Sunday 6 June 2010

On the dark side

The First-Born's second day of work experience at the Herald on Sunday was less dramatic than the first a fortnight ago, when she was sent to interview witnesses to an armed robbery. "There weren't even any decent accidents, Mum," she complained. "This time last year the holiday weekend road toll was five!" So soon, to have gone over to the dark side. (At least she got to do a phone interview with Richard O'Brien of Rocky Horror fame, who turns out not to be a Kiwi after all, though he would like to be.)

Good news is no news, of course - so it's just as well there was the Killer Cabbie (thank you, Daily Mail) to fill the space with. His rampage through the lovely Lake District was shocking, but sadly less so than when Michael Ryan went berserk on a summer afternoon in Hungerford back in 1987: the first event of this sort in England. I was building a wall in our garden at the time, listening in mounting disbelief to the reports on the radio as I worked with pink Herefordshire stone under the willow tree, with wide green views towards Wales beyond the sheep in the field next door. It was truly shocking, a kind of loss of innocence, that something so violent could happen so randomly.

But since then of course, it's happened again and again, all around the world - even here - and each time, the language acquires a sad new bit of shorthand: Hungerford, Aramoana, Dunblane, Columbine, Port Arthur.

Port Arthur, in Tasmania, was never a cheerful place to visit: the grim penal colony where convicts deported from England were imprisoned if they persisted in their criminal ways. Now it can look very pleasant, the stone of the penitentiary mellowed with age, the trees big and shady, the lawns wide and open running down to the sea - but from 1833 onwards it was a hellhole. Men - and boys - were subjected to harsh physical punishment as well as a new idea, psychological torture, where they were put into solitary confinement and kept in total silence. Even when they attended church, they had to stand in separate compartments, with hoods on their heads so they couldn't catch a glimpse of another person. It's an inspired bit of penal theory that they tried out in Lincoln for a while.

[Over in the west, up the Gordon River, things were even worse:
...The moody, misty atmosphere is well suited to the area’s best-known contribution to Tasmania’s history: the notorious penal colony on Sarah Island, which pre-dates the Port Arthur penitentiary near Hobart. "Australia’s Guantanamo Bay," claimed Richard Davey, actor, writer and our guide on an eerie evening tour. The first commandant there was instructed by Governor Arthur that "the constant, active, unremitting employment in very hard labour is the grand and main design of your settlement. They must dread the very idea of being sent there." How ironic that tourists now pay money to come and be shown the coffin-sized solitary confinement cells and hear how the loss of a tool could mean a flogging with the extra-harsh ‘Macquarie cat’ until the prisoner’s back looked like liver – and was then drenched with salt water. Although many chose the so-called 'Hobart holiday' of a trial and execution for the murder of another inmate, others risked escape into the unexplored wilderness with such desperate companions that more than one ended up eaten... [Pub. Coastlines Feb 08]

Port Arthur is a fascinating place to visit, of course, and there were plenty of tourists exploring the site in 1996 when a madman with a gun killed 35 people. It was horrifying. When I went there seven years later, the Broad Arrow Cafe where a number of the deaths occurred - and which still has bullet holes in the walls - had been converted into a place of remembrance, and in the still pool outside, there was a bronze oak leaf floating for each of the victims. And the name of the gunman? Nowhere.


the queen said...

Oh, plus you've had that guy who keeps stealing food from funerals.

TravelSkite said...

Yeah. There's no limit to the depths of human iniquity, eh. Next thing you know, someone's going to be making a movie about it.


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