Category Archives: Uncategorized

Port Arthur, Tasmania: Of Ghosts and Despair and Haunting Beauty

Summer is over at last! It was long, and it was hot, and I can’t wait to mothball my shorts and t-shirts and don boots and scarves and gloves once more.

But it was a good summer. Part of it was spent on holiday in Tasmania, “glamping” with the family through the island’s pristine northwestern wilderness (hiking and canoeing, spying Tasmanian Devils and wombats, no phone, no internet, no TV –  bliss!)

And it wouldn’t have been a complete holiday if we didn’t soak up a bit of history, which we did at the penal settlement of Port Arthur.

Port Arthur operated as a prison from 1830 to 1877, housing repeat offenders sentenced to transportation from England for crimes that today seem so very trivial: stealing small livestock, clothing, loaves of bread. We spent the day exploring the sprawling prison settlement in the idyllic surrounds of vast green lawns cooled by an ocean breeze. Buildings such as the Commandant’s House are still standing; others, like the convict-built church and the Penitentiary that housed nearly 500 prisoners, are just skeletal ruins.

PORT ARTHUR - PENITENTIARY

The Penitentiary

PORT ARTHUR CONVICT BUILT CHURCH

Ruins of the convict-built church

The day was gorgeous – a clear blue sky, the warmth of a golden sun on our backs, the tranquility of the surrounding bushland …and the juxtaposition of Port Arthur’s beauty with the incredible suffering that occurred there could not have been more stark.

To my mind, the worst of Port Arthur’s misery was handed out in the Separate Prison.

The Separate Prison was effectively a prison within a prison, with a regime of silent, solitary confinement. Every man who arrived at Port Arthur spent a certain amount of time there based on his original sentence, and those who later reoffended at Port Arthur would be sent back in for more of its punishing system of social and sensory deprivation.

Twenty-three hours a day locked in cells with walls and doors so thick that no noise could penetrate. Exercise taken alone in narrow yards that afforded a glimpse of the sky and nothing more. Warders who walked the halls in felt slippers and communicated in sign language so inmates would hear no sound. Prisoners forced to wear masks when outside their cells to ensure they did not speak. The solitary confinement even extended to the prison chapel, where prisoners stood in coffin-like cubicles that entirely cut them off from one another.

PORT ARTHUR SEP PRISON

Corridor and cell doors of the Separate Prison

There was a theory of sorts behind this cruelty: that silence and isolation would force inmates to “look inwards” and repent their crimes. But the resultant psychological torment was so bad many men simply broke. And despite the concerns of prison chaplains and medical officers, the response was simply to build an Asylum for these poor souls, right next door to the Separate Prison. Once they were deemed sufficiently cured, they were returned to the Separate Prison to start the process of losing their sanity all over again.

Escape attempts were not uncommon. Nor were suicides. There are even stories of prisoners forming pacts to end their combined misery, whereby one prisoner would agree to kill the other, with the survivor then hanging for the crime, thus releasing both from their living hell.

Our day at Port Arthur extended into the evening, when we went on a “Ghost Tour” by lantern light. Walking through the shells of these old buildings in the dead of night was incredibly eerie.

PORT ARTHUR CHURCH AT NIGHT

The ruins of the church at night

Over a thousand people died at Port Arthur during its 47 year history, and our tour guide regaled us with many tales of unexplained incidents and hauntings. Unsurprisingly, the most chilling tale for me involved the Separate Prison.

On two separate occasions, several years apart, a man (a tourist) and later, a woman (an archaeologist working at Port Arthur on a dig) went missing.  The alarm was raised, the settlement was searched and on both occasions the missing  person was eventually located.

This is where it gets creepy.

In each instance, the missing person was found in the Separate Prison, lying on the floor of a cell in the foetal position. Both were in some sort of dissociative state, sobbing and babbling incomprehensibly. Both snapped out of this strange state soon after their discovery, but neither could remember how they’d got there, and both thought they’d wandered off for only a few minutes when in fact they’d been missing for several hours. Neither could remember what had happened to them, but both felt a profound and overwhelming sense of despair.

And both were found in the exact same cell.

Cell number six, if memory serves. After the last incident, it was permanently boarded up.

Our tour guide that night said something about Port Arthur that has stuck with me ever since:

“No one who was here ever wanted to be here”.

Not the convicts. Not the prison officials and military men who were given no choice in their posting. Not their wives and children who accompanied them.

No one.

The prison closed 139 years ago, but the suffering and the utter misery of the place is still so overwhelmingly palpable, like it has seeped into the very walls. Remembering the terrible shooting massacre that occurred at Port Arthur in 1996 makes for an even more sombre experience. I’m glad my husband was there to take photos, for I found I couldn’t bring myself to take a single “happy snap”.

Still. Port Arthur is a place that must definitely be seen. It is hauntingly beautiful. And it serves as a quiet, permanent warning of how just cruel humanity can be.

 

4 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized, Victorian Prisons

New Year, New Book.

I’m not really one for New Year’s resolutions. By my age, they tend to have become a bit repetitive both in terms of content, and in not keeping them.

But I do like to start my new writing year with a clean slate. So behold, the freshly cleaned corner of the room that is almost my own:

desk

 

(In hindsight, the husband really did need to take over the other corner of this room, but oh, the angst of losing supremacy over my domain!)

On the writing front, Book Two of my series (alas, I’ve yet to be struck with inspiration for a title) is coming along nicely. I’ve written the first five chapters (super shitty first draft I’m afraid, but even craptastic words on the page are better than none) and this week I’ve been busy brainstorming and outlining the rest of it. I’m about 70% done in that respect, and am pretty chuffed to have got to such a point at this time of the year. I think my success is due in part to my Christmas presents: the gorgeous big monitor you can see on my desk, and the brand new keyboard that doesn’t randomly lock up. No more stiff neck and strained eyes from looking down at my laptop screen, and far fewer frustrations, all rolled into one!

 

CLOS UP DESK

 

(In case you’re wondering, the image on my screen is an 1894 painting by Jean Beraud, “La Meditation”. She’s always reminded me of my main character, Olivia Stone).

So.  A new year, a clean desk, plot points and plot twists percolating away nicely … all in all, it’s a great start to 2016, and I plan to do all I can to keep things going this way.

How about you? Have you made any New Year’s writing resolutions?

 

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Editing is Hard (or, ‘I wish I was my Cat’)

Stating the obvious, but damn, as much as I love the editing process, it’s HARD.

Time consuming. Brain-power sucking. Concentration-requiring. Hard.

Despite knowing this, I’d still hoped I’d be more done with the editing than I am right now. Foolish me. I’d forgotten that August is a massive month for birthdays in my family: my daughter, my brother, two sisters-in-law, an aunt and my father-in-law (seriously, just what the heck is in the air in November??) and with all the attendant present purchasing/party organising (for my eleven year old Miss)/and general celebrating, I just ran out of time – the quiet, UNINTERRUPTED, type of time that one requires to edit so that your manuscript doesn’t devolve into gobbledygook.

Grr.

Nevertheless, I’ve only got twelve chapters of dialogue editing to go, and the final hardcore line edit is looming fast. Yay!  (I think)

So I’d best get back to it … even though the day is cold and rainy, and I’m so sorely tempted to join my lazy cat in doing what he does best: slobbing around in front of the heater.

Exhibit A: Leo, the laziest cat in the world

Exhibit A: Leo, the laziest cat in the world

Later!

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Slow blogging gone mad

Slow blogging. It’s all the rage now – see Anne R. Allen’s blog post for her knowledgeable and in-depth discussion on the swing away from blogging like a banshee, and why it’s a good thing – and to me, it makes a lot of sense. But given the time that’s elapsed between my posts, I seem to have taken the whole slow blogging movement to a crazy extreme.

I might even have started to go in reverse.

I’ve got good reasons for my silence (heh, there always are). The best one, though, is I’ve been writing hard and have nearly, nearly, got my book, The Colours of the Dead, all gussied up ready for the query-go-round.

First dibs will go to the wonderful agent who requested the full manuscript after listening to my pitch back when the book was just a shitty first draft. Then, I’ll be shoving my book’s dance card under the nose of every agent and publisher at that damn ball.

But I’m starting to have a little more time to breathe now. More time to pay attention to my poor neglected blog. I’ll still be blogging slowly – how much do I have to say, really? – but this time, I won’t leave you wondering whether my blog still has a pulse.

Promise.

(I’m not crossing my fingers – I’m not! 😉 )

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized