August 20, 2019

Journalist scales new heights

The launch of Donald Knowler’s The Shy Mountain by Charles Wooley soon turned into a bunfight after Charles told Knowler to put away his speech and engage in a conversation about the book. Chris Pearce, the owner of the Hobart Bookshop where the launch took place on Wednesday, told Tasmanian Times it was one of the funniest occasions the bookshop had hosted. Here is the speech Knowler didn’t get to make …


I’m described as a nature writer, largely because I write the “On the wing” column on birdwatching in the Mercury. But first and foremost I’m a journalist.

I ply my trade as a newspaper wordsmith. On my anvil words are hammered and flattened to fit a certain shape, a narrative, to record, to report what I have seen on a given day.

Although semi-retired after 50 years pursuing my craft, I still carry a notebook; in the way Rob Walls, the photographer who took the marvellous cover photograph for my book still carries a camera into semi-retirement.

When I meet him in the coffee shops of Hobart, or more likely the pubs and bars, Charles Wooley always makes much of me coming from London, telling me my London accent reminds him of his Cockney driver during Charles’ assignments in the British capital.

I think Charles finds it odd that someone from the world of the Minder television program, of Arthur Daly and the Winchester basement drinking club, should feel equally at home among the currawongs at a higher elevation, the slopes of Hobart’s mountain.

I must agree that wilderness, and especially mountains, are so foreign to the people of London, that there’s no mention of them in Cockney rhyming slang, my first tongue.

The closest, I suppose, to a sense of wilderness and higher ground in the Cockney lexicon is Hampstead Heath, as in yer hamsteads, your hampstead heath, teeth.

It’s not surprising then that someone like myself born in London and brought up on its suburban fringes should have a fascination with mountains. To say nothing of wilderness.

Along with exotic animals, mountains always seemed to feature in the picture books I was brought as a child. They reared off the page like the graphs in the business pages of newspapers, always with the tops of the spikes coloured white to represent snow.

But us Lundin kids, us Cockney sparrows, didn’t have mountains to call our own.  At the time of Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were conquering Everest in1953 we had to make do with the stairs, and ropes slung to banisters.

Forget mountains, I grew up in place that didn’t even have a horizon.

It was a flat landscape that did not extend as far as the eye could see. The panorama, if it can be described as such, was obscured by red brick, concrete and glass, and framed by grey cloud.

I grew up on a vast housing estate on the fringe of London, which had been built to house the people of south-east London who had lost their homes during the blitz of the Second World War.

It was supposed to be utopia, paradise, for Londoners escaping the smog and over-crowding of their city, which I think then was still the biggest metropolis in the world.

We were in the country, after all, “at one with nature” as the term went in those days but even at a very young age I knew something was missing. We were in a false environment divorced from nature.

I didn’t know it at the time but a wilderness of a kind had made way for the housing estate where I lived, a wilderness that has become the most endangered environment in Britain.

It’s a landscape formed by glaciers in the Ice Age, dumping sands on areas of southern England. The soil was so poor that over thousands of years it was never cultivated and it was left in place, wilderness, as common ground.

The common ground contained, and still does where it survives, a unique fauna and flora, the main feature being silver birch, pine and heather in place of the rich deciduous forests of oak, beech and elm found in other areas of Southern England not scarred by the Ice Age.

The site of the housing estate was part of Horsell Common near the town of Woking in Surrey, the common made famous by H G Wells in his War of the Worlds. Wells described the Martians as actually landing on Horsell Common and I think, looking back, the people of Woking would have preferred Martians to 5000 Cockneys 1300 homes on their precious landscape.

Although where I grew up is on the other side of the world, there is a striking parallel with what I soon discovered was happening in Tasmania when I first arrived here 17 years ago. That was developers eyeing wilderness as something not to be left as it is, wilderness, largely untouched by humankind, but as a means to make money.

Horsell Common and the other remaining areas of sandy heathland in southern England are under the same commercial pressures as the wilderness regions of Tasmania.

Sometimes it takes an outsider, like myself, to see the bigger picture; especially a Cockney who has never had a mountain to call his own.

Where I come from, the highest point is Leaf Hill on the North Downs of Surrey, standing at 294 metres. In old money it was just below the 1000 feet to qualify as a English “mountain” until an eccentric Victorian built a tower on it to put it into the “1000 club”.

In fact, kunanyi/Mount Wellington eclipses the highest point of England, Scafell Peak in the Lake District, which is 293 metres lower than our mountain and the highest point in the entire United Kingdom. Ben Nevis in Scotland, tops it by only 74 metres.

The knowledge of these statistics might reveal I have an obsession with Hobart’s very own mountain.

I can bore people to death talking about it. Yes, it represents something denied me in my youth, a playground for the nature lover literally on the doorstep, a destination for adventure and discovery.

I can understand people growing up in Hobart taking the mountain for granted,  not viewing it in actually the same emotional way as I do.

I’m not saying Tasmanians a don’t care about their environment, their mountain, but it is so familiar, part of the scenery it’s easy be become blasé about it.

It has to be fought for, otherwise some carpetbagger will come and take it for themselves.

Our mountain and the case being made for a cable car is a case in point.

Although the cable car is being hailed as a tourist opportunity, creating jobs and revenue for the city and state, I see it differently. And this is beyond my doubts that it could ever be viable, largely because of inclement weather which sees the mountain-top often covered in cloud.

The mountain delivers wilderness to the city, and a cable car with all its infrastructure would deliver the city to the mountain. It would form both a metaphorical and actual bridge between suburb and summit and take away the mountain’s mystery.

And I should add that I am wearing a cable car tie – purchased in a Hobart men’s clothes shop two Christmases ago –  to my book launch not to indicate support for the cableway, but as an ironic protest.

In my life irony seems to have travelled with the trashing of the environment.

Take that housing estate I told you about, Sheerwater, where I grew up. Soon after the birch and pines were cleared, and construction of more than a thousand homes started, the planners and developers suddenly realised the Cockneys being transplanted to the country from Bermondsey and Rotherhithe and the Old Kent road would need a focal point, a pub.

One was soon built on what had been the pristine forest – and it was named The Birch and Pines.


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