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Thoughts on 'The Revenant Past'

I’m sitting on a bench under a grand old maple tree, its bright green leaves almost transparent in the sunshine, surrounded by lush lawns, neatly trimmed and carpeted in daisies. The remnants of grand buildings around me are literally scarred by the stories of time through which they have endured, histories both tragic and hopeful. Giant blocks of weathered stone, handmade bricks, centuries-old wallpaper and worn wooden floors.

Soldier's Memorial Avenue

Soldier’s Memorial Avenue
Source: my photos, 2014

I am not visiting some historic site in England or anywhere else in Europe, though it might seem so. What is missing from that description above are more place-specific details, and an ever-important context. I did not mention that beyond the old deciduous oaks and elms and maples, the creaky, creepy pines that line the Soldier’s Walk, and the roses blooming in the cottage gardens, are equally grand eucalypts, shrubby acacias, and plants I can’t even identify because we’re not taught the names of our indigenous flora, let alone taught to recognise them when we see them.

More significantly, perhaps, I have not yet named this location, this incredibly peaceful, quiet, tranquil and – let’s be perfectly clear – beautiful place. I am at Port Arthur, Tasmania’s infamous historic penal settlement when this island was still called Van Diemen’s Land. Now a popular tourist destination, the ruins – gutted by bushfires – are preserved for our enjoyment, our education and our curiosity. Some would say, perhaps, even for our titillation. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The pretty Government Gardens Source: my photos, 2011

The pretty Government Gardens, designed to replicate what was left behind – though the fern trees are a bit incongruous!
Source: my photos, 2011

I have been here the last two days for an English teachers’ symposium organised by the university and TATE, the Tasmanian branch of AATE (Australian Association for the Teaching of English). Titled ‘The Revenant Past’, the conference has been a fascinating, thought-provoking and inspiring event that – as it would anyone who loves literature, history, culture, learning and questioning – has fired me up.

But it has also got me thinking, and confronting some of my own perceptions, values and ideas, of which I had only lightly brushed up against in the past. (Or maybe it’s that, until directly confronted with something, we have no idea to look closely at certain things, and that’s okay.) Namely, the conflict – or ‘tension’, which was a word used often by the presenters – between celebrating, preserving, honouring and even beautifying our colonial past, and the cruelty, violence and prejudice that is an unavoidable aspect of colonial imperialism.

Part of the Penitentiary (main prison) Source: my photos, 2011

Part of the Penitentiary (main prison)
Source: my photos, 2011

Port Arthur is a ‘dark place’, a place that has long been mythologised and is considered by many to be haunted. When you visit, you cannot help but be confronted by layers and layers of story and emotion. So much happened here, so many lives lived (in frequently unpleasant ways), that it is imprinted in ways that don’t occur when a historical site is also an everyday, ordinary place. This place, like other ‘dark places’ I’m sure (concentration camps, killing fields, Hiroshima), seems to be imprinted with memories and life experiences. (In contrast, I think of Paris, and how steeped in history it is, yet because it is a place where people live regular lives, that sense of history and old scars is muted – at an emotional level, anyway. Smothered by the louder emotions of those still living.) And yet so much of it is beyond our ken, because it is hard to picture what it must have been like when it was a bustling port town dominated by military barracks and other big sandstone buildings, filled with noise and the bustle of work. (The paintings and photos from two centuries ago don’t help because it’s so hard to reconcile them with what you’re actually seeing, today.)

Now all I hear are bees buzzing, birds trilling, occasional voices as people of all different nationalities wander through the site. This is the fourth time I’ve been here as an adult, since coming in 2000 when I was a uni student. In many ways, nothing has changed in that time, yet each visit the place feels a little different – or maybe it’s me who feels different. Regardless, it’s a place steeped in nostalgia, where it’s not hard to resurrect past visits, past impressions, and add them to the layers of memory and story that make up Port Arthur. Each return, you contribute to the ongoing story and history of this place.

Remains of a cell in the Penitentiary building at Port Arthur Source: my photos, 2011

Remains of a cell in the Penitentiary building at Port Arthur
Source: my photos, 2011

The apparent commercialisation of a pain-filled landscape such as this one is indeed a matter of contention and even controversy. Perhaps the subdued nature of its visitors is testament to an unspoken call for respect, such as you would find at any memorial site. Walking around Port Arthur can feel a bit like walking across the graves at an old, crumbling cemetery. There is a distinct, though often unconscious, impression that so many stories lie at rest here, so many people of different class and circumstances lived (and died) here, that the weight of history is tangible, in all its gothic glory. And that, maybe, if we are quiet, we may sense those voices at some primitive, instinctual or subconscious level.

For a white Tasmanian of English, Scottish and Irish descent, places like Port Arthur are indeed a direct link to my own past. Evidence not of convict ancestors – though there is at least one of those, that I know of, and where there is one there are probably more – but of how I came to be here in this land. This is a place that, as one of the presenters brought up, crushed and even denies its Aboriginal heritage. It is all about the British, at Port Arthur.

Back and side view of the hospital at Port Arthur. Source: my photos, 2011

Back and side view of the hospital at Port Arthur.
Source: my photos, 2011

So why preserve it? Why sell tickets to allow people to drift through the buildings and stare at the crude dolls of officers’ children, the condition of cells in the Separate Prison (a place of slow, ‘humane’ torture), the jagged walls of the hospital that dominates the hill? Is it a morbid, macabre fascination with a violent and cruel past? Is it a sick, primitive desire to learn about torture and deprivation, to shiver with horrified delight as you imagine what it must have been like before getting into your air-conditioned car to drive back to the comforts of home? Is it to reinforce British imperialism at the expense of the people who were here before? Or is it out of some deep sense of guilt and desire for atonement?

It’s true that one of the imperatives of history is to avoid repeating old mistakes, but we do so selectively. Comparisons can be made (as one presenter did) between the design and practice of the Separate Prison (based on the theory of isolation and silence of the Panopticon from the States – something that was already being stripped back before Port Arthur built its own version and maintained for far too long, considering the effect of the ‘reforming’ punishment was insanity) and Guantanamo Bay.

Where I felt confronted – and I do like to feel confronted – was on a related idea. The idea (which came across either explicitly or implicitly, I’m not sure now) that I – we – shouldn’t ‘enjoy’ Port Arthur. That Tasmania’s colonial heritage – represented in a plethora of beautiful and well-maintained old buildings and estates across the island – was ‘quaint’ (which generally means cute but not authentic) and a poor imitation of the ‘real’ English village or manor house (never mind the fact that the architecture and building materials do set them apart quite quickly). I picked up on a mocking quality that surprised me. Part of this sentiment comes from a mainland attitude born of the fact that visual representations of colonial history such as we have, aren’t as common interstate, and that one of the big colonial tourist drawcards – the replica of the gold mining town at Ballarat – is indeed considered tacky within Australia. While places on the mainland, especially Sydney, came into money and knocked down old buildings to make way for new, Tasmania languished in an economic slump from which we are now recovering.

Part of the military complex, of which there's not much left. Source: my photos, 2011

Part of the military complex, of which there’s not much left.
Source: my photos, 2011

Despite knowing that most Australians feel condescending towards its second-oldest state (when they remember it, that is), I was surprised to find myself feeling defensive. It took me a while to realise why, or what it was about the connections being made that bothered me. I hadn’t realised that, what I saw as beautiful old buildings from another era, a colonial era rather than an imperialistic British one, others saw as some kind of unintellectual (unoriginal), insipid grasping of the past, a kind of reluctance to relinquish ties to ‘the empire’. I’m surprised at myself, that I never really understood before how much the mainland considers Tasmania to be willingly, eagerly chained to England and the Crown. (I saw England quite deliberately.) Yet we’re no more a royalist state than any other (though I should confess my own bias against Queensland’s rigid conservatism). It seems unfair and dismissive, to think that because we have such rich evidence of a white colonial past, that we are incapable of moving on, or of critiquing it, or that it’s impossible to appreciate and love our colonial heritage sites and be critical of our colonial past and the ongoing tension between Us and the Indigenous populations. That calling an old ruin, for example, ‘beautiful’ means that you can’t look beyond the mythologising of the past.

The distinction lies, I think (as it often does), in language. Terminology, and our understanding of words and their connotations. What I see when I look at these ‘dark places’ or at any old building here, is evidence of a colonial past. And that past is a story of exile, to me, not of British imperialism (well, it is that too, but the sense of exile is stronger, or more human at an individual level). And I think that’s where the Gothic element comes from. The imagination runs wild at the story of Australia’s white colonial beginnings, the early decades of settlement, the long path to federation. Of course it speaks to our souls and senses as much as our heads, of course we feel the weight of ages and other people’s pain when we navigate the ruins at Port Arthur. It is a deeply human story, a story of remembering and forgetting, and it connects to our deepest fear: the fear of being forgotten.

This fear is ever-present, both at the level of societies and individuals. How many post-apocalyptic films have you seen, or books have you read, in which evidence of the past – our present – is discovered, and barely identifiable by those of the future? We recognise it, and we feel both a sense of panic and reassurance that something has survived destruction. Images of the tragic crash of the Malaysian Airlines plane in Ukraine were painful on many levels, but that pain was often focussed on what survived, what was recognisable: our eyes latch onto the teddy bear, or the familiar suitcase, and it makes it impossible to deny the truism that human beings suffered and must be remembered. Tombs, mausoleums, memorials – all required as part of the process of remembering. “Lest we forget” – the utterly human side of that adage is “We must remember to ensure our own immortality”. If no one is around to remember us, did we exist? If we were to let the ruins of Port Arthur disintegrate, we would lose not only the story of our colonial past, we would also deny those that lived, loved, suffered, endured and died here. Just as we have denied the Aboriginal peoples their existence. It’s a cruel selfishness.

How much sense does this really make, outside of my own head? I can’t be sure. I titled this “Thoughts” and have left them unedited. I wanted to take this opportunity to capture a thought process, rather than argue a tightly-constructed idea. I’m still figuring things out, and this was by no means the only thing I could talk about from the symposium. I like to ruminate, to mull, to consider and reflect, but if I don’t write it down it can dissipate. It’s good to having something to build upon. And as part of the process of thinking, it is equally good to discuss. I’d love to hear your thoughts, whatever comes to mind.

Port Arthur Source: my photos, 2011

Port Arthur
Source: my photos, 2011

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