Van Diemen’s Land

After four months in Sydney, back from three years in London and fifteen in New York, it’s time to get out the city for a while, maybe even piss off for good. I have a friend way down south in Tasmania whom I have not seen since the sixth grade. Cate and I have talked on the phone for hours. She lives in the bush near Hobart and works for Qantas, even knows of a job lead there. So I lend my flat to my brother, and head south to the Melbourne-Devonport ferry in my little Ford.

The ten-hour drive is another story. Sydney’s homely but better educated sister is laid out on a great flat plain north of the bay, glittering impressively at dusk, with towers and spires at her centre.

I lose my way trying to avoid the expensive toll roads, but have to pay to get to the South Melbourne docks in time. The Spirit of Tasmania is as big as a cruise ship and I arrive near the tail end of a long line of cars. The inspectors are making a fuss about my jerry can of petrol and bottles stove fuel, and they walkie-talkie up front, describing my red hatchback. When I get around to the ramp I’ll be asked to halt and told to empty them and fill them with water. I grumble at the waste, shaking the fine print permission on my ticket at them, but they have updated rules to follow. When I finally get around to the open jaws of the ship, the lads wave me through and up onto the ramp. They’re too busy to worry about a bit of extra fuel.

Several decks up the restaurant, bar and gaming areas are teeming with folks, mostly old couples, youths hanging on to their girlfriends, and a few lone males like myself slumped on benches with pints of beer. The ship is an hour late getting started. The engines rumble sub-sonically underfoot as I wander up and down the white steel stairs, finding the open decks at the stern where the smokers and lovers go.

Everyone on the ship is white. That old fashioned angular, beaky, or slack-mouthed Aussie whiteness of untempered English, Scot and Irish stock, reddened in many of the men by sun and drink. The disorienting shock is similar to that experienced after leaving spice-bowl New York City and going into a supermarket in buttermilk biscuit Pennsylvania.

So I settle in, find a cruise chair, quite the same as an economy seat on a plane, and line up for dinner at the budget buffet. A couple of fellows slouch in front of me on the line, they’re really piling the food on, so I’m not ashamed to do the same. The lad next to me is tall and broad with a beet red face and straw-coloured stubble. He has a battered, barnyard-stained felt hat pushed down over his carroty bristle. He pours a couple of ladles of gravy over his pyramid of food. It wells and dribbles over the side of his plate. The other fellow laughs, turns to me and chuckles “look mite, ‘ee’s spillin’ ‘is fuckin’ grivy all iver the plice.” I grin back; how refreshingly friendly. But I rein in the twinkle after a second, because I am a foreign stranger, after all.

I sit alone and tuck in to a big plate of roast lamb, mint sauce, potatoes and a couple glasses of wine. Then I head outside with the others as the ship swings around creating a stiff breeze. It noses down the narrow flagged channel in muddy Port Phillip Bay. The suburbs twinkle around us in the black distance. At about midnight the ship rolls blindly through the churning rip tide at the heads and out onto the open sea. I’m hoping to catch the eye of one or other of the lone fellows leaning out and smoking, but they’re not interested in any conversation, so it’s off to the chair for a bit of sleep. I find a better spot, triangulated as far away from two old snoring men as I can, and get about five hours worth. Up at dawn, and out on deck; a brisk spray in the breeze and a slight roll underfoot. Gulls on either side rise and fall and keep pace, as though bearing the ship’s enormous foam wedding train. Ahead lies the coast of Tasmania cutting an ominous line under the dreary scudding sky. Further inland, a great granite wall glows between grey layers of cloud in the horizontal sunlight.

Tasmania is a temperate paradise, a much more compact array of terrain than the mainland, with rugged coasts and mountains, a broad farmed valley down the middle and tall rainforests in the south west. The climate is mild, though winters are long by Australian standards. The air is clean. The Westerly winds blow across the southern ocean with no continents to pollute them. It’s exhilarating, with a visceral hint of homecoming.

The ferry spews us out at Devonport. I want to head south immediately to catch the last of the cold spring weather. It’s only a three hour drive down to Hobart on the narrow Midland Highway. The Great Western Tiers rise like a wall from the plains, still flecked with snow in late October. Then the Ben Lomond Plateau rears up to the east. The Midlands Valley is broad and dry and dull, like much Australian farmland, but this section of the drive lasts less than an hour. The land is bedizened with willow groves along the creeks, rows of poplars, and little stone houses and churches with beautiful spires. The dusty green Australian bush has been pushed back only as far as the hills. Through Perth, Campbell Town, Ross and Oatlands, then over a crumpled scarf of green ridges to Hobart on the Derwent River, under the rocky dome of Mt Wellington and the surrounding ranges.

Hobart is a pretty little city with many colonial remnants: Georgian symmetry and Victorian wedding cake in honey coloured stone around the waterfront. Battery Point, up the hill, is the next oldest settlement. There’s a small oval village green, Arthur’s Circus, and there’s St. Georges Church on Cromwell Street, built in 1838 in the Greek style, with a tower like the lighthouse of Alexandria might have looked. The church is surrounded, as though in a medieval village, by streets of imposing houses and workmen’s cottages. Trellises, roses, clean tan stone and peeling green paint on the veranda posts. Antiques, tea with scones, jam and clotted cream; so motherly and English. South along Sandy Bay there’s Wrest Point Casino, a glass and concrete cylinder built in the early seventies to attract mainland money, now looking as sophisticated as a stack of ashtrays. The suburbs sprawl along the Derwent as far as steep slopes and water will let them.

Tasmanians are friendly and down to earth, but quite conservative and leery of mainland ways and mores as they see them. It’s a very comfortable place to exist in, but whether they think about it or not, they carry tragedy and terror in their bones.

The aboriginals of Tasmania were descended from the earliest wave of humans in Australia, pushed south by successive migrations over tens of thousands of years, becoming isolated on the island when the seas rose 12,000 years ago. Soon after colonisation the British proconsul had them concentrated in reservations, for their spiritual and corporeal good, where of course, they died. Decades later, impatient for more land, killing parties set out to pick off the hold-outs. The last full blood aboriginal man, William Lanne, passed away in 1869 and his wife Trucanini survived until 1876 as a revered curiosity. Only a diluted strain of native blood survives in a fraction of the population.

The island had been touched-on in the 1640’s by the Dutch sailor Abel Tasman, who came ashore briefly and named it Van Diemen’s Land in honour of his patron. In 1772 a French ship under the command of Capt. Marion Du Fresne stayed a week. After Port Jackson was settled in 1788 by the British an expedition was sent south to consolidate the claim, and to discover that this part of the territory, long thought to be the southern tip of Terra Australis Incognita was separated from the mainland by a broad strait. Australia’s second penal colony was founded on the Derwent River in 1803.

Van Diemen’s Land would become hell on earth for the convicts who were sent here, and Macquarie Harbour on the rugged south west coast, with cold rain and wind squalling down the mountain slopes, was its black hole. Intractables were kept chained together at night on a wet rock ledge, up to seventy bodies at a time. The Irish convict Alexander Pierce escaped with a party of five from here. Seven weeks later, having crossed the mountains and reached settled land, he was caught eating a sheep, raw, alone. One, then another of the weaker members of his party had been isolated, axed and eaten. Pierce survived at the top of that ragged food chain of men. The authorities could not believe his exploits, assuming he was covering for the other escapees. He kept his mouth shut after being sent back to Macquarie. Incredibly he escaped again with an unsuspecting sap who came along to be used for food. Pierce was again captured, found chewing on the remains of his companion, and promptly hanged in 1823. His skull, boiled and picked clean, was eventually sold to an American collector. It sits in a glass case at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.

Port Arthur was the great Victorian experiment, erected on the south-eastern Tasman Peninsula. It served as a model of scientific penal thoroughness, with a separate gaol for the moral protection of child convicts. Its impressive barracks and church now sit roofless in lawns of green, tranquil and monastic in the afternoon sun, the stones scrubbed clean of blood and pain, a major tourist attraction. A troubled local lad massacred thirty-five visitors there in 1996, most of them in the cafeteria, others he hunted down one-by-one as they fled.

I spend two weeks here. Wandering the pretty streets of Hobart, listening to music at the cathedral on Sunday nights, eating hot chips with tomato sauce, hiking up Mt Wellington, heaving and sweating, humming along with the birds under the snow gum saplings up to the cold brackeny heights. When there seems less chance of rain, I drive further into the western and northern wilderness and sleep in the car, to clamber higher and further up Cradle Mountain, The Walls of Jerusalem, and Legges Tor. I spend bad weather at Cate’s house in the bush on the south slopes of Mt Wellington. She works evening shift in town and sleeps much of the day. So I go out in the mornings, and then drive back up the rough muddy track to be alone with Gismo the cat afternoons and evenings. Huddled by the whistling smoky stove as the cold rain pours outside, with cups of tea and Arnotts Teddybear biscuits. Wonderful, and oh, so depressing.

I am just not ready for this. Didn’t Pascal write something in his musings about man’s misery? About not being able to sit quietly in a room alone? Perhaps it is easier to shut a noisy world out with a grumble, than to draw it in to one’s solitude; easier, when we are weak, to have a giant to battle on the outside, rather than face the whining beast inside.

So I dither about the job possibility and head back north, to Devonport and the ferry, avoiding the toll roads of Melbourne, on to the thousand kilometres of road and the anaesthetic allurements, stress and family obligations of Sydney. Better to cast my pearly daydreams before swine than toss them back into the deep, forgetting sea. I’m going to learn to love to hate that city, just as I learned to love to hate other bigger cities in the past.

But I will return to Tassie often; maybe one day for good, to hike the rugged outcrops, to sit in a silent mountainside room, wind and rain raging through the gum trees, fire in the hearth, cat under the sofa, alone with my Goliath.

November 1st 2004

This essay first appeared in the monthly magazine Black Lamb, which can be seen at http://www.blacklamb.org.

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In and out of God’s ear

St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne on a warm Sunday evening in Lent: the setting sun pours through the yellow-paned clerestory windows and along the tall stone transept. The aureal glow trickles over the heads of a few dozen faithful attendants, tiny motionless figures far down in the dark valley of the nave. Up here on the choir platform twelve of us are singing the offertory motet, Ecce quomodo, moritur justus. It reverberates and swells down the building and eddies back toward us heavily. Gesualdo’s music is a dark sky through which opposing armies of moist air, one warmed by grace, the other chilled in mortal fear, meet above the field. The collision drags the cold under. A spiral of cloud plunges earthward, as, though inverted on different scales of time and weight, the edge of one continent is said to plunge under the other, melting into the black heat of the earth as the other rears up to form ice-catching mountains above it. Et erit in pace, memoria ejus. A chord of light spears Gesualdo’s turbulent, imploring gloom. The hell-heaven of that murdering, penitent prince is made still for as long as the twelve of us can sustain our slow, controlled exhalation.

*****

It’s good to be singing again, and such deliciously difficult music too, after a long absence from that odd little universe made up of church choir people. Nearly every strange country, nearly every new town has found me a choir to orient head-above-feet. It hasn’t always worked, but more often than not singing has been a foundation stone to reorient a wayward direction.

I heard choral music during the first year away from home at the Hostel for Boys, run by the Anglican cathedral (alluded to in a previous hallucino-realist article as the Cathedral of St Lucifer Before The Fall) in Wangaratta, a tobacco town in northeast Victoria. I went through a self-protective fat phase after we emigrated to Australia, and by the age of twelve had transmogrified into someone like Piggy in William Golding’s novel, Lord of the Flies. During the first hostel years my un-sexy pre-pubescent plushness kept the roving eye and hairy muscular body of the hostel warden off me, (if not the hands of those rude bullyboys) but it also housed an inner playground on which a world evolved out of bits of books remembered, myths absorbed, poured out on piles of butcher’s paper, charcoal-drawn or water coloured with snow-capped volcanoes and piratical galleons. We hostel boys were compelled to go to Church on Sunday, and to put, at minimum, a twenty-cent coin in the plate. So, every Sabbath morning between ten and eleven I’d hear the pipe organ rumble and the choir soar. Would I be allowed to sing up there?

One Sunday afternoon I summoned the nerve, auditioned with Father Harvie and sailed in to his domain on my high C. Gothic arches, spires and organ pipes were added to my day-dreamy storehouse of motifs. The late Father Harvie (who is worth a story of his own) was a tall, waspish priest of a high-Edwardian cast. He was a fine musician who — with withering sarcasm, the threat of, and boxing of ears, and when he really let go, an ascension in the manner of a grande-dame upon rhetorical flights of aesthetic encouragement (which often involved an allusion to the satisfied ears of no less a person than Her Majesty The Queen) — wrung and wrought musical gold from the lungs and mouths of his little tribe of sniggering boys, doltish altos and snidely whispering tenors and basses. We did the Messiah every year with soloists hired from Melbourne. We did the usual Anglican cycle of masses and Magnificats, and anthems such as Mendelssohn’s O for the Wings of a Dove and Allegri’s Miserere. I got my turn at soloing both: the former is on a cassette tape somewhere in the closet, but the latter, only a blow to my adolescent pride. My turn came at the end of my treble days, on a morning when I could no longer manage the high C. One of the basses had to do the ultimate note each time on his flute, with me coming back in on the run down. The shame was worse than sexual shame.

Father Harvie was, under his peculiar mask, decent and patient enough with children, and I ended up boarding with him in the grand Old Rectory on weekends rather than be driven the sixty-five miles home. I suppose he was my father figure (as he was to other boys from messed-up families). I got my love of gilded things, marble floors, antiques and an elegant turn of phrase from my time residing with him. The Wangaratta choir ended up being (as it might not have been for Piggy) a refuge as well as a relatively healthy direction during adolescence. It’s turned out to be not such a bad foundation.

I wandered off onto other paths, steep, sharp and primrose strewn, and didn’t sing again until university years in Western Australia, when the main social outlet for music students was the Perth Undergraduate Choral Society. We chorused for a university production of Purcell’s King Arthur. We did Gabrieli Cori Spezzati with trombones in the university hall, David Fanshawe’s African Sanctus with rock group, Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the youth orchestra. We had a blast. On more than one early morning after the all-night parties that followed big concerts, we’d end up at Swanbourne beach on the Indian Ocean, skinny-dipping, the eldest seventy and the youngest seventeen. We sang hard and drank — probationers received, as standard issue, a medicine bottle of ‘Lurgie Linctus,’ a mix of port and brandy to be sipped as needed during rehearsal. Some of us smoked a lot of weed and, mindlessly lucky, ploughed and sowed our way through the choir in diverse ways hetero, homo, and both. I vaguely remember relishing the conviction that life was a bitter, meaningless tragedy, but it wasn’t, was it?

After that, another escape from Down-Under, first to London, for a stint as the Cantor in an archly-conservative, cryptically gay “ritualist” church in Pimlico, then a quick exploratory trip to New York, which became, on and off, home for nearly fifteen years.

Trinity Church Wall Street paid its singers the best rates in Manhattan. A mid-week rehearsal and a Sunday morning service covered a modest Brooklyn rent. I got in, not on vocal technique but on sight-reading ability (a fragment of Anton Webern, so my diary says). It was a thrill to be vocally out of my depth and yet fit in as a musician. It was a socially active group too, some of us were loud and queenily, blue-stockingly clever. The thrill was almost too much. I spent sleepless adrenalin-filled nights composing limericks for each one of my comrades, a way of letting off nocturnal steam.

Here are a few samples:

With a leer, Signor Urreiztieta
Once fondled a Spanish Pieta.
Mary took him to tasque
Crying, “Impious Basque,
You’ve polluted our Mystical Thieta!”

Miss Harrison once played a male
In Die Entführung aus dem Serail.
Her vital statistics
And vocal gymnastics
Brought opera buffs off, without fail!

A serial composer is Joel
But his soul has its opposite pole
His id’s a gorilla
A soprano killer
With dodecaphonic control

Sex games in the choir loft bored Ana
When cruised she sighed “Maybe Mañana”
When a bisexual fruit
Once tried to recruit
Her, she scoffed “I don’t go for bañana”

We were New York ‘professionals,’ and as such, when not drinking coffee and eating bagels, or reading the Village Voice, or smoking Dunhill Extra Milds or Sobranie Black Russians on Trinity’s Broadway steps during those tiresome interludes not requiring song, some of us got up to mischief.

The Trinity organ, an imposing Aeolian-Skinner machine, has a smooth, worldly, American Empire sound. If one were to compare the cascades of brilliance produced by its ranks of brass and mixtures with the soul-shattering blasts produced by the organ of Notre Dame in Paris, for example, the effect produced by the Trinity organ is not so much the mysterious shiver of light through flaws in the ancient glass, than a splay of laser beams through prisms of Perspex. Now, up in the organ/choir loft sat a huge orchestral tam-tam. During the presentation of the gifts, when the priest raises the glinting stack of collection plates over the altar, Owen Burdick, organist and music director, would work the sound up to a big, bad, Trompetto Stupendoso Battaglio Imperiale orchestral fortissimo appropriate for a 1950s biblical movie-orgy of pagan abasement before the golden calf. And we (the naughty ones) would chorus, “the monnneeeeeyyyy!” as someone struck that tam-tam in a muscular, reverberating crash worthy of the Rank Organization’s mighty gongman. If we got bored with that, then during the prayers intoned by the priest during the Eucharist we’d croon the line along with him in a mellow, barely audible jazzy major seventh parallel organum.

We sang some devastatingly good music: Durufle’s four motets on Gregorian themes, Palestrina’s Surge Illuminare, Herbert Howells’ Nunc Dimittis from the St Paul’s service, imperial music, but with oceanic deeps of heart and soul. We sang this at the Trinity Institute service one January; a big, splashy evening full of priests swanning around urbanely, networking, enjoying the fruits of their small, exclusive civilization. We sang Josquin, Bach, lush Samuel Wesley and clean Richard Dering; simple, starched, creamy white lavender-scented sheets of sound. The high point in my recollection of Trinity: Take Him, Earth, For Cherishing, which Herbert Howells wrote for John F Kennedy’s memorial service. It begins in unison, before the line branches out in rich tributaries of harmony between paths that wind high and low. The emotion intensifies, peaks and does not break (this is the key to its potency), and dies back until the final bass notes rumble into silence.

We sang some duds: Behold Now Praise the Lord, a gemütlich, Eisenhower-era chorus by one Everett Titcomb, like a Presbyterian palm court waltz. At the first run through we hooted and threw the music into the middle of the choir room. In revenge, Burdick made us wade through a never-before-performed Trinity commission by one Charles Wuorinen, with organ accompaniment containing unplayable notes scored below the instrument’s range. We yowled our way through that too and it was put away. No one had ever touched the copies before, and maybe no one since.

Burdick (brilliant improviser, himself quite fun in a cynical, sottish schoolboy way) fired the whole choir one year after the Easter season was done, except for a couple of mild mannered stalwarts who had no place else to go.

I wandered off to the Pacific North West for a while. As for choral music and its related social world, New York had spoiled me rotten. Not being patient enough to make the adjustments that needed to be made, I spent brief periods with various ensembles, a couple of fine ones among them, and sank into a dark stew. Seattle society was, to my hot-headed, moody and perfectionist self, unnervingly polite and chilly (rather like Melbourne). I reached my nadir one evening, having got recklessly drunk at a St Mark’s Compline Choir party, declaiming in lonesome frustration to a very pleasant and talented young conductor; “God, Seattle’s full of such one dimensional people!

I fled to the mountains every weekend after that, warming up in the foothills of the Cascades and eventually burning the crap away in delicious solitude, cooking it up the imperturbable, ice-capped crests of Baker, Adams, Rainier and Hood.

I ended up back on the West Coast a decade later, ten tears older, to Oregon this time, and while in Portland I got to sing with the ensemble Cantores in Ecclesia, in one of the second-tenor chairs right next to our mellow and friendly Black Lamb editor. My first week with the group we did Victoria’s Requiem of 1605 in the enormous chapel of The Grotto, a sanctuary in a grove of pines a few miles out of the city. Ah, swimming those currents again, the slow, sombre river of Spanish Catholic heaven. The Grotto chapel is a concrete and marble Art Deco cave with watery murals, huge bronze doors, and ponderous resonance — like the swimming pool on the SS Normandie, I thought. I was settling into Portland, thanks again to that odd human universe made up of church choir people, and Portland was getting accustomed to me, but family matters necessitated a hasty return to Australia after a busy six months.

*****

Sunday evening’s proceedings are almost done here at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The sun has set. The Dean has delivered one of his fulsome ‘fireside chats’, with morsels of spiritual and social wisdom doled out to each and every one of us as though from a plate of friendship cookies, or poured into our waiting cups from a nice warm pot of tea. Down in the nave, the crisp lines of the hammerbeam roof have dissolved into a tenebrous cavern above the candles and lamps. The corporeal, sanguineous mysteries have been revealed and consumed. The wafers have been tucked backed into their box, the wine flask stoppered. We sing the golden vessels back to the tabernacle with the communion chant. The line of chant pulses, rising and falling. The spirit within each note and syllable intensifies along every crest and valley of sound. It peaks several times but does not break, held in peace by a steady metrical pace (the key to its potency) before descending to rest around the heads of those few dozen faithful attendants, tiny motionless figures far down in the dark valley of the nave. Passer invenit sibi domum, et turtur nidum, ubi reponat pullos suos: Even the sparrow finds a home, the swallow finds a nest wherein to place her young.

This essay first appeared in the monthly magazine Black Lamb, which can be seen at http://www.blacklamb.org.