Diversionary Tactics: Going Nowhere, Getting Somewhere
The legendary blues singer, Robert Johnson, was blessed: he came to a crossroads just once in his life.
Me, I’m not so lucky. Not only am I anything but a great musician – Johnson became a blues god when he supposedly sold his soul to the devil – but I keep stumbling across them.
Crossroads, that is.
Since submitting my thesis, I’ve been beset by doubts and distractions. Should I expand my story into a novel or should I leave well alone? Should I stay on the straight and narrow or widen my horizons?
Should I go this way or that?
My journal, poor suffering soul, bears witness to my meandering missteps.
They begin in mid-October, when, buoyed and emboldened by my thesis-writing experience, I get side-tracked by the Faber novel-writing scholarship, and an application I never submit.
Within days I’m eyeing a different diversion. Having just received confirmation of my aboriginal ancestry, I contemplate applying for an Indigenous Coffee Creative grant, even though I’ve already started exploring my ambivalence in an essay I think I might enter in the Kill Your Darlings non-fiction prize.
It’s easy now to look back over my life and see supposed signs of my ‘aboriginality’. There are the unexplained affinities I’ve felt with certain people and places. The bush, for example. Ever since I spent two years in western Queensland as a kid, I’ve been drawn to the land. And not just in the abstract way most white Australians always have been…
I don’t – apply for the grant or finish the essay. Instead I stumble on, staying, for the moment, on the beaten path.
Within a week I’m toying with pursuing writing as a profession, by enrolling in a Master of Writing.
Mastering that impulse, I impetuously take the next turn, writing three stories: one for the Neilma Sidney prize (not submitted), one a titillating tale, one a work of flash fiction.
He asked for whisky because he remembered he’d liked it, long ago. There was some argy-bargy at the bar over how he wanted it, so he wandered off, finding himself in the beer garden, which was half-full with men and women and music. He planted himself in a corner, next to some plants. Dumping his backpack on the table, he began to go through it, looking for a clue. Before long, a woman in black brought him a glass. On the house, she said, with a wink. He stared at her and used his new powers to freeze her where she stood. Not his type, he decided. Tucking a credit card into the top of her skirt, he let her go, with a wink. She went quickly, stopping in the doorway to study him. Funny, he thought. The further she got from him the closer to her he felt.
Dazed and dishevelled, I duck back on to the main drag.
In mid-November I come to yet another crossroads: Podcast Parade. Making the turn, I pen poems and scraps of piano music for ‘Bitter Sweet Nothings’, an audio work I park when I discover I don’t have the ability or equipment to produce it.
Then I get my study results, which are good enough to send me scurrying down another side alley. Before long I’ve submitted an adaptation of my exegesis to Island magazine. (No response as yet.)
Returning to the high street, I briefly consider becoming a teacher, having had some success at work as a coach, and then an entrepreneur, having fallen under the spell of some of my sillier ideas.
The devil being only in the detail, I move on.
Finally, in early December, I reach my last junction (for now); on one side lies writing as a craft, on the other writing as a hobby. Unswayed by either option, I plod back to the present.
The truth about Robert Johnson’s turning point is now lost in legend. As he left his crossroads (real or imagined) did he know where he was going? Or was his subsequent success an unknown destination, recognised only when it was reached?
The key to life, I suppose, is to keep on walking, eyes on the horizon, going nowhere in the hope of getting somewhere. Only later, looking back, does the path become clear.
Until then, my fate lies in the lap of the gods.
Unless I decide to play the blues, of course, in which case my destiny is in the hands of the devil.
[Photo by Mike Enerio on Unsplash]
Making the Crossing: Roy Bridges, Tasmania and Me
Almost a century ago, in 1926, the popular Tasmanian-born writer, Roy Bridges, arrived in England for an extended stay, having just published his seventeenth novel. He had been living in Melbourne with his sister, secretary, and housekeeper, Hilda (herself a successful author) since 1909. The death of their mother, however, had broken up their home, and Roy’s restlessness – his ‘nervous curse’, as he later called it – sent him on his way across the seas.
Roy’s visit to Britain, his first, allowed him to reunite with long-lost friends, to meet with his publisher, and to see the land whose history and literature he had revered since childhood. It gave him a chance, as well, to experience new ways of living, thinking and writing, and an opportunity, crucially, to make a fresh start.
And yet by the end of the year, Roy was on the boat back to Australia, driven out of England by the loneliness and depression that had afflicted him in London, and by the demons that had finally overcome him on a visit to York. Roy’s hasty retreat heralded the beginning of the end – the end of his attempt to break with the past: his own and that of his home state, Tasmania, which loomed large in his imagination.
Within ten years Roy would be a captive on the ‘prison island’. For, in 1936, he retired with Hilda to the family farm in southern Tasmania, where, isolated, impoverished and unwell, he wrote his remaining eight novels – several concerned with the cruelty of the island’s convict past – and scores of letters in which he bemoaned his fate and his declining literary fortunes. There he lived out his final days, dying, in Hobart in 1952, unfulfilled and largely forgotten.
As I set out a year ago to write Roy’s story – my story about ‘Roy’ – I decided I wouldn’t make the same mistake. Like Roy, I was dogged by demons and haunted by the past; like Roy, I was faced with a dilemma: stay and stay safe or go and confront my fears; like Roy, I chose to go. Unlike Roy, however, I have not retreated.
In February I moved to Brisbane from Hobart. It was the bravest thing I’ve ever done. It was also the most selfish – I left my family behind, after all. (They join me here soon.) And yet it was also the best thing I’ve ever done. By going it alone and making a new life in a place filled with bitter memories, I’ve faced and overcome many of my fears. Most importantly, I know now that I can live with myself, and thus that I’m fit to live with others.
I know, too, that I can be the kind of writer I want to be. This year I made not only the crossing (from Tasmania to the mainland), but ‘The Crossing’ (my honours thesis). I made my story and I made it to my liking. In doing so, I re-made myself – something, it seems, Roy Bridges wasn’t able to do. It’s an act I hope will rewrite my ending, leaving me feeling less unfulfilled than Roy, if no less forgotten.
Mind Games: A Crash Course in Staying the Course
Coleopterology. It’s a word that scores a minimum of 22 points in Scrabble and refers to the study of beetles.
Sadly, there’s no term for the study of the Beatles – Beatleology is just a made-up word (boo, hiss!) and scores only 17 in Scrabble – but that hasn’t stopped musicologists concocting a system which pegs Paul as the happy Beatle, George as the holy one and Ringo as the hedonistic one. (Pete Best is the has-Beatle.)
As for John, he’s always been seen as the brainy Beatle. This view (confirmed by the shape of his specs) is based on the fact that J-Lenn (a) wrote books, (b) penned some pretty deep lyrics, and (c) lay around pondering world peace, undisturbed by anyone except his wife, a few celebrity friends and a roomful of reporters.
Lennon’s main claim to fame – for the purpose of this post, at least – is his song ‘Mind Games’, which he recorded in 1973. It’s a cruisy number that peaked at eighteen on the US charts.
As good as it is, though, the best thing about the tune is its title. Mind games – they’re what I’ve been playing for the last eight months.
Yes, this post is actually all about me.
It’s also (briefly) about grizzlies. Everyone knows that a bear with its paw caught in a trap will chew off its own limb rather than let its porridge go cold. Pop Will Eat Itself never covered Lennon’s song, but those musos do tell us something basic about the brain: that the organ at the top will eat itself if it doesn’t have some other bone to gnaw on.
A year ago, as my regular reader – can you hear me, Major Tom? – might remember, I gave myself something meaty to munch on mentally: postgraduate study. Hot on a hunch, I enrolled in a two-year Honours course at the whizbang University of Vandemonia, scoring myself a bonus 21 points (for ‘scholarship’).
So, as my first year fizzles out, how have I done? Have I eaten myself out of head and home? Or have I dined out on the ‘mind games’ of study, preserving my sanity and keeping myself out of a psychological pickle?
Well, the short answer is yes – or rather affirmative (22 points). Study has saved me from myself. My course has helped me stay the course, as a full-time worker-dude, a half-decent dad and a sub-par music-maker. Mission accomplished!
And yet it’s done much more than that, of course. Being an extreme sport, study has forced me to learn and write a whole buncha stuff from and for a whole buncha bright sparks. Wow!
Here’s what I’ve learned. Firstly, that something has been hidden in plain sight from me for twenty-odd years: Tasmania and its stories. And, moreover, that in this something I’ve found myself a field of study, a source of material and inspiration, and, dare I say it, a home for my head as well as my heart.
Having stumbled on to this path, I know now what I want to be doing. I want to be reading and writing about ‘the wandering islands’, to purloin a phrase from the poet, A.D. Hope, himself a once-were Tasmanian.
I’ve learnt other things too: that Tasmania isn’t one island but many, on the map and in the mind, and that although I work in the passport office helping others to travel, I belong in the world of words and ideas, where real books and not insipid little travel documents are the key to all countries.
(That’s nice, dear, but where’s my passport?)
Pesky travel permits aside, here’s what I’ve pumped out over the past eight months.
Proposals, plans and presentations aplenty, for a start. Half have been about my thesis topic (which, for the record, is ‘Tasmanian-ness’ and the lives and literary fortunes of Roy and Hilda Bridges).
Hang in there!
First I put together an annotated bibliography, thesis plan (‘Building Bridges: Displacement and the British Literary Diaspora’) and a presentation.
Later I wrote a proposal for my exegesis (the theoretical part of my thesis, which will itself be a work of fiction), followed by the exegesis itself (‘No Book is an Island: “Tasmanian-ness” and the Life and Literary Fortunes of Royal “Roy” Bridges’).
Along the way I wrote a critical review and a travel essay (‘A Room (and Tomb) of One’s Own: Revisiting and Re-evaluating “My Northwest Passage”‘), as well as another essay on a topic in Tasmanian literature. Then, just for a change, I prepared a proposal for a podcast, which I produced (‘Foreign Correspondent’).
See what I mean? Study has pushed me to do the seemingly impossible – to write and learn lotsa stuff and to stay on the straight and narrow.
Mind games, hey. Keep on playing them and, as the brainy Beatle says, you’ll make an ‘absolute elsewhere in the stones of your mind’.
Or, failing that, 15 points in Scrabble.
Open, Sesame: Homi K. Bhabha, Hybridity and Me
Remember Ali Baba?
He’s the hero of a famous story from The Arabian Nights, the one in which a poor woodcutter (that’s Ali) finds his way into a treasure cave having overheard its keepers (that’s the Forty Thieves) using the password. After taking a little of the loot for himself, Baba shares the command with his brother (that’s Cassim), who utters it himself, drawing back the door and connecting the cave with the world.
I’ve just had a similar experience myself, as it happens, but I got my password from a Baba of a different kind.
I’ve been sick, you see. Not as sick as some, that’s for sure, and yet sick enough to be room-ridden for a month. Normally I’d have been a mess, mentally as well as physically, and my virtual isolation would have hit me hard. I would have seen it as time out of life, as a state of being at odds with my everyday existence.
You know the mentality I mean. It’s the kind of thinking that puts things in opposing camps, compulsively conjuring up dichotomies. Well or unwell. Happy or sad. Hermit or socialite. Loser or legend. It’s like being the ‘living double of a single fiction’, as the more eloquent Elvis (Costello, that is) aptly puts it.
Normally, then, I’d have seen my illness as sign and put an end to my activities. I’m a bipolar being, after all, and opposites attract. And yet I didn’t – thanks, oddly enough, to a literary critic called Homi K. Bhabha.
I met my Baba early in the university year, when I borrowed a book of his essays. I was trying (and failing) to flesh out my skeletal understanding of postcolonial studies, a field that Bhabha, along with two other luminaries, is credited with creating.
In his book, The Location of Culture, Bhabha takes issue with ‘binary logic’, the mode of thought usually associated with the colonial mindset (and with me). He offers, instead, a different interpretation of the imperial past and present.
The colonial realm, Bhabha argues, does not simply give rise to and reinforce ‘parochial polarities’, as many believe. By acting as an in-between place where back-and-forth movement causes ‘domains of difference’ to overlap, the subjugated space ‘opens up the possibility of a cultural hybridity’.
Bhabha’s words came back to me as I lay sick and despairing. Although I wasn’t quite sure what they meant, I said them nonetheless, drawing back the door and connecting my cave with the world.
In doing so I escaped my bipolar mindset. It’s possible, I realised, to be both happy and sad, hermit and socialite, loser and legend. And, yes, I could even be well and unwell at the same time and thus keep my dreams alive. Knowing this, I started studying from my sickbed, ultimately acing my essays and making a success of the semester.
I uttered the password and it opened my mind.
Ali Baba’s brother, Cassim, isn’t so lucky. He forgets the command that would free him from the cave. Unable to escape, he is captured by the robbers, who cut his body into four quarters, ‘to hang two on one side, and two on the other, inside the door of the cave, to terrify any person who might attempt the same thing’.
Without the password Cassim is a man divided. His is a state – and a fate – I hereafter hope to avoid, in sickness and in health.
[Drawing by Joan Kiddell-Monroe]
The (Less) Lost Legionnaire: Music, Family and Home
Yesterday I came home.
Dispirited after a day at work, I’d put away my bike and plodded down the path to the front door of the house, where I was met by my seven-year-old daughter, who gripped me in a long hard hug.
‘Dad,’ she said. ‘Do you want to play duets?’
Hear ye, hear ye: music is one of the three best things. The symphony orchestra, for a start, is hard to top. Then there’s the piano, that band in a box, and my musical tube of choice, the trumpet, an ancient instrument first sounded by seven angels.
I’d wanted to be a musician ever since my tune-infested teens, when I dreamed of making sounds like those I struck in the symphonies of Sibelius and the songs of Led Zeppelin.
It was then, too, that I started to feel like a lost legionnaire – a solitary soul wandering the earth in search of home, a conscript separated from his comrades in the last great battle, a disastrous defeat. I’d felt alone and adrift ever since.
Well, less so now.
Yesterday, like Julius Caesar, who in 49 BC was neither lost nor a legionnaire, I crossed the rubicon, to the same sounding of trumpets that heralded the uncrowned king’s fateful deed.
The die was cast on the doorstep of my house, as I stood in the arms of my daughter.
’Sure,’ I said. ‘Let’s play duets.’
Soon we were tripping through our favourite tunes. Later my son joined us on trombone and we played music of my own making: a little trio called ‘The Lost Legionnaire’.
Hear ye, hear ye: never has this legionnaire been less lost.
In music the home key is the aural space to which sound gravitates. In life – in my life – the key to home is music. Music and the other two best things: my daughter and son.
Empty Vessel No More: Coming Back to (University) Life
So, I’m a student again.
How the hell did that happen?
The usual way. I applied, somewhat blindly, to study Honours at a local university, unsure about my thesis topic and even about my discipline. I mean, how could I choose between literature, creative writing and history?
In the end I didn’t have to. I managed to nab myself a scholarship, one that came with a project attached. Over the next couple of years I’ll be studying the papers of two of Tasmania’s most prolific and unheralded authors (who happen to be siblings).
Fortuitously, the project encompasses my three loves. Coursework aside, I’ll have to produce a thesis (creative writing), exegesis (mostly literary criticism) and some kind of public program (history).
Somehow I chanced upon my holy grail.
What does it mean, being a student again?
That I can’t redraft this blog post to death, for a start. (Not such a bad thing.) I just don’t have the time.
What it really means is that I can live a richer life again – which is ironic because study is costly, scholarship or no scholarship.
Remember the discredited diagram that purports to depict the teaching/learning process? The one that shows a teacher tipping information into a student’s open head?
Well, that’s how I feel, as silly as it sounds. I feel full again – full of ideas and excitement. Full of life.
Take the past week. I’ve had seminars on research and on writing an exegesis. I’ve been reading about and reflecting on literature and history; travel writing, colonialism and displacement.
I’ve been mixing with writers too, having been to workshops led by an acclaimed local author. It’s been immensely inspiring, all the thought and talk about books and writing. It’s brought me back to life.
Returning to study has reopened my mind, and the ideas are already flooding in. Like the kid in the picture, I’m an empty vessel no more.
The next question is: will I drown in the deluge?
The Boy Who Didn’t Want To Be: A Chance Encounter
Stick around – the world needs sensitive people like you.
That’s what I told a suicidal kid in the park today.
I was there with family and friends. The boy was there alone, earbuds in, bike at his feet.
I saw him watching so I wandered over, offering him sushi and a sympathetic ear.
Passing on the first, he asked shyly if he could tell me something – something he hadn’t told anyone else.
Of course, I said.
And that’s when he told me that he didn’t want to be around anymore, that he was scared because he’d been making threats to people online, people who’d been making him feel bad.
Taken aback, I trotted out the usual clichés. He nodded like he’d heard it all before.
We talked until he said he had to go, to meet his dad, by the bridge.
As we shook hands I blurted it out: Stick around – the world needs sensitive people like you.
Even as I said it I had my doubts. And yet I could see I’d finally given him something to think about.
Only later, after the boy had gone, did it occur to me that maybe I was right. The world, it seems, does need sensitive people – if only to comfort each other in the park.
Write to Life: How I Added a Twist to My Tale
November is traditionally the month when writers everywhere set about penning a novel from scratch. Not me though; I’m neither daring nor desperate enough to attempt that sort of stunt. Besides, I’ve been too busy writing other things: lots of bits and pieces that don’t amount to very much.
Or do they?
Here’s the thing: the novel is an ultra-accommodating art-form, the literary equivalent of an open house. ‘Wonderfully omnivorous, capable of assimilating all kinds of nonfictional discourses’ is how the novelist and critic, David Lodge, once described it.
In its time the novel has taken in all sorts of strays. Whole works are based on fictitious letters and diaries – Pamela and I Capture the Castle spring to my mind – and any number of novels feature other types of texts, everything from shopping lists to court reports.
Looking back at the tail-end of 2020 again, I reckon I might have written a novel without even knowing it…
The story is told through the scribblings of its protagonist, a wannabe writer like me. (I’ll call him Will even if you won’t.) It starts with a poem.
I’m not dying
I feel close to death.
my body lives on
while so weak
my spirit seeks release
from a straitjacket
of self-hood borne
Will, it seems, is sad. And why not? It’s mid-winter and the pandemic is in full swing.
With the walls closing in Will tries to reach out. He starts penning blog posts, one about identity…
It’s one of the biggest decisions of our lives and we make it every day: who to be (or not to be).
… and one about illness.
So, I’m writing a novel – not because the world needs another one or because I’ve got something special to say, but simply because I’ve got a bad case of novelitis. I’ve had it for years and the condition is all but incurable.
But his thoughts turn to other things and he shelves the posts. Owing to Covid, the nature of his work has changed. He explains the situation in an email:
For now I remain in ‘redeployment’, my office having taken over the national helpline when demand for passports plummeted and call centre staff were sent to the Eastern Front (Human Services). Thus I spend all day on the phone, answering silly questions and being called the wrong name (Stuart, Kieran, Stan…)
Before long, though, the novelty of the situation has worn thin and boredom begins to set in. Will dreams about starting a business. Write to Life it’s called, and he drafts a proposal.
Creative writing brings us more than pleasure and publication: it can help us find ourselves and our place in the world. Write to Life is a program designed to help people of all ages achieve greater self-fulfilment through storytelling.
Will loves the idea – it’s a product of his own experience, after all. But he knows he’s not bold enough to give it a go.
His thoughts turn instead to university and to studying honours, something he’s long wanted to do. After weeks of preparation he applies for a scholarship, submitting an outline of a thesis topic.
Roy Bridges (1885-1952) is Tasmania’s most prolific novelist, having published thirty-six novels. He lived with his sister, Hilda (1881-1971), who wrote thirteen novels herself while acting as Roy’s amanuensis. Both were born in Hobart and formed a deep attachment to Woods’, the family farm near Sorell.
In 1933, after working on the mainland as a journalist, Roy returned, somewhat unwillingly, to Tasmania, thereby keeping a promise he had made to his family. He remained at Woods’ until his death, battling anxiety and loneliness as he and Hilda tried to restore and protect the property.
Will hopes to study the Bridges’ letters and manuscripts, many of which have been preserved. Displacement is to be his theme.
It’ll be months before he’ll learn if he’s been successful. In the meantime, though, Will wants to stay busy. He knows that boredom might bring on a breakdown.
He and his wife have talked for years about home improvements. Now, though, the situation is more serious, the family having outgrown its digs. Will decides to get the ball rolling. He contacts a designer who sends him a questionnaire. It’s important, the designer explains, to see if their values align.
We value modesty and simplicity, durability and functionality [Will writes]. Ideally, our new space will reflect and support these values . . . The history, personality and environmental impact of our house is as important to us as its monetary value and appearance.
They arrange to meet in the new year.
But Will is not done yet. He’s suddenly smitten by the prospect of a new job, in a different part of his department, a job that would require him to ‘think creatively and critically’ and would encourage him to ‘subvert the dominant paradigm’.
Will decides to show his suitability by writing his pitch for the position as a story. He calls it ‘Will Meets His Match: A Fairy Tale’.
Once upon a time there was a passport officer called Will. Although Will was good at his job – he foiled a serious fraudster in late 2020 while assessing applications – he knew he’d be better suited to some other work. To something involving ideas.
It’s a gamble that pays off. Will wins himself an interview, which goes well. (The interviewer even claims to love Will’s blog.) Although he won’t know for weeks if he’s got the job, Will’s not worried. He’s living in a fairy tale, after all.
And that’s where we return to reality.
Okay, so I didn’t knock off a novel in November. I did, though, add a chapter to my life story, potentially adding a twist to the tale.
Thanks to the writing I did at the end of last year – some ‘creative’, some not – 2021 promises plenty.
Seeing Things Feelingly: Books, Climate Change and Me
Books – they’re a man’s best friend. Patient and eager to please, they lead us into the light.
I realised this recently while convalescing at home, the victim of an illness less of body than mind.
It started with a familiar feeling: I wanted to write – desperately, truly, madly – but I didn’t know what. As I sat and pondered the options, my eye fell on a magazine I’d been reading whose theme is topical.
Okay, I thought, here’s my chance to take a stance on a hot button issue, on the most pressing problem, they say, of our age.
So I settled back to give it some thought.
Gazing out at the clouds racing across the sky – as if I could see the climate changing and not just the weather – I tried to make sense of my impressions.
I’m aware, first of all, of the scientific argument, neatly stated by NASA:
The planet’s average surface temperature has risen about 1.62 degrees Fahrenheit (0.9 degrees Celsius) since the late 19th century, a change driven largely by increased carbon dioxide and other human-made emissions into the atmosphere.
I know, too, of the consensus in scientific circles, the one in which ninety-seven percent (to be precise) of actively publishing climate scientists agree that ‘climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities’.
The evidence, I realised, should sway me, should spark outrage and action. And yet it doesn’t.
Then I remembered the news reports I’d read, the articles about displaced polar bears, besieged Pacific Islanders and smoke-swathed city-dwellers. Surely they tugged at my heart-strings?
Only a little. Truth be told, I sympathise with the sufferers without being truly touched.
Feeling sick at heart – am I some kind of monster? – I turned away from the window.
In desperation I looked to my bookshelves where, like a dog in waiting, one work leapt out at me: Peter Watson’s Ideas, a history of ideas ‘from fire to Freud’.
Unable to locate ‘climate change’ in the index, I turned at random to the chapter on romanticism. And there, in a book bought fifteen years ago but barely opened since, I found what I was looking for.
The real aim of romanticism, the underlying aim, had been set forth by Keats, who wrote poetry, he said, to ease ‘the burden of the mystery’ . . . Whereas the scientists tried – or hoped – to explain the mystery, the romantics relished it, made the most of it, used it in ways that many scientists could not, or would not, understand.
So, I thought with relief, I’m a romantic.
I mean, the signs are all there.
In my view the world can’t be analysed or fully explained; it can only be experienced directly or seen through a glass, darkly, reflected in the workings of the human mind.
Nature to me is more metaphor than model, even if the metaphor often used is that of a model. ‘We live in a world we create ourselves,’ the philosopher-poet, Johann Herder, once observed. (Herder him?)
Only the arts, I reckon, can ‘ascend to bring light and fire from those eternal regions where,’ Shelley wrote, ‘the owl-winged faculty of calculation dare not ever soar’.
I’ve said as much in a song:
You can cut it all up
And weigh it all out
But when you put it together again
You leave the meaning out
You can test all the theories
Check all the facts
And still the truth
Gonna slip through the cracks
(Nothin’ Adds Up)
Clearly I can’t rely on rationalists – scientists and journalists – to help me make sense of the world: they simply don’t speak my language. I have to look elsewhere for help.
Short of ideas, I turned back to the bookshelf.
This time a play jumped out of the pack: Shakespeare’s King Lear, a story wracked by a fabulous storm. I opened my Arden edition and began to read. Before long I found what I was looking for: ideas and images that made my impressions much clearer.
In Lear the heavens are in tumult because human affairs have fallen into disarray.
‘Nature finds itself scourg’d by the sequent effects,’ the Earl of Gloucester declares.
Love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide: in cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in palaces, treason; and the bond crack’d ‘twixt son and father.
Deceived by the fine false words of his two eldest daughters, Lear spurns the one who truly cares but flatters him not.
‘I love your Majesty/According to my bond,’ Cordelia tells him, ‘no more nor less.’
Having broken this bond, Lear is lost; assailed by wild and stormy weather, he wanders the heath, succumbing to madness. Later, when Cordelia is murdered, he dies.
Are we too doomed, I wondered. After all, aren’t we destroying that which sustains us, just like Lear?
But then I pondered the sub-plot of the play, which seemed to say something more. Can we not, I thought, take heart from Gloucester’s fate?
Blinded by egotism – he too has betrayed his one true child – the remorse-ridden Earl is led to the ‘brim’ of a cliff at Dover, where he leaps but does not fall, the actual edge of the precipice being a little way off. Thus is he reunited with his son.
Earlier on Gloucester had, with astonishing insight, given voice to my feelings.
‘Heavens, deal so still!’ he cried,
Let the superfluous and lust-dieted man,
That slaves your ordinance, that will not see
Because he does not feel, feel your power quickly
Greed, profligacy, heartlessness – is it any wonder nature rises against us?
Then, finally, there is Gloucester’s other implicit assertion: that by seeing things feelingly we can reconcile rationalism with romanticism and come to more fully appreciate what we have. This, and a little luck, might keep us one step ahead of oblivion – assuming, of course, that we are perched merely on the ‘brim’ of the precipice and not on its outermost edge.
Feeling better, I took my dog for a walk, safe in the knowledge that books are surely a man’s best best friend. For, unlike our furry favourites, literature guides us through dim thickets of thought and out into the light of the world, the one true home of humanity.
My Northwest Passage: Walking the Penguin Cradle Trail
From my cubicle at work I can see a city square. At the centre of that tree-lined public park there stands a statue, the likeness of a notable local: former governor of the realm, Sir John Franklin, best remembered for his attempt to find a link between the world’s two largest oceans.
A northwest passage – Franklin is not the only Tasmanian to seek one out. In March I embarked upon a perilous quest of my own: a solo walk that took me from the top end of the island to the edge of its spiritual heartland; a 100 kilometre hike I hoped would help me find a way through my worries, through the fears and frustrations hemming me in.
Franklin’s journal is lost. Mine, though, lives on to tell the following tale, one of danger, daring and discomfort, of sights and insights, of isolation, liberation and elation.
PROLOGUE: Sunday, 3 March 2019 – Hobart to Penguin (300 km by bus)
It’s eight-thirty and I’m sitting in my tent at the caravan park, gazing out at the hazy waters of Bass Strait.
Today a bus brought me to Penguin, weeks of frantic preparation at an end. I sat beside a big bloke from the mainland, here to manage the merger of two minor banks; he dozed on my shoulder most of the way. I distracted myself by listening to Jeremy Irons read Lolita, hoping he wouldn’t be overheard.
As we drove through Deloraine a man in a pub raised his beer to the bus – an acknowledgement of my boldness, I fancied. Later, the driver dropped me at the park and I settled in.
I ate dinner at a café in town – a tasty pumpkin and walnut salad complemented by truffle-clad chips and a beer – while watching a musician play. During ‘Ring of Fire’ I thought I saw Johnny Cash cross the street.
Thrilled with the experience, I wandered back to the caravan park, where a dip in the ocean ended the day. Tomorrow I step off into the unknown. My passage – to what? – has begun.
DAY 1: Monday, 4 March 2019 – Penguin to Hardstaff Creek (29 km on foot)
What a day! Perhaps I pushed myself a little too hard…
Skipping breakfast, I got away early, said goodbye to the caravan park and strode purposefully through Penguin, perversely pleased at having a heavy pack on my back once again.
The day was cloudless, sunny and still, and I arrived at the start of the trail feeling anxious but excited. Stopping for a snack and a selfie, I tightened the waist belt of my pack and stepped on to the track. The moment had arrived!
Having finally made it to the trail, I didn’t stay there for long, diverting early so as to take in Mount Gnomon, a friend’s favourite peak. I stopped for tea and porridge on the way, at the top of Mount Dial.
On Gnomon I made a fateful decision: to head up Mount Duncan, via the Tall Tree Track, rather than rejoin the main trail. Thus I added ten kilometres to the journey, all of them hard going.
Mount Duncan, however, was worth the toil: the view was magnificent. From the peak I could see the Nut at Stanley in the north and Cradle Mountain in the south, and a pretty patchwork of farmland in between.
As I munched on mountain bread, salami and cheese, a lone eagle rode the eddies below, soaring up to hang motionless in the air above. A nearby mobile phone tower hummed melodiously in the wind.
It was all downhill from there. Several hours later I rejoined the main track, which met up again with the Leven River, not far from the campsite at Hardstaff Creek. There I made camp.
Fighting exhaustion, I collected water and cooked up a tasty stew. After reading (Clive James’ Unreliable Memoirs on my Kindle) and writing (in my diary) I slept, soothed by a sense of relief – I’d survived the first day! – and the rushing river nearby.
DAY 2: Tuesday, 5 March 2019 – Hardstaff Creek to Dobsons Flats (25 km)
So ends an eventful day! Despite vowing not to repeat the excesses of yesterday, I did just that.
The first crisis came early, when I realised I’d strained a muscle above my right knee. Not severely, mind you, but badly enough to make walking downhill a real pain. I strapped up my thigh and struggled on.
The first few hours (up Mount Lorymer and along the Dial Range) were tough: the track was overgrown, steep in places and slippery with snakes.
Yes, SNAKES! Two dark little things that darted away before any damage was done. Shaken, I kept my eyes on the track for most of the morning.
Descending through a plantation of pines, I limped into Wings Wildlife Park, where the trail notes suggested staying the night. It was early afternoon and I had a decision to make. Give in to the pain and hole up at Wings awaiting collection? Or push through it and carry on?
Knowing that the hardest part of the walk was yet to come, I decided to soldier on – but only if I could get ahead by finishing the next leg – a twelve kilometre ramble along country lanes – today.
Decision made, I answered the call of nature – good timing that! – and refilled my water bottles from a rainwater tank. I saddled myself up and was on the road by three o’clock.
The next two-and-a-half hours went like a dream. The weather was still and warm, and the road was mine; my pack sat snugly on my back and my leg felt fine.
As I passed through the paddocks I was watched by beefy black cows, inquisitive yet timid. Tiny amber crickets clicked and clacked at my feet, leaping about like jack-in-the-boxes.
The air was rich with the aroma of hay, big round bales of which stood in long lines, looking like great wheels of cheese. I almost envied the cows.
Some things were not so benign.
Tempted by the blackberries growing alongside the road, I asked a woman at a farmhouse if the bushes in the area had been sprayed. She pointed to a patch. ‘They’re okay to eat.’ As I tucked in her husband drove up. ‘I wouldn’t do that,’ he said. ‘I sprayed them yesterday.’ ‘Give my regards to your missus,’ I called after him. (Or wanted to.)
As I neared my next campsite, at Dobsons Flats, I stopped for a wash in the River Leven, my first for the trip. Boy, did I need that bath!
In the twilight I put up my tent and ate a meal, looking out over the river. Another big day awaits me tomorrow. As hard as it will be, though, I know there’s no going back.
With kookaburras chuckling, waters warbling and rain spattering on the tent, I head for bed.
DAY 3: Wednesday, 6 March 2019 – Dobsons Flats to Leven Canyon (15 km)
Crazy day today! By trying to make it easier for myself I somehow made it harder.
The bad news is that the weather turned wet, and I sat out two heavy showers of rain. The good news is that I nearly died only twice and that I got lost only thrice.
Ultimately, though, I pushed myself to the limit and my body responded; my leg now feels better than it did, despite the punishment I put it through. Go figure!
The track was amazing but atrocious: a narrow crumbling ledge carved out of the hillside above the River Leven. My near-death experiences came where the path had fallen away, and where I almost fell away too. They passed quickly.
Worse were the times I lost the track, because they took longer. In two places the trail descends to the river – the first to skirt a landfall, the second by design – and in both places I had trouble relocating the track.
The first descent happened about halfway along. Relying on intuition and imaginative reading of the trail notes, I guessed I had to rock-hop across the river, work my way up the opposite bank, then rock-hop back. Having done so, though, I couldn’t find where the track recommenced. My panic grew during the hour it took me to stumble on the opening.
Then there was the rope used by walkers to haul themselves up a steep bit of bank. I just couldn’t find it! After a desperate search I eventually spotted it in the distance.
The delays were disruptive. I’d planned to push on and camp near Griffiths Flats, but I now had barely two hours to do the most demanding part of the walk: the ascent of Leven Canyon, in fading light.
Running on adrenaline and anxious energy, I struck out. It was terrifying stuff, since the track petered out well below the summit.
Luck was with me: falling and floundering, my pack dragging me down, I happened to see light through the trees, a break in the buttress of rock. Making one desperate last effort, I scrambled straight up and – lo and behold! – found myself back on the track. It felt like a minor miracle.
From there it was a short walk to the top, where I pitched my tent (with difficulty) in a fortuitous flat open space. And here I am, shivering in my sleeping bag despite donning all my clothes, trying not to slip away down the slope.
All in all, it was an amazing day. One smell has stayed with me: a fecund pong, probably that of rotting leaves, sour but not repulsive. A healthy kind of yuck – just like this walk!
DAY 4: Thursday, 7 March 2019 – Leven Canyon to Paddys Lake (15 km)
This day is described as the hardest of the walk and boy did it live up to the billing!
Despite the difficulty I made it to my campsite just after four (it’s now almost six), which is nice for a change. I’m all set up now, my tent angling into the wind – of which there can be plenty at these sub-alpine heights. (It’s fairly calm right now.)
I had a chilly old time last night. Although I kept riding my mattress to the bottom of the tent, I managed to get some rest.
I got off to a frustrating start in the morning, wasting time and energy trying to find the way down the hillside, only to discover it right under my nose. I’m learning that some things on the map can be trusted, and that the trick is knowing what they are.
The canyon itself is impressive. The track down its side was rocky and steep; it was followed by a leg through ferny groves and an indecently easy stretch along a dirt road.
The adrenaline I’ve been riding ran out at midday, near Taylors Flats, at the start of an ‘unrelenting’ ascent that took me three hours. Rarely have I been happier to reach the end of a leg.
And now here I am, in the high country, parked beside a beautiful tarn.
As I was leaving the canyon I ran into an unfamiliar animal (i.e. a person): Phil from Melbourne, who’d come from camping at the Walls of Jerusalem.
Phil had hoped to walk the trail but he’d picked up an infection from a blister, so he was doing day walks instead. It was nice to have a natter.
Before we parted Phil asked if I’d lost a slip of paper, because he’d found one back on the track. Oddly enough, I had. He handed over the page on which I’d scribbled my plans. I’d hardly missed it.
Gee, I’m getting hungry as I write this, having not had dinner yet. Tonight’s main course is miso soup with fresh carrots and onion, dried peas and dried mushrooms. The tucker’s pretty good out here!
Oh, and I’m into my fourth near-death experience of the trip: there’s a tick on my leg, sucking out my life blood. I’ve smothered the bugger in lip balm having doused it with metho, so perhaps I’ll pull through.
After pitching my tent I tried to climb Black Bluff, the big rocky outcrop that towers over the lake, but was forced back down when the clouds closed in. Bummer! The views up there are to die for (which I wasn’t willing to).
An early night tonight, then, ahead of a another big day tomorrow.
DAY 5: Friday, 8 March 2019 – Paddys Lake to Fourways (25 km)
I’m just about done for the day, thankfully!
This leg posed a different kind of challenge: it was all about dealing with monotony and discomfort rather than solving navigational puzzles or staying alive. I’m happy to say that I passed the test.
I woke early in an attempt to have a second go at getting up the bluff, but the weather was worse than yesterday, serving up rain and wind and fog. It did mean, however, that I was able to get away by seven, which worked in my favour later on, when I got to have a peek at a different peak.
For much of the day I froze. This part of the trail is exposed to the elements and the winds were wild. The track itself was testing: a narrow groove overgrown with low heathy plants sporting sharp little leaves.
Stubbornly unwilling to change out of my shorts, I blundered on, my shins getting lacerated, my socks and boots saturated. Now I know why hikers wear gaiters!
The atmosphere was eerie, almost alien, there being so few signs of life (as I know it). Even I was barely alive! Later on I was joined by green parrots and felt less alone.
Slope after slope after slope – the monotony was driving me mad. The weather only made things worse, low scudding clouds obscuring the expansive views.
I had morning tea (couscous and a coffee) huddled behind a rock, Cradle Mountain occasionally visible in the distance.
It was around then that my leg began to play up again, which at least gave me something to think about. I limped on and gradually got below the worst of the wind, the Vale of Belvoir spread out below on my left.
I lunched at the foot of a lookout where the road runs past. Here I met David and Janice from Canada, who are tooling – nay, touring – around Tasmania on bikes. What a nice couple they were, Janice offering me chocolate when she heard I’d walked all the way from the coast.
I got my second wind after that (thanks, perhaps, to the cheese I’d eaten, sadly the last of my supply) and charged on, my leg aching less.
At three o’clock I reached a junction in the track where a side trail leads up to Mount Beecroft. Determined not to miss out on a second peak in one day, I shed my pack, threw a few things in a shoulder bag and shimmied up the slope.
I ate my last biscuit at the summit and admired the panoramic view, feeling on top of the world.
From there it was a painful hour-long descent to the Fourways campsite, where I now recline, at the junction of four chattering creeks. With only a few hours of walking left on the trail tomorrow, it’s starting to look like I might make it after all.
DAY 6: Saturday, 9 March 2019 – Fourways to Cradle Mountain Visitor Centre (10 km)
I woke early this morning as I did not want to miss my connection (the bus to Launceston, leaving from the Cradle Mountain Visitor Centre at midday).
The last leg of the trail was no easier than the rest, with much of the track being boggy and rough. The weather, too, was unchanged: overcast and cold. To my dismay, thick banks of clouds obscured Cradle Mountain as I laboured towards it.
The first few kilometres of the track wound its way through a myrtle forest, and here I had to contend with ‘killer’ leeches, which descended on me in droves. Very tasty (me, that is, not them). ‘Gaiter aid’ would have been very welcome.
To make matters worse, there was no brass band to greet me as I emerged from the wilds, just a bemused German tourist who gave me vague German directions to the visitor centre.
Ah, the visitor centre! Instead of being conveniently situated at the end of the trail, the building is two kilometres away, up a long steady slope. This discovery might have broken a lesser man’s spirit but I took it in my stride – over two thousand of them, in fact.
I arrived at the centre with an hour to spare. My relief was enormous: I hadn’t missed the bus and, oh yeah, I’d walked the trail! I then devoured two of the tastiest sausage rolls I’ll ever eat.
Momentarily replete, I repaired to a restroom, where I cleaned myself up, exchanging my wet and dirties for the dry clothes I’d had hiding in my pack. I also mopped the mud and blood off my lower legs, albeit with some sadness: the mess on my shins was a kind of biological record of my journey, bearing witness to the places I’d been.
Then it was back to the café for banana bread and coffee while I waited for my ride. And who should be seated at the table beside me, sheltering from the streams of Asian and European tourists?
Why, David and Janice, of course, the cyclists I’d met yesterday. We greeted each other like long-lost friends. (Had they given me up as dead?) As it happened, Janice had something to tell me. ‘I was exhausted when we met,’ she said, ‘but you inspired me to go on.’
I joined them at their table and we chattered away like children.
They told me about a time they’d been hiking in Canada with some kids and got caught out in the snow. While the youngsters sweated it up with a camp oven in the canvas tent, they’d spent a sleepless night huddled together on a wagon.
We flippantly agreed that there should be a badge for hardy adventurers like us, one that would reveal what we really are (i.e. hardy adventurers). David told me not to worry: he said he could see my stamp.
With that we parted and I raced for the bus, hoping my stamp would stay with me and that I would always have the eyes to see it.
EPILOGUE: Saturday, 9 March 2019 – Cradle Mountain Visitor Centre to Launceston (150 km by bus)
Civilisation tried to reassert itself over the airwaves as we wound our way cityward. Dave, the driver, had (optimistically) turned on the radio and static played softly in the background for most of the trip.
As we entered Launceston, though, Frankie (Goes to Hollywood) broke through, telling me to relax, don’t do it. But it was too late by then – I had returned to the real world.
I had a great chat with Dave on the journey, bare feet and all. (My boots were wet!) So many people, so many stories. I was the only passenger on the bus and, as I learned, the last one ever, since the service was ending.
Dave was a friendly, down-to-earth bloke; born in Deloraine, he’d been driving trucks and buses in northern Tasmania for close on thirty years. He’d camped in the area back when he was a kid, so I fancied he could see my badge as he glanced back at me.
Later I sat back and savoured my emotions: the pride and satisfaction I felt, the tranquility, hopefulness and sense of resolve. Out there I’d learned to trust myself, and I’d come to realise that I’m capable of more than I think. Yes, I’d had doubts and concerns – almost constantly – but they’d been rooted in reality rather than mostly imagined, as my usual worries are. There’s a lesson in that, I’m sure.
As I watched the last of the wilderness whipping by, I reflected on how I’d felt at home in the bush, even though I was always aware of the dangers. I’d been at one with myself and the world, and this had informed my interactions with the people I’d met: Phil, David and Janice, and Dave the driver, who even now was piloting the bus into the transit centre.
Would my trek from coast to Cradle Mountain prove to be a kind of rebirth, I wondered, a second coming of sorts? Only time will tell.
Before my expedition I saw John Franklin as a flinty faraway figure. Now, though, as I sit in the square across the street from my office, I feel a kinship with the man in the monument. And why not? The quest for a northwest passage altered both of our lives – Franklin’s for the worse but mine, I hope, for the better.
The North West Walking Club, Wildcare Friends of the Penguin Cradle Trail and Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service for managing and maintaining the trail
Penguin Cradle Trail Coordinator, Greig Clarke, for detailed and up-to-date information on the state of the trail
The traditional owners of country in northwest Tasmania
Penguin Cradle Trail – Map and Notes (Wildcare Friends of the Penguin Cradle Trail)
100 Walks in Tasmania (Tyrone Thomas and Andrew Close)
Equipment: backpack and pack cover; tent; inflatable mattress; water filter; Trangia, fuel and fuel bottle; first aid kit; personal locator beacon, folding shovel and toilet paper; head torch and batteries; cord, compass and whistle; journal and maps; mobile phone, batteries and cable; Kindle and cover; water bottles (2); knife and cutting board; spoon and cup; rain jacket, fleece jacket and shirts (2); long pants; thermal underwear; socks (3 pairs); gloves and cap; sunglasses and sunscreen; food and water (Total weight: 17 kg)
Food: leaf tea and porridge (oats, dried cranberries and pepitas); instant decaf coffee, home-baked biscuits and mixed raw nuts; couscous mix (including raisins, pine nuts and spices) and dried apricots; salami, cheese, mountain bread and chocolate; dried figs; soy mince, fresh carrot and onion, dried peas and herbs; miso, dried mushrooms and peas, fresh carrot and onion; red lentils, fresh carrot and onion, dried peas and curry paste (Breakfast, morning tea, brunch, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner and supper)