Boronia Tea Duelling

Around the turn of the twentieth century, the extensively expanded cottage that had once serviced the small whaling operation at Boronia Beach was turned into the Boronia Hotel. According to the Greater Hobart Trails:

“It was popular in the days when the old ferry docked at the jetty at Kingston Beach bringing day-trippers from Hobart. Folk would visit the hotel for a cup of tea and wander through its terraced rhododendron gardens down to Boronia Beach.”

Yet this tiny snippet of information is all that is available online. Questions are posed on the Internet, of the history of the hotel, and what happened to the building, and they go unanswered. Bloggers stroll beneath the cliffs of Boronia Beach, never seeing the historic homestead.

I only discovered how mysterious the old Boronia Hotel is after my partner and I started renting it a year ago, when it hadn’t been permanently lived in for about two decades. In my experience, the mysteries of the colonial building are usually: why is the possum screaming again? Where is this new leak coming from? Is that sound under the floorboards a wombat or the awakening of the undead?

Nevertheless, it has been the most perfect venue for hosting events. So, two years after the inaugural Antipodean Tea Duelling to celebrate my quarter century, inspired by the National Tea Duelling Championships I’d witnessed at the Lincoln Steampunk Festival, it was time to duel at Boronia.

We’d learned at the previous event that Arnott’s Nice biscuits were the most appropriate weapon, so contestants added milk and sugar to the tea*, dunked their biscuits for 3 seconds, and then competed to be the last to cleanly “nom” their biscuit.

Various strategies were employed: hovering the biscuit over an open mouth, eating the biscuit early and hoping that the others would push it for too long until the soggy biscuit collapsed, and sheer will power conveyed through eye contact. One contestant amused the crowd by rolling his sleeves, tying up a neckerchief and adding preposterous amounts of sugar to his beverage, but to no advantage as it turned out.

November again proved both convenient and an excuse to celebrate myself, so I pulled out one of those splendid unfolding teas, and my dear friends brought an array of impressive and delicious baked goods.

As well as the most spectacular, uniquely designed and hand-made tea duelling holster:

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Then there was feasting on baked goods, lawn games, more tea duelling, cuddling with the baby poultry. There was also the first known Tim Tam Slam-Off… which was only semi-successful and definitely needs more testing.

Then, in very Victorian fashion, the remaining party partook of a leisurely stroll down to Boronia Beach.

It was a glorious day, with glorious friends, although unfortunately not everyone could attend… ensuring that the tradition must be continued!

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*Tasmanian Breakfast Tea, from the very local Kingston company The Art of Tea.

Many many more photos on Flickr.

A Poet of the Island: Elvie Bowman

Perhaps one of the most remarkable qualities of the Flinders Island literature that I have been exploring over the last week is, simply, that most of the people who write it are visitors. That is, by far and large, the written work produced about Flinders Island and the surrounding Bass Strait islands is done by people who are only in the area for a short time. The greatest surprise is that this even extends to the non-fiction and guide books! (Indeed, of the four readily available guide books for the island, only one is written by people who live permanently on the island.*)

This is not necessarily a criticism of the quality of the literature of course. To imply this would imply that all travel writing is inferior, that all temporary residencies are creatively stunted, and that my own time on Flinders Island cannot produce anything of value! Actually, quite the reverse is true, since some of the best commentaries are written by visitors precisely because they are able to offer some perspective. Even so, the temporary nature of the authors of Flinders Island literature is, nevertheless, worthy of note.

And with that introduction, I present to you a very local poet: Elvie Bowman.

Bowman’s work, published in a booklet (I assume on Flinders Island, although no date or publishing details are given), is a collection of the poetry that she put in the local newsletter. The sweet foreword summarises the contents nicely:

A collection of poems written by local poet Elvie Bowman.

For many years Elvie’s poems have appeared in the “Island News” and have usually been written on topical subjects.

They express her feelings and vast knowledge of the Island, the people, and the animals in it.

Bowman Poetry

Bowman’s poetry is well-known, and was invariably the first (sometimes only) answer I received to the question of what literature about Flinders Island is written by an islander. That marvellous blog Island Life Style; references Bowman’s most famous work, a sea shanty style poem written in the 1970s, “Where the Roaring Forties Blow” (in the booklet called simply “Flinders Island”). While I am not intending here to offer a full explication of the poems, I’d like to draw out a few points from Bowman’s work, to get an idea of what constitutes her unique voice.

Most obviously, the poems follow a traditional form: stanzas with end rhymes, and a great many of Bowman’s poems are rhyming quatrains (abcb). This form suits the theme of the poetry, since Bowman in many ways offers an island form of pastoral poetry. Her verses describe the everyday rural life of the islanders, with some celebrations of the idyll. This form also has the advantage that it feels like poetry – it draws attention to its own recognisable and repeating patterns, and is very familiar for most Anglophone readers.

This conservative form is then filled with an appropriately familiar use of language. The lines are from everyday life, and colloquial phrases give the poems a local character. In her poem “Pros and Cons”, Bowman says “Our cattle though are something” (4.1), and then later adds that the bull “doesn’t do things by halves” (5.4), the familiar idioms making for a very relaxed reading. The rhythm of the poems is also colloquial, often using “but” when desiring to clarify or expand on a statement, and there are a few rhetorical questions so open ended that punctuation marks aren’t even used (“Tell me, where does a dollar go” (7.4), “But what’s the use of grumbling” (12.1)). The language is inclusive, tending to be unambiguous even when using idioms, and very few poetic devices (similes, metaphors etc) are used. As such the poetry is quite self-contained, making very little reference to things beyond the island, and when these do occur they are comfortably familiar. In “Pros and Cons”, Bowman describes the island sheep through invocation of the nursery rhyme Baa Baa Black Sheep: “They all yield their three bags full” (2.3).

Bowman, Our Island in Bass Strait

This tendency to focus on the island extends to a suspicion of non-islanders. In “Michael Middleton Esquire”, the vet fondly remembered as an impostor when he was newly arrived on the island.

From mainland Halls of learning came

A man, in neat attire.

He brought a piece of paper,

Should anyone enquire.

His name was written on it,

In Ink still slightly wet,

Announcing to us common herd,

This man, is ‘Mick da Vet’

The poem describes the vet’s early mistakes, when he was accidentally taking the lives of dogs and cats, and thus proving right the islanders’ suspicion of the outsider. Even so, Mick finds his place on the island, improving his veterinary ability but also proving himself as a person to the community as a singer, musician and dancer. As he settles into island life, the Islanders in turn accept him, and the poem ends “Should someone ask “who is that Man”/They are told, that’s ‘Mick da Vet’”, transforming the derogatory title into an in-joke that Mick is a part of.

This non-islander “other” is best demonstrated through the use of Bowman’s anonymous “they”, which turns up in several poems. In “Our Fading P.O. Tower”, the eponymous tower is being pulled down. “Now ‘they say’ it isn’t needed” the poet informs us, referring skeptically to this unknown authority that deems the tower no longer necessary. The poet, conversely, will miss the tower, and unlike the nameless authority she bestows human traits on others who will miss it, including golfers, boaters and birds.

These descriptions of island life are evocative precisely because they are recognisable and local. The simple language becomes a vehicle for emotions and events because it does not draw attention to itself. In “The Drought 1987/88”, the line “The sheep so weak and cattle so thin/With calves at foot and no milk within” does not attempt to dress the animals with anthropomorphism, or to describe their suffering with emotive language. Instead, Bowman allows the events to be evaluated for what they are: hard facts of life.

While some of Bowman’s rhymes and metres are a bit forced, she is nevertheless able to offer a poetical form of island life. The famous Flinders Island wave *can* be over-analysed, to amusing effect, but the wave is ultimately just a familiar and distinctive islander form of communication. In much the same way, Bowman’s poetry could be dressier, drawing on more intertextual references and poetic devices, but it would be less distinctively representative of the island. As such, Bowman’s poetry is a demonstration of a particularly local sense of the island, and a local expression of it.

Bowman, The Furneauxs

Other Island poets include Don Napier and Derek Smith. Derek Smith’s “The Song of the Furneaux Islands”, which also illustrates many of the same properties as Elvie Bowman’s work, appears in Jean Edgecomb’s book Flinders Island and Eastern Bass Strait.

We live on a beautiful island

Set in a sapphire sea

Relying on one another

And living in harmony.

From the beaches of Palana

To Strzelecki’s lofty peak

It’s a beautiful, beautiful island

With peace for all who seek.

We see the wildflowers growing,

Hear song birds in the trees

And watch the boats unloading

Their harvest of the seas.

The cry of our wild geese echoes

O’er the tidal stream

And muttonbirds slowly circle

As silently as a dream.

When freezing gales of winter

Roar through the sheoak trees,

There’s a wild, majestic splendour

In the clouds and the raging seas.

And as we all grow older,

Still prouder we will be

Of our beautiful Furneaux Islands

Home to you and me.

*Of the guide books available in Bowman’s General Store (Whitemark), which accounts – as far as I can tell – for basically all the guidebooks readily available, a good half is written by seasonal or occasional visitors. “A Walking Guide to Flinders Island and Cape Barren Island”, now in its third edition thanks to Dooreen H. Lovegrove and Steve Summers, is printed by the Flinders Council, and has always been a product of islanders. Ken Martin of “Walks of Flinders Island” draws on an extensive and personal knowledge of the island, having spent seasons on it bushwalking for the last 30 years, and indeed writing some of the earliest advice about walking in the area. Jean Edgecombe’s “Discovering Flinders Island”, “Flinders Island: The Furneaux Group” and “Flinders Island and Eastern Bass Strait”, while written from Sydney, is based on Edgecomb’s many visits and draws on both expert and islander knowledge extensively. Len Zell, in Wild Discovery Guides, prefaces the book with the comment “My visits to the island were brief and I was able to talk to only a few people”, although the guide does not suffer for this and it should not be considered a criticism. Rather, I make this point to indicate that temporary authors are the bulk of the authors, not that their work is in any way inferior for this.

A Week of Waves: Auroras, Clouds and Greetings on Flinders Island

When entering a new community, there is always the worry about reading the social expectations, and responding with the correct etiquette. On Flinders Island, the most pervasive and remarkable mannerism is the wave offered between the drivers of cars. Island Life Style has posted a highly amusing account of this published in the local Island News some years ago, but in short, there is a simple expectation that the drivers of vehicles will raise a finger or a whole hand in greeting when passing each other on the road. The result is both a remarkably welcoming and inclusive sentiment for those who are new to the island, and this terrible horror of implied rejection when a wave is not exchanged.

Some years ago I came to the island for the Flinders Five Running Festival, and so being used to this special phenomenon, merrily wave to all those in view each time I’m in the car. My partner Nick, not having been to the island since he was a child, is less familiar with the wave habit, and so commits the social faux pas of IGNORING A WAVE whenever he sits behind the wheel, until – aghast and embarrassed – I attempt to correct his behaviour.

Indeed, perhaps it was no coincidence that the Scottish Country Dancing evening that we attempted to attend on Tuesday evening was abandoned…

The other waves of the island over the last week included the glorious waves of coloured light in the sky, the aurora australis. We had just enjoyed a delicious roast feast put on by botanical artist Jessie (and where I was remembered by one of the locals from the years when I visited the island as the person mad enough to enjoy swimming in the ocean in early September!), and had headed to bed, when I saw an aurora alert online. We dashed outside again, and sure enough, the southern horizon was aglow. The camera was able to capture the colour better than the naked eye, although the descending clouds meant that we only had time for a few shots.

Low cloud was also the undoing of our walk up Strzelecki, the highest mountain on the island. The summit seems to have a near permanent cap of cloud, even when the rest of the island is bathed in sunlight, but we optimistically thought that perhaps it would burn off by the time we reached the peak. The answer was a resounding negative, although we sat in the wind for some time staring into the white abyss waiting for it to clear.

Many of the sunrise and sunset timelapses that Nick has been attempting to capture are clouded in, but the days have been kind, even if perpetually windy. Our trek out along Killiecrankie Bay was in fine conditions, although we soon discovered that finding one of the famous Killiecrankie Diamonds (actually a topaz) was more difficult than simply strolling along the beach and picking one up. Conversely, it was very easy to walk into the lovely little Whitemark library and pick up a beautifully illustrated book about the diamonds. And, of course, by driving into town we were awash with friendly waves.

Sunrise from Mountain Seas

All photos and time lapses by the talented Nick.

Of the Island, Part I

Australia’s Last Frontier
The Forgotten Islands
Archipelago of Souls

These rather romantic terms refer to the sparsely inhabited isles between Victoria and Tasmania, wind-swept refuges in the shallow Bass Strait seas. The phrases describe the islands, but they are also the subject of my own time on one of these islands, being the titles of books written about the place. I am currently an Artist-in-Residence at Mountain Seas, an Arts Centre on Flinders Island on the eastern side of the strait. Between bouts of exploring the island with my partner Nick, I have nearly a fortnight to distill some of the literature of the place, and hopefully produce a treatise of a kind on the sense of islandness present in Tasmanian fiction more broadly. I’ll also be writing a less scholarly piece about walking on the island, because it really is very pretty.

Mountain Seas Art Centre

It is actually day two of my residence. We had spent a glorious Sunday back in Canberra gallivanting about in the snow with top hats and toboggans, before catching an overnight bus down to Melbourne. Being seasoned travellers of south-east Asian and Latin American sleeper buses we had high hopes for the amount of sleep we would achieve on the bus, but alas, the seats reclined a mere token effort before clicking into a near-vertical position. So, in spite of the flatness of the Hume Highway, we had barely dozed before disembarking at Southern Cross station. Then, with yet another Myki card to add to my collection, we made our way across the city to Essendon Airport. Although its glory days as Australia’s second international airport are long past, the airport is far from retirement, hosting several small airline companies and their remarkably friendly staff. Winter may be off-season for tourism on Flinders Island (hence offering artist retreat positions during the colder months), but our little Sharp Airlines plane was at full capacity with 19 passengers and a dog, whose easily-heard bark from the luggage area immediately behind us provoked some laughter from the children on the plane. We thus duly embarked on the hour-long scenic flight above Wilson’s Promontory, whose picturesque coastline was entirely obscured by cloud for the whole duration, though we did get a spectacular view of the rain-shawled Flinders Island before landing.

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Room at Mountain Seas

Collected by Retreat Manager and Chef Annie, we had a drizzly car tour of Whitemark and Trousers Point, and then a siesta before meeting the other artist at Mountain Seas. Another 25 year old from Albury Wodonga, and even a Jessie, our similarities ended abruptly at our art. Jessie is a talented botanical artist, invoking exquisite reproductions of leaves and shells on paper, while my stick figures would embarrass a child. Still, the small library at Mountain Seas does contain some extra Bass Strait islands books, so I will easily be able to work in my preferred medium with a few choice resources.

Nick took a timelapse of our first dawn from the room, which offers an indication of just how beautiful this location is. The appropriately named Mountain Seas is situated between Strzelecki and the beach, on a property abounding with wildlife.

Flinders Island is the largest (1,333 km²) of the Furneaux Group, a collection of 52 islands on the south eastern edge of Bass Strait. With a population of less than 900, everyone knows each other, and each time cars pass each other on the road a hand is waved. The wildlife on the island are very friendly too, but being far more populous and far less road savvy than their human counterparts the waves at wallabies tend to be of the swerving and horn honking variety. Today is boat day, when fresh supplies arrive on the island, so it is time that we too get on the road and make our way into Whitemark.

Follow my unfolding residency, where I’ll be exploring the literature and landscape of Flinders Island, on Twitter, Instagram and this blog. Have a book to suggest or a comment to make or an idea to unravel? I’d love feedback!

Other bloggers of the island include Karen Morrow, who took up an Artist Residency as a writer previously, and Island Life Style by Sammi Gowthorp and Megan Morphett, who write and photograph Flinders superbly.

Portrait of the artist as an artist

Antipodean Ginger Nut Tea Duelling

British traditions in Australia have had, for many decades now, a fierce Australian-ness to them. Take our names, for instance. Most of those Australians with British ancestry have a British name, but we tend to rampantly turn them into diminutives: David is Davo, John is Johnno, Shane is Shazza. For that matter, breakfast is brekky, barbecue is barbie, afternoon is arvo. And then there’s our flag, which is basically the Union Jack with the The Southern Cross stuck on the corner.

So it should come as no surprise that a competition involving dressing up in Victorian period costume and dunking biscuits into tea, a seemingly necessarily British activity, should incorporate a great Aussie bikkie* in the antipodean version. Or, in this case, several varieties of the same great Australian biscuit.

Antipodean Tea Duelling, The Duel

You see, back in the Victorian era, William Arnott, a Scottish immigrant to Australia, set up a bakery in New South Wales. (Even our place names are an Australianised Britain.) His sons continued to run this bakery in New South Wales, until amalgamations and acquisitions of interstate bakeries in the 1960s led to the national company. Then, disaster! The four bakeries, running out of different states, all using different recipes for Ginger Nut Biscuits, trialled baking them to the New South Wales standard. Non-New-South-Welshmen protested vigorously, and Arnott’s decided to maintain the four recipes, even when baking them in a single bakery and giving them identical packaging (apart from nutritional information).

According to the Arnott’s Facebook page (or at least a friend’s reproduction of this passage, as I can’t find the original!):

So now in Queensland, Ginger Nuts are thin and sweet, with a dark colour. In New South Wales they are small, thick and hard, with a light colour. In Victoria and Tasmania, they are bigger, softer and sweeter. While in South and Western Australia, the biscuits look similar to their Victorian cousins, but taste sweeter.

On this particular occasion, being the first known Tasmanian Tea Duelling tournament, we had only managed to supply the Queensland and Tasmanian/Victorian versions of the biscuit.

The tournament was ostensibly held in honour of the quarter century celebration of the year 1989: the year of the Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, the fall of the Berlin Wall and – coincidentally – my birth year. Thus we had gathered a group of discerning gentlefolk in their best Steampunk attire at the Cascade Gardens, below the impressive colonial façade of the Cascade Brewery. We set up the picnic tables with tablecloths, laid out home-made baked goods, fired up the hiking stoves, and brewed ourselves a good Australian Breakfast tea with Ashgrove milk.

Then, the challengers stepped forward.

Tea Duelling is a brilliant sport that I’d seen played at the Lincoln Steampunk Festival in England a few months previous, so I’d decided to import it to the colonies. None of us had ever played before, but we were so eager that we decided to play four people off against each other in the first round.

Eyeing each other off, and under my command, the challengers added Ashgrove Milk (or not), sugar (or not), and chose from amongst the mix of Queensland and Tasmanian Ginger Nuts.

Then, it was time to dunk.

Using the British tradition as a guide, I counted for three seconds. The longevity of the round indicated that the Ginger Nuts were made with far more gingery strength than normal dipping biscuits, but it still turned into a surprisingly engaging spectacle. To our surprise, the milk-less competitor was at no disadvantage even with her hotter brew, and she came solidly second of the four. The winner became the new Tiffin Master, and thus the game continued, using Arnott’s Nice biscuits when we wanted shorter rounds. (This biscuit turned out to be the undoing of yours truly, since the soggy biscuit lost structural integrity at the vital moment, and collapsed partly onto my face, resulting in the winner being the first – and only – competitor to have nommed his biscuit.)

The result of this great Antipodean Tea Duelling Ginger Nut experiment? To be honest, we did not actually keep enough record to scientifically state the superior Tea Duelling variety of Ginger Nut. However, you can cheer yourself up by reading an excellent review of the teeth-breaking strength of the New South Wales Ginger Nut in this blog.

And you can further console yourself with the knowledge that Antipodean Gingernut Tea Duelling shall continue, until a Superior Tea Duelling Ginger Nut† has been determined.

*Bikkie and bikky are acceptable abbreviations of biscuit, but since Arnott’s themselves use bikkie I’ve adopted that here.

†Though we all already know that the Victorian/Tasmanian variety is the superior biscuit per se.

In my research on the history of Arnott’s, I also discovered a quiz answering what your biscuit preference says about your personality.