I was 19 when I traveled overseas, alone, for the first time. The only book I packed was The Lonely Planet Guide to the USA. It was my bible, telling me where to go, how to get there and where to stay.
In those days, the internet was something you could only use in a cafe, and even then, it was just for email. Everything I knew about my destinations came from Lonely Planet, or by asking someone.
Just last week, to celebrate my 40th birthday, I had the privilege of travelling to Tasmania for the first time. Before leaving, I threw open the question to Twitter. What should I read during the journey?
The suggestions that came back were numerous and varied – fiction and non-fiction titles alike. No one suggested a guide book. No one needed to. It was assumed that everything I might need to know about the logistics was, literally, already in the palm of my hands via a smartphone.
The web has transformed so many aspects of life – how had I failed to realise that it has also fundamentally changed the possibilities of travel reading? No longer is it necessary to lug around books about the practicalities of a place. Instead, we can go deeper, reading for a ‘sense of place’, trying to gauge the intangible rather than the tangible.
In the end, I settled on two books – Alison Alexander’s Tasmania’s Convicts: How Felons Built a Free Society, and Favel Parrett’s work of literary fiction When the Night Comes, which is principally set in Hobart.
In their own ways, both deal with the metaphorical and literal ‘darkness’ of Tasmania – a stony island with a rugged climate and a history stained by convict transportation and the decimation of the local indigenous population.
In Parrett’s novel, the focus is on Tasmania as a sea-faring state. In the opening pages, we meet young Isla, aboard the ferry to Hobart; the rough seas serving as a metaphor for the turbulent family life she is leaving behind.
Out there the world was raging in the blackness.
We were going to a new place,
We were sailing towards it in the night.
An island in the middle of the sea.
An island that was made of stone.
It was only the ship that was keeping us safe. Only thin layers of steel and an engine pumping away in the dark were keeping us above the water, which would gladly swallow us all like we had never ever been.
In Hobart, Isla is immediately fascinated by the big red boat in the harbour, the Nella Dan, a fascination that develops into great affection after her mother begins a relationship with the ship’s galley cook, Bo, a gentle giant from Denmark who works two summers on the Antartic supply ship.
This is a gentle tale, simply told, but radiating with feeling. Isla and Bo are genuinely good souls with immense feeling for the ocean and the Nella Dan. To read this book while actually being in Hobart was a tremendous pleasure. When Isla buys sweets for her brother from an old shop in Battery Point, I could immediately picture the scene; I had walked past the shop that very same day. This is the thrill of travel reading – the making of connections in largely unfamiliar places.
What is also striking about Tasmania is the evidence, everywhere, of the state’s colonial past and convict heritage, a history which, according to Alison Alexander was largely denied until the 1970s, when having a convict ancestor suddenly became quite desirable. Fortunate, considering that 74% of Tasmanians have convict heritage.
Using historical records, Alexander builds a detailed picture of how transportation operated. Most convicts were not hardened criminals; largely, they were members of the English working class, guilty of petty crime. On arrival in Tasmania, they were ‘assigned’ to work for free settlers. After a few years, most were able to secure a ticket of leave, provided they were of good behaviour. At the time it was considered extremely poor form to mention a person’s convict heritage, a stigma which lasted well into the 20th century.
The major factor in changing wariness to enthusiasm was the dramatic mind shift of the 1960s and 1970s, which saw respectability-formerly praised-as dull, and rebellion and independence as exciting, challenging oppressive authority… In this environment, convicts were praised as people who showed initiative in stealing in the first place, rebels against the oppressive British authorities..’
But has the dark stain left a legacy? Has the criminal past of the first white inhabitants somehow left Tasmania with higher crime rates, or lower education levels? No, according to Alexander. The facts simply aren’t there. The perception of a dark legacy exists only in the minds of those who want to see it.
These words rang in my ears as I walked around Port Arthur. For a penal settlement, it is a beautiful place. At one stage, a thriving port community. Our tour guide talked with ease and enthusiasm about the convict-era privations of the place, and the various characters that attempted escape. But he didn’t talk at length about the 1996 Port Arthur massacre. He pointed out the memorial to the 35 victims, and declined to say any more out of respect, he said, to the local, Port Arthur community.
Some wounds are too raw and too deep, and living in a place is very different to visiting.