Increase Font Size    Decrease Font Size

Monday, 25 April 2005

ANZAC Day! Attended the Dawn Service on Green Hill and tried not to click my heels! The local garrison re-enacted another Gallipolli landing with lots of noise and shooting of blanks - if only the real thing had been that easy! The singing of "Advance Australia Fair" resulted in a lot of subdued mumbling despite T.I. Islanders being indeed "girt by sea"(and pissed by lunchtime!) Even the Armed Forces personnel seemed unsure of the words! It was downright embarrassing! Advance Australia Fair indeed! Why not advance our collective rendition of our national anthem first? But in any case, why not have something a bit more rousing along the lines of "La Marseillaise" - even though the days of "Aux armes citoyens! Formez vos bataillons, Marchons, marchons!" are thankfully over.

The old pearl shed now the Travel Centre

The supposedly "free" ANZAC breakfast at the Jardine Hotel cost $10 a pop with the scrambled eggs made from some sort of powder. My patriotism didn't extend that far and as I continued to explore the rest of the town, I encountered more changes: the old pearl shell sorting shed on Victoria Parade, which had belonged to the Island Industries Board, was now a travel centre.

As I ambled along the beach, I kept an eye open for broken beer bottles in the sand. Littering used to be a big problem on T.I. and splinters could be seen glittering in the clean, white sand but brightly coloured refuse bins are everywhere now and the risk of cutting one's foot on what the locals used to call "Thursday Island Coral" is much less of a danger now than in the past.

BrianI met Brian Pearson who had worked in my office back then in 1977. He was now driving his own taxi - STRAIT TAXIS "Be Strait There" - , one of 14 or 15 plus several taxi mini-busses. And all that in addition to several hundred cars on little more than a 5-km ring road! In my days on T.I. privately owned vehicles had been virtually unknown and the only cars were taxis. In fact, in T.I. kreole the word for car at that time was 'taxi'. The old IIB Building

I hailed him down just in front of the old office building of what had been the Island Industries Board's supermarket, now empty and falling into disrepair. IIB's successors, IBIS, had sold it off for $340,000 when they found themselves in financial trouble (why am I not surprised?) and the new owner had it on the market for about $1.2 million. I used to work behind that top right-hand window and look out over the beach and towards Horn and Prince of Wales Islands! And look out the window I used to a lot because the work was so undemanding that I had finished with it on most days before lunch-time. 28 years to the day I sat behind one of those upstairs windows and wondered (and worried) about the future. Had it been worth the worries? Should I have relaxed and enjoyed life more?

Just round the corner from the old office building used to be my former boss's residence. It was still there - but in what a state! Apparently, the Island Industries Board's successor, IBIS (Islander Board of Industry & Service), had become so broke that it sold off most of its assets, including this property and the house I used to live in. But the blood-letting had continued and there was talk of an administrator moving in again!
Called in at the new Grand Hotel. The original Grand Hotel had been built in 1890 but burnt down in early 1993 (people were heard muttering the word "arson" under their beery breath). It was rebuilt and reopened in September 1996.

Col, the Grand Hotel's Irish bartender, did much of his work by reflex. He had to as he was seldom sober enough to be conscious of what he was doing - or, for that matter, saying. When he was not behind the bar, he was in front of it, either at the Grand or one of the other four hotels on the island. The way he drank, the place was showing a profit even if he were the only customer. Not only was he regularly blind-drunk but also permanently colourblind, an attribute which would certainly be to his advantage on Thursday Island.

As I walked towards my lodgings at the Federal Hotel that evening, a figure issued from its public bar. 'Staggered' would have been a more accurate description as it came weaving towards me, zig-zagging from one side of the pavement to the other. I recognised Col who must have been on a busman's (or should that be barman's?) holiday from the Grand. Just as I was trying to figure out how best to out-zig him, he crumbled, Leda-like, onto the pavement in front of me. Before I could bend down to ask him, "Do you want a taxi or a priest?", a paddy wagon - how appropriately named! - came around the corner, stopped and two constables heaved Col, grinning like a lobotomised clam, into the lock-up at the rear for a free ride back to the Grand. Col had been on T.I. for only three months but already fitted in beautifully: in mainstream Australia he had belonged to a pretty sorry-looking minority of town drunks but here on "Thirsty Island" could claim majority rule. And to think of what he would save himself in taxi fares!

T.I. has always been full of characters. When Somerset Maugham visited the island, he described two of them: German Harry and French Joe. In Elizabeth Burchill's book "Thursday Island Nurse" (first published 1972) is a photograph of a man called Simon who at that time was reputed to be the oldest man on Thursday Island and a permanent resident of the General Hospital. Perhaps he was Maugham's French Joe!? On tiny Packe Island in Port Lihou Bay at the back of Prince of Wales Island lived for forty years a Swedish hermit known as Ron Brandt. According to Balfour Ross who now lives in Malaysia, Ron had the reputation of firing his shotgun on any boat that came too close to his house, a one-room shack, so the island was avoided by the locals. He died in 1981. He may have been inspired by the story of German Harry or, to use his real name, the Dane Henry Evolt, who, according to this article in the SYDNEY MORNING HERALD of 24 November 1951, lived as a hermit on Deliverance Island until his death in 1928. If you want to read more about Ron Brandt, this article written about him also contains several almost historic photos (unfortunately, the original article is in Swedish, so here is an approximate translation) Ron Brandt in the 1970s

Forget about John Donne, every man is an island, and these men had come to the islands because they are the only geographic features that echoed their own isolation and individuality.

[P.S. Several years after my trip to Thursday Island, I received this email from a Pär Erik Brand in Sweden:

"Hello! Just would like to say thank you for your interesting article on Thursday Island. A bit late perhaps as you wrote it 4 years ago but I just found it on the Internet the other day. In your article you mention a person named "Ron Brandt" who lived alone on Packe Island. His real name was Gösta Brand (ending with a ´d´ not ´dt´) but he was called Ron. He came from Sweden and he is/was my uncle on my mother's side. True he lived like a hermit but his relatives in Sweden kept contact with him all the time. My mother used to write letters to him and sometimes he replied. I still have Australian stamps that he sent me at my wish when I was a school kid. Another uncle of mine visited him on the island in the late seventies. He got Australian citizenship so in his last years he lived on a government pension. Before he made his living from fishing, pearl diving and crocodile hunting. Already in 1961 they wrote about him in a weekly paper and he was then called the Swedish Robinson Crusoe. In the mid-seventies he was mentioned in a whole chapter in a travel book about Australia written by a rather famous Swedish author. According to that book he payed 10 dollars per year to the government for "renting" the island."]

<=== previous page           next page ===>