On the floor amongst the rubble where locals had visited and ransacked the deserted old bush-built shack; dirt-floored and rank with mould, I saw other diaries. These had been trampled, their pages mixing with the litter of other stuff; letters, brown paper notations of faded pencil, scores of Pix and other populist magazines of pre and post-war decades. A friend had earlier visited this place, her home coloured with an array of protea from huge shrubs that virtually hid the old place from view until I was almost at its front door.
“There are old notebooks scattered everywhere with strange writing,” she had said, firing me with curiosity that had me walking with some trepidation as a trespasser to the place.
She was right. The pages were of scrawled letters from which I could make neither head nor tail. Every diary the same. A library of cryptograms or nonsense penned for decades by someone obviously stark, raving mad.
There was no sentence structure at all. Just thousands of letters, crammed in seriatum, with no periods or commas; without spacing separating any words if indeed there were any words at all. The poor man, I conceded, presuming it to have been the work of some isolated demented being, perhaps locked away from society.
I took one of the books home as a curiosity piece, along with a selection of paraphernalia in the rubble: old letters, some written with a beautiful hand, a few negatives, and a cardboard box of papered oddments, including a good condition copy of an ancient publication of Charles Dickens’ Household Words.
At home I transported to the great man himself through the musty pages of that famous weekly journal and read about the complex logistics of getting eggs from Ireland to London and wondered if ever Dickens might have considered this as a setting for a novel.
From the box of assorted papers I found I could with effort, decipher some of the faded words penciled so long ago. As I made my way, laboriously, word by word transposing from paper to computer, I entered the world of the writer; a lonely and sad individual, I deduced after just a few paragraphs. It came to me that in a time that knew no carbon paper, the writer was re-writing copies of letters she had penned. I was as much intrigued at the industriousness of the endeavour as I was in empathizing with the author, a person whom I knew I simply had to discover. She appeared to have much authority and seemed matriarchial, fiercely resolute and ardently Christian. I returned to the old house at dawn the next day and collected a further three cardboard boxes of letters and brown-paper notations, transferring much to the disdain of my wife, the litter from one abode to another.
“Don’t bring that old stuff in here, you might invite a ghost to take up residence,” said my wife ominously.
Indeed she was close to it. I was transporting the spirits of that and other authors into my home. Many of the brown-paper notations were from wrappers of periodicals, I deduced, for some carried US stamps. Nothing it seems was wasted.
My dear Lizzie,
We got your letter yesterday Was surprised immensely, but it is simply impossible for us to receive Annie. We are now in the bush living in a shanty which is not rain-proof … we have only one narrow passage for a kitchen. All the other rooms are bedrooms, no spare bed or bedding, not even a couch and very little food; bread and dripping and potatoes as our staple diet. I would rather Annie did not come to see me as she is more a stranger than my neighbours and poor as our home is, we try to be content and do not wish to be agitated by one outside our family circle. We have ceased to visit the outside world or receive visits. … We are now living in a shanty in the bush which is only fit for a cow shed. We have no spare bed. Every room is a bedroom and lets in the water. We have no substantial food to set before anybody and do not wish for any of our people to make us ask and by this sister, I like you, do not want anything but what God gives one. I have been denied the common comforts of life these last few years, but so long as I can keep to myself, I can bear it, but do not wish by moneyed relatives to humiliate me by this visit. Anne is no more like a sister to me. She has estranged herself by her selfishness in the past and I could not feel like having her an (??… of my shanty, even if it were suitable. … not for all the money in Tasmania would I have a stranger or disturbing element in my house. We have for years withdrawn from all society, even the churches, and never wish to re-enter it or receive visitors. Most of my people are as strangers and do not think as I do, so it as well to remain as we are and there then we cannot face outsiders. Annie has no family love for me, hence it will be no disappointment to her.
I knew immediately on the completion of just one of hundreds of pieces of brown paper in my possession and scattered on that dirt floor, that I had given myself one hell of a headache. To overcome the compulsion of transcribing their contents to satisfy my curiosity. Far too huge a task. Who are these people? What lives have they lived? From where have they come and what became of them?
The indecipherable diary too added to my dilemma. Much like a 3-d pictogram, if you stare the right way, it will pop out at you. So too the diary. Here was not the rattle of a simpleton but that of a simple man. He was illiterate. He knew no syntax nor any of the refinements of the structure of the English language, but he was never-the-less communicating. Yes. Some words were missing letters. The word ‘and’ throughout the diary had no ‘d’. Same as others. Some letters missing, but they were consistently missing. No stops, no commas. No sentences, nor paragraphs. But I could decipher. The following morning I rushed back to the property and retrieved all the diaries. In outside sheds, I found more in boxes. One hundred and eighty in all, dating back to 1917.
Hundreds of pages, tens of thousands of words. Not one sentence. Not one full stop. Not one space between the words. But the entire lifetime of a mortal from youth to the grave. And what was this excerpt that I had managed to decipher. The Excella? I knew it as an early coastal ferry. Had this family relocated from Hobart to Maria Island? And to what?
The Excella soon came into the open sea and then the rolling set in, which finished off everyone with a tendency to seasickness.
We turned up the East Coast, but veered Northeast to bring us near to Maria Island. A stiff breeze had blown all day, which ruffled the water and made it rough. When the sun set, the mist caused by the sea breeze covered the sky which brought darkness on early. The boat turned into Chinaman’s Bay about 8 o’clock and ran alongside a narrow jetty and we started unloading. The livestock were led along the jetty and let go and soon vanished into the darkness. Af ew people had emerged out of the semi darkness and came down to the wharf. But they too soon disappeared. The beautiful lit-up boat vanished round the point on its way to Swansea.
How can we describe the family’s situation. Instead of hurrying into a good house, lighting up and getting a quick tea, then setting up the beds and retiring for the night after a hard day, we stood here in the darkness with the lonely sound of the sea lapping on the stones. It seemed almost Robinson Crusoe over again. We all felt dazed and speechless. As I have mentioned before, S’ temper was fiery and this unexpected welcome did not make it any better, so I had better draw a veil over what she said. But father seemed to take no notice whatsoever. What made it worse for the family, they had no experience of camping or hunting and had always lived on the farm. We had got out of our beds of a morning and gone back to them at night. How unprepared we were for a scene like this. It left us bewildered, but father was undisturbed by it all.
Over the ensuing weeks of transcribing this segment of the diary, I visited the old house many times, eventually accumulating hundreds of pieces of memorabilia from the life of that unknown family. I contacted the new owner and my diary collection swelled to more than 400. I have transcribed more than 120,000 words, from the diaries and letters of the Hood family, some dating to the 19thC as a letter from an English cousin. One letter is from a former Premier, E.Dwyer Gray. on the drowning of one of the Hood family. Another is from Antarctic expeditioner, Rear Admiral Evans. Hundreds of letters from scores of relatives, friends, associates and locals, who have interacted with the Hood family over their entire lifetime — in my back yard shed with the diaries, only a small portion of which have been transcribed. I have deduced that it would take me 20 years transcribing 24/7 to complete the task — one far greater than the efforts of one person.
And so, the conundrum of the shed should be shared with the readers of the TT. What to do? Should they go to the tip as Frank Hood, the author of the diaries once requested in a rare interview with The Mercury Newspaper. Or should 400 empathetic readers of the Tasmanian Times, each take a diary, and transcribe to disk for posterity, a fascinating insight into the lives of ordinary folk on the fringes of Orford and Triabunna — an intriguing social history of one family On invitation, I addressed the local Rotary branch, who shared with me my enthusiasm but could offer no solution, other than to hand the diaries over to an historic society based in Swansea. Here they would be cared for but would their contents ever be made available to the public, given the massive logistics involved in their transcription? I suggested that students from the Triabunna High School undertake their transcription as an ongoing social science project, but got a headshake. What, dear readers of TT, is the destiny of the Hood diaries?
Rostrevor horse teams: pic by Hector Hood.
Charles Hood, a naive and despairing poet, was forcibly retired from the Tasmanian railways without accumulating a cent in superannuation. He spent his money on a leased Risdon Vale farm. Diary notations allege he was kicked off the property by soldiers returning from WWI. The family became squatter refugees on the bitter, windswept Maria island and fled to Triabunna and Orford, subsisting on rabbits and garden produce, fighting jackjumper plagues and in frantic pursuit of hiving bees to sweeten their dreary lives.
‘Our crops are almost exterminated by vermin; rats destroy the bulk of the hay when shredded and it’s a day night fight in the field to save it from kangaroos, rats, mice, rabbits, sparrows, parrots. These hordes come from miles … ”Winter storms rattle their shanty as Frank completes his daily diary, recording the social history of a ‘town of heathens’ as his austere mother calls Orfordians.
Hector, a brother rejects his mother’s demands to pursue a life of Christianity, his Kodakery photographs by the score capturing the images of people now long gone and lost forever, should public interest in this project fail. What better public forum to lodge the dilemma of the Hood diaries, than the gargantuan Tasmanian Times. All that I have gathered — and transcribed — belong to the community, but beyond Orford and Triabunna. Sarah’s brown paper copies tell of their Tasmanian origins, the heartache of her parents’ separation from the Old Country; her ‘posh’ upbringing at Longford, where her recollections stretch to a Sunday School outing in 1872; the horse-journeys to Campbell Town to gum-decorated dance-halls ‘nobody was hurt, but terribly frightened’; her solution to the vanity of her burgeoning beauty — to remove her teeth — Her sisters marry the gentry and her letters to and from tell of their success and failures; the bark mills; the mainland droughts; the coming of the cinema; letters from New Zealand where feral weasels ravage the country’s fauna; a 1919 letter from Mary Roberts of the Beaumauris Zoo,
“I got a letter today from a Mr Von Steglitz, Bracknell, saying he had caught five flying squirrels alive ‘highly valued for their beauty and their fur, would I write immediately & say whether I would buy them for the price of 10 pounds for the five!!’ I just sat down and wept to think I could not save them from being sacrificed at the altar of fashion and mammon …”
… and so much more; in diaries, in letters, in sketches, in photographs, lives lived, yet enriched in poverty. The main homestead was bulldozed within weeks of being inherited, despite the promises to keep it as a monument to the lives of the pioneers, known as ‘I. The memories live on … in the conundrum of my shed.
What should be done with them?
The TT is my final appeal.
AT first first I thought I may have discovered a cache of spy diaries, neatly stored in a book shelf behind a dusty and decaying partition. There were about 40.