Tasmania

Hobart & Port Arthur

8 December 2009

 

I’m drinking beer in Knopwood’s Retreat, an old Hobart tavern. Stained glass panels over the burnished wood bar depict rocky coastline, ice floes, and rough seas. But outside, the waters of Sullivan’s Cove are calm. It’s December, summer in Tasmania. Pennants hang limply from the rigging of docked fishing boats. Novelist Richard Flanagan, acclaimed master of the “Tasmanian gothic,” brought me here because he wants me to see where he first learned of one of the strangest chapters in Tasmania’s strange history. Flanagan is tall, of trim muscular build, and walks with a swagger. He smiles mischievously and his eyes light up when he’s in the grip of telling a story, which is often.

 

An unwashed “old drunk” came over to him one night while he was in Knoppie’s and said he had a story for him.  “Look,” Flanagan crooks his finger toward the shadows near a now cold fireplace. “He was sitting just there.” Flanagan downs his pot of beer—a small glass—and wipes his mouth with his hand. He’s silent for a moment and frowns at the empty pot. Then he fixes me with his clear blue eyes and leans in over the table. “He didn’t remember the details, only that there was a plan to set up a Jewish state near Port Davey in the southwest.” At the end of the world, in a remote corner of Tasmania, Europe’s Jews were to have been resettled in a utopian city-state. A man went out to survey the territory. Something went wrong. That would-be Moses—Critchley Parker Junior—followed a heavenly summons into the bush and never returned. It wasn’t the first time the promise of Tasmania had ended in misery.

 

Due to the island’s notorious convict past, Tasmanians are the children of failure. In the verdant green of the so-called “isle of Sodom,” prisoners faced a grim life of servitude, hard labor, dank cells, and corporal punishment. The brick ruins of the Port Arthur Penal Settlement, about sixty miles from Hobart, testify to the suffering convicts endured. But those who reformed themselves through good behavior could be granted a ticket-of-leave enabling them to make a new life for themselves in the colony.

 

One of the most famous resident criminals in the nineteenth century was the Jewish Ikey Solomon, a London fence for stolen goods. A young Dickens is thought to have witnessed Solomon’s trial in London and was certainly aware of Solomon’s exploits. He was fictionalized as the “villainous-looking and repulsive” Fagin "the Jew" in Oliver Twist. Following his deportation in 1831, Solomon was jailed in Port Arthur, and after earning his ticket-of-leave he remained in Tasmania until his death in 1850.

 

Flanagan and I later head over to his spacious Victorian home. The house was formerly a girls’ orphanage and is painted a cheery yellow. Pink blossoms adorn the picket fence. Inside, the wood floors creak with age. Flan leads me down to his dirt-floor cellar to drink what he calls “bootleg Slivovitz.” He stoops beneath the low, beamed ceiling while we knock back a few shots and discuss Steinberg and Parker. He thinks of them as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, but as I point out, Theodor Herzl’s vision for a reborn Jewish nation in Palestine was no less fantastic. He claps me on the shoulder in a fatherly way and tells me: “Reality was never made by realists, it’s made by dreamers.”  

 

Hobart

11 December 2009

 

I visit Australia’s oldest synagogue, built in 1843, in downtown Hobart. The squat pinkish Egyptian Revival structure with trapezoidal windows stands out against the drab buildings that surround it.  Inside, you can still see the simple benches with numbered spots reserved for transported convicts. Ikey Solomon became a member of the congregation after he was freed.

 

I stumble upon a nearby Japanese tea house and walk inside to get out of the damp. A man wearing an orange, raw-silk scarf plays a bamboo flute in the entranceway. He has beige-blond hair and wears oversized black plastic Buddy Holly glasses. I soon recognize him as Brian Ritchie, one of the founding members of the post-punk band The Violent Femmes. Now in his late forties, Ritchie is a self-proclaimed misanthrope, but more friendly than I’d expect from a rocker whose band was known to spit on audience members during their high-energy live shows. He and his wife, Varuni, relocated from New York a few years earlier—refugees from Bush 2, they explain. When I tell him that I’ve come to research the effort to establish a Jewish settlement in Tasmania, he laments the absence of bagels and pastrami in Hobart. Then he invites me to accompany him to a concert featuring a group of Somali asylum seekers now living in the capital.

 

Before the show, Ritchie and Varuni and I have dinner and drinks at an upscale pizzeria with David Walsh, a publicity-shy mathematical savant. Walsh made millions developing algorithms to bet on horse races around the world. A working class child who grew up in the wrong side of Mt. Wellington’s shadow, today he owns a large estate and winery. The compound, Moorilla, was founded in the 1950s by a wealthy half-Jewish refugee from Mussolini’s Italy. Now lord of the manor, Walsh has used his wealth to assemble a collection of contemporary and ancient artworks that treat themes of sex and death, his twin obsessions. Walsh has messy grayish hair and a trimmed beard. The frames of his glasses are sloppily mended with glue near the cracked plastic nose bridge. He speaks in short, declarative sentences and only furtively looks me in the eye. Within about thirty seconds of meeting him, it’s clear he has some form of autism. But that’s the last time in our conversation when I feel I’m a step ahead of him. Less than a minute later, he tells me he is in fact autistic and has trouble picking up social cues.

            “I figured that,” I said.

            “Good,” he says, “then you’re not full of shit.”

 

At first, I think Walsh might just like being provocative, the bravado of an adolescent misfit. Then, after a few glasses of wine, he speaks disarmingly about his struggles to make his genius palatable, and it seems to me that he’d sometimes prefer to be, well, normal. Or at least to know what normal feels like. He describes the 10,000-square-foot partially subterranean museum, MONA, which he’s building. At Ritchie’s prodding, I describe my research to Walsh. He seems to approve of my history of failed visions of the future.

            “Yes, the data points are not all considered,” he mutters.

 

I’m not sure I follow, so he explains with a hypothetical: if 250 studies are published demonstrating that smoking is harmful, then he knows by mathematical supposition that some studies have failed to connect smoking with health risks, and that these null results remain unpublished in file drawers around the world. This problem of publication bias means that the stories we tell ourselves about cause and effect are just that, stories. They don’t add up to the whole story. I gather that Walsh thinks of my history of territorialism’s failures as a corrective, akin to a journal of scientific papers demonstrating negative outcomes.

 

I don’t have time to ask him if I’ve fully understood because we’re late to the show and are led to our seats in the darkened theater by ushers with flashlights. The concert, featuring the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and a D.J. backing young Somali rappers, is already underway. No doubt I’m the only one thinking that had a Jewish settlement arose in Tasmania’s southwest, the Symphony’s musicians might today be the descendants of Yiddish-speaking Eastern European immigrants. 

 

Port Davey

12 December 2009

 

I’m a bit hung-over early in the morning after my night out with Ritchie and Walsh. I grab some coffee and fruitcake at a food truck for dockworkers and head to the aerodrome to catch the single-engine plane I’ve chartered to fly out to Melaleuca along with my guide, Ian. He’s rangy, sharp-featured, and quick to smile, though sparing of words. The plane hugs the coast south and west. A green sea crashes on rocky cliffs below. Scrubland spreads out from the coast. Storm fronts race over the distant mountain ranges and the plane bucks and yaws as we head into a valley towards the white Melaleuca airstrip made from the stone slurry of tin mining and crushed sea shells.

 

After we get our gear together and find Ian’s boat, we watch the plane take off overhead as we cruise up Melaleuca Inlet. Critchley foresaw a Jewish city arising upon the Inlet’s boggy banks. The landscape is stark and desolate. Brush tumbles down to the edges of the tannic water. Small forest-dwelling wallabies called pademelons scatter through the damp brush around us. Ian tells me these mini-kangaroos are tasty. 

 

We enter the vast Bathurst Harbor, which is calm today, though gale-force winds commonly sweep over its surface. Mist-covered peaks stand sentinel to the north. Clouds race overhead and red-beaked black swans soar past us as we enter the narrows of Bathurst Channel west towards Port Davey. When we’re finally within sight of Mount Mackenzie, its summit quickly disappears from view as the gray skies unleash a torrential downpour. Fat stinging drops pelt us.

 

Ian beaches our pontoon boat on the gravel of the small cove where Critchley landed in 1942. The spot is now called Parker Bay. He ties the boat to a sturdy, gnarled tree and we scramble up a steep bank and hike around the water’s edge. Melaleucas, celery-top pines, and bottlebrush trees crowd sheltered ravines. Here Critchley lay sheltered from the howling wind and dreamed his dreams of a modernist Jewish city-state. I stand in the same spot looking out at the unchanged mournful vista, under the same portentous sky.