A review of Ian McLean’s excellent account of Indigenous art in Australia since 1770.
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I have an essay in this fine collection, edited by Thom Conroy, from Massey University Press; and here’s a link to a radio review of same.
A murmuration of starlings rose from the perimeter fence as we walked across the tarmac from the plane to the terminal: a small one, but a murmuration nevertheless. Apparently each bird co-ordinates its movements with respect to the seven nearest other birds, each of which also takes account of the movements of its nearest seven and so forth and that’s how they do it. There’s almost always a raptor nearby. Perhaps a brown or a grey goshawk although I didn’t see one. The sky cloudy bright with evening coming on. The air biting cold. We drove down a wide valley. I thought it must have been a moraine scoured out by a glacier but geologists say the tributaries of the Tamar—North Esk, South Esk, Supply—actually run down ancient fault lines which date back to the Gondwana break-up. Horsts and grabens, ups and downs. There are igneous remnants: dolerite not basalt. The Tamar is not a river but an estuary, a drowned valley, its waters saline and tidal. The city was full of curiously made buildings, as if each structure had been copied from a lost original. A compendium of eccentricity. Or anthology of strangeness. Sometimes in these southern towns it can seem as if an honest attempt to mimic the buildings in the metropoles of the north has led to the invention of unprecedented styles which yet remain uncatalogued. We turned off Wellington into Elizabeth, drove up a dark corridor of verandah’d shopfronts into Arthur, down High Street and then into York. Our hotel was a mansion once; then a nursing home, perhaps also an insane asylum; now a B & B. There are two ballrooms within but we never saw them. Intricate stained glass in the doors and windows, even in the skylight above the grand staircase. Room Number Five, the Honeymoon Suite, was ours, with a spa bath built into a corner of the enclosed balcony and a view over the city. A little old lady sat up all night in the north-west corner, watching us. Or so Maggie said. In the morning, the sky out the window was the colour of pink gin. Angostura Bitters, I learned, was first distilled in the 1820s by Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert, the surgeon-general of Simón Bolívar’s army in Venezuela. It was to cure Bolívar’s troops of stomach upsets and is still thought by some to have medicinal qualities. Siegert was living in the town of Angostura, now Ciudad Bolívar, at the time; hence the name. He used locally available ingredients, brought to his attention by the botanical knowledge of native Amerindians. Angostura Bitters is 44.7% alcohol by volume and, even now, when the elixir is made in Port of Spain, Trinidad, the full recipe, passed down hereditarily, is known to just one living person. Plymouth gin, sweeter than most, is preferred by connoisseurs of the pink. I was on the wagon so when we went out I drank lemon, lime and bitters. The tiny amount of alcohol in the glass had no discernible effect. That morning, as the pink in the sky faded to grey and then the heavens turned cerulean, we went down to Cimitiere Street to look for the cottage in which my great-grandfather and great-grandmother, James Edmond and Catherine McLeod, were married on May 15, 1872. Why cimitière? No-one seems to know. It’s true, however, that the colony was founded, near the mouth of the Tamar, in 1804 after a panic caused by Frenchman Nicolas Baudin’s voyage to the Antipodes: what if he claimed Van Diemen’s Land for France? Cemeteries are, properly speaking, burial places not associated with churches; those are called graveyards. And yet, allegedly, by military decree, issued around the same time Angostura Bitters was first distilled, none of the seventeen churches in this municipality has a graveyard; though there were numerous cemeteries. These days you have to go out to Carr Villa in Kings Meadows if you want to be buried. My great-grandparent’s marriage took place in one of a row of low working-people’s cottages on the south side, towards the eastern end of Cimitiere Street: but which one? No-one knows, because the marriage record neglected to include a street number. James Edmond, a builder, was 23 years old. He had come out on the Prompt in 1857, the son of a gardener and labourer from Stirlingshire in Scotland and his dressmaker wife. The description of James as a seven or eight year old child—stout figure, broad face, well-looking, dark hair—reverberates down the years. It could be my grandfather, my father, his older brother, one of my cousins. Catherine McLeod was the same age as her husband-to-be but had been three years longer in the colony. Her family came out on the Sir Allan McNab in 1854, the first ship carrying free emigrants to arrive in Hobarton after the abolition of convict transportation the previous year. The McLeods were native to the Western Highlands, Gaelic-speaking crofters from Ardmair and Strathan near Ullapool, victims of the Clearances. Catherine’s family spent about ten years working as labourers and servants out at a place called McRae’s Hills, and then she lived half a decade more on the freehold property they bought at Silver Mines, now Winkleigh, in West Tamar. After their marriage James and Catherine went to Melbourne, where he was already established, and where she lived out the rest of her days. She bore thirteen children, ten of whom survived infancy, and died of tuberculosis and exhaustion in 1905. My grandfather Charlie (b. 1890) was her youngest. In 1872 there had been a shortage of men on the island: they had been sucked out of circulation by the ongoing depression, especially in the building trade. James probably came back to Tasmania looking for a wife; Catherine was perhaps visiting her older sister Ann, married to a Tulloch and already living in town. My cousin Rod Edmond, whose research this is, speculates upon a colonial artisan version of an Austen marriage plot. It is as likely as anything else. Most of the houses have been restored, gentrified; some were for sale. There must be a dozen or more in the row. Maggie decided the right one was #31, now a B & B called Thyme Cottage. If there had been any thyme growing in the garden, I would have picked a sprig but there was not; lavender, yes, rosehips and daisies; crab apple trees. There was no wind but I felt the air on Cimitiere Street move in my hair anyway; the phantom breath of generation.
Bethany was a Beauty Therapist from one of the southern suburbs, moonlighting as the cicerone of a ghost walk. Her mother was a psychic too. We met outside the Royal Oak, where we had just eaten: the walls of the dining room hung with magnificent photographs of old sailing ships, barques and schooners and clippers, all of which used to visit the river port back in the old days. Bethany pulled a tablet out of her handbag and began showing us pictures of ghosts; strange, murky collations of ectoplasm emanating from stairwells and mirrors, alcoves and cul de sacs. Pareidolia gone mad. All were plausible, none entirely persuasive. I realised she was suggesting that we attempt, during our walk, to capture such presences on camera as well. We being four: Maggie and I, a woman and her schoolboy son, locals like Bethany. She took us down into the bowels of the hotel and showed us a room lined with mirrors and full of eclectic junk. It is where the jazz musicians who play upstairs hang out between sets or before and after gigs. No lights, just lanterns: my own image in the mirrors was more than I could stand. As you age, you attenuate. You diminish. Becoming ghostlike perhaps. Your blood thins, your hair falls out, your skin goes papery, your belly hollows, your shanks spindle. I pulled up my jeans and avoided looking any further into the mirror’s otherworld. Bethany was telling the story of Cyril, who loved Elizabeth, who loved him in return. Cyril was a cheerful soul, a worker, the maintenance man at the Royal Oak; Elizabeth was a lady. Her father forbade the match, gave her away to a banker and they moved to a southern town; there were no children. Cyril lost his cheer. He became morose. He worked all day down here, fixing furniture broken in the frequent pub brawls, and then went upstairs to the bar for a jar or two, speaking to no-one, before going home alone to his empty bed. Until one night he came in changed, his old self again, cracking jokes and shouting drinks. Someone, he confided, was coming to meet him; he would not say who. As the evening’s violent thunder storm abated, however, and the night wore on, Cyril’s confident scrying of the door turned anxious, then glum. At closing time he went downstairs as usual, hitched his horse to his cart and gee-ed it into the road. A white shape loomed ahead on Tamar Street, the horse shied and reared, the cart turned over, with Cyril underneath . . . at the climax of this hoary tale, Bethany pulled out from somewhere a severed head and let it dangle gruesomely by its hair in the lamplight. This was Cyril’s and if we wanted to see the rest of him, we were advised to photograph the mirrors or in the corners of the room. The next place was also within the purview of the Royal Oak, a dank old set of undertaker’s rooms next door that had been re-purposed as, of all things, a backpacker’s lodge. Men in the morgue, women in the embalming room. There’d been a fatal fire a few years back, a lanky Scotsman, name of Callum, burned alive. It was actually murder, Bethany whispered. He’d found out someone was milking the till and this fellow started the fire in order to silence him. Callum was locked in his room without a key. Then she distracted us by pointing to a picture of the undertaker on the wall behind and, at the same time, artfully knocking out the prop holding a coffin lid open, so that it banged suddenly shut and scared us all half to death. Everybody screamed. I trod on my own foot. Confected from subterfuge, bad faith and naivety, it was worse than any ghost could possibly have been. I was thinking, if she took us into another of these dreary underground cells, I’d go back to the hotel and leave them to it; but after the Royal Oak the walk turned into a history and hearsay tour instead. We stood near an ochre wall, against which pencil cypresses grew, while Bethany told us about the Lavender Lady who has haunted the Princess Theatre since the night when, hurrying after interval to take her place in the chorus line of The Merry Widow, she plunged headfirst into the orchestra pit and broke her neck. That show has not been performed again at the Princess. Her ghost companion is Max Oldaker, singer, actor, composer, who once understudied Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins in the English stage production of My Fair Lady. His ghost blows kisses to ladies from the balcony; is said on occasion to pinch men’s bottoms. At St John’s Anglican church we heard the story of the commandant’s mad wife, she who wanted an edifice built four times the size of the monstrous one before us; who was, despite her husband’s edict against burials in churchyards, herself immured somewhere in that great Gothic pile. Maggie reckoned she knew exactly where, having seen her ghost peering from a window above the nave. Outside the former Church Grammar Boys School, now the Quality Hotel on Elizabeth Street, we heard about the headmaster who drowned three of his more recalcitrant pupils on an early morning boating excursion on the Tamar, buried their bodies in the basement of his austere Georgian house across the road, then took his (slightly reduced) English class, as usual. These boys scratch their names on the window panes, they run rampant through the building night and morning, guests hear their shrill high voices calling down the corridors. On a corner opposite an ornately built and luridly lit nineteenth century church (now a design centre) on St John’s Road, lived a doctor who kept his insane and/or deformed patients locked in the basement and operated upon them while they were still alive, practising lobotomies and leucotomies, dragging their brains out using long metal hooks inserted through their nostrils. After dark he would trawl the streets of the town and bring back comatose drunkards upon whom he would continue to prosecute his nefarious experiments. Bethany said the building is still owned by a medical man, a pathologist called John Wayne Millwood, who had recently been convicted and jailed for paedophilia; there was a petition going round demanding he be stripped of the heritage award he received for his magnificent restoration of the premises. It was while we were standing there on the street corner, looking across the diagonal to the doctor’s rooms, that Maggie said she could smell something medicinal upon the wind. And indeed I smelled something too; and so, when prompted, did the others. Formaldehyde, I wondered. Hmmm, said Bethany, that hasn’t happened before; and added it to her list of manifestations. It could of course have come, not from some netherworld of mutilation and agonising death, but from the nursing home up the road. Who is to say? There was a bronze statue of a good doctor on the steps leading down to Princes Square, the first man in the country to use, way back in 1847, ether as an anaesthetic. Dr William Russ Pugh administered the ether, using a device he made himself, in order to excise a tumour from the lower jaw of a young woman; later to remove a cataract from an old man’s eye. It was in fact Pugh who built the rooms we had been looking at, with his own laboratory, wherein he made the anaesthetic—boiling two parts alcohol and one part sweet oil of vitriol (sulphuric acid) and then distilling the vapours. In the very place which his inheritors have so shamed with their perversions and indulgences. So maybe it was not formaldehyde at all that we had smelled, but sulphuric ether? Our last stop was at a stable down a laneway, where one brick had been removed from the back wall, making a slit too high to press your eye to the gap to see the ghost horses shifting and blowing within. Here Bethany told us the culmination of the Ballad of Cyril and Elizabeth. She had returned, with her banker husband, to this northern town, where he had been assigned to manage the local branch. Cyril was still at the Royal Oak; they were still in love; the banker, who knew, confined Elizabeth to their house and refused to allow anyone but her sister to visit. It was with the sister, then, that she conspired to elope with Cyril; and, on the night of the thunder storm, packed a suitcase and made her way down here, to the stables, to hire a horse for the flight. But the sister, as sisters will, betrayed her; and, while lightning glimmered and thunder cracked, the banker accosted Elizabeth in the laneway and stabbed her with a knife until she was dead. It was her ghost, so recently severed from its flesh and bone, which surprised Cyril outside the Royal Oak, causing his cart to overturn, decapitating the faithful retainer. They are, of course, together forever now. Their horses too.
The Norfolk Plains were blanketed with mist, out of which appeared high-wheeled tractors like war chariots from some as yet unmade Star Wars movie. The fields were full of arcane machinery which laboured, I presume, in the service of agri-business: but what was the product? It wasn’t clear. Orange merinos in green fields, just as we had seen them once outside of Wagga. Vines, perhaps. Opium poppies: Papaver somniferum, used to make codeine and morphine, is grown around here. Longford, where the painter Tom Roberts is buried, was drawn out, a main street slow as a wet week, down which we drove as if through an avenue of dark facades looming from the white of the mind. Maggie was on her phone, formatting the photographs of ghosts she had taken the night before so that she could send them to Bethany. I didn’t really know where McRae’s Hills was; in my head was the advice—from a website called Tasmanian Gothic, in a post entitled The List of Lost Things—that it was in the Bracknell district. So towards Bracknell we drove, through a maze of narrow roads, confusingly signposted and, because of the mist, impossible to fix properly, geographically: we were heading south and west and that was all I knew. Somewhere out there were the foothills of the Great Western Tiers, a series of bluffs which make up the northern edge of the Central Highlands Plateau which, in turn, forms the mountainous interior of the island. I had not seen so much road kill since passing through south-western Queensland ten years before: possums, mostly, but also wild cats, small wallabies, and other unidentified marsupial corpses squashed into the macadam. Bandicoots, perhaps; quolls and potoroos; pademelons and bettongs. The crows—actually ravens—grown fat and glossy on this bounty, flapped or waddled casually to the verge as we went by then returned to their bloody feast. Unaccountably, miraculously, the mist lifted as we drove in to Bracknell: a flat town laid out on a grid of wide streets, with no discernible centre. The pub was closed, there were half a dozen expensive cars parked outside the church hall, a showground sported the characteristic double goal posts used by members of the Australian Football League to play Rules. The local team is called the Redlegs. All the streets were named after women and on each corner were portraits, painted on tin, attached below the signs: Ada, Louisa, Maria. We went on towards Liffey, looking for someone to ask for directions. We found him near a T intersection, just below the blue bluffs of the Western Tiers, a cheerful fellow with a Jack Russell at his feet, talking on his mobile phone and doing something in the back of his ute. He ended the call and came over. Yeah, he said slowly, I know McRae’s Hills. It’s that way. He gestured towards the east. See that line of ridge? Down there. Past Cressy, Poatina way. Near Brumby’s Creek. He noticed I was still wearing on my leather jacket the sticker Bethany had given me on the Ghost Walk. Plenty of stories like that about McRae’s Hills, he said. Like what? I asked. Blackwood Creek Road, he said, pointing down the left fork of the T junction. Horse and cart goes along there on dark nights. People say. I asked who drove it? I dunno, he said. Nobody does. The most famous legend about McRae’s is this one, told in the words of local historian K R von Stieglitz: McRae’s Hills was named by Christopher McRae, who arrived with his wife in the 1820s. His brother John owned Abyssinia on the Clyde River, near Bothwell. Christopher and his wife were sitting by the fire one evening when a knock came at the door. McRae himself went to answer it. His wife heard him speaking in low tones to some other man for a few minutes. Later he went out, shutting the door behind him, telling his wife that he would not be long away. Two days later, following an intensive search, his dead body was found in a hollow log up on the run about two miles from the house. It was supposed by many that the murder had been committed by a bush-ranger who had come that night to lure him away into the bush. Others knew that there were more sinister implications connected with the tragedy. The house is a stone-built, two-storey, ochre-coloured, slate-roofed Georgian mansion, standing on a slight rise, its back to the Western Tiers, looking north over the Norfolk Plains. My cousin went there: It was a ruin. Most of the roof and all of the window frames had gone. The keystone above the front door had fallen and pulverised the steps leading up to the entrance. At the back of the house was a rickety framework, the remains of an abandoned attempt by a previous owner in the 1980s to restore and extend the building. The house was open to the weather and to animals, its floor thickly encrusted with sheep shit. It was a squalid and dejected place. Our ancestors, the McLeods, lived there in the 1850s and 60s, working for John Stronach, a relative, who was in turn employed (at 100 quid a year) as farm manager by John Thompson, who’d purchased the property, along with a couple of others, as recently as 1853. They worked and saved for ten years, until they had enough money to buy a place of their own, marginal land away to the north at Silver Mines. But what were the sinister implications Stieglitz mentions? I have no idea: unless they are contained in this passage, immediately following the one quoted above: Opposite McRae’s Hills across the road, was Sandridge, a property that belonged to the Saltmarsh family in those days. Part of the old place has now been incorporated into the new Bluegong house. It is recorded that Mrs Saltmarsh was young and beautiful at this time. Adultery, then? And a crime of passion? We decided not to go to McRae’s Hills after all: the house is off the road, on farmland, and my cousin had to get permission to walk in there. Instead, we’d go north to Silver Mines, aka Winkleigh, to look for further traces of the McLeods there. I thanked the fellow with the Jack Russell and, just as another ute pulled up, climbed back into the car. I was thinking about the next passage in Stieglitz’s history: At the Racecourse Hotel in Longford, where many a weary waggoner called in to wash the dust from his mouth, there arrived one Saturday night, some harvest hands with all their wages to be spent. One of them put two gold sovereigns on the counter and called for drinks all round. As quick as a flash, a woman standing near the bar put the sovereigns into her mouth and swallowed them. Three of the men forced her jaws apart, but when they found that the money had gone out of sight, they killed her by hitting her on the head with a bottle and then cut her open to find the cursed gold. The three men were hanged on Gibbet Hill afterwards for this murder.
The country north of Westbury was hilly and wooded and we sometimes saw logging trucks, the bane of every island highway or so I have been told. It could have been New Zealand—the Taupo-Rotorua road, perhaps, or somewhere near Murupara—except there were no dark plantations of pinus radiata such as you see in the old country. After we turned off towards Glengarry—scattered along the edge of the road like bits and pieces after a car crash, Rod wrote—the landscape became gentler, more cultivated, rolling hill country, green-brown paddocks where sheep and cattle grazed, the odd orchard. Always a strangely shaped blue rampart on the horizon in the distance. A dead cat lay squished on the side of the road, a live cat sniffing at the corpse: it turned and slunk back into the long grass and we wondered if it was a feral or a farm cat? Soon after that we saw a cluster of gravestones on the side of a hill and realised this must be the cemetery Rod had written about: . . . on a hill sloping up from the road. The grass had been kept down but was rough and uneven and wild flowers grew around the older graves. There were trees above and around the graveyard and across the road was open pasture stretching to a low range of thickly wooded hills. It was peaceful and sheltered with a gentle prospect. There was a melancholy completeness to the scene and for the first time I felt in touch with what I sought. I left sprigs of heather on the two unmarked graves. These are probably those of our great-great-grandparents, Murdo and Margaret McLeod, the father and mother of Catherine. They repose within an ornate wrought iron enclosure next to what is, to my eye, the handsomest stone in the cemetery: upright, grey, with a rounded top, a ridged back and patches of rusty orange where lichen has grown across it. There was a wreath with what looked like a lily flower upon it engraved into the stone at the top and beneath that memorial lines for Alexander Stronach and his wife Georgina. Alexander was likely Margaret McLeod’s older brother or half-brother. There are no other McLeods commemorated in the cemetery however; but there are Camerons, McKenzies, Stewarts, even some Campbells. (When I told this to my friend, who is a Mcdonall, he remarked: Campbell is a very poor choice of an ancestor.) These are the names of families who came out on the Sir Allan McNab in 1854; they dispersed to different parts of the island, worked as wage labourers until they had enough money saved, and then reconvened, as it were, purchasing tracts of what was in those days uncleared land in the area then called Silver Mines. It was most poignant to think of these people, all born within cooee of each other back in the Highlands, now lying at rest in the same piece of foreign, if hallowed, ground. Their graves all facing east, in sure and certain hope of the resurrection. I could imagine them muttering to one another in Gaelic—or whatever language the dead speak—in their cold entangled catacombs underground. At the top of the slope stood two benches, with elegant open wrought iron fretwork in their backrests. I sat on one of these, in full sunlight, facing away from the graves, and asked Maggie to take a picture. She did then said: why don’t you point away to where your ancestors are? I did, and those images are keepers. In one of them you can see, across the other side of the road, a wrecker’s yard full of car bodies, silent analogues of the old tooled stones beneath which lie huddled those Scottish bones, amongst which are the pair which bore a proportion of our DNA with them halfway across the world. Silver Mines, the district’s original designation, is a misnomer: there is only forgotten silver here. Even Winkleigh, if it ever was a town, is one no more. Just the cemetery and, further down Flowery Gully Road, a wooden church (deconsecrated, sold off) and a community hall. It was a Presbyterian church and there my people would have prayed and sung. We went the other way, towards Supply River and, on the far side of a stone bridge, found another church. Timber-built, in 1861, it belonged to the Methodists and, unlike the one at Winkleigh, still held services—albeit under the auspices of the Uniting Church. It was locked, of course, but you could peer in through the facetted windows to the plain unadorned wooden interior, the hard upright pews, the small organ to the right of the altar, the lectern where the preacher stood, the old photographs hung upon the east wall. It had a graveyard too, and a special plaque on a stone plinth which listed the names of those who lay here without a marker upon their burial plots. A tiny emerald-green spider moved across the engraved and inlaid metal as I read. As at Winkleigh, certain names recurred: Brown, Kerrison, Stonehouse. Hitchcock the most resonant. There was another kind of spider which spread its webs horizontally across the wet grass, like so many dropped and dewy ladies’ handkerchiefs. A corrugated iron dunny stood out the back, before the fence line and a row of macrocarpa trees. The Supply River rises near Kelly’s Lookout in the Mount Careless Forest Reserve and flows north-east into the Tamar at Robigana. It received its curious name in 1804, when those on the Lady Nelson, despatched from Sydney to prevent the island being claimed by the French, used a waterfall just a few hundred metres up from the confluence to replenish their water supplies. The road follows the river for a way and we followed the road, eventually trending south-east towards Exeter and then directly south and so back to Launceston. I had a cheese, bacon and Mount Grim beef pie for lunch and Maggie one filled with cauliflower cheese. We walked up Brisbane Street to Petrarch’s Bookshop, where I spent ages trying to decide whether to buy Stella Bowen’s memoir Drawn from Life (1941). She was an artist and writer whose fate it was to spend the best part of a decade (1918-1927) as the companion of Ford Madox Ford. It was during this period that Ford wrote his account of his friendship with Joseph Conrad and I thought there might be some mention of this in Bowen’s memoir. Alas, no. I left it in the stand, next to Douglas Stewart’s book about Kenneth Slessor and Hazel Rowley’s biography of Christina Stead (all second hand, from a local collector’s library) and bought Nicholas Shakespeare’s In Tasmania instead.
We drove over Kings Bridge—single arch, wrought iron, pre-fabricated, floated into place by pontoon in 1864—parked the Hyundai, crossed the road and started along the Cataract Walk. This is a cliff path built by volunteer labour in the 1890s, running along the northern bank of the South Esk River where it flows, through a spectacular gorge, into the Tamar. It was cool and damp in the lee of the tumbled rocky walls rising above us. The river hissed and roared below. Maggie was still taking photographs: she must have made about a thousand captures by now. I used to wait for her but now I just keep on going, knowing she will catch up eventually. We have our phones if we miss each other. At a look-out halfway along I paused. I could see First Basin ahead, with a suspension bridge crossing to the south side and a chairlift, the longest in the world. (Launceston also has the world’s longest park bench, and used to have its smallest public park—go figure.) The people rocking and lurching in chairs suspended above the dark green water looking like ungainly birds; while their reflections resembled something more ominously insectivorous. I was looking at the piled outcrops of rocks on the further shore. Like so many formations elsewhere in this land, they seemed to contain within themselves images of the ancestors of the first people. Pareidolia again, I suppose, with the added complication that these presences were generally thought of as real by the totemic animists who preceded us. And, if this is so, persist existentially, if not in any other sense. The Palawa (a contested term) entered the island perhaps 40,000 years ago. There may have been four waves of people before the land bridge finally sank beneath the waves 8000 years ago, an occurrence still remembered in the oral tradition. They resolved, over time, into two moieties, the Nara in the west and the Mara in the east. These are language groups. Maybe 100,000 strong, maybe less: the first estimates were not made until after sealers had already brought in Western diseases. Smallpox, influenza, measles and the rest. The people who lived round here, according to some sources, were called the Lairmairrener and the gorge was one of their sacred sites. An unnamed clan chief, returning from exile in Wybalenna (Flinders Island) in 1847, was at first jubilant and then fell into lamentation over what he had lost. The Lairmairrener were the first clan of the so-called North Midlands people, one of the nine (or eight) nations of the Palawa, to disappear from the land: after about 1830 they were no longer to be seen along the Tamar. They called the estuary Kanamaluka; Launceston was Taggener; though both these names, and indeed all linguistic reconstructions, are speculative, perhaps even fanciful. Their neighbours to the west were the Panninher, whose lands included those we had driven over looking for McRae’s Hills. They mined ochre and flint and exchanged it with the Lairmairrener and with other clans and nations. There was a massacre of Panninher near Cressy in the 1820s and record of a retaliatory raid, a war party of 100 to 150 stout men, led by a man called Eumarrah, somewhere near the base of the Western Tiers in 1831. Stout men: Tongerlongetter, chief of the Paredareme (Oyster Bay) people, away to the east, was said to have been six feet ten inches tall. He lost an arm in a claw trap set in a storehouse to prevent pilfering. The trap was found about 100 yards from the hut, and the hand in it. The unfortunate creature must have undergone dreadful agony, as we hear that the sinews and tendons of the arm were drawn out by main force, and to use the expression of our informant, resembled those of the tail of a kangaroo. By contrast, Truganini, a Nyunoni woman, popularly thought of as the last of her tribe (she was not) is said to have been under four feet in height and of much the same measure in breadth. Who knows? The first Vandemonians seen by Europeans (the French) were, like the Patagonians, accounted giants. How could Truganini have been less than four feet tall? There are photographs in which she does not look in the least bit midget-like. Another description: exquisitely formed, with small and beautifully rounded breasts. An American ship’s captain, who saw her near the end of her life, remarked upon her beautiful eyes. A necklace she made survives: of green Mariner shells, each the size of a child’s tooth. The shells got their colour from being steeped in urine before their outsides were scratched off. In the picture I have seen of this necklace, it resembles a map of Tasmania. When Tongerlongetter, aka King William, in exile on Flinders Island, died of pneumonia in 1837, he was given a Christian burial. His companions, wearing European clothes, sang: From Egypt lately come / Where death and darkness reign / We seek a better home / Where we our rest shall gain. Truganini’s last words, just before her own death in 1876, were: Don’t let them cut me, but bury me behind the mountains. When it rains in the Central Highlands, the water in Cataract Gorge can rise twelve metres in half an hour. But what flood could sweep away the stain of this island’s stories? I had a song in my head. North Wind Blowing, by The Stranglers: When hollow victory has been won / Who will join in the celebration of / An evil that can’t be undone // North winds blowing / I wish they’d blow you all away. I was still standing looking at the rocky faces opposite when two women came up. One, about my own age, had crimson hair and an interestingly lined face; her companion was a bit older and they were both from New South Wales: Drummoyne and Berry, respectively. They wanted to know how long it was until they would see the confluence of the South Esk and the Tamar. I wasn’t sure: ten minutes? Maggie arrived, her eyes bright with suspicion. They’re lesbians, I said, as they walked away. Lesbians are women too, she said and then she laughed. Later, as we were going back to the car, they passed us, returning the way they had come. It was our last day on the Tamar. We were leaving in the morning, leaving all those ghosts behind. And yet: isn’t it the case that any ghost, once seen, or otherwise perceived, remains with you always? Weren’t we taking with us a vast freight of images, some in the camera, others in our heads? How would we ever be free of them? Did we even want to be? There are no answers to these questions, which isn’t a reason not to ask them. The Palawa knew many spirits: nama burag, ghost of the thunder storm; ragi roba, ghost of the dead, who flies on the wind; laga robana, dreadful spirit of the dead; maian ginja, the killer, bringer of death; bade nala, shadow man; kana tana, bone man; muran bugana luwana, bright spirit of the night, a lovely woman clothed in grass; nangina, a sprite who lives inside a hill, fond of dancing and of children; buga nubrana, man’s eye, who is the sun and thought to be benign; and many more now lost to human memory. As the plane rose into the air, I saw the North Esk River, Lakekeller, running through the wide brown valley below. When the drinks cart came along, Maggie asked for a Bloody Mary and I ordered lemon, lime and bitters. Go easy on the bitters, I said. Bitters.
All images c. Maggie Hall
There’s nothing worse (well, there is, but still) than this: the last book done; its projected successor in limbo (publishers don’t want it); no clear way to embark upon the next one. Do I even want to write any more? I could retreat to the shoreline somewhere and re-inhabit my lizard brain. Just professional woes I suppose. I am in what James K Baxter called ‘great dryness of mind’. I turn, as so often before, to Beckett:
asylum under my tread all this day
their muffled revels as the flesh falls
breaking without fear or favour wind
the gantelope of sense and nonsense run
taken by the maggots for what they are
– construe that, if you can, begorrah!
pic by Maggie Hall, May 29, 2017, on Smith Street
Next day I encountered one of the astonishments of my journey; perhaps of my gallery-going life. We’d gone up to the Harvard Art Museum because Michael wanted to show me a painting: Gabrielle in a Red Dress (1908) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, a portrait of his housekeeper, maid and companion, Gabrielle Renard, whom he painted more than two hundred times. My astonishment occurred before we found this work: it was a view, through a square high opening, on the far wall of the adjoining room, of Max Beckmann’s triptych The Actors. A riot of green, gold, pink, orange, red and grey made somehow incandescent by the deep ebonies against which the painter staged this particular drama. It was the colour that struck me: its intensity and strangeness, its radical glow; its emanation, as it were, like a chromatic cloud, from that flat surface into the air about us.
I knew the work already. The year before I tried to write an ekphrastic piece considering in detail each of Beckmann’s nine triptychs. I gathered images of all of them, from Departure (1932-5) to The Argonauts (1949-50) but, in so far as I recall, I only managed to write a page and a half about the first one. It was, perhaps, unnecessary to attempt; I think the sheer richness, the wonder, of the works themselves defeated me: what could words possibly add to the grandeur they already possessed? The Actors, however, was the first of the triptychs I had seen in the flesh; and it was a revelation. It struck me, as I said, like a blow. I walked towards its immensity as towards a blazing fire.
Beckmann painted it in Amsterdam during World War Two; between 1941 and 1942, in the old tobacco warehouse he used as a studio. Its central figure, in the central panel, a self portrait, is a king dressed in a green suit, with red high boots, wearing a golden crown and a long golden cloak; and holding a dagger to his breast so that blood spills like insignia down his jacket front. His queen, in pink, blindfolded and holding a piece of sheet music in her hand, stands before him; while behind them courtiers gather and beneath the stage, rude mechanicals contend as if brawling in a ratskeller. There is a young blond girl, in a blue coat and orange tights, holding a spotted cat, bent below the blinded queen, a grey theatrical mask behind her. When I look at the painting in reproduction now I cannot recapture half of what I saw when I was standing before it: the surpassing sweetness of this girl’s face, for instance, her luminous innocence and her simple charm.
The two side panels are theatrical in different ways: a woman with a mirror before a classical bust; musicians playing horns; a telegraph boy; two girls with flowers; a midget waving. Or, in the left hand panel, some plot being hatched between a soldier, a prophet and a woman in a white headscarf; while a crouching man reads a New York newspaper and yet another figure from antiquity looms behind; and down below the boards are five legs with golden bands about their ankles, but who those feet belong to isn’t clear. And maybe after all this is why I want to write about the triptychs: each of them encodes a different enigma, which might turn out to be explicable in words. Or not: in the face of visual imagery, language cannot help but approximate, reducing unspoken or unwritten mysteries to the banalities of sense. Fail better? The problem is, I think, without solution.
Oddly enough, standing before The Actors, I fell into conversation with a fellow who turned out to have designed the Bosch show I’d seen at the Noordbrabants. He was giving a lecture that afternoon and invited us to attend; but we had other things to do and didn’t go. We found the Renoir portrait: I said to Michael that it looked like his wife, and it was his turn to be astonished: the resemblance had not occurred to him. We wandered past extraordinary paintings: by Max Ernst, Kandinsky, Matisse, van Gogh, Gauguin and many more. There were two other Beckmann works: the famous Self Portrait in Tuxedo (1927) in which the cigarette, up close, is just a stroke of white with a red dab at the tip; which transforms into an image of the veritable smoking tube as you move away; and a small still life called The Fire (1945), memorialising the freestanding circular brazier Beckmann acquired to keep himself warm in winter in the tobacco warehouse where he painted The Actors.
I always imagined Lisbon to be a place where it rains a lot but Isaac said that isn’t really so. Only in this part of the year, he said. The rest of the time it earns its sobriquet: The White City. Next morning heavy showers were sweeping in over the city from the Atlantic. I looked out the window of my hotel room and there, on the sill of the room opposite, stood a red, white and blue Dutch clog, slowly filling up with water and then overflowing. Isaac came round again later; we were going to take one of the old-fashioned yellow trams out west to visit the National Museum of Ancient Art—so-called because it only holds works made before 1850. Much of their collection was confiscated from the Catholic Church or came from the estates of disestablished aristocratic families. It is housed in a seventeenth century palace colloquially called Janelas Verdes, after the street in which it stands: Rua das Janelas Verdes, the Street of Green Windows.
At the tram stop I bought for a few Euros an umbrella from an old gypsy woman but, the first time I opened it, one of the ribs bent and broke so, whenever I had to use it after that, it felt like a crippled bat hovering malevolently over my head. Lisbon was full of umbrella sellers, and just as full of broken umbrellas; they seemed designed to disintegrate immediately upon purchase. This one did keep my upper body halfway sheltered but, when it rained, it rained so hard it was impossible to keep my feet dry as well. By the time we got to the Street of Green Windows my socks were squelching inside my shoes. Isaac had a better umbrella and more sensible footware; he was a local after all. He seemed sympathetic to my plight but I thought I detected in his manner the mild derision of the young towards the incompetence of the old.
Janelas Verdes was actually done out in the same colours as the Carlos Lopes Pavilion: white stone, pale ochre panelling, red tile roof. The collection, naturally, features Portuguese art from medieval times forward; also a fine selection of European painting, including works by Memling, Cranach the Elder, Holbein the Elder, Durer, Velazquez, Zurbarán, Poussin and many more. We wandered damply through gallery after gallery of mostly religious art, seeing many splendid things, while looking for the one work that motivated this perhaps redundant quest: Hieronymus Bosch’s The Temptation of St Anthony, the painting the Portuguese had declined to send to the show at the Noordbrabants because it was too vital a tourist attraction to lose for the six months or so it would have been gone from the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga.
I don’t know exactly what I expected but it turned out to be an entirely different viewing experience from the one at Den Bosch. The triptych was free-standing, alone at the narrow end of a rectangular gallery towards the back of the building, and entirely unattended by any security apparatus; nor audience either. Whereas, at the Noordbrabants, you had to find a place amongst a crowd of people peering at the works through perspex, here you could see the painting naked, as it were; better still, you could walk around the back and have a look there as well.
There was something reassuring about the massive wooden construction of the artefact. The grisaille paintings on the reverse of the right and left wings, used to close the centre panel unless it happened to be a holy day, were visible too. One, an ochre-ish grey, showed the arrest of Jesus in Gethsemane; the other, which was a bluer grey, Christ carrying the cross up to Golgotha. Both were crowded paintings which seemed somehow more terrifying for their monochromatic detachment. The brutality of Peter cutting Malchus’ ear off with his sword; Judas fleeing in righteousness and despair; the unrepentant defiance of the thief who would be damned.
The three front panels all feature a translucent aqua sky in which strangely morphous craft fly: fish, lizards, birds, a ship, an egg with wings ridden upon by a toad carrying a sputtering light on a pole. The saint appears in all of the panels: twice in the left, praying on his back upon an amphibious flying monstrosity; and, down below, having fallen, hauled unconscious to safety by three men, one of whom is recognisably the Wayfarer and therefore, most likely, another Bosch self portrait. In the centre panel, surrounded by corrupted clergy, corrupt nuns, grotesquely altered humans, he points to a grotto where Christ is being crucified; while, on the right panel, he sits hunched in his cloak over his Bible, looking past, rather than at, the manifold temptations that surround him. There is a city burning in the back of the centre panel; in the right hand panel a gladiatorial contest proceeds in a coliseum outside of which armies are marching; in the left, a brothel or a temple is built out of a bent-over human form whose arsehole shadows its entrance. Under that luminescent aqua sky, this world is darkly red, darkly brown, yet threaded through with the gorgeous pink the painter loved so much.
I was looking for the kiwi which, improbably, appears in the right hand panel of one of the triptychs: alas, not this one, but The Hay Wain, which I had seen in den Bosch without, however, remembering to seek out the Apteryx. How is it even there? Is it really a kiwi? When The Hay Wain was painted (1516 according to dendrochronologic analysis of the wood it is upon) Abel Tasman’s ‘discovery’ of New Zealand was still a century and a quarter in the future. Even if you accept that the Spanish or the Portuguese may have arrived sooner in the Antipodes, no pre-1516 date for European discovery is credible. The ‘kiwi’ then, must have been the product of a vision or a dream; but one which may yet have been based upon news from beyond the European sphere, for Bosch was certainly one of those whose attention was focussed upon the fantastical creatures world exploration was then bringing to the West’s notice: the giraffe in the left panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights is proof of that.
Two further points: The Temptation of St Anthony clarified a feeling I had looking at the works in Holland: space in a Bosch painting is singularly composed, as if each of his constructions, whether human, animal, avian, amphibious, piscatorial, demonic, architectural or some combination of the above, exists in a dimension of its own, making his work particularly responsive to the reproduction of detail and, inter alia, extremely satisfying to view on zoom on a computer screen. The second point is more specific to this painting, perhaps, but has larger implications. Anthony was the patron saint of those who suffered from ergot poisoning, aka Saint Anthony’s Fire: caused by eating bread made from grain upon which the ergot fungus flourished. Ergot poisoning was common in Europe in the Middle Ages; its effects resemble those of LSD intoxication. Indeed, there is a chemical relationship between ergot and lysergic.
Ignis sacer, then, the holy fire, or at least its effects, seems to be a part of the subject matter of Bosch’s Temptation. More generally, his own intoxications with ergot, if indeed they occurred, might have contributed something to the astonishing, recombinant, fecundity of his visions. Mind you, if we did know that, what is it then that we would know? What does it mean? It is one of those causes which does not banish, nor really explain, its effects. The tree person, holding a swaddled babe in its arms while saddled up and riding upon a field mouse, will not go away; nor the bodiless bird-winged figure with a burr for a head, a thistle for a hat, and a falcon upon his wrist; nor any of those fish-demons flying in the aqua sky; nor the pig-headed man with a dulcimer under his arm; nor even the one whose head is a bugle farting air. Wherever those visions came from, however they came, they retain a sense of actuality which makes them, once seen, veritable things of the world. You cannot fully comprehend the inventions of Hieronymus Bosch; but you cannot unsee them either.