Nuts about Stanley

Stanley is one of Tasmania’s most historic settlements.  In the early nineteenth century it was headquarters of the Van Diemen’s Land Company, an important player in the early development of the colony.  The Company was in effect a state within a state, doing pretty much its own thing in those parts of the island in which it had an interest.

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Highfield House, set on a hill overlooking the town, was built between 1832 and 1835 as a residence for the chief agent of the Van Diemen’s Land Company. It’s impressive by the standard of Tasmanian historic buildings, though not of any great size or quality by the standards of the British Empire.  However it’s difficult to grasp the significance of some of the decisions made here.  In Highfield House deals were done, fortunes made and lives destroyed.  Decisions made within these walls helped seal the fate of the aboriginal inhabitants of the island, and of the thylacine (Tasmanian Tiger)

Because of the long history of the Van Diemen’s Land Company it’s unsurprising that Stanley boasts a number of buildings of age and character:

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It looks and feels quaint:

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Coming right up to date, we learned while in the town that recently Stanley has been used as a location for the filming of The Light Between Oceans, based on a novel by M R Steadman.  Julie read and enjoyed the book some time ago, and heartily recommends it.

However the most significant thing about Stanley is nothing manmade; rather, it is the topography, or, to put it another way the Stanley Nut. The town is dominated by the Nut, a vast, flat-topped rocky outcrop formed from the core of an extinct volcano.  It is a looming presence, towering 152 metres above the town:

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It’s possible to take a chairlift to the top, but the weather was cool and windy and we agreed that in the circumstances this was one experience we could manage without.

Our luxurious accommodation, on a hill overlooking Stanley gave fabulous views of the Nut, and the floor to ceiling windows ensured that it was never out of sight or mind. There was even a spa-bath strategically positioned to enable the bather to soak up the views while soaking in the bath.  Here Julie is posing for the camera in the bath:

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If you want any more you will need to use your imagination (or maybe just take a cold shower).

[26 November]

No worries!

We struggle down to breakfast, red-eyed and jetlagged.

Our accommodation styles itself a ‘boutique hotel.’ Its cafe is popular with the locals.  They stream in off the street for pastries, muffins, cappuccinos to go.

The seating is made from re-purposed church pews, a blatant attempt to add a bit of character and atmosphere. We sit at a table in the corner.  Beside us is a shelf of second-hand books for swapping.  The authors are familiar: Karin Slaughter, Patricia Cornwell, Tim Winton.  And Stephen King.  Always, on swap shelves like these, there’s a Stephen King novel looking worn out and a bit sorry for itself.   Rather like us after a sleepless overnight flight from Singapore, the highlight of which was the eerie glow of an outback bushfire spotted in the darkness from 35,000 feet.

A large photo-book of New Zealand catches Julie’s eye, by a guy called Craig Potton. He sounds vaguely familiar, but in my befuddled state I’m not quite sure why.  His photos are excellent however, and New Zealand looks like fun.  Maybe we should visit one day and drop in on Craig while we’re there – I suspect we’ve got stuff in common.

The waitress, depressingly young and eager, bounces over to take our orders.

“French toast and berry compote,” I say. Then, as an afterthought: “And can I have some crispy bacon on the side?”

“Sure,” she replies, “no worries.”

No worries! The national catchphrase, emblem of a carefree and can-do culture.  It’s official then, we’ve finally made it to Oz.

The convict stain

The colony of Van Diemen’s Land was swept into existence on a torrent of blood, the blood of the Aboriginal inhabitants who stood in the way of the European invaders’ notions of progress, and the blood of the convicts whose punishment for crimes, real or imagined, in the Old World was to subjugate the new, untamed land to the south.

Tasmania, it seems, has an uneasy relationship with its past.  That Van Diemen’s Land was re-invented as Tasmania was neither a quirk of history nor an idle flight of fancy, but rather a conscious attempt to sweep the excesses of its first 50 years under Britain’s threadbare colonial carpet.

Today, authors and film-makers are increasingly exploring the early history of Tasmania.  The 2009 movie that is called simply Van Diemen’s Land focuses on one of the darkest episodes in the early history of the island, the descent into cannibalism of a group of eight convicts led by Alexander Pearce.  The wretched prisoners did a runner from the infamous penal colony at Macquarie Harbour on the west coast of Tasmania only to find the land into which they had fled to be bleak, unforgiving and almost totally devoid of anything edible … except their fellow escapees.

For anyone planning to visit Tassie this film is good homework, providing an insight into an event nearly 200 years ago that continues to fascinate the locals today.  The savagery of the penal regime is surpassed only by the brutality of the forests and mountains.  And, not least, the movie reminds the potential visitor of the need for decent rainwear … my god, if this film is to be believed we’ll need it.

Richard Flanagan, Tasmania’s foremost literary author, also writes about the penal colony at Macquarie Harbour in his 2002 novel, Gould’s Book of Fish.  Flanagan is one of those commentators unhappy with Australian – and Tasmanian – reluctance to confront the ‘convict stain’ that disfigures the early history of both country and state.  I’d hoped, therefore, that Gould’s Book of Fish would offer the prospective tourist some insights, a dummies’ guide to the penal system that gave birth to a nation.

I should have known better.  Flanagan writes literature, not books, and in 2014 was rewarded with the Man Booker Prize for his troubles, in recognition of his novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North.  Inevitably, therefore, dummies’ guides are not what he does.  Gould’s Book of Fish is not an easy read, though to be fair he warns his readers not to expect too much when he has his first narrator say the following:

I had begun with the comforting conclusion that books are the tongue of divine wisdom, and ended only with the thin hunch that all books are grand follies, destined forever to be misunderstood.

Spot on with that one, Mr F.  Richard Flanagan is obviously a talented writer – they don’t give the Man Booker away lightly and Gould’s Book of Fish is not totally without merit, although the  Guardian reviewer didn’t much care for it.  But as preparatory reading for a trip to Tassie this book promises more than it delivers, and to be frank life’s way too short.

Tasmania: challenging stereotypes about Australia

Terry Pratchett’s novel The Last Continent is not about Australia.  We know this for sure because in the foreword he says “this is not a book about Australia.”  On the other hand, would you take at face value the words of a man who did irony for a living for over 30 years?

Early in The Last Continent Sir Terry treats us to an excerpt from the diary of inept wizard Rincewind, who is lost in the vast, forbidding land of Terror Incognita.  Here is Rincewind’s account of six days in his wretched life:

Probably Tuesday: hot, flies.  Dinner: honey ants.  Attacked by honey ants.  Fell into waterhole.

Wednesday, with any luck: hot, flies.  Dinner: either bush raisins or kangaroo droppings.  Chased by hunters, don’t know why.  Fell into waterhole.

Thursday (could be):  hot, flies.  Dinner: blue-tongued lizard.  Savaged by blue-tongued lizard.  Chased by different hunters.  Fell off cliff, bounced into tree, pissed on by small grey incontinent teddy bear, landed in waterhole.

Friday: hot, flies.  Dinner, some kind of roots which tasted like sick.  This saved time.

Saturday: hotter than yesterday, extra flies.  V thirsty.

Sunday: hot.  Delirious with thirst and flies.  Nothing but nothing as far as the eye can see, with bushes in it.  Decided to die, collapsed, fell down sand dune into waterhole.

Plainly Terry Pratchett didn’t take his inspiration from Tasmania which has way too much rain to match this description, while the small grey teddy bears – incontinent or otherwise – are notable by their absence.  As for the flies, I’ll report back later.

The thing about Tassie is that it’s not much like the rest of Australia.  The typical Briton’s image of Australia is in tune with Rincewind’s observations, all sand, heat, enormous distances and bugger-all in the landscape except things that will do you harm.  But Tassie isn’t like that: it’s smaller, cooler and rainier that the mainland, and about 30% of it is given over to national parks or some other form of protection.  It has a temperate rainforest for God’s sake and sounds like a place where I could feel at home, though it does have its fair share of things that will do you harm including the infamous dunny spider.

I’ve always thought that Australia would be hard work, and Sir Terry has done nothing to dissuade me of that view.  Tasmania however sounds like my sort of place.  We’re due there in 44 days: I can hardly wait.

Postscript:  The late, great Terry Pratchett was one of the funniest and most gifted writers in the English language.  His books came from so far out of left field that it seemed like he was playing a different game from the rest of us, a game in which it is a self-evident truth that orang-utans make the best librarians, a game in which Death rides a horse called Binky and has a soft spot for cats.  He is sorely missed by those of us who believe that we all take ourselves too seriously.  If you’re not familiar with the man and his unique take on reality read about him here.