I like most of Australia’s capital cities, but – as many Australians do – I have a special fondness for Hobart. We like it because it is beautiful, intimate in scale and rich in interesting things to do and see. No other capital city lets tourists share such a wealth of treasures without much need of a car; though you need one to explore Mt Wellington, from a B&B in Battery Point I have spent half a dozen happy weekends mooching about on foot in the Salamanca district and the CBD while The Spouse attended conferences, and we were then able to walk to splendid restaurants without fear of a breathalyser to spoil our pleasure in the wine list. Hobart has all of a capital city’s amenities without the traffic, crowds and pollution. You can go to museums and art galleries; concerts and plays; historical tours and markets; and all of it tucked beside the charm of Constitution Dock and under the brooding majesty of Mt Wellington.
Peter Timms’ In Search of Hobart (2009) was the first contribution to the New South City Series; it was followed in due course by Brisbane by Matthew Condon and Sydney by Delia Falconer. I bought Melbourne by Sophie Cunningham when it came out in 2011 and Adelaide by Kerryn Goldsworthy in 2012. Others in the series are Canberra, Alice Springs, Perth and Darwin. My guess is that these books are very popular with tourists: they are compact reading, and can be read between cities on board the plane.
Timms’ is a recent convert to Hobart’s charms: he originally hails from Melbourne but has adopted Hobart as home and his affection for the city shows. Still, he has a criticism or two to offer, but he includes anecdotes and interviews with fellow-Hobartians so there is a diversity of opinion. His own background is as an art curator and critic of note, and – as you’d expect – he has some cross things to say about some of Hobart’s more recent architectural developments. It might surprise him to know that they are not what I remember when I think of Hobart: my mind’s eye brings me images of Arthur’s Circle and the National Trust-listed buildings in Davey St and Macquarie St. The ugliness of the Crown Casino is no different to the ugliness of casinos elsewhere in Australia, and I have trained my eye to look away. But I am, of course, a tourist; I am not confronted by the city’s dreary bits. I have no idea where Hobart’s supermarkets are, or where its Centrelink might be, or where any other of its mundane practicalities are located. I know where the bookshops are, and the coffee shops, the restaurants and the boutique art galleries. I know the suburb of Sandy Bay, but not the dreary ones that Timms is concerned about. (Well, we have our share of dreary suburbs in Melbourne too, and Sydney has an even bigger wasteland than we do. So does Paris, if it comes to that).
This idiosyncratic view of Australia’s smallest, most southerly, least-populated capital city explores Hobart’s troubled acceptance of its convict past and its brutal near-annihilation of its first people. I was interested to hear his thoughts about Truganina, which (as in so many other instances) gives by omission the incorrect impression that she was ‘the last’ Tasmanian Aborigine. She was not, as the state pension paid to Fanny Cochrane Smith paid after the death of Truganina shows. (See my review of Tasmanian Aborigines by Lyndall Ryan for further details if you are not familiar with this part of Tasmania’s history). But I think Timms is probably right about the suppression of the convict history: as a new arrival to Australia in the 1960s I was bemused in my Melbourne school to hear the teasing of a student from Tassie. Back then, I had no idea what it was about, but now I know that Tasmanian ancestry could then have been a cause of profound embarrassment since, the population being as small as it always has been, there was every chance that the family tree concealed a convict, an Aborigine, or both, and neither was acceptable in those days).
Timms links Hobart’s shift in attitudes to a new-found confidence in itself. It is no longer ashamed of its convict past, and it has led the rest of the country in reconciliation initiatives with Indigenous Tasmanians. Poverty arising from market forces on a limited economy (both before and after Federation) led to invidious comparisons with mainland cities, especially when so many young people deserted the state for employment and the bright lights of bigger capital cities. But the lack of capital to redevelop the city in the 1960s and 70s has preserved the city’s charm: it is rich in historic buildings that could so easily have been torn down for horrible office blocks and now Hobartians take great pride in these lovely buildings. And so they should. A stroll in the Hobart CBD on a sunny spring day is an absolute delight. (The last B&B we stayed at had a small guide book of historic walks for loan to its guests, but I’m sorry, I can’t remember its name).
What shines through this insightful little book is the love of nature and the beauty of the city. It comes as a surprise to be reminded that a mere 30 minutes from the CBD one can look out from Mt Wellington to where the nearest landfall is Patagonia. It’s amusing to hear about the wintertime frolics: there is apparently a tradition of building a snowman on the car bonnet and then racing to be the first to reach the CBD before it melts. It is salutary to realise that climate change is rendering Hobart’s weather even more benign during the summer season, and tempting indeed to invest in a little historic cottage while house prices are still well below the stratospheric scale of those in Sydney and Melbourne.
For international readers, take my advice: include Tassie in your holiday itinerary, and listen to a copy of this book on the plane.
PS The narration by David Baldwin was an inspired choice.
PPS I have since discovered that there is an updated 2012 edition…
Author: Peter Timms, with an introduction by Robert Dessaix
Title: In Search of Hobart
Read by David Baldwin
Publisher: Louis Braille Audio, 2010, first published 2009
Source: Kingston Library
The City Series is available from Fishpond: