The digestion of history

by Margaret Merrilees

WE ARE WEDGED around the edges of my grandmother's dining table. It is a large and imposing table, but has come down in the world. It is now fitted (how did they do it?) into a small suburban room already lined with china cabinets and what-nots.

My aunt, also small, appears from the kitchen bearing a meat dish covered by a great silver dome. She places it in front of my grandmother and sits down.

We say grace. The sense of discomfort and formality could hardly be greater. At home we don't believe in God.

My grandmother lifts the silver dome. There, in splendid isolation in the middle of the dish, lie six tiny lamb chops.

I am filled with a fifteen-year-old's panicky desire to giggle, restrained only by consideration for my aunt, Margaret, whose name I share and who is kindly and obviously delighted to meet us.

I think there is something wistful about her. But I may be influenced by my mother, who thinks it unfair that this aunt, the unmarried one of course, should have cut her career short to come home and look after mother. I don't understand all the ramifications of this and am only just beginning to be conscious of the dark passions that ebb and swirl among siblings. I have one sister only. There were seven children in my mother's family.

 

I HAVE MET Granny Mac before. She came to stay with us in Western Australia when I was ten.

'Is your sandwich heavy, dear?' she asked me.

In the silence that followed it must have been obvious that the question was incomprehensible to me. My mother explained in a flustered voice that I should hold the sandwich in one hand, not two. To hold it in two hands, apparently, was to betray my enthusiasm for it in an unladylike way.

It seemed to me more a question of keeping the contents from falling out, which would surely be even less ladylike. But I did as I was told, quelled by my mother's embarrassment.

During Granny Mac's stay a snake, a dugite, five or six feet long, drowned in the well. Our father wanted us to hold it up for a photo, but it was already beginning to smell and neither my sister nor I would touch it. Granny Mac moved forward and picked it up herself, face well-schooled in showing nothing. She is immortalised in the photo, her dignity uncompromised either by the length of snake she is holding or by her two wussy granddaughters, barefoot and sun-bleached, skulking shame-faced beside her.

 

THE CONVERSATON AT the Hobart dining table is largely unintelligible. My mother, aunt and grandmother swap anecdotes and reminiscences about Hobart families, but it is impossible to tell which of four or five generations, past and present, they are talking about. There seems to be at least one bishop. I know what a bishop is. Otherwise I can make nothing of these people, none of whom I have ever met or even heard of until today.

My grandmother switches the conversation to George Bernard Shaw, whom she is reading with great enjoyment. Forty-five years later this sounds a mild enough pastime, but in that patrician atmosphere it is an astounding announcement, as if she has said that she is reading Marx. She is a gracious woman, and it may be that she has introduced Shaw so that my father can take part in the conversation. He doesn't know any bishops.

He and my mother do not come to the early service in the cathedral on Christmas Day. My sister and I are left to take our anxious cues from Uncle John and Aunty Ruth, kneeling and mumbling when they do, caught between dissent, pride and the desire not to offend these kind relatives.

It is the end of 1967. At last we have made the epic voyage to the Eastern States to meet the rellies. We have crossed the Nullarbor by train and then flown from Melbourne to Hobart after spending hours on the tarmac at Essendon. Our small plane gives way endlessly to dignitaries and foreign whoevers arriving for the funeral of prime minister Harold Holt. An odd affair, since there is no body.

When we finally circle over Hobart my mother is shocked. The scars of last summer's fires are still obvious on the mountain.

This is the first of many contradictions. We come from huge dry Western Australia. People expect us to have sand in our clothes. We are coming to see Tasmania, the small lush jewel where our parents first met among mountainous forests and crystal lakes and other legendary marvels.

My father once went to a conference in Hobart and brought us a large shiny red apple. Much later he revealed that his original purchase, representing all the perfection of Tasmania, had been quarantined. He bought a replacement when he arrived at the railway station in Perth.

Our present situation feels similar. Instead of a green island, we are looking down from the plane on a charred wasteland.

But how can it have burnt? The summer is not like a Perth summer. In a whole month we rarely see the sun and we don't go swimming at all. On New Year's Day our aunt and uncle take us to Cloudy Bay on Bruny Island, a glorious stretch of sand and sea. We are rugged up in coats and scarves. 'This would be fabulous in summer,' I say, keen to express enthusiasm and gratitude.

On the other hand, this sort of summer allows for treats like raspberries, miraculous globes of a flavour completely unknown in Perth in 1967. Cottee's raspberry cordial turns out to have been a swizz. No comparison. The real thing grows in my aunt and uncle's back garden and becomes part of my inchoate teenage ambition. One day I will live somewhere green and have my own raspberry patch.

The effects of a newly acquired family with strange practices, and a summer that isn't a summer, are compounded by some of the people we meet as we amble around Hobart. An elderly woman greets me as I walk past and we chat. It emerges that I am visiting from WA.

'Oh,' she says. 'I've never been to the mainland. Do they have the same money there?'

I think I have misheard her. She must be asking about prices.

But no, she means notes and coins, the new dollars and cents. Does the mainland have the same currency?

Western Australia has a long secessionist tradition, the latest version of which is going strong in 1967. In a few years time Hutt River will secede not only from Australia, but from Western Australia as well. But this Tasmanian woman doesn't need to secede. She is living out her own subversive brand of separatism. The mainland is remote, and only vaguely interesting.

I am not as shocked as a Victorian, for example, might be. The wilder forms of parochialism are familiar to any West Australian of the time. A year or so before this I was reluctantly at a party of adult neighbours in Perth. The night was balmy and the moon was full. The woman sitting next to me asked if I had ever been to Darwin, which I hadn't.

'I have,' she said. 'And they have a moon there too. Just like this one. Isn't that strange?'

 

GRANDPA MAC WAS a conservative politician in Tasmania for twenty years, a Nationalist. He was premier for six years during the Great Depression. In fact he was a signatory to the Premiers' Plan. What I knew as a teenager about the Premiers' Plan was that it was an iniquitous national plot to cut spending, wages and whatever pensions there were, and thereby do down the workers. An austerity package. So I kept this grandfather, this shady connection, secret in my radical student days in Perth, and again later in my radical feminist days.

I never knew Grandpa Mac personally. He died soon after I was born. But I knew that my mother loved him and was torn in her political loyalties. And I knew that my father respected his father-in-law, who had raised no objection to his daughter marrying a Red. He was Temperance, but not narrow.

Once I looked him up in the UWA library, casting furtive glances around. There wasn't much about Tasmanian politics at all. Western Australia was too busy with its own inferiority complex to worry about that other Cinderella. Western Australia had found the missing shoe and was beginning to be very rich. Tasmania was tiny and irredeemably poor, dangling off the Victorian coast. Perhaps if they'd let him, Lang Hancock, the fairytale prince, might have fitted a magic slipper to the Tasmanian foot as well, dug up their inaccessible mountains for them. But why would he when WA was laid out ready, a gift to him and his thuggish associates, needing only bigger and bigger machines? Western Australia was determined to have the complete opposite of mountains, vast upside-down mountain-shaped holes. In any case, Tasmania was more interested in filling the gaps between its mountains with water.

The library produced one brief article about my grandfather. It was not a rigorous critique. It said that he was well-liked. I squirrelled that idea away, but kept my secret. It's not terribly convincing to say that although your grandfather was a conservative austerity premier, he was well-liked.

And then there was the thylacine issue. Thylacines, Tasmanian tigers, had a special standing in my family. My father was a palaeontologist specialising in marsupials, and during his time at the WA Museum, thylacine remains were found in a cave on the Nullarbor. We were thylacine-conscious. In addition, Granny Mac had sent me one of the best books of my childhood: Nan Chauncy's Tiger in the Bush (Oxford University Press, 1957). Tasmania and palaeontology came together in the tragic ghost of the tiger.

Somewhere I got hold of the idea that it was my grandfather's government that was responsible for the bounty on the thylacine. This was an appallingly heavy secret to carry, far worse than the Premiers' Plan.

Actually it was a misunderstanding on my part. The bounty was a nineteenth-century scheme and had been lifted long before my grandfather entered politics. In fact his government introduced legislation to protect the thylacine (already almost extinct). They prohibited the shooting of tigers during the month of December each year.

I store this minute offering beside 'well-liked'.

 

IN THE 1970s I explored Tasmania myself. With a friend I hitchhiked all the way around, anti-clockwise. This was not the preferred direction of the sparse traffic, so it was a slow trip. Fortunately, although we had little money, we had plenty of time. We slept in abandoned buildings and youth hostels, on beaches and under trees. One festive night we slept under the Derwent Bridge after a dinner of Camp Pie cooked in the tin. (There's not much left of Camp Pie after you cook it. Mainly liquid fat.)

In Hobart I visited my aunt and grandmother. My grandmother's mind was wandering. The living room wall was covered with photos of her children and grandchildren. She showed me each one and then peered at me more closely.

'You're Beth's daughter,' she said accusingly, as though I was trying to deceive her. I admitted sheepishly that I was. Impossible to explain that I hadn't claimed my rightful place in the order of photos partly because I didn't want to confuse her, and partly because I was unused to having a place in such an array of cousins and aunts and uncles. It was the four or five generation problem again. I hadn't grown up with it, and I didn't understand how it worked.

 

GRANNY MAC'S FATHER was a baker in Launceston, wealthy enough to send his daughter to university when she wanted that (her brothers, as far as I know, did not). She was one of the first women to graduate from the University of Tasmania and set off in 1909 or thereabouts to work her way around the world as a teacher.

My grandfather, on the other hand, left school in Gippsland at fourteen and worked his way up. My great-grandfather had drunk away the family farm, which presumably explains Grandpa Mac's Temperance beliefs. He ended up in Hobart a rising businessman, forsook the Presbyterians for Anglicanism and, so the story goes, went to New Zealand and persuaded Granny Mac to come back and marry him.

I hope that marriage and seven children provided some compensation to her for adventures foregone, but I am not confident.

I wish I had told her about my night under the Derwent Bridge. She had rattled over that very bridge herself, many years before, going with my grandfather to open the new west coast road. I have a photo of the two of them standing on the unsealed road next to the motor car, which has running boards and a luggage rack on the back. My grandmother is wearing a cloche hat and ankle strap shoes and is carrying her gloves. They have left the children at home.

I have one happy photo of her. She and Grandpa Mac are feeding the pigeons in Trafalgar Square. It is 1951 and the children are long grown. She has made it across the world at last. Sadly, Grandpa Mac will die within a year.

 

RECENTLY I HAVE been back to Hobart after a gap of twenty-four years. In that time a few things have changed.

For a start, courtesy of Google, I know a bit more about my grandfather.

In 1923 Joe Lyons won a Tasmanian election and formed a Labor government. The Nationalists, now in opposition, immediately moved a no-confidence motion in an attempt to topple the new government. The motion was defeated, because my grandfather and six other Nationalists voted against it.

Now that's something. A man prepared to vote against his own party on a matter of principle.

I also know now that he was the only Australian premier to be re-elected during the Depression. The others all fell like nine-pins as voters switched desperately backwards and forwards.

That adds some flesh to 'well-liked'.

I don't know what Grandpa Mac would think of Tasmanian politics now, but I visit Hobart with new respect. Tasmania is home to particularly enlightened Civil Partnership legislation, and is the heartland of the Greens. Interestingly enough Western Australia has also been strong on those two fronts. Unexpected. Perhaps both places are isolated enough to understand where the buck stops.

On this visit I return to Bruny Island after forty-five years. It is freezing again, but then it is July.

There is now a memorial to Truganini on the island and a board telling the facts of her life. The facts are terrible. Her mother was murdered by whalers, her sisters kidnapped by sealers. Her intended husband was murdered by timber-getters and she was raped. Her brother was killed and her stepmother kidnapped by convicts. Then she fell in with George Robinson and became part of the official Flinders Island deception and incarceration. After her death, despite her express wishes, her skeleton was displayed as a scientific specimen. It is one life encapsulating everything appalling about white colonial Australia.

It provides a telling context for a visit to the Museum of Old and New Art.

So here I am, chugging up the Derwent. The river is beautiful. Where else in Australia can you view the forest from your city doorstep?

I see Tasmania now as a sort of pentimento, a landscape through which earlier landscapes, painted over, are still visible.

The outermost layer of my own visits is full-colour and glossy, looking very much like a Wilderness Society calendar, gnarled trees and rocks reflected in watery peat bogs.

This layer blends into the mountains where my father hiked and skinny-dipped in icy tarns, but his era is Box Brownie, black and white. And there is the river at New Norfolk where my parents courted.

Behind that layer appears, in sepia, a respectable Temperance world through which my grandparents trundle in their motor, where there might be a tiger still, somewhere in the vast southwest wilderness.

Behind that layer, barely concealed, lies the violent blood and squalor of an end-of-the-Earth convict settlement.

And behind that again appear Truganini and Mathinna and their people, invaded, raped, deceived. This is a story so ugly that it was generations before the survivors could even be allowed to tell it.

And that brings me and my ferry to MONA.

From the water it seems a low-slung fortification of rusted iron. You climb steeply up, as though from a water-gate in the Tower of London. So far, so good.

But then you find yourself on a bright synthetic-surfaced tennis court, and have to look around for the entrance to the museum. It is concealed by a large distorting mirror. Very strange. It is a small preparation for the disorientation that waits inside.

It is as though someone has taken my conventional multi-layered portrait of Tasmania and smashed right through it, accompanied by a fanfare of crashing percussion, discordant brass and claps of thunder.

They have cut down with titanic power into the very bedrock, way below all that went before. And in the dizzying gap they have built three circles of hell and filled them with such abject sex and death that my inner feminist is running round in circles and my head rings like a gong.

Perhaps Lang Hancock was here after all. Though it is not so much a mountain-shaped hole as a terrifying chasm. You expect lava to boil up.

There is beauty here as well. In fact much of the abjection is beautiful.

And there is delight. Only someone lacking the soul of a six-year-old could resist Wim Delvoye's Cloaca Professional, a room-sized multi-stomached digestive system which is fed with silver-service meals from the restaurant at one end and at the other end produces a neat daily shit.

And then, for the nose-thumber in all of us, there's the fact that the on-going exhibition is called Monanism and the descriptions of works appear under a penile icon labelled Artwank.

But as I totter about, other sensations are swallowed by the massive rock walls, raw and seeping. This is the underworld. Somewhere behind the rock, beneath your feet, you can hear the deep echo of Plutonic laughter. No coincidence that they're screening Wagner down in the bowels.

I am drawn back twice more to MONA, but finally I crawl exhausted onto a homeward-bound plane. I have a mighty cold. My nose runs, my head aches, my limbs tremble. It is an emotional cold, a psychic cold, the sort of cold that can only be cured by a week in bed watching rom-com repeats on telly and reading Alexander McCall Smith (Scotland, not Botswana). Could I skip Tasmania and just be a Scot? An innocent crofter who never left home?

Somewhere in here, in my quaking soul, is a large Tasmanian shaped chunk. I am a cloaca machine. I am doing my best with acids and enzymes, nibbling and bubbling at the surfaces of this chunk. Gradually, year by year, decade by decade, I am attempting to digest it.

- In memory of John Cameron MacPhee and Alice Bealie Crompton MacPhee (née Dean)

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