Hells Gates

I went to Tasmania. It was magnificent.

Here are memories:

In Strahan. We went on a cruise out to Hells Gates, Macquarie Harbour, and saw on the way rainforest that dates back 60 million years. We sailed through cold crystal air of probably the same vintage. We saw a lighthouse where the keeper, from his workstation, watched his wife and daughters drown. Looking down into the black water, I thought of those women and their stout woollen clothing, protection from the cold, but now holding them down and away from oxygen, and him, watching from above and unable to act, looking at them perishing, eyes still open and small cold hands clawing at water. We saw Sarah Island, where men and women sank to death, grateful in the end, or, along with their jailers, went mad. Nobody seemed to have repented or been rehabilitated.

On the boat we had lunch. The staff were young and wore shorts, moving fluently through the freezing air. Getting down on their knees to speak to passengers in seats. Managing the cutlery and a lecture on penal colonies, piners, convicts and the dramatic timber of the Sassafras trees, all at the same time. One convict escaped with a small number of companions, some of whom he ate on the way. What price freedom. They captured him again, anyway.

Huon pine trees, 800 years old. They grow one golden millimetre each year. One, fallen next to our path, is 2300 years old, born when Julius Caesar was alive, but right now, is lying in front of me. The wood perfectly preserved, but now a log garden bed for 320 new trees and plants, which all tread delicately across its furry back and thread roots into its spine. Life, on this innocent tour, cutting new deals.

The piners raised their families by logging the Huon pine trees. Felling 600 year slices in a matter of minutes. Cut it down in impossible conditions, marking the logs and waiting for the winter floods to carry it down to Strahan. It was cold. Four meters of rain a year. Getting home after a long haul and hoping your kids were still alive but knowing that at least one of them no longer would be.

There’s a log on the foreshore only just washed down. The pioneers missed out on that one.

And then the logging of Huon stopped.

Rest back in our seats on board. Good to get out of the wind. And good that we, thank God, we didn’t live back then.

Behind my seat, a nanna and a grandson, aged five. She says, ‘It’s good to get out of the wind.’ He says, ‘Can I have an orange?’

In front of me, another family, mummy taking photos, dad taking the kids for walks around the boat, looping inside, then outside, and through my window, I see the children gulping at the air, so much of it, so cold and clean. Their cheeks are red. The little girl carries a barbie doll with a green shiny dress.

There’s a talk about the Greenies. What they did. What they saved (everything). We are sailing through World Heritage, ticking seven out of ten boxes for the World Heritage application, and not many places on this planet able to do that, possibly none. The young staff acknowledge the First Australians with reverence, one young woman with closed eyes, ‘the Togee Tribe’, the the Lowreenne and Mimegin bands. But there are no words. No way to express the shame.

‘I didn’t know that.’ This said by the young dad who is still looping his family gently around and around the boat. He is carrying the barbie doll now. ‘I never knew’. His small daughter looks up at him, learning something.

Next to me. A man with a huge watch which he keeps checking. No need. There are 60 million unhurried years out there, leaning over the boat and breathing slow green cold all over us.

A man on the top deck takes a picture of his wife wrongly and has to do it again. But still wrong. Sliding behind her back unnoticed is the silent forest, and it is deafening. There’s a waterfall, and then it’s gone.

Trees clustered at the sunlight.

People clustered at the bar.

Through my window, a man with an expensive whirling camera; people moving aside respectfully to let him through, the expert.

Wind. The glass doors are closing loudly. People come in.

‘Arctic out there.’

‘I didn’t dress for this.’

‘Did you get the waterfall?’

‘Can you get my coat?’

Lunch is served.

The nanna and grandson behind me eat side by side. ‘How’s he doing?’ This is dad, calling from the seat behind.

‘Oh very well.’

But he still wants an orange.

‘I want an orange.’

‘We have to be sensible don’t we.’ Nanna is hopping into the chicken. There are rice and noodles under their chairs, and now under mine.

‘Nan, can you get me one?’

‘Well, I don’t think they have those.’ The child presses his nose to the window and looks out at World Heritage. Dad stands up from behind and stretches. ‘Might go out the front.’

On Sarah Island. Led by a speaker who told the awful stories. Two little girls climb a pile of bricks, remnants of the olde bakery. They hop over it, light as birds scratching at history, but they are told to hop down. ‘Please, everyone, stay off the ruins’.

The tour guide invites the group to participate, and we all stiffen. Nobody wants to be wrong about history even though this is normal.

The guide points to a young father whose daughter has a Barbie doll and who hopped across the ruined bricks of the bakery.

The young dad gets the answer wrong. His eyes swivel to see if anyone notices, but we are all just glad that WE didn’t have to answer. What was the question, anyway.

The worst of the convicts were punished on a smaller island nearby with no shelter. A small group of women sheltered in a tidal cave there where they mostly died. We stand on deck in the not so cold wind and feel cold.

Sailing back.

Now in Hobart, and old buildings around the harbour are made of henpecked blocks of stone, pecked into perfect desperate oblongs with convict held tools, and today they hold up history. They hold up culture. The price of not getting freedom. Tourists admire them, and then have to find something else to do. The price of never having to pay a price.

In Hobart, at a fish restaurant. A man and his teenage son quarrel. ‘Go home then’. The boy lurches out, on his phone, looking at nobody.

In Hobart at an Indian restaurant. An old place but not fancy. People lining up for takeaway mostly, but we dining in. The waitresses in sneakers and rushing. Mild air through the windows over old Hobart Town, keeping the hen pecked stones going.

And the magnificent bathroom. I went there after we’d finished, and I opened the door into a rich orange experience that seemed to sum up everything on that night, our last night, and having to fly home the next morning and masks on again. Why paint your life so bright? We do. We must.

History

“History isn’t like that. History unravels gently, like an old sweater. It has been patched and darned many times, reknitted to suit different people, shoved in a box under the sink of censorship to be cut up for the dusters of propaganda, yet it always – eventually – manages to spring back into its old familar shape. History has a habit of changing the people who think they are changing it. History always has a few tricks up its frayed sleeve. It’s been around a long time.”

Terry Pratchett, Mort

Rembrandt used to do that

John came in today. He’s always looking for history. He always has a list. The list is in a huge notebook with creased and folded pages, and with a pencil eased in and held against the muscles of the book’s spine.

He is usually quite worked up. This is always because he has found more reading.

‘For God’s sake, more reading. And I’m getting on in life.’ He leans hopelessly against the counter.

We go through the list. Today it is John Maynard Keynes, the English economist who died in 1946.

‘I really need this.’ (Essays in Persuasion).

He tells me about his high school. ‘The maths teacher used to beat me.’

‘And I want this one.’ (A Treatise on Possibility).

‘And this. Can you get this?’ (Essays in Biography).

Suddenly he asks me about Clive Cussler. ‘Does he write his own books?’

I said that he did. But then, later on, he collaborated with other writers.

John gave a shout of laughter. ‘Like Rembrandt, then! He used to get his students to do some of his stuff. You know, the apprentices. There they were, all doing the backgrounds.’

He kept laughing. His beard swung about. Other customers looked around.

‘And John Macarthur. You know him? It was Elizabeth that ran the place, did the sheep, brought in the merinos. Not him, the old scoundrel. Not the same thing as Clive Cussler of course. But it was still Elizabeth that brought in the merinos.’

Then he left, taking his notebook and pencil, and with his beard subdued for the time being.

Self Portrait with Saskia by Rembrandt c.1635

The Unsquare Dance

Artwork by Victor Vasarely (1906-1997)

Andrew has a journal with every book he wants written in a neat list. The other morning he showed me the next list – about 60 books.…. can I please find them…?

He reads history.

But now he has added John Steinbeck, Franz Kafka, Sigmund Freud, and Solzhenitsyn, and he almost shouts. ‘There’s so much. So much. It’s so great. Where’s my glasses?’

He turns around in circles as he speaks, checking the other shelves, forgetting about his glasses.

He says, ‘My God, that’s Brubeck you’re playing. Good for the mind.’

His glasses are in his hand. He puts them on and stacks up his books to carry out.

I caution him. He tends to read as he walks.

Outside, some young men are walking past, leaning forward into the wind, moving fast. One of them is yelling to the other:

‘I’m not saying the footy oval, I’m not saying that…’

Andrew, eyes on Kafka, moves gently in front of them. They look up, surprised, and part abruptly to let him through. They resume.

‘It’s not the footy oval, it was the other way….’

 

Artwork by Victor Vasarely (1906-1997)

 

 

Generous, joyous, wonderful

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Alan came into the shop today to pick up some books. He wanted to talk about The Death and Life of the Great Lakes (which he saw on TV last night).

Alan has a book in which he copies down carefully all the books he wants to read. The list includes authors, publishers, dates, and significant quotations. He reads these out to me. When he has finished all these books, he will find more titles listed in the back of them. Then he will come back again with another list. He said he’s on an endless journey of thinking. These days though, he needs a sleep every now and again as well. Then he wakes up and is off again. He found four good books today. All history. He loves history – all that going back in time, looking at what happened. Twice he left and came back with something he forgot to tell me. Again to recommend a certain book to me. Again to lend me a book worth reading. He is generous, joyous, and wonderful.

Artwork by Peter de Seve

Reading in Winter

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Louis came back.

He wanted Marcel Proust, Alain de Botton, Jared Diamond, Karen Armstrong and Saul Bellow.

Louis walks slowly but reads fast. He has parked some way down the street and later, I help him with the books, pack the shining bundles into the back seat with the old suitcase and the eggs. He says, thanks very much, indeed, yes, for the winter reading. I love winter, it’s for reading. I’ll get that Shakespeare out you know, it’s been put to the back again.

As though his library was alive and doing things behind his back. Which they do.

When he arrived, he had stopped at the counter and breathed deeply a few times. He always does this, he says it’s to get in the stride of things. Of reading, which is active, chaotic and shattering, especially if you read like Louis.

He says I talk too fast. When I said, here are the Primo Levis you wanted, he says, wait, which ones are they? I’ll tell you why I wanted these. He tells me a story of reading and love.

When I say, here is the Botton book you wanted (about Proust), he says, oh yes, now I need Proust of course. Wait, tell me more about Botton, is he Swiss or French? He sounds French. But I heard he is British. I heard he is amazing. Remind me.

He also reminds me not to talk too fast.

He wants to read about Gandhi. He wants the best biography there is. He says that biographers are artists, artists of the world, artist of us, we MUST consider them. He lists  all the biographies of Mahatma Gandhi he has already read. It sounds like all of them to me. But it isn’t. It isn’t enough: there is another. He holds out his hands, making a cradle that rocks gently, perfection.

I agree, I will find it. He says, there is always time.

Then, finally, he turns to go, but only after an interview that detailed Karen Armstrong, Elaine Pagels, (The Gnostic Gospels), A History of Water, who wrote that? Who wrote The History of Insanity? I saw it somewhere. Tell me about Barchester Towers, I saw it as a series, had the guy from Harry Potter in it, brilliant. Is it a series? I tell him it is, thousands of pages, a commitment, and Louis straightens up, tall with joy.

He will go home, lit with passion, for reading, for history, the earth, mistakes, insanity, water, salt and sand, Gandhi, why and when, how.

 

 

That’s just beaut!

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A customer ordered The Cathedral Builders by Jean Gimpel. This is because he had read The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett and needed to know more. As much as possible. He told me about stone and stone blocks and builders and tools, the designing and carving and balancing and how they knew what to do with light, and about carving; that was just magic!

I said I’d try to find one. He said, that was beaut, that with the internet and everything it was marvelous what books you could find these days. He couldn’t wait to get it, he’d read about it, how it was the best one to explain how cathedrals were built. He asked me to please post it to Cummins, that he was going home to his farm and had a lot of stone breaking to do. That anyone who said there was no stone in the ground at Cummins was wrong, it was everywhere. He had some long days ahead of him, probably wouldn’t be off the tractor until 8pm for a while but that still left a bit of daylight for reading about cathedrals.

Marble carving by Mathew Simmonds

Rome

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There is a new customer here today, a child, a boy who has sat reading though three volumes of Minecraft while his mother is in plays and poetry. He eventually came to the counter and held up the books. He said that his brother reads them but really only looks at the pictures. He smiles at me, thinking  of someone so little as to only look at the pictures.

He tells me that Minecraft is about Vikings and swords and armour and trading. You have to trade. He says that it’s history without you knowing. His face is lit with ideas and kindness, wanting to share, hoping I would get it. He said that reading the Minecraft books made him want to read Emily Rodda and Rowan.

He tells me there are stones and ropes and you have to help yourself, it’s about the old days and it’s clever. Some kids just play it. But you have to know that it’s history without saying it. I know about the history. Then you will get it. You can build with it, build things like Rome.