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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The World of Charmian Clift

 

Having just bought a rare copy of Boy on a Dolphin which was filmed in 1957 on the Greek island of Hydra where George Johnston (he of "My Brother Jack" fame) and Charmian Clift had lived until the early 60s and which I had visited often in the early 80s, I was prompted to read up about that stage in their lives in Charmian Clift's Peel me a Lotus and her other collection of essays, The World of Charmian Clift.

Near the back of the book I discovered an evocatively-written essay of her visit to Thursday Island where I lived and worked in 1977 and which immediately set me off on another tangent. Her essays are out of print, so here's The Island, a time-capsule of what Thursday Island was like in the 60s, to whet your appetite for more of her writing:

"The one certain thing about going north in Australia is that the further north you get the further north you want to go. And so I have fared north until I have fared right off the tip of the northward-pointing finger of Cape York and find myself, intrigued at the very least, on Thursday Island in the Torres Strait, a place which has been of some public interest lately because of certain medical revelations concerning the incidence of what is nicely called 'social disease'. It is a place, also, of which Somerset Maugham wrote a long time ago that there was nothing there but goats, and that the wind blew for six months of the year from one direction and then turned round and blew for six months from the opposite.

There are no goats any more, but the wind still blows. Presently from the south-east, a buffeting bouncing lively wind that clashes around in the coconut palms and tosses a waxy storm of cream and pink around the frangipani-trees, stirs even the dark heavy mangoes and figs to turbulence, and raises such a storm of dust in the unpaved streets that you are nearly blinded. Your hair streams backwards, your clothes belly out like sails, your skin is coated with a layer of fine dust and your mouth is permanently gritty, but at night it is blessedly cool under the billowing mosquito net and the palm shadows dance on your flimsy walls and the crepitant coconut fronds make a soft scraping rhythm to counterpoint the monotonous thrum thrum thrum of the power plant, which, with typical official cunning, has been built slap bang on the waterfront immediately in front of the main hotel. Obviously there is a scheme afoot to develop this as a tourist island. But you sleep well here and dream strange dreams.

It is not a lovely island. It is barren, dusty, the stony soil is completely uncultivated, the streets are, for the most part, unpaved, the beaches are scungy with oozy weed, rusting tin, and a million broken bottles, the habitations are ugly and utilitarian - even wood and roofing tin have to be brought up from the south. Everything has to be brought up from the south - meat and eggs and fresh fruit and vegetables and milk - what you eat and what you wear and what you drink and the very roof over your head. The only pastures are in the sea, and it is only the sea that is really beautiful, the sea and the near distances filled with the sensuous undulations of islands - Horn and Prince of Wales - which have an illusory enchantment. I say illusory because Horn is where you land on the airstrip, and at close quarters it is just as stony and barren and uninviting as Thursday Island itself.

But the flavour of Thursday Island is authentically tropical. If you have read enough Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene you will recognize it instantly - the heat, the dust, the rusting tin, the decaying jetties, the verandahed hotels, the rhetorical customs house, the mangy dogs, the anchored luggers, the visual impact of black flesh. The old hands stamped with the tired inescapable stamp of too many years and too much tropical knowledge, the bums washed up by freakish currents and beached here, the merchants - Chinese and Sinhalese and Philippine and European and every possible combination of race as well - officialdom pink and superior and aloof, twisting decorously with the hospital sisters at the three consecutive 'cabaret' nights, Thursday at the Grand, Friday at the Torres, Saturday at the Federal. At the Royal every night is cabaret, and every day too if it comes to that, black jellying joyful spontaneous cabaret to a joke-box blasting full-belt under flyblown posters of Esther Williams and Gene Kelly. The Royal is a gold-rush pub from Cooktown, freighted up here holus-bolus long ago and re-erected. Now it has reached the last stages of decay: the stairs have collapsed entirely, the top floor is reduced to a few gappy slats which reveal old intimacies of wardrobes and chests of drawers, and Heaven knows whether the bar and the couple of decrepit rooms which are all that is left of the ground floor can hold out under the exuberance of nightly gaiety until December, when the new Royal, presently only girders on the lot next door, is scheduled for completion.

The native population is now free to drink what and where and when it chooses, and mostly it chooses the wreck of the Royal and draught beer in great jugs and an absence of inhibition.

An old-timer who was good enough to give me a couple of hours of reminiscence regretted bitterly the passing of the protectorate, segregation, European supremacy, and the no-drinks-for-natives rule. What he was mourning, I think, was paternalism. He said that the native population was happier in the old days, and that their present freedom was only debauching them, and debauching the European population with them. He quoted rates of illegitimacy and venereal disease, mixed alliances, cross-breeding, and the somewhat forward behaviour of certain young women.

It is terribly difficult for a stranger to assess the complexities of the social structure of Thursday Island. I suppose it is presumptuous of me even to try.

To begin with Thursday Islanders aren't necessarily born on Thursday Island. They come, most of them, from other islands in the Strait - Murray, Darnley, Mabuiag, Badu, Saibai, Boigu, Dauan - to this trading post, administrative centre, and clearing house for labour. Here there is a hospital, schools for the children, hotels and shops and taxis, work in the town or on the pearling luggers, which still - in spite of all one has heard about the bottom having dropped out of the market - go out for commercial shell, although these days the main and profitable catch is live shell to feed the cultured-pearl farms on Friday Island and Horn and Possession and Good's, on Albany and Darnley and Boigu, at Poid on Moa, and the Escape River. Out of a native population of between 1,500 and 1,700, about 600 men are engaged directly in pearling.

From here too the enterprising or adventurous or ambitious islander can move south to swell the labour force on the mainland. The Torres Strait islanders are a big race, tall, and physically strong: they can earn good money labouring on roads and rails, in quarries and canefields. Education here is improving; there are schools up to the seventh grade on Darnley, Murray, York, Mabuiag, and Badu, and on Thursday Island itself a high school up to junior standard where children from the outer islands are brought in and housed in a hostel if their potential warrants it (only boys yet, which is a bit sad: the Australian attitude towards women carries through even in this fresh and exciting field of social experiment).

What is evident is that here the educated young have no avenues open to them in which they might profitably use their education. A few can be absorbed into the Department of Native Affairs, which still administers the Strait's islands, but the majority have to move south, often through Bamaga on the Cape, a settlement which has training facilities and operates as a launching pad to the south, economic and spiritual independence, and - one desperately hopes - eventual integration. It is a tribal movement: Thursday Island drains the outer islands of the young, the clever, the hopeful, the ambitious, and the south drains Thursday Island. One could, I suppose, foresee a time when the outer islands will become Twilight Homes for the aged, and, when the aged die, revert to nature and silence, which is a fairly spooky thing to contemplate.

In this movement of population inevitably - and I suppose unfortunately - much of custom and tradition is left behind as unnecessary baggage. On the outer islands there is still feasting and singing and dancing, but here on Thursday there is little evidence of any indigenous culture. No crafts are practised, except for the crafts of the sea, feasts of turtle meat and turtle eggs are not usual, and apart from All Souls' Cathedral ('... erected to the glory of God and in memory of those lost in the wreck of the B.I. s.s. Quetta 3,484 tons, which about 9.14 p.m. on Friday 28th February 1890, struck an uncharted rock in the Adolphus Channel, whilst outward bound from Brisbane to London, and although in calm water & bright moonlight sank within three minutes with the loss of 133 lives out of a total of 293 on board'), where services are very High Church and hymns are sung in the native language to the accompaniment of a drum (and this is a breathtaking experience for a stranger), songs are likely to be pop, and dancing European.

And yet. And yet. This place tastes exotic, like strange warm fruit. The trades blow, the palms stream, the dust swirls in clouds and coats ugly houses, tropical trees, rolling children, and hurtling taxis filled with grinning black faces. The days of Assemblies, China boats, shell traders, pearl buyers, and the reign of Burns Philp, might be gone, but something lingers, a smell and a taste and an essence, half squalid and half romantic, something indolent, excessive, irresponsible, shameless and happy. One responds instinctively, and I suppose primitively.

Of course one should deplore drunkenness and promiscuity, illegitimate babies of uncertain fatherhood, and disease apparently spreading like the plague. But the drink and the disease are a white gift, and the illegitimate babies are beautiful and happy and adored. People laugh here, and wear flowers in their hair, and go fishing and get drunk and make babies and grow fat without concern or regret.

I cannot see that law or even incentive will alter this pattern in this generation, which, consciously or unconsciously, still pulses to old rhythms. Freedom is only a word until its meaning is deciphered; it needs time and the right key and constant usage.

But the children of this generation will understand it. Or some of them will. Their children's children will consider freedom, equality, independence to be a birthright. As it should be. Legally the Torres Strait islanders are now Australian citizens, with all the privileges and all the responsibilities that devolve upon that state. Most other Australians don't even know they exist, and of course one wonders how long they will exist in their present state.

Civilization will take up, and responsibility, and material ambitions, taxes and plastic flowers and shoes on the feet and respectable alliances and temperate behaviour. The drum in All Souls' will be silent, the Department of Native Affairs a memory, and the new Royal will hold cabaret with due decorum and a four-piece orchestra.

I am glad I have tasted Thursday Island while the taste is still rank and wild. It will turn bland soon enough."

I am also glad I lived and worked on Thursday Island in 1977 when much of the rankness and wildness was still in evidence. I returned to a much 'tamer' Thursday Island in April 2005 - read more here - much of which can be seen in this excellent clip full of bitumen roads with median strips and shiny air-conditioned four-wheel-drive cars. How things have changed since I lived there in 1977!

And here's another one:

Some more photos of Thursday Island here.