Monday, April 10, 2006

In a novel light

April 1, 2006

Dugald Jellie takes a literary tour of Hobart.

'PARDON the stench." It's Tom Gilling's introduction to a Hobart Town of 1812 - a clipped first sentence to a magical first novel, The Sooterkin, with rancid whale blubber, oil and piles of guts spilled on flooded, dark-muddied, stinking streets. "Last week a squid was found swimming in the harbourmaster's basement."

Enough to make you squeal. So richly Dickensian, so ripe, this picture of the former whaling port, our second-oldest city, written up with such vital pungency it ensures I pack a handkerchief. Who knows what colonial odours linger, what's encountered when stepping back into the fiction of Van Diemen's Land.

For two days in Hobart - a place Thomas Wood in Cobbers (1934) says "has the air of an English country town which has shed its old houses and wandered down to the sea for a rest" - I wish to discover this southernmost capital through the eyes of its writers. I want to be lost in the true travel of literature. Visit what others have observed, from Bryce Courtenay, to Patrick White's A Fringe of Leaves, as a journey through books and streets.

Beginning in a jam factory. "The jam factory on the Hobart wharves," in Richard Flanagan's Death of a River Guide, where the protagonists' mother sticks labels on pineapple and melon jam tins. They say the aroma was so strong locals knew when apricots or plums were being boiled up.

Henry Jones & Co was the firm, the famed IXL brand-name derived from Henry's quip: "I excel at the products I make". A household label in the British Empire during World War I, it was processed in the 1820s Georgian sandstone warehouses on the Old Wharf, wherefrom the city's earliest immigrants arrived, tea was imported from China, spices from India, nails from England, and jams, jellies and canned fruit dispatched to the world.

Melbourne businessman John Elliott in 1972 gutted the headquarters, the factory dormant until redeveloped recently into Hobart's newest cultural precinct. It's easy spending an entire morning here drinking coffee, reading newspapers, eating, looking at huon, sassafras and myrtle furnishings, buying art and admiring old jam labels.

Near Victoria Dock is the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, with an important John Glover collection and an affecting installation on the Tasmania tiger - the subject of Julia Leigh's taut debut novel, The Hunter.

A TV monitor within a chicken-wire cage screens the only known moving footage of the thylacine, the last known of which died in Hobart Zoo on September 7, 1936. Grainy film shows a distressed animal in a woefully small run. It's saddening how poorly the welfare of this species was regarded. Our largest native predatory marsupial, driven to extinction and now reduced to the State's coat-of-arms, used on official government merchandising, or to sell beer.

Patrick White's fictional characters Austin and Ellen Roxburgh arrived in Hobart Town in 1835 to find "a shrouded mountain looming over all". The town was "buffeted by wind, between the mountain which presided over man's presumptuous attempt at a town, and the shirred waters of the grey river rushing toward its fate, the sea".

Soft rain falls as I leave the gallery. A scrim of mist blurs Mount Wellington. Already I see its moods, its mouldy weather. I seek refuge in bookshops.

Fullers in Collins Street has the city's richest history. Novelist Christopher Koch had his first job here, writing it into his 1985 work The Doubleman as "Varley's", where "the basement was a gloomy place, yet I rather liked it; I welcomed excuses to escape down here from serving the customers: Darcy and I lurked here like trolls, and furtively read the books".

It's a fine bookshop, with the upstairs Afterword Cafe serving delicious snacks. But Astrolabe Booksellers at Salamanca Place is suited better to my escape, with rare volumes such as the cumbrously-titled A Geographical, Historical and Topographical Description of Van Diemen's Land - with important hints to immigrants and useful information respecting the application for grants of land (1822). The island's earliest travel guide, perhaps.

Proprietor Michael Sprod points me to the 1846 Shipwright's Arms Hotel in nearby Battery Point, for which I am grateful. It's dinnertime and the bangers'n'mash are just the ticket, washed down with a Cascade (they've five on tap: lager, light, pale ale, draught and stout). A rainbow spans the Derwent in saffron light. Oh, my goodness, Hobart is beautiful.

Next morning I'm on the first bus to Fern Tree and stride up Mount Wellington in double-time. A thick pea-soup fog - or maybe leek and potato - pulls in as I approach the flat-topped summit.

My view from the top is reliant entirely on memory of Glover's 1831 oil-on-canvas landscape, The Derwent River and Hobart Town.

There's no time to call at the Female Factory near the Cascade Brewery in South Hobart, written into Courtenay's best-selling The Potato Factory. The Mercury Print Museum in Macquarie Street awaits, chronicling a paper first published in 1854, described later by novelist Roy Bridges (once a cub reporter) as a "rotten sweatrag".

I return afterward to the deep-water wharf on the "neat flat river", as poet Vivian Smith wrote, for a seafood lunch at Mures, a local favourite. Seagulls quarrel outside among trawlers and spiralled tea-tree craypots. Blue eye and farmed Atlantic salmon are on the menu. I order pink ling.

Much of the afternoon is spent following Richard Flanagan's Gould's Book of Fish, inspired by William Gould's circa 1832 convict Sketchbook of Fishes in Macquarie Harbour, housed at the Allport Library. The book is in Canberra when I visit, loaned to a touring exhibition and at other times mostly put away. But four Gould watercolours of plants, all bought at Sotheby's recently, are hung in a botanical art exhibition until April 21.

Time's running out. The Theatre Royal is a must-see, opened in 1837 among tanneries, abattoirs, a soap factory; Australia's oldest, where Sir Laurence Olivier in 1948 acted in The School for Scandal and later reminisced: "The audiences were warm and wonderful and the ovations staggering." The building was thankfully saved from demolition in the early 1950s by, among others, Hal Porter. It remains a 750-seat monument to high Victorian make-believe.

From Campbell Street's dip it's a long walk up to North Hobart. Thank goodness for the Republic Bar. At first I miss it, walk straight passed, doubling-back in hot mid-afternoon sun. Inside is a haven; funky, smoke-free, and with seven beers on tap. A sign says it was licensed in 1831 as the Rose, rebuilt in 1921 as the Empire, and known from 1997 as the Republic, which everyone seems happy about.

The barman shouts me a beer and tells a story. He says he's in Flanagan's Gould's Book of Fish as a character, that the author lives nearby and drinks here often. Certainly the pub's in the novel, where Sid Hammer loses his mystical book after leaving it on the bar.

Now it's last drinks and in honeydew light I neck a pint of Boag's lying on lush grass in Salamanca Square. It's Friday night and I think if I found a woman who'd join me I'd move here in a flash. Catch the first boat down.

Soon after I meet a river guide who once took me down the Franklin and join him in a courtyard where musicians play to a full house. It's a carnival, everybody unwinding at week's end. In the crowd I'm introduced to a man I'd tried to interview before my arrival and whose writings for two days I have followed. Richard Flanagan. He is pleased to meet up. I show him a painting I had bought from a student artist. We talk of his brother. He wants to take me to an authentic Hobart pub, get me on the turps. It's too bad I've a bus to catch to the airport.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nice essay, if slightly overwritten. Unusual to read a piece on Hobart that you don't feel like correcting.