penal practice at the colonial gaol at Port Arthur, until its closure in 1877; and the fate of Nuenonne elder Truganini, whose husband-to-be was killed by timber-getters who cut off his hands and left him to drown before raping her repeatedly, on the stretch of water I now cross on the ferry each time I head to Bruny. Twentieth century lowlights include reports – all mainland muckracking, many locals believe – in the 1930s of families riven by incest at Black Bobs in the Derwent Valley, notoriously involving children with congenital disabilities tied up in the back yard, and reputedly featuring an intervention by a social worker insisting the boys and girls needed separate sleeping areas, after which their father erected a barbed wire fence through the bedroom. Consider too the barbaric 'treatment' practices at the Royal Derwent psychiatric hospital at New Norfolk, some of which are recounted in Hobart poet Karen Kinnane's collection Postcards from the Asylum (Pardalote Press, 2007). This describes her incarceration at age nineteen for being the kind of rebellious teenager of the 1960s who in other Australian cities would have passed without notice, or been hailed as a minor heroine of the counter-culture.

In 1983, our TV news filled with scenes of police picking chunks of human flesh out of a West Hobart drain, today a stone's throw from the high-end provedore Hill Street Grocer. American CSIRO marine scientist Rory Jack Thompson had murdered his wife Maureen, cut her into ninety-one pieces and flushed these down the toilet. Then there was flamboyant, kaftan-wearing medical practitioner Geoffrey Boughey, an English immigrant, who in 1985 killed his playmate du jour, Fijian woman Begum Majabi Ali, by pressing too hard on her carotid arteries to heighten excitement during sex. Most notorious was the tragedy of Tasmanian-born Martin Bryant's shooting massacre of thirty-five men, women and children on the Port Arthur site in 1996. Bryant is serving thirty-five life sentences plus 1,035 years without parole in Risdon Prison, and everyone with long-enough connections here knows someone who was killed, damaged or who mopped up on the front line after his rampage. Bryant controversially appeared as a figure in Sydney artist Rodney Pople's painting Port Arthur, which won Tasmania's 2012 Glover Prize for landscape painting, the richest purse in that genre in Australia. I recall the pained catch in the voice of the ABC Tasmania radio presenter covering the prize when she realised the identity of that blurred figure – and my own searchings of soul as I wrote a speech to open a connected exhibition of Tasmanian landscape art at Hobart's Handmark Gallery, articulating a right to respect this contemporary manifestation of freedom of expression.

 

THAT NIGHT IN Handmark was one of my own Tasmanian tipping points. I chose to highlight our capacity in this community to accommodate difference in a mature way, especially around pain points. I expressed optimism despite my serious doubts that Tasmania has reached a critical mass of competence on that front. Earlier I alluded to some unmagical moments since my return. These relate to observed behaviours best described as boring, at worst as bullying, and most neutrally as substandard compared to the social norms and professional mores in other places. Some of that has manifested around dissent related to forestry and other headline-grabbing environmental issues. Much of it's been more prosaic. An objectively well-qualified candidate doesn't secure a public appointment or even an interview, but the less-qualified school friend or in-law of someone well-placed does. A spouse or sibling of another well-placed someone takes a set against a particular individual, and a range of professional opportunities are taken off the table. Fair questions about governance and transparency are considered uppity or perverse, and people asking them tend to be scapegoated as troublemakers or worse.

Bad behaviour is part of the human condition. Look at any schoolyard. Or the Balkans. Or Canberra – recall the aspersions cast deliberately on the personal and professional probity of Andrew Wilkie in the parliamentary triangle when he blew the whistle about weapons of mass destruction in 2003, arguably an experience that trained him well for Tasmania, where he currently serves as the independent federal Member for Denison. One point of Tasmania's difference, however, is that when abuse manifests in this small, tight and 'sticky' community, it can be unusually visible, intense and damaging to those on the receiving end. As expatriate Tasmanian and Bank of America Merrill Lynch chief economist Saul Eslake puts it, 'In any small place you're bound to have these "clubby" networks…a small place is very vulnerable to capture. It's happened twice in Tasmania, first with the Hydro Electric Commission and in the last fifteen years with Gunns.' The fragility of the Tasmanian economy is clearly an exacerbating factor here – when you lose a gig or a job, there can be few or zero downhome alternatives. This in turn bleeds in and out of Tasmania's low levels of post-Year Ten educational retention and attainment, high levels of teenage pregnancy, high levels of unemployment and welfare dependence, high levels of public sector employment, underdeveloped private sector, and remote geographical location.

This picture darkens when you factor in rates of child abuse that are a national disgrace – the number of proven cases of child abuse or neglect in Tasmania in 2010-11 was an astonishing 56 per cent higher than the national average, most cases involving children aged under five.[vi These rates are second only to those in the Northern Territory, whose population (unlike Tasmania's) includes a substantial Indigenous component, a group of Australians controversially targeted since 2007 by the Northern Territory National Emergency Response federal intervention, because 'little children are sacred'. You wouldn't think so following the case of Gary John Devine, who in 2010 was gaoled for prostituting a twelve-year-old Hobart girl to around one hundred men, assisted by the girl's mother who shared the financial proceeds. Only one of these men has been charged and convicted, Terry Martin, who was the only member of the Tasmanian parliamentary Labor Party who crossed the floor to vote against legislation fast-tracking Gunns' proposed Tamar Valley pulp mill project in 2004. I'm not saying that's why Martin was targeted for prosecution, but I am saying it's all been a very bad look, not helped by the tone of much discussion surrounding the failure by the Director of Public Prosecutions, Tim Ellis, to prosecute any of the other men. Ellis has proffered a legally tenable argument in his own defence, based on the likelihood of successful prosecution – Devine and the girl's mother sold her as being eighteen years old, and Tasmania is the only Australian jurisdiction without a no-defence age restriction for alleged child sex offenders. But the debate's danced around some deeper issues about power and process in Tasmania – including their relationship to gender.

 

SOON AFTER BECOMING Tasmania's first woman Premier in early 2011, Labor's Lara Giddings spoke at an Inglis Clark Centre forum, 'Do Women Leaders Make a Difference?' This question was posed because I sensed things hadn't changed enough in Tasmania since the 1950s, when one of my mother's contemporaries (the daughter and eventually the mother of Rhodes Scholars) graduated from the University of Tasmania pretty much top of her class, and no one here would employ her. I'd been surprised, for example, that after several years in Tasmania Sri Lankan entomologist Varuni Kulasekera, whose graduate qualifications are from the Smithsonian and the American Museum of Natural History, and include specialist training in geographic information systems, seemed unemployable in Hobart, a city chock full of science research bodies. Indeed, she was known here mainly as the Wife of Brian (Ritchie), ex Violent Femme and curator of MONA's music festival, MOFO. Had I stepped onto the set of Mad Men? No, the clothes and ideas here weren't quite as sharp – except at Chado, the North Hobart tea emporium opened by Kulasekera to hold her own professional traction.

My instinct proved correct. The venue was packed, and the Premier threw away her notes to deliver a candid account of the difficulties she'd encountered as a woman in Tasmanian public life, by virtue of being locked out of key discussions that set agendas. 'I knew somehow that I was not there when it counted, but didn't quite know where that was,' she said. Where 'it' was turned out mainly to involve sport, including the invitation-only Chairman's Lounge at Bellerive Oval. Her pragmatic response was to telephone Cricket Tasmania and ask to be included. 'I stood and deliberately included myself in those conversations with the men,' Giddings said. Fortunately, in this instance, the door swung open.

Some are itching to run a test case storming the still-male-only Bastilles of Hobart's Tasmanian or Athenaeum Clubs – interestingly, the Launceston Club has been co-ed since 2002. But I think a better focus is building broader cultural capacity in Tasmania to respond in more sophisticated ways to all kinds of difference. Eslake thinks what we need is 'more safeguards to prevent capture [of agendas and decision-making] by a cabal of individuals and organisations. There is more of a need in Tasmania compared to places like Melbourne and Sydney, where there's more competition, and less pressure to conform.' Asking him exactly how we do this, he answers, 'That's your thing!'

 

HERE'S THE WISHLIST. First, name up the worst behaviour, and shame and strategically remove recidivists. Italy's Red Brigades didn't get much right, but had an effective slogan – 'strike one, educate a hundred'. If we don't, that behaviour will emasculate current and concerted efforts to improve options for the worst-off Tasmanians, and cruel our chances of making this the best place in the world to do a number of things of great value. These most obviously include marine, Southern Ocean and Antarctic science; leveraging productivity and social improvement from broadband; high-value agriculture and aquaculture; high-end tourism; and creative economy and cultural initiatives; there may prove to be more.

Second, encourage and reward best practice. To do that, Tasmanians need to recognise it when we see it, so we need to get out more. All Tasmanians should spend a slice of their life finding a way and earning a living offshore – without the special entrée of family connections, government subsidy, and exemption from the kind of checks and balances that apply in larger ponds. Coming back, more of us will be better equipped to constructively challenge outsiders who want to tell Tasmania what's what. And to stand up more effectively to the Little Britain-ish 'computer says no' attitude that's prevalent here, which can squash innovation with all the charm and efficiency of a Soviet department store. More of us will also appreciate grace when we find it locally. As MONA's founder David Walsh suggests, despite Tasmania's persistent national reputation as backward, ignorant and redneck – a stereotype Tasmania shares with many other 'edge' communities nationally and beyond, and here supported by the tough socio-economic portrait I've sketched above – its inhabitants are characterised by tolerance as much as uncertainty, 'which could be employed to make Tasmania a place of gracious debate.[vii] That could lead to a revival of Tasmania as a leader in democratic dialogue and indeed civil society, faithful to the spirit of the legacy of nineteenth century Tasmanian democrat Andrew Inglis Clark, a founding father and drafter of the Australian Constitution.

Third, correct all those corrections by cultivating an attitude of generosity, that keeps space open for the human quirks that do make this place different and special. As Leonard Cohen wrote, 'there is a crack in everything – that's how the light gets in.' I know no other place where a pillar of the establishment takes such delight at reciting James McAuley poems by heart over lunch; where a university professor rings around every bookshop in town to locate a rare-as-hen's-tooth copy of Lloyd Robson's A History of Tasmania (1983) just so I can fix a footnote; where American punk cabaret performer Amanda Palmer performs her song 'Map of Tasmania' (referencing 'vajazzled' female genitalia) on the MOFO stage and YouTube, without anyone here necessarily blanching, now; and where I can rely on my neighbours to take the time to chop my wood, bring me homegrown flowers and cook hand-caught squid for dinner. When I ask award-winning tourism entrepreneur Brett Torossi, who grew up in western Sydney, why she keeps bothering with and investing in Tasmania, she answers with simplicity: 'I love this place and all the gentle, crazy, and amazing people.' At the end of even the darkest and most difficult Tasmanian day, I have to agree.

 


References

[i]
Natasha Cica, 'Excellence from the Edge – Learnings from Tasmania's Museum of Old and New Art,' paper for First Creative Economy Forum, SFBC-Creative Economy Group, Belgrade, in cooperation with the Australian Embassy in Belgrade, 5 November 2012.

[ii] Laurie Brinklow, 'The proliferation of island studies,' GriffithREVIEW Edition 34. http://griffithreview.com/edition-34-the-annual-fiction-edition/the-proliferation-of-island-studies

[iii] John Beswick, Brothers' Home: The Story of Derby, self-published with the assistance of the Tasmanian Bicentenary Grant Program, 2003.

[iv] The 1973 Eldershaw Memorial Lecture, published as Manning Clark, 'The Case of John and Jane Franklin' in Tasmanian Historical Research Association Papers and Proceedings, Tasmanian Historical Research Association, 1973, pp 67-81.

[v] Natasha Cica, Pedder Dreaming (UQP, 2011), pp 147-50.

[vi] Helen Kempton, 'Shame of our high kid abuse,' The Mercury, 31 October 2012.

[vii] David Walsh, 'Let the Debate Begin,' The Mercury, 20 September 2012.

From Griffith REVIEW Edition 39: TASMANIA – The Tipping Point? © Copyright Griffith University & the author.