image
Leo Schofield’s speech to launch Richard Flanagan’s new book, Wanting, Polish Club, New Town, Hobart, Sunday November 2.

IN 1968, when Richard Flanagan was but a lad of seven, my ex wife and I made our first visit to Tasmania. We were well equipped with all four volumes of Clifford Craig and Graeme Robertson’s books on the houses of southern and northern Tasmania, with Michael Sharland’s Stones of a Century, and Hawley Stancombe’s Highway in Van Diemen’s Land.

Apart from the lady antique dealer in Hobart from whom we wanted to buy several hundred dollars worth of goods and who told us she didn’t take cheques from mainlanders, the natives were generally friendly and we had a most memorable and revelatory trip, the first of many.

Tasmania struck us in some ways as similar to Ireland, whence we’d made an excursion in the early 60’s. The primary purpose also being to look at old houses. En route we were intrigued by a sign that read BRITISH QUEENS AHEAD. It recurred every half mile or so and we expected a traveling drag show, a hint of what was to come with Priscilla and were somewhat disappointed when we came across an elderly gent in a tweed cap seated at a roadside stall selling a variety of potatoes, bred, I subsequently learned, in 1894 by Archibald Findlay of Auchtermuchty, Fife. The tradition continues at the servo just north of Kempton where there is usually a sign reading PINK EYES BOX $20.

On that inaugural visit here we paid a visit to the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery where we saw for the first time Thomas Bock’s watercolour of Mathinna, the beautiful young aboriginal girl taken into the household of Sir John and Lady Franklin and subsequently deposited at the Hobart Orphan School. That image of the beautiful young aboriginal girl with the huge dark eyes and curly hair wearing a bright red high-waisted Regency dress has haunted me, as it has many a viewer, and ever since I’ve kept a copy of it on the pin board that hangs over my desk.

Fast forward twenty years to 1988 when the Bicentennial fleet sailed into Hobart, their first landfall in Australia. A month or two earlier I had flown to Mauritius to sail on one of the ships from Black River into Port Louis, so I knew just what a spectacle this would be when the ships headed down the Derwent.

Whither, O splendid ship, thy white sails crowding,
Leaning across the bosom of the urgent West,

wrote Robert Bridges in his poem that powerfully evokes the majesty of a ship under sale. Although in this case there was a whole fleet of ‘em, but only one the Young Endeavour, entered port with its white sails crowding across the bosom of the urgent west.

Nonetheless, It was a stirring sight. There was the Asgard II from Ireland and the romantic Shabab Oman with its dhow-like hull and Arab warrior figurehead; the magnificent Juan Sebastian de Elcano from Spain, a great white beauty whose gilded prow came close to out glittering the frogged and braided officers on deck. There was the Capitan Miranda from Uruguay and US Coastguard’s barque Eagle, as spruce a ship as you could hope to see but somehow rather unromantic. It had a lumpen, Teutonic air about it so one was unsurprised to learn it had been built for the German Navy in 1936 and originally called the Horst Wessel.

The last of these beautiful ships to glide to its mooring at Macquarie Pier was the Dar Mlodziezy , a three-masted training ship from Poland, built in the famous shipyards of Gdansk, now known as Gdynia.

As with the other ships, it was manned by a young crew who ranged themselves along the yards, not standing but hanging, draped like resting sea birds, across the spars. As the gap between ship and shore narrowed, the sailors scrambled down from their eyries and perched on the ratlines cheering the crowd who cheered right back. I was struck by how poorly dressed the Poles were. Their pants and tops were made of canvas as were those of sailors in the 19th century and they wore what we used to call sandshoes before they became trainers. Poland was painfully poor during the dark days of Soviet occupation. But to a man they were beaming for on the wharf was a contingent from the local Hobart Polish community.

Out came the fastening cables, the signal for a group of young Poles on the wharf, in national costume, the girls with flowers and a tumble of multi coloured ribbons in their blond hair, skirts like ambitious lampshades and high red kid boots. On cue they launched into a spirited mazurka as a sober, silver-haired old gentleman in Imperial uniform, the gold bullion embroidery slightly tarnished but still bright, and with a tall black had with a cockade in the national colours of red and white, headed up the gangplank. With courtly formality he presented the captain with a loaf of bread and some salt on a napkin-draped plate. The master of the Dar Mlodziezy solemnly broke the bread and ate some, then took a pinch of salt. Hobart’s senior Polish citizen made a like gesture. The two of them embraced. Up trooped the dancers, each of the girls pressing a bunch of red carnations and white gypsophila into the hands of the waiting officers.

It was a strangely affecting little ceremonial, much more moving, I thought, than the glittering razzamatazz and brass band polish of the other arrivals and it is my primary memory of that glorious sunny day in Hobart.

There is a connection, a pretty tenuous one I’ll admit, between these two very personal Tasmanian moments this afternoon as we assemble in the Polish Club to launch a book that is in large part about Mathinna.

I heard Richard speak before I ever met him. My daughter Nell and I had come down to catch Constantine Koukias’ curious work about Thomas Edison and the electric chair, in the first Ten Days on the Island Festival. But many artists had boycotted the festival and mounted an alternative event called Future Perfect. The following morning there was a rally in St. David’s Park at which Bob Brown, Richard Flanagan and a terrific old guy who kept bees and gathered leatherwood honey all spoke passionately about the rape of the forests. It was the first political rally I’d attended since I took part in the Aldermaston March in London in the early sixties and it was a real thrill. I was particularly blown away by Flano’s fantastic oratory.

I quote: “We witness Robyn Archer, once a singer, now a member of the theatre of the absurd, saying on an hourly basis that the festival has nothing to do with forestry. Well Robyn, if its sponsored by forestry, if it has events taking place at the Tahune airwalk, if it hands out its prizes, as it did on Wednesday, at a Forestry Tasmania headquarters ringed by police, it sure has hell looks to me like it has something to do with forestry.” Vintage Flanagan.

Nell had met Richard while in Tasmania on a gig for the ABC and she introduced me to him that evening over a beer at Knopwood’s.

I told him I was looking for a place here and hoped to split my time between Sydney and Tassie. He suggested that I should make a serious commitment and just move here holus bolus. He called me a ‘wet dick’, said I had one foot here and one foot on the mainland with my dick dangling in Bass Strait. Oh to be so generously endowed!

Put simply, Richard Flanagan is Tasmania’s finest writer and one of Australia’s too. And Wanting, like his previous novels, confirms not only that fact but the passion for this often perplexing island that inspires him.

I have come to learn that Tasmania is two places. A place for poets and dreamers and people who appreciate its fierce beauty, who find it a congenial place to live and work, and for another group of folk who see no value in these rare attributes. The former have as their most powerful spokesperson one Richard Flanagan.

The aphorism goes that every country gets the government it deserves, but surely no civilized state ever deserved the crew who currently run Tasmania. Indeed the state might well be re-named, in an expression coined by Patrick White, Mateland.

Dishonesty is an essential requirement for a successful career in politics. As are venality and a weakness for corruption. Tasmania is not alone in this. A number of current New South Wales politicians are borderline crims. A former education minister in that state once ordered up a dozen new tennis courts for schools in poorer areas and the contractor threw in a thirteenth for the backyard of the minister’s house in Woollahra. Ironically, he dropped dead after a Sunday afternoon game of tennis on that very same court.

But if deceit and ineptitude are accepted political norms in Tasmania, the island is, by way of a counter balance, blessed with a disproportionate number of artists willing to take political positions and to use their art to expose the nakedness of successive emperors and their tawdry courts.

At the time of the risible obscenity trial of the editors of Oz magazine, Clive James wrote from London that Australia contributed disproportionately to world culture while remaining culturally uninhabitable. With a slight twist that might serve as a description of Tasmania, which has a thriving cultural life but is close to being politically uninhabitable.

Wanting is a terrific book. My colleague Lenny Bartulin, who happens to be from Hobart, reviews it on Ovation next Sunday. He says in part:

“WANTING is the kind of book that reminds us what literature is really all about - moving us.  Imaginative power, complete control of tone, an unburdened language that is both beautiful and brutal, and a story that drives into the heart and becomes a part of our own experience: it’s all there.  Flanagan is a writer gliding through the heights of his talent…”

Buy it. Read it. And raise a toast to the continuing success of its author.

As they say in Poland -  Na Zdrowie

Pictures: Google Images

Leo Schofield
I heard Richard speak before I ever met him. My daughter Nell and I had come down to catch Constantine Koukias’ curious work about Thomas Edison and the electric chair, in the first Ten Days on the Island Festival. But many artists had boycotted the festival and mounted an alternative event called Future Perfect. The following morning there was a rally in St. David’s Park at which Bob Brown, Richard Flanagan and a terrific old guy who kept bees and gathered leatherwood honey all spoke passionately about the rape of the forests. It was the first political rally I’d attended since I took part in the Aldermaston March in London in the early sixties and it was a real thrill. I was particularly blown away by Flano’s fantastic oratory.