Amundsen and I
South Pole librettist Tom Holloway on the connections between Pluto, Tasmania and Antarctica – and his relation to Amundsen.
It is now nearly six months since I wrote my past post, Amundsen og Jeg about my time going back to Oslo. I should have written this post months ago. In fact it was meant to be published at the same time as the posts about Norway, but then the best laid plans…
I’m now a father. My son, Harry Pluto Holloway, was born in July. He came to us just a week after NASA released new images of the dwarf planet, Pluto. The images were beautiful and made my partner Kate and I think as large as the solar system. We couldn’t help but give Harry this as a middle name. And anyway, we all feel so much affection for Pluto, right? It’s the little planet that was a planet and then wasn’t a planet, even though in all our hearts it definitely still is a planet. You feel the same, right? I know you do, because everyone feels this way about that little, plucky, icy ball of rock. And then the new image of it seemed to be emblazoned with a heart all of its own, so of course we fell in love with it all over again.
Also, we were pretty emotional at the time.
Although I haven’t lived there for a long time, I am a born and bred Tasmanian. Tasmania is the little island that sits off the bottom of the ‘mainland’ of Australia. There is nothing between it and the wilds of Antarctica. With its distant location, devilish wildlife and ancient forests, it is sometimes thought of as a place of myth for the rest of the world. A bit like Timbuktu. Sometimes people are surprised to hear it is a real place, and then even more surprised to hear there really are Taz Devils. Although they don’t spin around and eat through trees.
Tasmania is very real. And yet so much of it befits the dreams the rest of the world has about it. There are trees that grow for thousands of years, forests so dense and untouched that naïve hikers get lost and are never found, and it even once had the name Van Diemen's Land and its shape evokes that of the horns and goatee beard of a certain red, rascally immortal.
Although it’s the size of Ireland, there are only half a million people that live in Tasmania. And the largest town, Hobart (where I grew up) is only around two hundred thousand people. It is a small outpost on the edge of the world. And when you grow up there you feel this keenly. The rest of Australia feels like a place of action and vitality and although it’s only an hour away on a plane, it can feel completely unreachable. Let alone the rest of the world.
Traditionally all this has affected the Tasmanian psyche a great deal. It is very easy to feel suffocated in Tasmania. In Hobart especially, the hills and mountains that surround the (very beautiful) city can feel like a prison. As I grew up and became old enough to drive, I would regularly head to the top of Mount Wellington to get some air and perspective. From there you can see for miles and miles and Hobart looks tiny below you. But then after a while even this perspective simply reminds you how far you are from things.
I love Tasmania. I still consider myself Tasmanian and always will. I feel odd about the fact my son wasn’t born there, like I have to keep reminding myself he wasn’t, because for me Tasmania is the place of origin that is everything I am and so must surely be the place of origin for him, because he is part of me.
It is a dark, gothic place. From its pristine white beaches on the west coast, to the dense rainforest and ancient trees of the west coast, it is heart-shatteringly beautiful. And yet there is a sense of foreboding to all of it. You can’t escape. You can’t be free. You have no chance to be part of the rest of the world.
No wonder the British turned it in to a prison.
This is the land Amundsen first sailed to after surviving his journey to the South Pole. It was the port of Hobart where he first saw civilisation again. It was from the post office in Elizabeth St that he wired the world telling of his success. And yet what was it like for him? He’d just spent a year and a half on the frozen continent with just a handful of men for company. He had done something no other human had ever achieved, and tiny, isolated, introverted Hobart was the place the world was going to hear of these immense achievements?
Amundsen was a haunted man as he left Antarctica. Even after all he had done, he was terrified the British might have also reached the pole and then got out and told the world before he’d had the chance to share his news. Although right as he reached Hobart, Scott was facing his own death just eleven miles from a camp full of food and fuel, Amundsen was plagued by fears of failure. He disguised himself on the streets of Hobart, booking a small hotel room under a false name and dressing like a tramp, so no one would question who he was. He wouldn’t reveal himself until the world knew.
But I know that Hobart and Tasmania is no place to escape your demons. They loom in front of you everywhere you look; Your demons and the demons of everyone else that has ever been there.
I grew up seeing the red bulk of the Aurora Australis icebreaker leaving for Antarctica or arriving back, and yet I never knew of Amundsen. I went to the University of Tasmania, often walking past a small sculpture of Amundsen, and yet I never knew of him. I would send letters from the city’s main post office, where Amundsen had sent the telegram of news of his success, and yet I never knew of him.
This is how Tasmania was. It struggled to celebrate its success stories because the land and its history told us something different of ourselves. Celebration wasn’t the Tasmanian way. Achievement wasn’t in our blood. If you wanted to do that you had to leave.
Since I have left Tasmania, its personality has changed. A private art collector opened one of the best galleries in the world on the shores of the Derwent River and this act has changed the state. It is becoming a vibrant place. It is finding itself like it has never before. Amundsen’s statue has moved from a back parking lot at the university, to a position of pride and prominence on the docks, next to the famous Salamanca Place.
I grew up with Amundsen all around me and I had no idea.
I grew up in a place of great beauty, where anything was possible, and I had no idea.
Perhaps this is another reason why we have given Harry the middle name ‘Pluto’. Although he won’t grow up in Tasmania, perhaps there is part of me that wants to remind him about what it is like on the edge of things.
Norway… Tasmanian… Antarctica… Pluto… These are places of dreams and nightmares. And I love all of them.