Monday musings on Australian literature: Serendipitous finds in Tasmania
Well folks, I’ve not posted here for a week. As I wrote last Monday, I’ve been travelling in Tasmania, and have only returned home this afternoon. I have some ideas for future Monday Musings, and could have researched one for today, but I can’t resist sharing a few more of my Tasmanian literary experiences.
Tasmania is home to many Australian writers including Booker Prize winner Richard Flanagan (see my review of his The narrow road to the deep north), National Biography Award winner Alison Alexander, commentator and memoirist Robert Dessaix, and novelist Danielle Wood (see my review of her Mothers Grimm). But there are other, quieter, literary treasures to be had here.
Take gravestones for example …
We visited the historic Bothwell Cemetery, and read some poetically poignant (or, do I mean, poignantly poetic?!) gravestones. Poor Elizabeth, wife of Edward Simon Arnett, died in 1841 at the age of 33. Here are the words on her gravestone:
Now husband dear my life is past
My love was true while life did last.
Bereaved of me no sorrow take
But love our children for my sake.
I wonder who wrote that? Did she, knowing she was dying, write it? So sadly, but probably, typically, self-effacing if she did. And then there’s the grave for siblings Margaret and John Anderson, 14 and 6 years old respectively, who died within a month of each other in 1853. On their grave is:
Say not their sun went down at noon.
Early they died, but not too soon,
Not till their heart by grace had changed
And from the world and sun estranged.
Not till the Lord whose love they knew
Taught them to smile with death in view.
Life’s noblest ends thus gain’d betimes
They have gone to live in happier climes.
Poor little things. Presumably they died of an illness contracted one from the other, but did they really learn to “smile with death in view”? These and the other gravestones – and I know I’m not telling you anything here – provide such insight into nineteenth century life and thinking.
Then there’s the urban environment
The redevelopment of Elizabeth Street Mall in Hobart’s CBD in the 1990s was carried out with a view to humanising the space, to, if I understand correctly, making it aesthetically appealing and artistically interesting, not to mention fun and a little bit provocative too. Much of the art was, I understand, commissioned from the versatile Tasmanian artist Patrick Hall. He did street signs, sculptures, and “granite stories”. The sculptures include a “fish out of water” drink fountain (metalwork), Maurice the pig (moulded hebel) and Thompson the dog (woodcarving).
The sculptures would be hard to miss by anyone walking through the mall, but not so obvious are the tiny stories and images etched into the granite pedestals supporting the mall’s public seating. I suspect these are mostly discovered by word of mouth, but they are addictive once you discover them – that is, you want to find and read them all. Here are a few:
Beneath their feet lay buried the intersecting tracks and paths of the lives that went before.
To the casual observer Hubert seemed lost in thought, when in fact he was trying not to tread on the cracks.
Zoe tied her bicycle next to a pole and said “stay” before she went shopping.
When Rupert went shopping with Joyce he would plan his route strategically around appliance stores in an attempt to check the scores on shop window televisions.
They would sit with their collars rolled up against the chill winds & imagine they could peer over the edge of the planet.
I love the mix of whimsy, commentary and philosophy here. They are universal, but also seem to be very much of Tasmania.
Just around the corner, more or less, from Elizabeth Street Mall is Mathers Place. Unfortunately I didn’t have my camera when my trusty guide took me through it, but displayed there, on large billboards, are some of the stories by young writers produced under the Young Writers in the City program, which is run by the Tasmanian Writers Centre and the City of Hobart. The idea was that the young writers (under 30 years old) would sit somewhere in the city, and “compose an essay between 1500 to 5000 words … in an observational or experimental style inspired by the [chosen] space”. Not surprisingly, I enjoyed Claire Jensen’s piece about a space where older people meet. Only the beginning of it is displayed on the billboard:
In Hobart’s CBD there is a place where retired women and men meet their friends. They play scrabble, take art and writing classes, computer and ukulele lessons, hold book clubs, discuss family history and grey nomad road trips. For the last few weeks I have been invited into this secret society. They tell me stories, let me eat lunch with them, and beat me at scrabble. In the quiet afternoons, I escape the chatter to sit typing by the windows.
Ben Armstrong, in his piece, “Unified Mall Theory”, tackled the challenge to be inspired head on. (I can’t recollect whether his is displayed in Mathers Place). I like his tongue-in-cheek-up-frontedness:
I have a set of assumptions about the form my benefactors hope this inspiration will take. They want me to contribute to the cultural landscape. They expect me to write about history and stories and the interweaving of history and stories. The phrase “nooks and crannies” has not been explicitly mentioned, but I feel it is implied. Place and context also seem like things I should probably mention. Probably something about David Walsh* as well.
And now, since it is half-an-hour or more into Tuesday on my clock, I shall publish this, without a proper conclusion but hoping you have enjoyed my two little idiosyncratic Tasmanian posts. Normal Monday Musings will resume next week!
* David Walsh is the owner/benefactor of Hobart’s famous, and very popular, private art museum, MONA.