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Authors: Nicholas Shakespeare

In Tasmania

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Nicholas Shakespeare's biography of Bruce Chatwin was published to unstinting critical acclaim and was lauded as being one of the most outstanding biographies of the decade. Shakespeare is also the author of
The Vision of Elena Silves
, winner of the Somerset Maugham Award;
The High Flyer
, for which he was nominated as one of Granta's Best of Young British Novelists and
The Dancer Upstairs
, which was the American Libraries Association's Best Novel of 1997 and which was later adapted for the film of the same title directed by John Malkovich. His most recent novel,
, was published by Harvill in 2004.


‘A narrative that is bracing, adventurous, touched by surprises, perfectly balanced and completely engrossing.'

Tom Adair,
The Scotsman

‘Shakespeare takes on Van Diemonian history with a breadth and depth of research nothing short of breathtaking.'

Mark Svendsen,
The Courier-Mail

‘For many people, Tasmania is an island of the imagination, distant and alluring. Nicholas Shakespeare weaves a cast of unlikely characters into 200 years of Tasmanian history.'

The Economist
, Books of the Year

‘Shakespeare's non-judgmental pen and his poetic turn of phrase, in which skies are “grey as a beard”, make for a compelling book … Riveting.'

Christina Lamb,
Sunday Times

‘Tasmania is a singular place and Nicholas Shakespeare pays it a singular tribute … Anyone who fancies emigrating should get started now.'

Peter Porter,
The Times

‘Tasmania is an enigmatic place and Shakespeare captures it with an appreciative eye.'

Penny Green,
The Guardian

‘A writer who possesses real heart and flair.'

Louis de Bernières

‘Shakespeare is the best social, historical and cultural commentator to have set his sights on this region. As with Chatwin and Patagonia, Shakespeare has made Tasmania his own.'

Peter Lewis,
Mail on Sunday

‘Nicholas Shakespeare's narrative is, without question, a romance, and a brilliant and glittering one … [a] marvellously vital book.'

Julian Evans,
Daily Telegraph

‘This is, in many ways, the sort of book I like best; a collection of extraordinary incidents and fantastic claims, of phantom visions and unbelievable facts; animals which can eat 40 per cent of their own body weight in one sitting, and a possum-catcher's niece who became the Queen of Denmark … There are many gems in this irresistibly rum book …'

Philip Hensher,
The Spectator

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted by any person or entity, including internet search engines or retailers, in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including printing, photocopying (except under the statutory exceptions provisions of the Australian
Copyright Act 1968
), recording, scanning or by any information storage and retrieval system without the prior written permission of Random House Australia. Any unauthorised distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author's and publisher's rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.

In Tasmania

ePub ISBN 9781742744964

A Vintage book
Published by Random House Australia Pty Ltd
Level 3, 100 Pacific Highway, North Sydney, NSW 2060

Sydney New York Toronto
London Auckland Johannesburg

First published in the United Kingdom in 2004 by The Harvill Press
First published in Australia in 2004 by Knopf
Paperback edition first published in 2005 by Vintage
This Vintage edition first published in 2007

Copyright © Nicholas Shakespeare 2004

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

National Library of Australia
Cataloguing-in-Publication Entry –

Shakespeare, Nicholas, 1957–.
In Tasmania.

Includes index.

ISBN 978 1 74166 906 0
ISBN 1 74166 906 5

1. Shakespeare, Nicholas, 1957– – Homes and haunts – Tasmania. 2. Kemp, Anthony Fenn, 1773–1868. 3. Tasmania – History. I. Title.




The Vision of Elena Silves

The High Flyer

The Dancer Upstairs



Bruce Chatwin

To Max and Benedict, two Tasmanian devils

‘The same sky covers us, the same sun and all the stars revolve about us, and light us in turn.'

Comenius (1592–1671),
quoted by Julian Sorell Huxley in
We Europeans

‘What would you do, Father, if you had to be present at the birth of a monster with two heads?'

‘I would baptise it, of course. What an absurd question.'

Graham Greene,
Monsignor Quixote

Part I: Father of Tasmania

‘… like the legendary uncle from Australia'

Günter Grass,
The Tin Drum


from England. ‘Did you know you had a double in Tasmania?'

He had contacted directory enquiries and been put through to N. Shakespeare in Burnie on the north coast, who told him: ‘You got the wrong fella.' In Argentina I had once met a Reynaldo Shakespeare, a photographer, but in four decades of wandering, I had never come across another Shakespeare with my initial. So I called him.

A young-sounding man answered. He was not put out to hear from me and the idea of meeting up appealed. ‘I'm pretty poor on the family side,' he warned. ‘Not a family tree man.'

A double is an invitation and a dare. I arranged to be in Burnie the following Sunday.

I found my namesake getting off a glittering black motorbike in the drive of a house behind the Old Surrey Road industrial estate. ‘I'm in trouble,' he grinned through his visor. He had gone to Smithton ‘for a hoon', as he called his ride, and enjoyed himself so much – ‘no distraction, just concentrating on the road and what the machine's doing' – that he had lost track of time.

‘I've only had him a week,' he said.

‘What is he?' I asked, feeling a stab of envy. I had never ridden on a motorbike, not even as a passenger.

‘Suzuki 750
,' he said, with great fondness, enunciating each syllable. His parents had been dead set against him buying it. His father had worked as an apprentice turner and lost four of his friends on motorbikes. Motorbikies were known widely in Tasmania as ‘temporary Australians'.

‘It does look fast,' I said.

‘Nah, good cheap little cruisy bike.'

He took off his helmet and we shook hands. I looked into a decent, laid-back face, early thirties, framed by a thick black beard, brown eyes. I had no idea what he saw, but he knew well enough where I lived: he had installed the alarm for a house just down the road from us and had discussed with his wife buying a property there.

I asked, ‘What does the N stand for?'


Nevin Shakespeare ran his own one-man electrical business. Blocking the steep drive was a red van with the Chandos portrait stamped on the doors and the logo ‘Shakespeare Electricals'. Among his clients was the founder of the Delta Force, a New Yorker in his seventies who lived in Tasmania for his safety. ‘He killed two of his own men so as not to leave them wounded and once had Qaddafi in his crosshairs when orders came not to shoot.' Nevin had rewired his home. But he was cutting back on residential work. ‘You're always chasing the money.'

His wife came out to tell him that he was late and he introduced me to Laurelle, whom he had met at a hockey match – ‘while trying to get off with my sister,' she said. Then their two sons: Garion, ten, and Martyn, six – both curious to see this interloper from England with a name like their Dad's.

‘Does it interest you to know where you're from?' Nevin asked Garion.

‘Not really.'

Nevin had also invited his parents, Gavin and Gloria. Gavin so resembled my own father that when I introduced them to each other a few months later, my father leaned across the table and said: ‘I don't know what I look like, but you look like what I think I look like.'

Gavin had a stronger grip on family history than his son. His grandfather James Shakespeare came from Staffordshire in the nineteenth century and was a bricklayer in Sydney. In 1959, he left the Australian mainland to work in the paper mill in Burnie, where Nevin was born.

‘I'm darn pleased my parents didn't call me Bill,' Nevin said.

‘Were you teased?' I wanted to know. In the army, my father was addressed as ‘the effing swan of Avon', and at prep school I had had to endure everything from Shagspot to Shaggers.

‘I was Shakey,' Gavin said.

‘I was Shakers, or Bill,' Nevin said. ‘“Good day, Bill. Do you write many songs?” They say a lot of weird things here, a lot of misinformation. “No,” I tell them, “he wrote plays.”'

‘Speaking of the plays,' Gavin said. ‘I was the bottom of every class in English. It was my worst subject.'

‘Mine, too, pretty much,' Nevin said. ‘That's been passed on. Comes from the bricklayer's side. Don't have to write anything. Just get the bricks level.'

We discussed other family traits. Gavin's wife Gloria said, apropos of Nevin's youngest son: ‘
a Shakespeare.'

‘What do you mean?' I asked.

Gloria said: ‘You never argue with him.'

Gavin said: ‘My father wasn't interested in arguments.'

‘Nevin avoids arguments,' Laurelle said.

‘No, don't like confrontation,' Nevin said.

‘Something that can be settled in two minutes he lets drag on for two months, that's my pet hate.'

‘I'm with you,' I said to Nevin. ‘I hate arguments.'

Then Gavin remembered another Shakespeare trait. ‘My father wasn't interested in family history.'

Nevin had inherited this characteristic as well. ‘Once they go, you've got no idea. It's just a heap of old photos. It's just history.'

Even so, Nevin had been reading about Tasmania's forthcoming bicentenary in the
Burnie Advocate
and he felt a grub of regret to realise how little he knew about his birthplace. ‘We were never taught Tasmanian history at Parklands High School. We were told that Truganini was the last and that the Aborigines couldn't light a fire, couldn't swim and all hated each other anyway. We spent more time on English and European history, which at the end of the day means nothing.'

‘How much do you know about the man they call the Father of Tasmania?'

‘Who's that?'

‘Did they tell you about the settlement at York Town?'

‘What settlement?'

‘Do you know York Town?'

‘Of course, I know York Town!' Nevin had driven through it heaps of times. He had camped there and it was also where he had had the motorbike accident that so alarmed his parents. He was overtaking a line of traffic when a car pulled out. ‘I hit the brakes and high-sided, and went surfing on my hands and knees. The car didn't stop, didn't even know he'd caused an accident. But I ended up in Deloraine Hospital. Luckily, I knew the blokes because I'd serviced the ambulance station.'

‘Well, York Town is near where the Europeans landed 200 years ago,' I told him. ‘It's the first place they settled on this coast.'

He shook his head. ‘We knew nothing of it. You ask anyone in the street, they wouldn't have much knowledge.'

An idea was forming. I said to Nevin, ‘Take me on your bike, and I'll show you.'

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