In Tasmania

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 January, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 January, 2005, 12:00am

In Tasmania

by Nicholas Shakespeare

The Harvill Press $310

British novelist Nicholas Shakespeare went to Tasmania to get Bruce Chatwin out of his system, after working for seven years on his biography. One of the attractions of Tasmania was that Chatwin never went there. Shakespeare was tired after seeking 'from the dead what they did not reveal in life'. He wanted a fresh start and, after being plagued elsewhere by questions about his relationship with the famous namesake playwright, was pleased to be in a place where his surname prompted people to ask if he was related to the local who sold fishing tackle.

He found a whole hamlet of Chatwins, but also a house and a story of his own about two forebears who had settled in Tasmania. That forced him to search archives and old letters to ferret out their secrets. And, despite his intentions, Chatwin's influence remained strong. The title of the book which results from more than three years lived partly in Tasmania recalls Chatwin's In Patagonia. Moreover, like Chatwin, Shakespeare uses contemporary episodes as a springboard for historical excursions.

The investigation of his forebears would have made a unified volume. He adds a section on the return of those, sometimes blue-eyed and fair-haired, claiming to be Tasmanian Aborigines, after widespread deploration of their extinction. Again, he moves from the personal to the historical, but it's no longer a family story, as was those of his forebears, and the reader wonders why he doesn't take a similar in-depth look at other current issues, such as the felling of ancient forests for commercial purposes.

To the section on aborigines he adds chapters on exotica such as Tasmanian tigers and devils, an oft-told story of a case of convict- era cannibalism, and the saga of the film star Merle Oberon who, ashamed of her Eurasian origins, claimed to be Tasmanian. It's a hoary tale, but Shakespeare adds examples of how tenaciously Tasmanian's cling to the myth, despite the evidence.

The stories of Shakespeare's forebears set each other off nicely. One, Anthony Fenn Kemp, called the 'Father of Tasmania' as well as being the father of 16 children, was an egomaniac embezzler to be avoided at all costs, but he's worth meeting on the page. Kemp turned his back on his English parents, became a republican in France of the Revolution and met George Washington before coming to Australia. He served in the army in New South Wales where he was described as a 'renowned bully'. He cornered the rum trade, which was why his infamous regiment was known as the Rum Corps. Later, he settled in Tasmania, where he received a huge land grant. The ex-bankrupt became a magistrate, a magnate and even a moralist.

The other forebears of Shakespeare, the Horderns, were prominent stockbreeders in Devon, but lived obscurely in Tasmania. However, Shakespeare discovers two aged spinster descendants, Maude and Ivy, who live together contentedly, rarely venturing out of their cottage. Shakespeare creates a memorable portrait of the self-sufficient pair who, after decades of immobility, decide 'you don't do the same thing all your life' - and move to a house nine miles away.

In Tasmania is a compendium of good stories retailed by a skilled narrator. At times, the link material seems arbitrary: for instance, the discovery of a fragment of blue and white china on the beach is the lead in to an account of a shipwreck there 150 years ago. Why that particular shipwreck? It suggests Shakespeare sometimes tries too hard to actualise the past.