Sun, Jun 04, 2006 - Page 19 News List

Tasmania: From devil's island to Eden via 52 cans of beer

Nicholas Shakespeare put pen to paper in an effort to bring the land of weird wonders under Australia to life, but he fell short on imagination

By William Grimes  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

In Tasmania
By Nicholas Shakespeare
374 pages
The Overlook Press

Tasmania is a funny place. Under the land down under, nearly off the map, it has been a synonym for isolation ever since the days when it was known as Van Diemen's Land. As Nicholas Shakespeare puts it in In Tasmania, his rambling, whimsical portrait of the island, "it is like outer space on earth and invoked by those at the `center' to stand for all that is far-flung, strange and unverifiable." There are the animals of course: the possibly extinct, almost mythical Tasmanian tiger, and its cousin, the Tasmanian devil. But the people too -- at least the ones unearthed by Shakespeare -- can lay claim to their own brand of weirdness. "Shakespeare," one Tasmanian repeats, looking at the author in astonishment. "Not Shakespeare? You couldn't possibly be related to the family who make the fishing tackle?"

Who could blame Shakespeare, a British novelist, for taking up residence on the island? It offers breathtaking natural beauty, a pristine rain forest and clean air. "The air of Hobart Town is perfect air," wrote Anthony Trollope, whose ecstatic descriptions of Tasmania in 1873 inspired a mini-migration from Britain. He didn't know the half of it.

Tasmania's far northwest, cleansed by southerly winds, boasts the purest air ever recorded on the planet. All this, and fabulous Tasmanians like Errol Flynn and Merle Oberon.

Well, maybe not Merle Oberon. As part of his journalistic assignment, Shakespeare gets on the trail of the Tasmanian tiger and the Oberon legend, manufactured by Hollywood, and still cherished by Tasmanians. It was a great day for the former penal colony within a penal colony when that glamorous actress, in 1978, was persuaded by her fourth husband to revisit the supposed scenes of her birth and childhood.

Oberon nearly suffered a mental breakdown from the strain and eventually blurted out, at an official dinner, that she had been born in Bombay. No worries. She was surrounded by Tasmanians who vividly recalled her and assured her that they knew both her parents well. "In Tasmania, we tell stories to reassure ourselves we have not slipped unnoticed over the rim of the world," a Tasmanian historian wrote of the Oberon affair. In Tasmania brightens up at loony moments like these. If only Shakespeare, a limp, reticent tour guide, could drop his English reserve, the book might have done justice to the place. Tasmania screams out for lavish, Technicolor physical description. It begs for a writer willing to sink his teeth into the place as if it were a juicy steak. The anemic Shakespeare specializes in meaningful pauses and cryptic silences. A pastel watercolorist, a stylistic vegetarian, he is inadequate to the task.

Here and there Tasmanians come to the rescue. Some are contemporary, like the wondrous cricketer David Boon, also known as the Keg on Legs, who upheld a proud Tasmanian tradition when he managed to consume a record-breaking 52 cans of beer on a flight to London in 1989. Some, like Anthony Fenn Kemp, are long dead, and, intriguingly, related to the author.

Kemp, called by some Tasmanians the father of his country and by others "a great Ass," offers Shakespeare an irresistible point of entry into the history of Tasmania and, it turns out, of his own family. Kemp, a thoroughgoing rascal, was the business partner and brother-in-law of Shakespeare's great-great-great-grandfather, whom Kemp defrauded of about a million US dollars in modern money, promising to send back precious cargoes from Tasmania. Instead, Kemp gained a stranglehold on the liquor trade and set up as a local lord, naming his estate Mount Vernon in honor of George Washington, whom he had visited during his radical youth.

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