e) Life, love and belonging
The Today Show
This piece was published in Island magazine, edition 101, Spring 2005
“…the wonderful Tasmanian sunlight, which is like no other sunlight in the world! …warm and impetuous, yet not fierce; dazzling, but not glaring; full of strength, yet tender, glad, vigorous, exuberant, but often suggesting an underlying sadness.”
~ Marie Bjelke-Petersen
It was 6am and I was sleepy, one degree and I wasn’t dressed for it.
The horses were happy. You could tell by the way they kicked their concrete troughs and generally made a racket. Just over their fence there were so many new people, big trucks, cables, satellite dishes. It was a momentous occasion for horse and human.
While the weather was explained from a pig pen, the television crew politely drew us into a queue. Next to me was an old man and on the other side of him his burly sergeant-at-arms, guiding him, shielding him, whispering to him all the time. In what was clearly a habitual gesture the old man offered me his hand suddenly and unbidden, and without hesitation I grasped and shook it. Others might have turned away, and perhaps with good cause. But I had no doubt. I wanted to touch that hand.
A fortnight before the producer of a popular national morning breakfast program had called me to say they were broadcasting for a week from Tasmania. She said a segment on the gay law reform debate was obligatory: “mainland audiences are fascinated by it”. The catch was that, in an effort “to capture the flavour of rural life”, they were only visiting small towns.
As she read out their destination list I could picture the local characters they’d already selected to re-inforce the modern, urban conceit that beautiful places breed benighted people.
“We’ll be in Strahan, Huonville, Swansea and Sheffield. Which is best for you?”
“I grew up on a farm near Sheffield...”
“We’ll see you there.”
To a geographer Sheffield makes good sense - centrally placed on a fertile upland plain of farming hamlets. But what sense does it make to the people who live there?
To answer this question an outsider might turn to the murals which decorate most of the town’s larger exterior walls. Like mediaeval illustrations these murals render stories hallowed by constant retelling, in dubious perspective and with scant regard for the individuality of the characters depicted. The largest figure is invariably the most important. And like high gothic art, Sheffield’s depictions of itself can easily be misread.
The murals started appearing about twenty years ago, not long after rural Australia began to label and lament its own decline. But they are not the nostalgic recollections of a frail ageing community whose one remaining task is to tell of itself before it dies. Sheffield’s life is far from over. Neither are they a near powerless community’s quaint, late and useless response to the fact that as a Tasmanian town Sheffield is excluded from the neurotically narrow list of places most Australians take to represent their country. This injustice, this devaluation of the lives and experience of Tasmanians to the point of worthlessness, is as old as European Australia, and one that at least the people of Sheffield long ago found a powerful way to counteract.
Homes and shops through Sheffield and its district are decorated by thousands of paintings and photographs of one thing, the awesome remains of a long extinct volcano which dominate the district and are now called Mount Roland. Leaf through old albums or rummage in old boxes and you will find a thousand more images of the mountain from decades past. The images vary widely in perspective, hue and mood, depicting a mountain which is everything from unyielding, angry or untouchable through demanding or melancholy to most often bright, enticing and embracing. Why is Roland represented so often in such widely different ways? Why is it common to find a painting of Roland hung next to a window filled with the real thing? Like some icon of the Crucifixion or the Madonna, in an otherwise unidoled Protestant land, representations of Roland came long ago to represent the joys, agonies and aspirations of the people who live in that mountain’s shadow. Sheffield’s murals are simply the inevitable flowering of this deep rooted plant.
In five minutes of national air time the producer of the breakfast program wanted to discuss not only the United Nations decision against Tasmania’s anti-gay laws, but everything that had flowed from it: the regular pro and anti-gay rallies, the boycott of Tasmanian produce, our brush with police and of course the dramatic constitutional confrontation between Hobart and Canberra. Contradicting every point I made would be George Brookes - an anti-gay campaigner so angry about homosexuality that he refused to be in the same room as me. For today at least this was a clever strategy, for it spared him the frosty cold and the animal din.
Joining the queue to the temporary television stage put an end to my stamping and shuffling, and now I was colder than ever. Dawn had lit the sky but not yet the land and in a moment of absence I swam aloft in the sun-bathed blue. The ageing, widowed owner of the grand federation home under whose frost-laden palms and pines we had been gathered served hot tea. She passed along the line smiling amiably and I put out my hand to receive a cup, but at me her hospitality found its limit. She looked away and served the next man instead. Within a week an indignant letter appeared in the local newspaper from the same woman. Her principles, she declared, meant I was not welcomed on her land. Had she known I was to be a guest of the Today Show she would never have allowed them to broadcast from her home.
For some people, Tasmanian mountains embody old men who can’t share a room with homosexuals and old women who refuse them tea. For Tasmanian-born gay academic, Dennis Altman, “the dark mass” of Hobart’s Mount Wellington is “everywhere, looming above the city like a threatening step-mother”. It’s “an omnipresent granite-purple shadow behind every view…so beautiful, but it’s the beauty of death” .
There is some truth in this. The people into whose world I was born were possessed of a powerful self knowledge, a knowledge of where they had come from and where they fitted in. Sometimes this profound sense of belonging was rigid, conservative and oppressive - in an exaggerated and typically Tasmania way - hiding pain, denying injustice and excluding those who bucked the values of the majority. But just as often, and just as exorbitantly, it uplifted and redeemed. My childhood was a skein of stories about the dramatic deeds of my ancestors, all of them associated with particular rivers, fields, mountains or valleys to ensure I would never forget them. These associations were re-inforced by constant reminders of how I was connected through blood, debt, devotion or some other bond, to the people I met every day. The inevitable outcome was the knowledge that those around me were a part of me, and I of them, and that we were all a part of the land on which we walked and from which we drew our livelihood. At times of sadness or despair in my childhood and adolescence this sense of belonging was a net which would catch my plummeting mood. And not surprisingly, in a mind conditioned from its earliest years to tie strong emotion with terrain, this sense of belonging took on a physical form. Mt Roland’s miles of steep soaring faces and deep weather-worn crags spoke of inconceivable antiquity and incalculable mass. In comparison the tiny human events played out at its feet seemed petty and pointless. But there is also a personal almost benevolent Roland of thickly forested foot hills and ever changing colours - a Roland which over saw our lives, guarded us from threat and pointed the way to the world beyond its ramparts. Mt Roland existed both within me and far beyond me. It quickly came to represent the profound knowledge that as vast, unknowable and sometimes frightening as the world may be, within that world there is a place and a people for me.
This, then, is why Roland has inspired a thousand portraits. It represents a truth far greater than prejudice, menace and death. It represents love.
“Roland shot his great rocky form high into the sky, one of the ancient, undaunted knights who always stood up for what was good and right.”
The traditional unadorned wood and iron farmhouses around Sheffield are gloomy and draughty in the district’s cool, wet winter. Before oil columns and heat pumps families retreated to one room and left the tall hall ways and dusty sitting rooms to mildew. Perhaps this was why one little bedroom saw so much activity on the third Thursday in July 1934. Elsie and Nell, both a few years younger than the century and the best of friends, were also both in labour. Cleaning and heating one room made more sense than preparing two. Elsie gave birth first, to a son named Ian but known all his life for his small statue as Mousy. A few hours later Nell got into the bed from which her friend had just arisen and gave birth to Donald, known to most as Peter, the name his grandmother dubbed all the men in her family.
The world into which these boys were born was old even then, and has long since passed away. In their first memories they stare up from the bottom of deeply dug dirt holes at the faces of curious cows peering in at them: when potatoes had to be dug or fruit picked there were no eyes free to watch crawling babies. As small children they would see their fathers walk out to their fields or off into the mountains in suits and neckties. The labourers they sometimes ate with never wore suits, and lived in rat infested hovels beyond the barn which they were forbidden to visit. Their grandparents hushed and lulled them in a great billowing language which feared and respected the depths over which it sailed; a language full of the ancient words and candid metaphors that had served their forebears well, and accented by the kind of broken, strangled vowels which sing of loss, terror and muted hope. They sat on the knees of aged aunts who had seen convict road gangs toil, bushrangers hang and thylacines disappear into the darkened forest. When these old women died the boys dressed up in black and walked somewhere in the middle of a procession of mourners which seemed to them to have no beginning or end, a tide of grief that filled roads, burst fencelines and lapped over the hills in every direction. Later, on the brink of adulthood, they were to mourn again, this time the loss of all their teeth, pulled out, as they were then from every child in that land of abysmal dental hygiene, in a bloody ritual act of love and sympathy.
But amidst the poverty, ceremony and mile long memories there was also irresistible change. Like never before, women of Nell’s wilfulness could make a life for themselves beyond their marriage. She held her own views, worked her own trade and above all ruled her own affections. She shared a deep, lifelong love with the woman who had also shared her confinement, a love much stronger than her love for her husband. Even as they grew old in body and unrelentingly rigid in their views their love persisted over endless games of euchre. The 20s temperance advocate, Frances Willard, summarised the changes of which Nell and Elsie were examples. “The loves of women for each other grow more numerous each day…there is no village that has not its examples of “two hearts in counsel”. These are the tokens of a transition age.” But love is also a product of its place, and each love is thereby made special. The two boys, Mousy and Peter, were to grow up thinking of each other as cousins and of each other’s parents as uncles and aunties, two farming families for generations linked by history, place and labour, linked now even more firmly by two women’s hearts.
While Peter and Mousy grew through boyhood at the foot of Mount Roland, over the range in Mole Creek their world was being chronicled in minute detail. At the end of each day’s adventures with the district’s people Marie Bjelke-Petersen would fill her notebooks with observations on their customs, language and outlook like some accomplished ethnographer. She recorded the songs of old farmers, the superstitions of young women and succeeded like no other writer in rendering the unique phonetics of old Tasmania. But this ethnographer was in fact a novelist who, out of enchantment with Mt Roland and its people, wrote romances inspired by both.
Marie regularly travelled from her home near Hobart to a favourite boarding house beneath Mt Roland, staying often for weeks at a time. Her once popular novels show that what impressed her was the sincerity of the people and the grandeur of the geography, not that she would have made so neat a distinction between humanity and nature. For her an individual’s beauty was the product of beauty in the land, and the land’s magnificence best understood as the personification of human aspiration and virtue. She believed the wilderness redeems us and she argued compellingly for its conservation. But she also knew that without the constant investment of our passion and hope the land is slowly and irreversibly drained of meaning. Most likely what attracted Marie to Mt Roland was that she was amongst folk who immediately understood that people are mountains and mountains people.
As much as Marie Bjelke-Petersen loved what Sheffield was, she also represented what it was becoming. The ideal of women’s self determination inspired her to advocate for everything from an extension of the franchise to greater access to bicycles. But most of all she believed a woman should be free to give her heart to whomever she chose. That Tasmania was the stage she selected to play out this idea was not surprising. Compared, she believed, to the artificiality and shallowness of Sydney or Melbourne, unaffected Tasmania was the obvious place to find true, passionate, lasting love. For Marie Tasmania represented progress and freedom, much as it does for the state’s social and environmental activists today, and just as strongly as it symbolises constriction and death to others. With Tasmania to inspire her she wrote of love freed from the bonds of class, history, duty and convention. Her life, spent passionately and lovingly with her companion Sylvia Mills, spoke the same message.
Jewelled Nights is probably Bjelke-Petersen’s best known work. In 1925 it was made into a movie by an Australian-born Hollywood actor, Louise Lovely, who had returned to her homeland to establish a native film industry. Modern readers looking for gay subtexts in Jewelled Nights don’t have far to go. Cross dressed as a man named Dick, the main female character escapes an arranged marriage for freedom in the Osmiridium mines of Tasmania’s west coast. The handsome and unsuspecting Salarno who Dick befriends is teased by his miner mates for “goin’ loony” over Dick. Salarno even suggests they share their lives as well as their work. Friendship he says, “is a two-man’s patch…it’s like a partnership affair”. “Kid, wouldn’t it be great to be together all day, have our meals together and – everything?” A woman whose advances are “coldly ignored” by Salarno accuses him of being “struck on” Dick, of being “crazy” for “the pretty boy”. “You are going round to play with that curly headed boy of yours. Do you make love to him too? I suppose you diggers down here must have someone to make love to – but why don’t you try me? I’d be nicer than a boy, anyway!” Salarno does not respond.
Of course, in the mind of almost every Australian Marie’s rare Danish surname will forever be associated with her nephew Joh, farmer, knight and long reigning Premier of Queensland. In many of these minds an assumption will be made that the notoriously conservative Sir Joh was at odds with his aunt, but this was not so. They were very close. An evangelical faith was one thing they shared. Marie believed the Almighty had sent her Sylvia - “God’s Angels often come in human form not as strangers whose lips never touch ours…but as friends, close dear friends, whom we may fondle & caress & feel they really belong to us” - and she often compared their relationship to that of David and Jonathon. Marie and her nephew also shared conservative beliefs, at least in her later years. Like Nell, Elsie and thousands of other women who had tasted the freedoms of the early twentieth century, Marie’s political views grew staid and rigid as she grew old: her response to the civil rights movement was that the races should be equal but separate. Perhaps conservatism served to contain her passions and compensated for her unorthodox loves. For his part Joh was obviously inspired by Marie’s passions, however unorthodox; admiring her partner, frequently visiting her in Tasmania, and falling so deeply in love with Sheffield that it was the place he turned to for solace when in the mid 1980s Queensland and then the nation rejected his long since corrupted political ideals. When a few years earlier Joh’s government had criminalised the sale of alcohol to homosexuals, lesbians were conspicuously absent from the prohibition. It is said that this was Joh’s idea, in deference to the aunt he loved so dearly.
In early November 1969 in her 94th year Marie Bjelke-Petersen was dying. Despite his recent election as Queensland’s new Premier her favourite nephew travelled to Hobart to be by her side. Marie passed peacefully. She said she looked forward to the next world and to seeing Sylvia again. Close to death Marie held Joh’s hand and murmured “Premier” with deep pride .
It was this hand I now grasped and shook; the hand that had signed away basic rights, sent hundreds to prison, wasted forests and cities. It had brought a thousand miseries into being. But still it was a link. When our hands unclasped Sir Joh’s minder whispered something to him and the old man turned away.
“Dawn had flung a golden javelin into the black breast of Night and the blood from the gash spurted across a wide gully unto a jagged ridge of mountains.”
Six months after gay law reform I climbed Mount Roland for the first time. It seemed appropriate that I should have waited until those old chains had been cast off - not only the chains of laws that bound love, but the chains of a sometimes no less oppressive struggle to over turn those laws. Long ago this mountain had assured me that I would always belong. Many years and great pain had passed but now my faith in myself, my gay brothers and sisters and the people of Roland had been rewarded. Perhaps I was silently offering the mountain our achievement. Perhaps seeking its blessing for a promise fulfilled.
It also seemed appropriate that my first climb was with my partner Kent. The boy born to Nell decades before on the green plain below us went on to become my father, while the boy born to Elsie became the younger brother of Kent’s grandfather. Kent and I met in Hobart but like Peter and Mousy, we too had played as boys at Roland’s foot. The bitterness of the long campaigns for and against gay law reform had broken the bridge Nell and Elsie had built between our families. As a minister in successive state governments opposed to gay law reform Mousy repeatedly spoke against change, citing the Christian values which had always guided him and once famously declaring that “if the Member for Franklin wants to have sex with animals be it on his own head!”. A powerful family resemblance, undiluted by outside genetic influences, has been transmitted through generations of Kent’s family. In Mousy’s eyes I’d seen fear and resentment. Kent has the very same dark moody eyes. That in them I saw bright love healed some wounds.
Roland is hard to climb. Straight up the north face is the quickest and steepest path. But even the easier western route is riven with deep gullies. Once the Roland plateau is reached it is a long walk up through sodden bogs to the volcanic ridge. Kent almost gave up. From somewhere back along the track behind a pile of delicately balanced boulders he called for me to wait. I did and we reached the top together.
We stood there for a long time admiring the dramatic views. Then we sat on a dolerite slab near the mountain face holding hands, lost in silent thought. At one point an eagle suddenly appeared only metres in front of us carried up the thousand metre mountain face by a warm current of air. Our eyes followed it until it disappeared far along the mountain ridge.
I pointed out the house where three years before a scene had played itself out in a drama the nation had already begun to forget. I told him about the horses and the tea, how I grasped and held the hand of an old man, and how it was the very last hand Marie Bjelke-Petersen ever touched. I told him how then each of us in that frosty paddock turned to gaze at the mountain and how it was lit by the rising sun, as it had so often been in Marie’s imagination, an ecstatic, shattering crimson red while all the land at its feet lay still in cold and dark.
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