I'm developing an unreasonable sense of proprietorship over Australia's island state,Tasmania. One could call it a "Tasmania mania", I suppose. How did this seemingly irrational neurosis arise? Am I alone?
About 15 years ago I realised that Victoria, where I live, was doomed to never-ending development, due to government insistence that we have incessant population growth, heavily supplemented from overseas immigration. You would wonder how an ordinary citizen could actually notice that the population was growing. Surely the changes would be happening in places where the people have not yet settled and would be out of sight and out of mind? To an extent, this was true for a while, and you had to go to the outskirts of Melbourne to see the sea of new rooftops on the side of highways trying to hide behind high walls. Those living in the "growth corridors" would complain of the massive changes in their local areas. They would moan in agony at the farmland and treasured bush land they could see being sacrificed for yet more suburbs. They tried to make us hear about what was happening and we listened but 15 years ago our established suburbs remained intact and our lives were relatively undisturbed so we were complacent.
In more recent years, a heavy foot has trodden on the accelerator of population growth and development. There seemed to be a spark of recognition from governments that Melbourne needed to be contained in some manner. The established suburbs were told they had to take their share of the population growth load. In came the bulldozers and, at a faster and faster rate, we all noticed empty blocks in our streets, and we struggled the very next day, post demolition, to remember what had been there the day before. Some of the demolitions got publicity. The gracious Victorian or Edwardian large houses or mansions, giving way to the wrecking ball after unsuccessful but valiant struggles by locals to preserve heritage and amenity, were and continue to be soon just large cavities. All vegetation is invariably removed, except for perhaps a token tree if not in the way of the giant yet to be constructed. Noise and the disruption of continual roadworks and infrastructure upgrades are now part our lives in Melbourne's suburbs. We live with short term uncertainty but long term resignation that our home environment will continue to be heavily degraded.
I think of not only the residents who are being inconvenienced and disadvantaged, but of the suburban wildlife - especially birds who will all but disappear. Once a large garden is excavated and transformed into a basement car park, that land is no longer a home for underground insects or flowering plants or trees. Habitat, in other words, is wiped out in an instant. "Birds can go somewhere else," they say. Well they can do this if there is somewhere else to go, but that means nevertheless that they are gone from the area. You will no longer get to hear them or see them. That is a huge loss that impoverishes your soul and those of your children, possibly before you can even put it into words.
I used to derive some comfort from the actual possibility that I can always move to Tasmania. I have visited Tasmania since my childhood as my grandparents and many cousins, uncles and aunts lived there. My family had a whole summer life-style there every year and so it was in a sense a second home. As a child I appreciated its quietness and beauty. Its sense of history, Hobart having been settled earlier than Melbourne, was reflected in many of its buildings. Tasmania, in reality, is not my home though. I have never lived there and I don't own any property there. But over the last 20 years it has been in the back of my mind as a possibility, an escape-hatch, as Melbourne's population surges towards 10 million (the same population of the whole of Australia when I was in primary school.)
For these reasons I feel a sense of alarm when I hear Tasmania mentioned in the news or on television or radio programs. I feel anxious, on the alert. What are they going to do? What are they going to change? I used to delight in the fact that whenever I returned to Tasmania, even in my adult years, it was always more or less the same; low key.
Yesterday I found my Tasmanian grandfather's 100+ year old scrap book. It provides an insight into life on that island at the time, through my grandfather's youthful passion for long-distance running. There are photos, newspaper clippings, and athletes programs about the many races and carnivals of the Hobart Harrier Club. The brown pages of the album are also filled out with images of relaxed beach goers and reunions of the old competitors 40 years later.
One album does not describe a whole lifestyle, but I could not help forming the impression that life was full and that those young men a century ago had made a life for themselves which was both physically and socially rewarding. This was in a small city in a state where the entire population of was only about 180,000"
My mother grew up in Hobart of the 1920s and 1930s. At that time her parents, as did many people in Hobart, owned a beach shack on the other side of the Derwent River to the city. She told me that she and her friends would catch a ferry to O'Possum Bay to stay on weekends. On arrival they would drop their bags at the house and proceed to the beach. If they saw anyone else on their chosen beach, they would move away around a point to another beach.
In the 1950s and 60s people in Hobart still had their beach shacks. My older cousins enjoyed sports such as surfing, water skiing, and sailing. I'm sure they worked hard at their weekday jobs or at school, but what I saw, was an easy accessibility to pastimes that would to most now seem like a luxury.
One of my cousins told me a few years ago that he would never move to Melbourne, as the 'lifestyle' wouldn't suit him. I found this amusing, as it seemed to me that no-one would actually choose the lifestyle on offer in Melbourne!
I wonder if the 'lifestyle' will suit him if the population of Hobart grows as the current premier intends it to.
Having spent the in Tasmania more than half a century ago, and hearing tales of the life there yet another 50 years before that, I feel I know the place a bit. I also know Melbourne very well and have watched it change from a rather quiet city, where you could get out easily into the country on the weekend just for an afternoon and where, if you could drive to a place, you could be pretty sure of being able to park your car there. You could be spontaneous about going places. All that has gone. Now, as often as not, I will hatch a plan involving travel in or around Melbourne, and then abandon the idea because of the uncertainties of traffic and parking.
I would like to keep alive the escape-hatch dream of simply moving to Hobart when Melbourne reaches complete bursting point. My anxiety levels rise when I hear of Hobart's fast growing population or when anyone puts it on the map for any reason. I heard this morning that MONA (Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart) was to be expanded further, and I felt sad. I like MONA but to me it is not Hobart, and why does it have to be bigger? Part of its attraction is the setting and, if it expands, more of the setting will be lost.
I would prefer not hear any news coming from Hobart. I want it to be quiet and unobtrusive and to just wait for me in case I need it.