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Monday, October 10, 2011

Growing up in Tasmania

I wrote a poem which mentioned a childhood morning at my grandparents' home, The Orchard House, in Spreyton, Tasmania. People in other parts of the world are often fascinated by the mention of my birthplace, particularly Americans. Apparently there is a funny US TV show about a Tasmanian Devil. (Although I haven't seen it, it sounds as if it bears about as much relation to the real thing as Wile E. Coyote does to actual coyotes.) Anyway, one of the American readers of my poetry bog has just asked: ''Tasmania? Literally? I never knew anyone from Tasmania! Do tell...'  My reply went on so long that I moved it over here:


Ha ha, yes literally. Last time I was in America, I found that many people thought it was a fictional place! It's an island at the south-east tip of Australia, and in its own right constitutes one State of Australia (sometimes called the Island State). The climate is temperate, with cold winters. I grew up in the city of Launceston in the north, where the North Esk and South Esk join to form the river Tamar. 


My grandparents owned orchards in what was then the tiny hamlet of Spreyton, now a suburb of the city of Devonport on the north-west coast, which was then a small town. Tasmania used to be known as the Apple Isle, and my grandparents grew mostly apples — including varieties one never sees any more — as well as a number of other fruits. It was a magickal place to spend a childhood, and nowhere more magickal than my grandparents' property. The island still has unspoiled areas of great scenic beauty — though, like everywhere, there is now a constant battle between environmentalists and developers.


I left when I was 15 for family reasons. It broke my heart — but I ended up spending my late teens in the city of Melbourne, living with a wonderful aunt and attending the University of Melbourne on mainland Australia, and in hindsight I think that was better. Tasmania was too insular and conformist to have given me the adolescence I needed.


I won't live in Tasmania again — far too cold for me these days, and even then — but it's always the deep home in the heart. One reason I like the small town where I live now is that, although very different in climate and sensibilities, in some ways it reminds me strongly of the Launceston of my youth. I still think of myself as 'Taswegian' — an in joke: what we call ourselves and each other, rather than the correct 'Tasmanian'. The place itself is affectionately called 'Tassie' (pronounced 'Tazzie') even by those who have never lived there.


Tasmanians refer to the rest of Australia as 'the mainland' and privately believe it is all much inferior to our small State, which is separated from the rest by a wild stretch of water called Bass Strait. Mainlanders, on the other hand, sneer at Tasmanians for having two heads, a reference to our supposed inbreeding — but it's all good-humoured really. However we don't find it amusing when cartographers (so often!) leave Tasmania right off the map.


The island has a distinctive shape, which leads audiences at Australian strip shows to exhort the performers: 'Show us yer map of Tasmania!'


Just for the record, I am not fond of Tasmanian Devils. While I hope they are not rendered extinct by the dreadful disease they are subject to at present, I have never been able to warm to them; in fact I consider them detestable little creatures.

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