She Will Have Music Wherever She Goes: Autumn in Europe Days 7 and 8

The old nursery rhyme tells of the fair lady on the white horse, with rings on her fingers and bells on her toes making music wherever she goes. A bronze sculpture of her stands at the centre of Banbury village, near the new version of the famous Banbury Cross which the Puritans pulled down in the 1600s. The words to her nursery rhyme surround her, running round the platform on which she and her horse stand:

Ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross
To see a fair lady upon a white horse.
With rings on her fingers and bells on her toes
She will have music wherever she goes.

The identity of the lady remains a subject of much speculation. Was it Queen Elizabeth herself? The reference to rings on her fingers and bells on her toes denotes nobility but is itself a vestige from the Plantagenet era, several generations before Elizabeth. And so the speculation continues. But to me she is a traveller, always joyful, surrounded by constant music; and so she is an impossible traveller, because all travellers bring troubles with them as much as they bring music.

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My last day in the Netherlands is a beautiful one. My friends and I spend the morning on their balcony, looking out over Groningen’s rooftops, eating pancakes and drinking coffee. But the conversation is not so joyful; somehow our minds turn to our friends who are not going well and to the disappointments of the last few years. Phil and I have been friends for nearly 10 years, and in those years many things have gone unexpectedly. This failure of expectations can, I think, be one of the hardest aspects to the early years of adult life. We enter with so much hope, and, if our hope emerges in tact, it is in a very different form to where it began, and the moment at which our hopes change into something more sustainable can be in itself a frightening process.

What should be a straightforward journey on the train from Groningen to Amsterdam Schipol proves challenging when the train I am on stops at Amersfoort and refuses to take anyone further. What follows is a thirty minute wait, with much confusion on my part, until a hoard of similarly displaced commuters board a train to Amsterdam Central, where we change for a densely packed train to Schipol; I manage to find a seat, but I must sit with my suitcase squeezed in front of me, making my legs go numb, squashed between the suitcase and the seat. As I watch the time disappear before check-in for my flight is over, I pray constantly, aware that I have control over almost nothing in my situation except for how I react to it. If I end up stranded in Amsterdam, I pray, then that will be okay. I can trust in God’s goodness in spite of everything not turning out how I had planned…

Mercifully, I am still able to check in for my flight, with a bit of time to spare, to grab a quick dinner at the terminal. And then, after a few delays at the gate for my flight, we are off. The flight from Amsterdam to Heathrow is an absurdly short one, the kind of distance Australians associate with short domestic flights – Sydney to Canberra perhaps, or Melbourne to Devonport. Unbelievably, several countries and the English Channel are crossed in the little more than an hour it takes from take-off to landing.

And then I am at Heathrow again, met by my friends James and Christie, who take me in their car up to Banbury, Oxfordshire, where I will be staying for the remaining week.

It is difficult to see how beautiful the countryside is in the dark, but on my first morning here I awake to lush green gardens and an overcast sky without rain. The sun comes out at some point during my journey out to Oxford, and though it is not warm I am comfortable without my coat – a perfect day for exploring. And so I set off first into the township of Banbury, where I wander around looking at the many historic buildings which sit so incidentally within the town (the oldest building in Banbury, for instance, a Tudor-era construction, is now a wine shop). I also visit the famous Banbury Cross, a newer version of it built during Victoria’s reign in honour of her daughter’s marriage to the King of Prussia, or the Prince of Prussia, or something along those lines. It is difficult to get a good view of the Cross because it sits in the middle of a rather busy roundabout. But the fair lady is easily visible, off the road and carrying a plaque nearby with information on the Cross and the nursery rhyme. For much of the morning, I have the rhyme playing over in my head, set to a tune of my own making. It makes a pleasant soundtrack to my wanderings.

But by the time I am in Oxford, my mind has become cluttered and unsettled. This has been the norm for most days of my trip, for reasons that I am unsure of: a combination, I suspect, of the change in time zones and the effect this has had on medication I am taking, and the challenges of being in an unfamiliar place where the simple stuff of the day – getting a bus into town; finding s place to eat lunch – becomes complicated. Whatever it is, it troubles me, and disrupts what I expect of my travels.

There is also, I realise later, a degree of disappointment that comes with being in Oxford. You see, there is probably not a place in the world I have more built-up expectation around than Oxford. When I was an early teenager, my ambition was to study at Oxford – History, Literature; the major varied. But I knew that it was Oxford where I wanted to go. The ambition itself became more “realistic” (read: it fizzled), but came to be replaced with another association: my love of C.S. Lewis and, more recently, Tolkien. A few years ago I read Sheldon Vanauken’s memoir, A Severe Mercy, and was absorbed in his love of the place and his intense associations with the development of his own Christian faith, as well as his friendship with Lewis. Around that time I had a dream that I found myself in Oxford, at night. I was walking a quiet street in fog, surrounded by lamps and old English buildings. I think there was a pub nearby. I remember feeling quite intense joy at being in Oxford, and woke up longing to go.

Oxford itself is only partially like my dream. The buildings are the same but the streetscape is denser, busier, than I had expected. What I had notices in Banbury I see even more intensively here – Saxon and Norman buildings are surrounded by modern commerce. The oldest church tower in Oxford is in the city centre and has a cafe beneath it. A Tudor building is the home of a Pret a Manger outlet. The colleges are buzzing – with new students and tourists. The students are impeccably dressed and beautifully spoken. They swear fashionably and talk about Chekhov as I pass them along the Thames.

Reaching a quiet spot where there are some boats sitting beneath a bridge – just the sort of boats you see in pictures of people punting at Oxford – I stop to take some photographs. Walking back up to the footpath I see a man standing at the garbage bins – is he taking the rubbish out or looking though it? – who starts a conversation about photography. What level am I up to, he asks? Are there levels, I wonder? Not very high, I say. Just for fun. Can he teach me something about photography, he asks? Yes, I say. There is a wartime photographer called Ken McClelland, he says. Look him up when you get home. Alright, I say. And another one, he says. An Oxford photographer called Henry Taunt. Look him up. You won’t regret it. Okay, I say. Do you promise me you will do that? I ask. Yes, I say. As I walk off again down the path, I hear him say, You probably think I’m crazy. Perhaps, but what does it mean to be crazy? My mind is hardly settled as I walk along the Thames.

It takes me a long time to realise what is happening to me. I am struggling with the reality of being in Oxford, a place I have longed to see and am now seeing, only finding it to be not entirely what I had expected. It is, in truth, a very busy city with multitudes of wealthy, privileged students who have been born to a life I may never have. C.S. Lewis is not here; I cannot enter Magdalen College (it is closed for the day) and I am shocked at how hard it is to buy his books here, save for a few copies of Narnia and, wedged incidentally amongst the literary criticism in Blackwells, a couple of his critical works. I find a copy of An Experiment in Criticism and go on my way.

I meet James and Christie at the Eagle and Child, the popular haunt where the Inklings famously met. It is a pleasant pub and the food is nice, but I am uncomfortable, I must admit, at two beloved writers being turned into marketing exercises. I feel that somehow my journey to Oxford is different to everyone else’s. In truth it is not. This place belongs no more to me than it does to anyone else; in fact, it belongs to me less.

Over dinner, we talk about Oxford – our mutual likes and dislikes of the place. Cambridge, they tell me, is more beautiful, more like we think Oxford should be. Perhaps Lewis felt the same thing, in the end, finishing his career at Cambridge. Perhaps I should go there. But in the end I would bring the same false expectations to that place too. The secret to travel, I suspect, is to take each place on their own terms. Expectations may need to be shattered in order for this to happen, but false expectations cannot last long anyway.

Coming home, we plan my movements for the remainder of the week. Tomorrow I will go on a drive through the Cotswolds and revisit Magdalen College to see if it is open this time. I will need this time to go with fewer expectations, or at least a readiness to have my expectations challenged. That, however, may be easier said than done.

Belfries, Palaces and a Hiding Place: Autumn in Europe Days 5 and 6

The weather in Groningen being slightly better on my second full day there, we take the opportunity to climb the tower of the Martinikerk, a tower which was first built in the 1200s but has been rebuilt a number of times since then. Nevertheless, it is a formidable structure, notwithstanding the mechanised revolving door that lets us through to the entrance. The steps are many and it is icily windy as we climb; but mercifully there is no rain and so we can step out at a few points and survey the magnificent view the tower affords of Groningen. Eventually we find ourselves at the top, looking out over the city through the hands of the church clock. I notice the hands move, moments before the bells start sounding for the half hour, a surprising din that lasts a minute or so and leaves us both shocked and exhilarated when it is over. And then we take the stairs again, a little dizzy from the ascent and the tightness of the spiral beneath us. The air is fresh when we set out again and there is light drizzle, but this passes, and we are able to enjoy the more historic side of Groningen without the worst extremes of the autumn weather.

In the afternoon we set off towards the main canal running through Groningen. There is found the Groninger Museum, an intriguing, rectangular building covered in a mosaic of tiles, sitting within the canal with much of the museum’s exhibits half-below, half-above the waterline. It is a striking building and its exhibits are equally striking, including a permanent exhibition of 20th century Dutch Impressionist works – Dijkstra and others of his vintage – and a fascinating collection of Chinese ceramics dating to the high period of Dutch exploration and trade throughout Asia. Then there are the two special exhibitions: a collection of sculptures by a modern Chinese artist, Yin ???, who uses old clothes and other found objects to make large, intriguing representations of life, culture and emotion; and a collection of 19th and 20th century Canadian landscape painters. Both collections, in their very different ways, reflect their changing societies – China under urbanisation and Canada at a time of change in its northern rural areas. The collection is surprising and beautiful, and at times it is nice just to stand at one of the windows and look out onto the canal, the surface of which stands at chest level. It is a peaceful outlook, and a work of art in itself.

****

The next day takes us to two quite different places, though united surprisingly by one thing: the period of the German occupation of the Netherlands during the 1940s.

First we go to Haarlem, the place I know best as the home of Corrie Ten Boom, the spinster and watchmaker’s daughter who made her home a “hiding place” for both Jews and young men who refused to join the German forces during the war. Her house, still above a jeweller’s store, has now become a free Museum. Tours are run, in English and Dutch, on alternate half hours. The group on my tour is unexpectedly large and as a result we struggle all to fit in the space, but even this makes the experience an interesting one: it gives us a sense of how remarkable the Ten Boom’s generosity was in opening up a house that was quite humble and not especially large. We do not try to fit in the “hiding place” itself – a cavity behind a fake wall – where famously six adults hid for three days when the Ten Booms were arrested; but we can see for ourselves how extraordinary it was that they all stayed there as long as they did. One small boy is allowed to enter through the secret passage to give us a sense of how it was done; it is easy for him, but we can imagine who much harder it would be for an adult to do it, let alone six. The tour is moving and deeply memorable; I have read the story before, but it is another thing to look myself at the very place where the fugitives hid, to see Corrie’s Bible opened to the Psalm from which her most famous book took its name. I have had several experiences this week of standing in a place that has seen so much history; this gas been one of the most powerful of those moments.

In the afternoon, we take another train to den Haag, the seat of the Netherlands’ parliament and home to a number of other international and diplomatic bodies. It is also the home to the MC Escher Museum, a permanent exhibition of the Dutch lithographer and graphic artist’s work, situated in the old palace, a building simultaneously gloomy and beautiful and full of the kinds of mirrors and staircases that inhabit Escher’s work. Escher was undoubtedly a genius; a cursory glance at his most famous work can tell you that, but a closer look at the tiny, intricate details of his work, the near-perfection of its construction, reveals it in even deeper ways. Yet what is interesting to note, in contrast to the Ten Boom house, is the silent period in Escher’s work – a deacde-and-a-half missing from his body of work, the time of the German Occupation during which Escher had to focus on providing for his family, but finding quiet inspiration and clarification through reading Lewis Carroll and listening to Bach, creative kindred spirits for him. Escher, we are told, nearly went crazy from the boredom and tedium of his life at this time; Corrie Ten Boom nearly died in Ravensbruck.

It is an unfortunate comparison to make. Escher was a truly extraordinary artist and undoubtedly one of the Netherlands’ most significant cultural contributors of the modern age. It might be unfair to say he was complicit in the evils of Nazism, but there is no evidence in his work that he did anying to engage with the crisis that beset his nation and the people in it. Corrie Ten Boom is less famous; her books are not accomplished; her life was humble. Escher is remembered as a great artist and many know his work even if they do not know his name or that he was Dutch; Corrie Ten Boom is quite unknown to most people who are not Christian. It is a reminder that human greatness is often not bestowed for the right reasons, a reminder that loving and forgiving are more important than genius, however history may remember us.

The Netherlands now is an extraordinarily peaceful country. It is difficult to believe the pain it endured only 70 years ago. I will leave with these memories of it: its beauty, its culture, its efficiency and its peace. But times can come to all of us, unexpectedly, when all of these things are taken away. When that happens, what next? How will we respond when we find ourselves, like Escher, like the Ten Booms, like the artists in the Groninger Museum, losing the world we know well? I hope that this question too can stay with me; I can never tell when I will need to answer it.

Canals in the Rain: Autumn in Europe Days 3 and 4

I first began to consider coming across to Europe late last year when good friends of mine moved to Holland. “Of course I’ll come and visit you over there,” I said, and made noises about September 2012 being the time to do it. It quickly began to seem to me a ridiculous thing to do – so much money; such a long way to go; besides, I do too much international travel; maybe some other time…And yet, to cut a long story short, here I am, somehow at exactly the time of year I first said I would come. First two days in London, then a glide across the Channel in a cramped Air France craft then a train ride up north, and by mid-afternoon yesterday I stepped out at Groningen Station to the sight of my friend Phil waiting for my arrival.

The first thing that struck me about Holland (and I can use that name, Groningen actually falling in the northern region of the Netherlands to which the name accurately applies), once my train had made its way out of the greater Amsterdam region and into the countryside, was that it was all a striking, deep green – the grass, the hills, the trees, all astonishingly green. Then there were the canals – somehow just as you would expect them to be, yet startling for that very reason. When I first saw a field of black and white cows beside a canal, I was instantly transported to a picture book from my childhood, a Dutch story, I recall, about a cow falling into a canal. (It was, I think, appropriately and simply titled something like The Cow That Fell Into the Canal. There seems to me now to be something so very Dutch about such a straightforward and direct title. What else would you call a book about a cow falling into a canal?) What arrested me as I peered occasionally from my book and out the window of the train was how this place could look simultaneously just how I expected it to and also nothing like it. I expected it to be flat, and it was. I expected it to be bland, and it was not. Somehow flatness here does not equate to blandness; how unlike those long, sweeping plains from home.

It is approaching winter here, and I am told that Holland gains Britain’s weather about three days later; having arrived in England three days ago, I knew what that meant – grey sky and constant rain. Sure enough, today the rain came; not heavy rain, but persistent. Phil and I were undeterred, hitting the streets of Groningen in the late morning, visiting the University where his wife Erin works, scouring an impressive record store called Plato, where I buy a cheap copy of John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme”, passing the obligatory red-light district (a girl in alarmingly skimpy lingerie steps out into the street and walked over to a pausing car; why am I alarmed? Surely not by the thought that such things exist but that they can be seen so simply, so unobtrusively, in the middle of a cobble-stoned street on a rainy autumn day?). And then, after lunch – a trendily healthy meal at a place called Puur – one of those Dutch words that look so different yet sound so remarkably just like English – we took refuge from the rain inside the Martinikerk – St Martin’s Church, a medieval structure once Catholic then, when the Reformation hit Europe, Protestant; a fascinating witness to many periods of history, its ceilings bearing frescoes from the 13th, 15th and 16th centuries, sections of the building carrying signs of expansion and redevelopment. The man who sold us our tickets strikes up a conversation with us about the fake brickwork in parts of the church and the quirks of Northern European church architecture – why the choir has thirteen pillars, an unusual number found only in two other churches in Europe, one in northern Germany, the other in northern Italy; the strange fact that while the church building is owned by the church itself, the tower is owned by the government, a vestige apparently from the Napoleonic era. Then, once we have taken in as many frescoes as we can, we head out again into the rain in search of coffee and shelter.

When we set off for home in the early evening, Groningen’s streets shine from the steady downpour and the town is full of cyclists weaving in every direction, expertly managing the wet cobblestones and the cars and pedestrians competing for the space (Phil tells me that here the order of priority on the roads is bicycles, then pedestrians, then cars). The rain eases off as we walk home but sets in again for the last few minutes. The apartment is comfortable and warm when we get back; we put on the Coltrane CD and talk religion and politics while the rooftops and streets outside sparkle in the rain.

Communion at Westminster: Autumn in Europe Day 2

If, like me, you grew up with British culture from afar, through English novels, TV shows, films and a famous London-themed real estate board game, then coming to London for the first time will be full of odd little moments of recognition. You will find yourself walking down Oxford Street, only to notice Regent Street and Bond Street in quick succession. Then you will look up at a clock and realise that you are looking at Big Ben; or you realise that the bells you are hearing come from St. Martin’s, and though they are not singing, “You owe me three farthings”, they might as well be.

My trip into the city this morning was filled with moments like these. I set off with the intention of seeing Westminster Abbey and the House of Parliament, but while there I became aware of so many other places in the near vicinity of where I was: Trafalgar Square and the Nelson Column; No. 10 Downing Street (not accessible from the street, it turns out, at least not to the general public); not to mention all the familiar names of places and streets that jumped out at me as I walked. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a foreign city that is filled with so many ready-made memories and associations.

Yet those things which feel so familiar can catch us by surprise with just how different they are. Take, for instance, the convention here of standing to the right on an escalator; back home, it would be to the left. Everything looks and feels the same, but for one minor detail.

Then there are those moments which curiously blend the very familiar with the entirely different. The communion service at Westminster Abbey was a perfect example of this: a liturgy I know well, set in a medieval building so full of history which I have absorbed all my life yet never seen or connected with personally. Was I really standing in the building where William the Conqueror was crowned? Was that a real Medieval painting on the back wall of the chapel? Like the street names on a Monopoly board, I had taken in such things from birth, yet no more expected to come near them than I had expected to see a giant boot paying rent on a hotel at Trafalgar Square. And yet – the building where I took communion had born witness to people and times that for me was only the stuff of history books; and when I shared the greeting of the peace, I shook hands with people who, it seemed, came here for communion most days on the way to work.

Living in a relatively new city like Melbourne, it is easy to feel detached from the kind of deep history that London carries on its surface. I did not go to all of the Roman ruins that are here to be seen; there were locations from the books of my childhood that I did not have time to visit. I have spent much of my time here – only two days – trying to balance constant movement with just being: enjoying what is here; taking it in, not consuming more than I can process. But one memory will, I think, remain clearly: that moment during communion when I looked beneath me and stared at the tiles lining the chapel’s floor and realised that those tiles were profoundly, magnificently old, and I could wonder, for that moment, how many others, kings and commoners alike, had stood on that floor. I felt, for that moment, not like a tourist trying to squeeze in every significant London moment; I was a Christian, standing on the same floor as a millennium of other Christians. And that was a beautiful moment.

I did not get to see Buckingham Palace; I forgot to visit the Coliseum I saw listed on a map. There were Monopoly Streets I did not get to walk. I have had so little time and so many demands on it. In a London-themed Bingo contest, I doubt I would come close to winning. But I took communion at Westminster Abbey, and that was worth not having a sleep-in.

From Kensington to Kensington: Autumn in Europe Day 1

I have always wanted to come to England.

When I was a child, for reasons that have escaped me in the years since, I was quite an Anglophile and dearly wished that I had been born in England or, if possible, Scotland. It wasn’t possible; neither option was. I had been born in Australia, and that’s all there was to it.

Sometime towards the end of high school – owing to a mixture of having been to Europe on a cultural exchange (to Switzerland; it went badly) and studying Australian history, I started to appreciate my home country for what it was. The Europhile in me started to be tempered by the realisation that people who had approached Australia in the past with a wish to make it more European had not, generally speaking, been motivated to great love and good deeds as a result. It seemed better to love Australia on its own terms. And so I began to do so.

Still, there has always been a sense in me that somehow in coming to the UK I would be getting in touch with my origins in a way that couldn’t happen anywhere else. Much as I love Australia and much as I have grown to love other places closer to Australia – Malaysia, for one – I have retained an unresolved wish to go to the UK. And this year the announcement of two good friends that they would be moving to England gave me the push I needed. I had friends in Holland too; perhaps I could make a trip to visit them both. And so here I am, after a few months of planning and anticipating; here I am, with the sound of London rain outside my hotel room, my clothes drying from an outing in that rain and my stomach rumbling to tell me that, soon, on my way to Soho and the British Museum, I should get some lunch. But instead I am sitting on my bed inside a small but cosy – and delightfully warm – hotel room opposite Hyde Park, tapping out my thoughts so far on the iPad resting on my lap.

And what are those thoughts? First of all, it is all so amazingly familiar. It is a mix of two things that makes it so; first of all, the Kensington/Bayswater area where I am staying looks quite a lot like places back home – the area of Sydney, for instance, with a park also called Hyde Park; the older streets of Sydney’s Paddington. Despite the fact that it bears the same name as my home suburb of Kensington (and I am amused by the realisation that I am quite close to South Kensington Station, the name of the station where I catch the train to work most days), there is no real likeness to my home. But the name makes it feel comfortingly familiar. Then there’s the fact that I cut my literary teeth on the works of Agatha Christie and P.G. Wodehouse and so there are many familiar sights – the sorts of streets that Poirot or Bertie Wooster would have walked; apartments like the ones they would have visited. And I am happily reminded of a scene in the first season of Fry and Laurie’s “Jeeves and Wooster” in which Barmy Fotheringay-Fipps says, “I don’t think I’ve ever been to Kensington”, to which Bertie replies, “Yes you have, Barmy. Your mother lives there.” And then a somewhat befuddled Barmy responds, “Oh, that Kensington.”

I, having moving from Kensington to Kensington, can understand a smidgeon of his confusion, and it pleases me to do so.

There is much left to see and little time to see it: I have not been down to the Thames; I have not seen Buckingham Palace or the Tower of London or Westminster Abbey. Will I have time for it all? Will the weather permit as much as I want to do? I normally enjoy just wandering through a city and soaking up its atmosphere; today I soaked up two parts water to each part atmosphere. But my stomach has not stopped pestering me and so I will need to face the rainy streets again even if only to eat. But I suspect I will be unable to stop myself from doing more than that. I am in London, after all, and after close to 28 years of wanting to be here, I think I will want to make the most of it.

South for the Winter Part Four: South

Here is another excerpt from my Tasmanian travelogue. This chapter tells the story of my journey to the southern-most tip of road in Australia: Cockle Creek in the far south of the Huon Region.

The modern world does not hold many more physical frontiers. Star Trek once famously decreed that space was the “final frontier”, though this is not quite true for the average human being who may have a few other barriers to pass through before space travel becomes a remotely conceivable “next step”. For most of us, even in this increasingly mobile age, our lives still operate mostly within certain fixed parameters, and a journey outside of these parameters constitutes the passing of a frontier. And, for the majority of eastern seaboard Australians, some of those frontiers are found at the country’s extreme north and southern ends, or at its red centre. The sense that these are frontiers is no doubt helped by the fact that, at least at our northern and southern tips, our road systems, normally reliable, break down before we can drive to the physical tip, as if to say, “Go no further. Here be dragons,” or “Here be barbarians hoards.”

I drove to the northern tip, or close enough to it, with my family as a child, so that has less appeal for me. Besides, it seems less extreme than the southern-most point: we all know that the world continues further north of us, and the seas to the north of us are barriers I have since crossed many times. The centre also draws me in; I had planned to head there with a friend these holidays, but our plans fell through. Perhaps the feeling of thwarted adventure this has given me is what has planted in my mind the new desire that has got me up today before daybreak: to drive as far south as Australian roads will take me. Certainly, the southern “frontier” is surely the most fascinating one Australia holds. Very few people go there, and even fewer have ever gone further south, save for the odd trip to New Zealand or Patagonia; yet even they do not lie due south of us. Once you pass Australia’s southern-most tip, there is nothing but water and then that true southern frontier, where only scientists and the ridiculously wealthy can go – Antarctica. I cannot go there, at least not now; and so, instead I will go as close as Australian roads will allow me to go. They call it Cockle Creek.

~

I set off around 8am, with toast and two cups of coffee in me and some relatively straightforward directions in my head. It sounds like a difficult trip to mess up; once you get into the Huon Valley there are not terribly many directions you can go. Still, the isolated nature of my destination adds to the tension in me as I set off – mostly excited tension, true, but tempered by a sense that, if something did go wrong, I might be a very long way from anywhere or anyone when it happened.

But I have a few helpful tip-offs as I leave which hopefully minimise the risk: I should fill up with petrol in Huonville, though there may also be petrol in Southport; I should also buy good in either Huonville or Southport (precisely which town my friend recommends for food, I cannot quite remember…), in case I find myself south with nowhere to eat and a long time before I am back in “civilisation” – which, apparently, ends in Tasmania when you reach the last town with a Banjo’s. This is, presumably, a very different thing to the last town with a banjo in it, as that would surely mean that, not only had you left civilisation a long time ago but you were now thoroughly in Deliverance territory, at which point you should get the hell out of there before it’s too late.

My friends and I joke about what else I might find when I get to the southern frontier: a man rocking back and forth on his verandah, toothless, sucking on straw with his bare gums while mumbling, “You’re not from around these parts, are ya, stranger”? There’s a high chance, actually, that when I get there, there will be more or less nothing to see save the road ending. If it gets to that, at least I have my hiking boots in my car; I can go for a wander and make the most of the wilderness.

I suppose the true test of a frontier is how little you can imagine what you will actually find when you get there, all jokes and stereotypes aside. Each town I pass through feels like it may be the last. If civilisation ends with the last Banjo’s, then it ends at Huonville, a reasonably busy little town where I stop for petrol. The lady at the service station makes light conversation as I pay (what is her accent? I cannot identify it. French, perhaps? Or Dutch?). She expresses the hope that the weather will hold for the weekend. I ask if she thinks it will; she shrugs. I pay for my fuel and keep winding south.

Before long, I am one of the only drivers on the road as it stretches and turns through foresty hills and drops from time to time into pockets of wood-smoke where towns sit snugly in the belly of a hill; other times, the road opens onto circular bends of water with towns stretched out on its arm. And gradually the towns grow smaller and smaller. In Dover I stop for a few photographs. A girl walks her pony in a field. The streets boast shops which do not seem to be open. As I return to my car and head towards Southport, I wonder if it was in fact Huonville where I was supposed to stop for food.

At the turn-off to Southport I see one car going the other way, driven by a man with a beard the size of a Louisiana swamp. There are no cars going with me. In a matter of minutes I am in Southport, or what purports to be it. There are signs for an information centre but I see none. In fact, there is no centre at all; the town consists only of a handful of houses sitting unobtrusively in dollops on the flat at the bottom of a hill, the road stretching out into the curves of hill and water. No shops to be seen, and before long I reach a ramp where cars are parked for boating but no people can be seen, just a dead-end, a large dirt turning circle which I use to head back towards the start of the town. On my right, where the road enters Southport, I see what proves to be the “information centre”: a public toilet with a map and some information about the far south on its outside wall. I park my car and take some photographs of rippling sand and gently undulating water with boats sitting softly upon the surface. I then take advantage of what may be the last toilet of this leg of the trip, though the inside of the toilet is black and I reflect on leaving that a tree in the bush would have been far, far nicer.

The map on the wall shows me where I have gone wrong in my navigation: the road ends at Southport but only because the water stops you from going further south; it seems the town sits upon the curve of a bay or an inlet. If I want to get to Cockle Creek, I will need to back-track. The road where I saw the swamp-bearded man was where I should have gone right with him not left; there a dirt road will take me to Cockle Creek.

Foodless and hungry, around an hour from anywhere I can eat, I decide to make my way to Cockle Creek before I will be too hungry to do anything.

South for the Winter Part 3: Port Arthur

Here is another excerpt from my Tasmanian travelogue, this one recounting my trip down to the infamous Port Arthur convict prison.

There is light drizzle as I approach the Port Arthur Historical Site and, in the dimmer light in the forest which I am driving through, I turn on my headlights. When I arrive, however, the sun is out, or looks like it might be out in a few moments, so I leave my raincoat in the car and head into the site.

The first part of the package I buy for the day – the “Bronze Pass”, it’s called – is an introductory tour with a guide in a black spray jacket and polarfleece beret that makes him look like an ageing bohemian camper. I have a momentary thought as the tour begins that perhaps I left my headlights on, and, with no way of checking for the next forty-five minutes, it plays on my mind as our guide gives us a survey of developments in the British prison system and Port Arthur’s origins in the prison reforms started by Jeremy Bentham and his “panopticon”. Some of what we are told I already know and so my mind wanders from time to time, dredging up memories from a second-year Literature course entitled “Australia and the Colonial Imaginary”, in which our study of Marcus Clarke’s For the Term of His Natural Life, available at all tourist shops and bookstores around Tasmania, took us on a journey through the Enlightenment-era origins of the now clichéd “nature vs. nurture” debate.

Port Arthur, it seems, inhabited a strange place in the development of thinking on the subject. The emphasis in modern prison systems on rehabilitation seems to stem from a belief that humans are not innately criminal or otherwise but are victims of environment and circumstance. Prison, the logic then goes, should not punish the individual, rather give him or her a chance to reform. Port Arthur did both. It taught trades and served as a kind of last change for the most hardened or “incurable” of criminal cases; and yet they were also punished, often brutally – the whip of choice here at this “secondary punishment” prison was the so-called “full cat-o’-nine-tails”, that is, a whip of nine strands each containing eighty-one knots digging into the back. Convicts who were whipped publically for “absconding” or the like needed, as a point of pride and honour, to show no pain while being whipped, all wanting to prove a “pebble” – a small, hard, unbreakable rock in the shoes of the prison powers – rather than “sandstone” which crumbles under pressure.

And so punishment failed, in most cases, to reform its already hardened recipients. Were they, I wonder, better helped by the church services they were required to attend, the old bells of which we hear, in recorded form, punctuating the tour guide’s commentary? Did the solitary confinement inflicted on them to enforce quiet contemplation of their sins help any more? Neither of these questions can be answered on today’s tour, and so, in between shifts of location and new facts about the site’s history, along with momentary attempts to remember whether or not I did turn off my headlights, I am left pondering the merits of a prison system which, in its swings between the punitive justice of Victor Hugo’s Javert and a permissive version of Bentham, has never really mastered the tension between justice and grace which the God of the Bible seems to hold together as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

Of course, my philosophical musings are regularly cut short by the feeling that I should in fact be paying attention to what the tour guide is telling us; and then I continually find my mind returning to my headlights and scanning ahead to a potential future whereby I am stranded here until the RACT can come to give me a jump-start. How long, I wonder, would it take them to make it out to Port Arthur? Will they come out to me, a Victorian and therefore not a member? The sun goes down in my mind and I am still here, unable to drive home. How long is it before the ghosts come out? Which would arrive first, the RACT or the ghosts? Meanwhile the tour goes, rain coming and going with it while we are told stories of escaped convicts dying from dehydration or cold, being killed by the Eaglehawk Neck “dogline” – a long “line” of vicious hounds spread out in a manner designed to stand in the way of a popular escape route – or choosing to return, tail between iron-bound legs, to avoid such a fate; and these stories set me thinking, as I trudge on with my tour-group through rapidly softening soil, that perhaps my fears of being stuck here with a flat battery are not the worst things that could happen, or have happened, to people who come here.

Fortunately, it all proves academic. When the tour finishes and I am able to duck to my car, I find that I had remembered to turn off my headlights after all. Now armed with a raincoat and gloves, I am free to enjoy the site in dryness and without worries of a flat battery.

The place opens up for me, seeming less and less like the prison that it had potentially become for me, and I find myself looking at it with more open eyes. What perhaps nothing can quite prepare you for here is the sheer beauty of the place, especially in Winter. Regular rain, much of which falls while I am here, has softened the features to a delicate lushness reminiscent of the kind of English village which much of this place was set up to recreate, and the ruins, set amidst verdant hills, make the place look like the closest thing Australia has to a Stonehenge or a Bath. A prison with no need of walls, the place feels now far from a prison, just as, when it gets too wet and I decide to take refuge inside with a hot drink and this journal, the café where the 1996 massacre occurred now feels the safest and most comfortable place to be. I wonder: did any of the convicts, as they worked felling trees or building houses, ever look out on this place and see the beauty in it which is all too apparent today? Did they ever listen to the church-bells and hear chimes of freedom not of judgment? I cannot tell. But the extremes in the weather which I have witnessed today – now sunny, now cloudy and wintry in the sudden rain-fall – give me some sense of what, apart from the sheer isolation of the place, may have been its greatest source of punishment to the convicts and pioneers who lived here. “Damn Demon’s Land”, the prison-guards ironically called it. Too beautiful, surely, to be called that – but I have a car and a warm home to return to, and can leave now before it becomes dark and takes on the illusion at least of being haunted. There has been much pain here, some of it in my lifetime, which I cannot even begin to imagine as I sit innocently here.

South for the Winter Part 2

The following is an excerpt from the second chapter in my Tasmanian travelogue. I hope you enjoy it.

The morning begins in fits and starts, much like the way the traffic exits the boats: sudden chugs of motion with elongated periods of stasis.

Sleep, for one thing, is fitful at best. The beds are comfortable enough but the pillows are so thin and insubstantial as to make their existence almost pointless. By about 4:15, the time at which my incoherent room-mate decides to get up and start his day (what does he say to our other room-mate, who he meets coming out of the toilet just as he is getting up? Is it, “It’s 4:15, not too early”, or have I misheard him altogether, my ears gathering what my brain can only compute as nonsense?), I finally work out the best way of folding up my pillow to maximise support and comfort and then manage to sleep for almost two hours with little interruption.

Just before 6am I wake up from a dream in which my other travelling companion and I agree that sleeping until now is still better than getting up at 4:15; my mind is already prepared for the swift process of getting ready to disembark at 6:30. I wash my face, clean my teeth and pack my bags while my remaining room-mate maximises the time he can sleep. The intercom system sporadically reports fun facts to us as a thinly veiled reminder that we should be up and about; Wendy in the Tourism Centre is available until 6:30; We will be disembarking at 6:30; Speak to Wendy now if you want tips on your time in Tasmania; Please wait until your garage deck is called. By the time I get to the general gathering area around reception and the Lavender Café, most people are packed and either buying coffee to help ease the earliness of the hour or are just waiting, bags at the ready, prepared to board cars when the intercom finally tells us we can. I make a brief visit to Wendy at the Tourism Centre. She seems a little confused by my wish to drive down along the east coast; do I realise, she asks, that there are no freeways in Tasmania? Do I realise that I cannot drive on the coast all the way? It is only afterwards that I wish I had played dumb and acted as if I had personally wanted to drive my car on the beach all the way to Hobart. Instead, I take what local knowledge she can give me, not wanting, in my flippancy, to become another Burke or Wills, and, armed with a map that cost me $5.50, I am now, more or less, prepared for the drive.

And soon enough we are off – though that cannot really be said without qualification: there is a long wait in cars before we can go anywhere and when we do “go” it is with moments of sudden movement punctuated by long waits, occasionally being motioned in a particular direction by someone with a fluorescent stick to light the way to the appropriate lane. At the final point – quarantine to stop us from bringing anything unsafe into the state – a man checks my boot to ensure I am not smuggling fruit, firearms or live animals, and I am, at last, on my way.

The land as I drive off into it is bathed in morning mist and the ground thick with frost, but all of this adds to the beauty of the place. As I head south-east on the Bass Highway the mist slowly clears and my windows with it; the sun rises until it stars almost directly into my eyes but the frost remains. Cows nibble at it from time to time in an attempt to get at the grass beneath. The road winds now southward, now east, and the green hills wind and unfold before me.

I make a chilly stop in Deloraine, a minor detour from the highway, in the hope that I might find somewhere to eat breakfast. I do not, but I find a park where I can take a chilly walk and photograph a lake and the trees and frost around it. There have already been many places along the way that I wish I could have captured as I drove – a band of crimson where the sun rises; a layer of mist rising from a lake; a ribbon of purple across a canopy of trees – but there has not been a convenient place to stop and so words will have to do to record them. In Deloraine, however, I am able to capture some of the beauty in a handful of photographs before, frozen, I return to my car and drive on.

I make it to Launceston by about 8:30. Approaching the town from above (it sits as a neat, circular package of houses and buildings within its own valley), I feel myself lowering into the fog which sits above it, giving the town, for that brief moment, an almost magical quality which is, admittedly, ruined later when I learn that what I have taken for mist is actually natural pollution from the wood-fires, kept through the vagaries of meteorology and pressure systems as a protective layer over the city. Much of the town seems still asleep as I drive into it and the sun, peering halfway up the horizon atop buildings and street signs, makes it glow in a sleepy manner while I try to navigate through the morning haze and glare.

Soon enough I find a park and, covered in just enough layers to keep me warm, set off in search of food. Not much is open yet but I follow the stream of early risers with takeaway coffees in hand to find a spot for breakfast and a much-needed wake-me-up. Eventually I find my way to Banjo’s, which appears to be a chain of bakery cafés boasting Tasmanian produce and which is, most importantly, open. My egg and bacon pita is warm and fills me and I have the chance to collect my thoughts and prepare for the drive ahead of me so I do not complain. A family at a nearby table, evidently also not from Tasmania, share fun facts which they seem to have gleaned since arriving; did you know Tasmania is the twenty-sixth biggest island? What is the largest? Is it Australia or Iceland? Is Australia an island? From the café windows I watch shops turn on their lights as women with beanies and prams stroll the streets.  A man at a table outside, his back to me, blows clouds of smoke into the morning air – maybe from his breath, maybe the steam of his coffee, maybe from a cigarette; all look the same from this angle and all are equally possible on a morning this cold. Then, finished with my breakfast, I head next door to Gloria Jeans for what I presume will be a reliable cup of coffee; at least I know what the standard will be, I reason. I seem to be the only person there that morning who is not a regular customer; the girl at the counter actually needs to take my order, instead of being able to deduce it from past experience. She calls everyone else by name, whether they wear biking lycra, casual clothes or the uniforms of their trade; all are known and all have their regular orders. I, the stranger, take my coffee and head on my way, stopping briefly at a music store to buy some tunes for the drive. I nearly spill my coffee over the counter; as it is, I only spill it on my hand. Coffee nestled dangerously into my lap, I navigate the one-way streets of Launceston and rejoin the highway heading for the east coast.

South for the Winter Part 1: The Voyage

The following is the beginnings of a new project I am working on – a kind of travel journal I am keeping during my winter holiday in Tasmania, which I will write as I go then edit and collate when I am finished. Here is a preview of the first entry:

2nd July: The Voyage

Little birds fly south for the winter. I learnt that many years ago in a book of Sesame Street jokes and riddles. The joke ran:

Question: Why does Little Bird fly south for the winter?

Answer: Because it’s too far to walk.

That fact and its related joke have both stayed in my mind for the decades since I first read the book, even though I have since learnt that a) it clearly applies to more types of birds than just little ones and b) it almost certainly does not apply to birds in the southern hemisphere. Why b)? Because what the joke failed to teach my six or seven-year-old self is that, if birds fly south for the winter, it is in order to escape the winter cold, not – as they would be doing if they flew south in Australia – delving further into it.

And yet here I am defying all the southern hemisphere’s common sense, leaving wintry Melbourne for even more wintry Tasmania. The mind boggles – or should boggle. I, of course, know why I have chosen to do this, even if at times the decision baffles even me. There are several good reasons for what I have chosen to do: I have friends to visit; my flatmate is away for a month and I don’t want to spend my school holidays at home by myself; and last, and perhaps most importantly, if I am going to experience a cold and depressing winter I may as well do it properly.

Besides, there is something exciting, adventurous even, about approaching a Tasmanian winter, in that way we can have of feeling the thrill in doing something that we know to be foolish, challenging, perhaps even downright stupid, yet are choosing to do so, just for the heck of it.

To add a little to the sense of adventure, I am taking the boat. If the boat is in fact, as a friend described it, a large, “floating casino”, it only slightly reduces the sense of adventure, primarily because, putting aside whatever excitement the boat itself may or may not hold, it is also a means to an end: taking the boat means taking my car, and taking my car means that, when the boat arrives in Devonport tomorrow morning at 6:30, I will set off from the north of the island to the south, just me and the road.

Having my car will also mean the freedom to go exploring from my base at Carlton Beach, half an hour from Hobart. While driving around Tasmania in my 1992 Toyota Corolla will not exactly be Roald Amundsen or Abel Tasman material, it will still be the first time I have ventured around the island since I came here with my parents and brother at age ten, and this makes it something of an adventure for me at the very least. The island is small and I have a week to move around in it and see as much as I can. I have all manner of hopes and plans – going as far south as road will take me, for instance, or setting off into the bush of the southwest. What I will actually do and see remains to be determined. But I am entering the experience with a sense of excited anticipation that is not yet dampened by the realities of the Spirit of Tasmania.

There are, however, several realities which the intrepid adventurer will have to face between arriving at the pier and embarking the boat which is primarily a giant garage doubling as a reasonably tacky floating resort. The process of boarding the boat in your car is a lengthy one and a slow one, drawing into its slow upwards chug a range of emotions spanning the thrill of watching the Port Melbourne waves lap around you and then staring upwards at the giant gangway which is your plank onto the boat, through to the letdown of entering the boat’s seventh floor which boasts two restaurants, a café, a shop, a tourism centre and a gambling venue entitled the “Star Club”. It also has a cinema which, at 8pm, will screen “The Muppets Movie” for free. This may or may not be a bonus.

The restaurants do a natural enough job of sending passengers off into their different classes. There is the à la carte restaurant with waiter service to which, I presume, only the more sophisticated passengers will go (I don’t know for sure; I already pre-determined it was not for me), and then there is the “Captain’s Table”, a fairly inappropriately named all-you-can-eat bistro of sorts where you can pay $30 for a “large” plate of food, a dessert and a soft drink. The queue moves a little faster than the gangway onto the boat but only slightly, and standing in it is a curious experience of sharing a dining room and kitchen with a mass of complete strangers from all walks of life, all the while trying to avoid scrutinising their movements (why doesn’t the woman in front of me collect her tray and cutlery at the start?; why does the woman behind me give her  nearly teenage children small plates when it costs the same for children to have small or large?), all the while finding it fascinating to observe something which normally only the super-market checkout brings you even close to observing. And then there is the feeling of being scrutinised yourself, of wanting to take full advantage of what extortionate prices can allow you to have while not appearing to be overloading the plate or taking the best parts of the roast lamb.

And then you eat, the boat starting to move during your first few mouthfuls, giving you the curious sensation while you eat of having the floor moving backwards with you. You probably will not spend too long over your meal – there are people all around you looking for tables and the ambience is hardly something you will want to soak up. So perhaps you will move on to the Lavender Café, where you can buy tea, coffee or alcoholic drinks and sit where you can hear the pokies in the background and the man with the whisky whose iPad is not working perfectly enough for him to be able to savour the fairly miraculous fact that he can be using the internet from the middle of Bass Strait and thus punctuates his failed attempts at whatever he is trying to do with four-letter-word-peppered accusations at the unsuspecting touch screen. These are your travelling companions.

To look at it all objectively, the seats are comfortable, the room is warm, and you are on your way to Tasmania with your car kept somewhere safely beneath the deck. This should really be enough. If the whole experience gives you the impression that the “spirit of Tasmania” smells of cigarettes and whisky and has a soundtrack composed by a pokies machine replete with bleeps and Nintendo-like gurgles, then remember this: tomorrow you will set off onto the Tasman Highway in your own car, and the glorious east of Australia’s magnificent and tranquil southern isle will await. And if the sound of the pokies is a bit too grating and the TV keeps you from focusing on the copy of Nicholas Shakespeare’s In Tasmania that you have taken with you, then it might be worth putting the book away and taking a walk on the deck in the bracing night air and start to feel just that little bit closer to the spirit of Tasmania as it might have seemed to Abel Tasman.