Stuck in time: Hobart, Tasmania pictured in the 1950s. Photo: Getty
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Tasmania, the island with a shameful past and a hopeful future

Australia’s timewarp island was the setting for atrocities against Aborigines in the 19th century and has a harsh treatment of asylum seekers today. Yet many see Australia as a liberal hope for the future. 

Crossing the Bass Strait from mainland Australia into Tasmania is rather like crossing the Solent from England to the Isle of Wight. Insularity breeds a remoteness from the currents of history. And if England’s southern island is a step back to the 1960s, Australia’s equivalent seems redolent of the 19th century in which it was first settled – and of the same issues as colonisation set in train.

As quaint as Hobart, the Tasmanian capital, may seem, with its half-hour rush hour and lack of tower blocks, a drive 200km north to Launceston, the island’s second city, is even more of a time slip. Its broad streets still have the look of a colonial town; its plain shopfronts might still be selling whalebone corsets.

There’s a sense of security to this whole island; but it is a deceptive sensibility. From its beginnings as a western settlement in 1803, Tasmania was witness to extraordinary pressures, to an extent that reverberates today: ideas of exploitation and appropriation that set the tone for the urgent debates of the 21st century.

During my stay, state elections in Tasmania returned a majority Liberal administration pledged to roll back the gains of a powerful green lobby – to the extent of reversing Unesco World Heritage status on parts of the virgin forest. The federal government is also vehement (vicious, some might say) in its treatment of asylum-seekers, who are kept in detainment camps on other islands to the north of Australia..

Driving over the Midlands between Hobart and Launceston, one quickly sees why Tasmania appealed to British free settlers. Van Diemen’s Land, as it was known, offered plentiful resources and rolling landscape that resembled an English country estate. Paintings of 19th-century scenes at the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery in Launceston evoke Constable as much as an island at the end of the world. Indeed, new research shows that children of transported criminals fared better than their British peers, benefiting from high protein and sunshine.

Among them was my own ancestor James Nind, transported in 1831 for stealing 19 hens and a cock. In the darkened basement of Hobart’s State Library, lined with chain-link fencing as if to imprison its subjects, I found original documents detailing James’s crimes and his sole previous conviction for the theft of manure. It’s an extraordinary notion: that one could be banished to the other ends of the earth for stealing shit. Nevertheless, James apparently prospered, as did many other convicts, some making vast fortunes from sheep farming (many of the same men had been transported for stealing sheep in the first place).

Yet those fields also became hunting grounds for human beings, as “roving parties” of convicts were sent out to pursue Aboriginal people. Feral bushrangers instituted a new lawless culture of their own: men such as the notorious Michael Howe, who declared himself “lieutenant governor of the woods” and exerted significant political power until he, too, was hunted and decapitated and his head exhibited in Hobart.

It now seems Howe’s gang were outlaws in more than one sense. Hamish Maxwell-Stewart, associate professor in humanities at the University of Tasmania, told me two of its members had been imprisoned for “unnatural acts”, raising the possibility that the troupe was “gay-friendly”. The gang also included Aboriginal females – “two black native women, armed as well as the men”.

New estimates show that at least 800 indigenous people and 200 convicts and settlers died in the “black war”. As we drove north, Maxwell-Stewart spoke of the “White Australia” policy of the early 20th century, which created concerns in the mother country that this racist stance on immigration would cause unrest in the empire, especially India. “There’s no doubt if the Aboriginal population in Australia had been bigger, they would have introduced apartheid,” he said. Indeed, when apartheid ended, many white South Africans emigrated to Australia.

Yet some see Australia as a liberal hope for the future. The South African exile J M Coetzee, renowned for his fictional critiques of apartheid, told me that his adoptive country could be “the future of the anglophone race”. It was a typically cryptic remark from this famously reclusive writer, who now lives in Adelaide. But looking at Tasmania, with its extraordinary natural beauty, and its determination both to remember and to move on from the past into the future despite the ravages of a retrogressive administration, one might start to agree.

Philip Hoare is the author of “The Sea Inside” (Fourth Estate, £9.99)

Philip Hoare’s books include Wilde’s Last Stand, England’s Lost Eden, and Spike IslandLeviathan or, The Whale won the Samuel Johnson Prize for 2009, and The Sea Inside was published in 2013. He is professor of creative writing at the University of Southampton, and co-curator of the Moby-Dick Big Read. His website is www.philiphoare.co.uk, and he is on Twitter @philipwhale.

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The elites vs the people

Photo: Tashphotography / Stockimo / Alamy
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The Negroni fools no one – it’s easy to make and contains nothing but booze

It is the colour of danger, a red rag to anyone jaded by cocktail-world bull.

The cocktail is designed to lie about its origins; no wonder it reached its apogee during Prohibition, which forced everyone with an unrepentant thirst to lie about their cravings. Even today, when only extreme youth, religious belief or personal inclination prevents a person from draining the bar dry, the cocktail continues its career of dishonesty. It hides ingredients or methods. It provides a front for poor-quality booze. And it often dissolves, within its inscrutable depths, mountains of sugar, enabling drinkers to pose as sophisticates while downing something that tastes like a soft drink – to get drunk without leaving the playpen.

This is why I love the Negroni, which fools no one. It is easy to make and contains nothing but pure booze. Despite being a third sweet vermouth, it isn’t saccharine: the other two thirds, equal measures of gin and Campari, may have something to do with this. And it is the colour of danger, a red rag to anyone jaded by cocktail-world bull.

They say it was invented in Florence at the request of a Count Negroni, who wanted a drink unsullied by club soda – a drink stiff enough to get a man back on a bucking horse, perhaps, since this Count may have been a rodeo rider. I prefer to believe that the Count, if Count he was, came in, tossed down enough strong liquor to start telling stories about his American adventures, and, when he finally staggered out into the night, the exasperated bartender poured three straight shots into a single glass and baptised this wondrous reviver in grateful homage to the fabulist who had inspired it.

In a former glue factory a very long way from Florence or America, the East London Liquor Company now makes very good gin – Batches One and Two, the former tannic with Darjeeling as well as cassia bark, pink grapefruit peel, and coriander seeds; the latter redolent of savoury, bay, thyme and lavender. Transforming these plants into excellent alcohol seems an improvement on boiling down horses for adhesive, and the company also makes superb Negronis from Batch Two.

We sit outside, in a carpark made marginally more glamorous by border boxes of Batch Two botanicals, and marvel at the transformation of this grimy part of East London, next door to a park intended to give Victorian working men brief respite from lives all too lacking in myth or fantasy. It is a reincarnation at least as miraculous as the transformation of three strong and entirely unalike spirits into the delectable harmony of the Negroni. The sun shines; a fountain plashes. Nuts and charcuterie arrive. All is right with the world.

I leave my herbaceous bower and dangerously pleasing drink for a peek at the large copper distillery behind the bar, walking in past the fountain, a whimsical stone construction that pours vermilion liquid into two, tiered basins topped by a chubby putto clutching a rather reluctant fish.

And then I stop. And double back. Vermilion liquid? It is, indeed, a Negroni fountain. There are even slices of orange floating in the basin. I dip a finger: the taste is slightly metallic but still undeniably that potent mixture of booze, botanicals, bitterness, and just a hint of sweetness. A streak of citrus from the orange slices. It turns out that the world’s most straightforward cocktail lends itself to a decadent neo-Renaissance fantasy. There’s a message here, one forthright as a temperance tract: without imagination, we would have no lies – but no Negronis, either.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder