Opinion: A Tassie memory breaches the 'wall'

from page 17 of The Sydney Morning Herald, May 7, 1996

by Rob Barrett, sub-editor

The terrible even of the Port Arthur massacre has burdened Tasmanians with an unwanted bond, one of shame and guilt.

  It was the defining moment of an overwhelming tragedy -- the awkward embrace between two men outside St David's Cathedral in Hobart. The television cameras stared and the nation watched in silence as the Prime Minister reached out instinctively to comfort the exhausted doctor, stooped forward and in tears, after the memorial service for the Port Arthur dead.
  I realised that I knew this grief-stricken man in the white coat as Bryan Walpole, the boy I went to school with more than 30 years ago. Just hours before the slaughter, we had been at a school reunion in Launceston. Someone had told me he was there but among the 600 present I had missed him.
  I remember Bryan talking passionately about his determination to be a doctor and now, there he was, an emergency physician at Royal Hobart Hospital and thrust into the spotlight in the worst possible circumstances.
  When I finally spoke to him by phone from Sydney, he had lost none of his Tasmanian sense of humour.
  He said a few personal words had been exchanged with the Prime Minister. "It was like meeting the Queen, I suppose," he said.
  "I was quite impressed with Howard -- he had a look of compassion and empathy on his face and I suppose he saw the same thing on my face."
  Many of those at the reunion I had not seen for decades. Some were still good mates and a few were still, well, prefects. The Governor, Guy Green, and the Premier, Tony Rundle, attended. Later they would also appear on television, trying to explain the unexplainable.
  Perhaps they had heard of the disaster as I did, listening dumbfounded to the six o'clock news on Sunday -- up to 15 feared dead in a shooting at Port Arthur. Impossible. This isn't America. But the news got worse, much worse.
  I looked out of the Launceston motel window across the park we used to walk through on our way home from the primary school just around the corner. There was the cannon we played on and the chestnut trees that dropped the conkers we fought over. A green and pleasant scene, very Tasmanian, but now somehow tainted by the terrible news from the south.
  All of us who were at that reunion -- and every Tasmanian -- would be changed by this sudden video-style horror in our beloved island.
  That's the thing with Tasmanians. We all know each other or, worse, we're all related. It's a mainlander's joke, and we let them have their fun. After all, we are the lucky ones, those born and bred on this tiny island of impossibly pretty farms, sleepy towns, jagged mountains and coastlines, and wild rivers.
  Even those of us who long ago jumped over what the novelist Christopher Koch called the "sea wall" still feel it's magical pull.
  We talk of moving back, buying one of those ridiculously cheap houses, and living the quiet life.
  But now there is a new and terrible bond between us. An unspeakable act of savagery and cruelty by one of our own has left us with a feeling of collective shame and guilt.
  Tasmania, home of the worst modern massacre by a single gunman. Nine days on it still doesn't seem possible. As Bryan Walpole said: "If anyone ends up on the list of international firearm casualties, you just don't expect it here. It's not like Iraq or Los Angeles..."
  But this is evil revisited for Tasmania.
  The very site of the slaughter was designed specifically for the torture and isolation of transported prisoners. This was a ghastly place long before April 28, 1996.
  And far worse is our most shameful episode -- the systematic extinction of Tasmania's Aboriginies.
  These memories, deept in the Tasmanian psyche, welled up again on that sunny Sunday as one man went on his murderous rampage.
  On my fridge in Sydney is a sticker that says Proud To Be Tasmanian.
  I still am. But things have changed. Forever.

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