Tuesday, June 21, 2016

At Willow Court -Reflections on an abandoned Mental Hospital

Entrance to Willow Court

What both Mona and Dark Mofo do rather well is to make us confront our fears and the things we would rather repress. In that respect, if that was the aim, then it was a stroke of genius to make the former Mental Hospital at New Norfolk the venue for some Dark Mofo events.

The main buildings date from the 1830's and were originally built to house invalid convicts.  Until its closure in 2000, it was the oldest continously operating asylum in  Australia
 The previous Saturday, Mike Parr, notable for his confrontational performance art, put in seventy two hours exploring the theme of madness. He has some acquaintance with the subject. His own brother committed suicide in an institution like this. I didn’t see this particular opus, but his video with respect to the treatment of refugees whose plight he highlighted by sewing his own lips together as they had done, was showing in one of the alcoves. That was quite disconcerting enough.

We enter by the East Wing

 Willow Court is what remains of the Royal Derwent Mental Hospital which has long cast its shadow over New Norfolk. Although the original buildings begun in 1827 were intended to house infirm convicts, it soon became the dumping ground for all those others whom society preferred to forget - the mentally ill,  senile dementia  sufferers, the intellectually impaired, alcoholics,  juvenile delinquents and the criminally insane.
Beginning in 1936 more wards and facilities were added until there were 23 buildings in all. Since the primary aim was containment, treament revolved around the use of restraints, drugs and electroshock treatment and punishments of various kinds. While horror stories of abuse and neglect abounded, such conditions were  very much the norm in institutions of its kind at the time, not just in Australia but in other countries as well.

The price of admission is one mirror, which we are invited to leave wherever we feel moved to. They are everywhere
Being the only such facility in the state and the oldest continually operating one in the country, it continued to be overcrowded and under -resourced.  At its peak it accommodated around 1500 patients and was a closed, virtually self -contained community. Up to 40 people in one ward had to share a single shower and  had no privacy at all in bathrooms. In the event of complaints, sins of omission or commission were blamed on understaffing, or on the patients themselves who, having no voice and being anyway regarded as unreliable witnesses, could easily be ignored.  

View through the window

Not an electroshock machine, Thank goodness, but an early X-ray machine

The view within- the aim now is to stabilise the buildings
 In the 1950's there were the first ripples of a seachange. New anti -psychotic drugs such as lithium and more effective anti -depressants were developed which enabled many patients to live relatively normal lives.  Gradually attitudes towards those with intellectual or emotional difficulties also began to change.  Diagnoses such as “imbecile” or “moral mania” were no longer acceptable. Recreational opportunities, occupational therapies and education became more important. 

By 1981, the International Year of Disabled Persons, the rights of disabled people, including those with mental conditions began to be recognised in law if not always in practice. Advocacy groups formed and consultations with ‘consumers’ of mental health care began.

Not sure if this was a laundry or a bathroom or whether the graffiti predates or post dates closure
For those in the Royal  Derwent  Hospital, variously known  as the Lunatic Asylum (1829), The Hospital for the Insane (1859 – 1915), The Mental Diseases Hospital (1915 -1937), Lachlan Park Hospital (1937 – 1968) and The Royal Derwent Hospital (1968 -2001), reflecting changing views of mental health, things did not improve greatly and reports of abuse and neglect continued, leading to a major independent enquiry. This ultimately resulted in the closure of the Royal Derwent Hospital in October 2000 with most patients being rehoused in group homes in the community. The criminally insane were moved to a special wing at Risdon Prison and the few remaining ones were transferred to the somewhat more salubrious Millbrook Rise on the far side of the highway.
One of the more shocking exhibits since it conveys the smell of an institution where many people were forced to lie in their own excrement
The process of deinstitutionalisation was not always a success especially for those patients who lacked family or community support. People with "mental problems” continue to swell the ranks of the homeless and prison populations or become part of a “revolving door” culture where they move in and out of other institutions such as hospitals, halfway houses and charity hostels.
 I think of Hobart’s Dancing Man, Anthony Day and wondered if it was always a kindness or another way of society washing its hands of a problem. I don't know for certain if he was ever a patient at the Royal Derwent but the tragic course of his life followed a similar trajectory to that of many who were released. He committed suicide in Melbourne in May 2003, after being charged by the police in Hobart’s mall. Our greater tolerance of difference does not yet extend very far.
Women's exercise yard

In the sixteen years which followed its closure, the Hospital became a blot on the landscape and a drain on the local council, already reeling  from the loss of income which the hospital used to bring into the community. Some buildings were sold to developers; some were demolished. Others were vandalised and or became the target of arson attacks. Most artifacts and fittings were destroyed or plundered. While some attempts were made to turn it into a tourist ‘attraction’ with ghost tours and the like, these met with strong resistance from former patients and relatives of those who had suffered within its walls. 

Yet it is a historic building. Just as Port Arthur – formerly a place of shame and inhumanity is now of great importance as a visitor site, this sad chapter should also not be airbrushed out. It comes into the category of Sites of Conscience like Dachau in Munich or the Gulags of Russia. Unlike Port Arthur however, this is still a raw wound in many people’s lives, still too fresh in people’s minds. On the other hand, if it can evoke empathy and concern for those who are still suffering from mental disorders, and the stigma that goes with it, then this the diamond which can be forged out of their suffering. This should be of concern to all of us as it is now estimated that one in five of us is likely to be troubled by a mental disorder at some time in our lives.  

Bronte House - Ward C  originally a maximum security ward for male offenders, but later used to house young males guilty of anti social behaviour
 I’m not sure what I expected to see when I visited. The facility is now called by the pleasant name of Willow Court after the two giant willows planted by the indefatigable Lady Franklin. Although the trees are no longer there, they were reputedly grown from cuttings taken from a tree on Napoleon’s grave. Only the black wrought iron bars hint at what lies beyond. Although it’s sunny, it’s chilly. It’s as if a cold sad wind seeps out from those empty buildings.  Only a few people are allowed in at a time and as we queue, I wonder what brings us all here. Is it to gawp at the forbidden, the hidden,  in much the same way as we might once have laughed at the antics of the insane or attended a public hanging? A brazier burns cheerily at the entrance. At at last we are permitted to enter.

A video of Mike Parr's other work  highlighting the plight of refugees in detention, is on show in one of the alcoves- accompanied by the sound of retching in the background
The scale of these derelict buildings is already intimidating and they are rumoured to be haunted. Several  paranormal investigations have already taken place here. If walls could scream and sadness and despair could leave an imprint, they would certainly do so here. There is no sign of the straps and straightjackets or the dreaded electrodes, but visitors become noticeably quieter as they pass respectfully through these ruined and desolate spaces.  Mirrors - the price of admission, are everywhere.  They are intended to make one reflect – on oneself, on broken lives, on those incarcerated here. We don’t hear the screams of inmates, but the smell wafting from buckets of urine placed in one of the old wards, conveys far more than words or even pictures can. I fear that smell will cling to my clothes and hair and certainly my mind forever.

Alonnah, the Women's Ward from the outside. No pictures are allowed inside
At Alonnah, which was the women’s maximum security ward, no pictures may be taken. I have seen gulag cells that look more hospitable than these. The ceilings are low and the windows are not only tightly barred, but have another wall of concrete grillwork behind them followed by the perimeter wall, making them very dark indeed. Graffiti and possum droppings which have presumably accumulated since the building became vacant, have been left  in place. It is in this building that Mike Parr chose to put on his performance. Only dark scribbles and scraps of paper remain.

Reflections  - on ourselves, on broken lives, on a society that allows people to be treated this way or turns a blind eye
People walk slowly back towards the exit - in shock perhaps, thoughtful and hopefully moved. We need places like this this on the National Heritage list to remind us to be kinder and more compassionate. A society is judged on the way it treats its weakest members. Although Australia signed and ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities in 2008, you do not have to look hard to find violations or traces of the old attitudes. An apology to those affected may help to heal the wounds. If the aim of Dark Mofo (and MONA) is to shock us into thinking about such things, then they have succeeded  admirably.


Monday, June 13, 2016

Overcoming the Forces of Darkness – A bit of Hobart’s Dark Mofo Festival

Winter has come to Tasmania with a vengeance. Today there’s snow to 400m and before that we had heavy rain and screaming winds for a week. In the north of the state they had the worst flooding in 85 years. It gets dark at 4.30 p.m.

Despite the temptation to hibernate, preferably in bed to keep warm, it is our first fine evening in quite a while, so mustering all my courage and my Nepali jacket - they know a thing or two about cold in Nepal, I head downtown to experience a bit of Dark Mofo.

Now in it’s fourth year, Dark Mofo is Tasmania’s winter festival inspired by MONA’s themes of death, darkness and sex. How better to fight the cold and the dark than in true pagan tradition with fire, food and fellowship?

The Sheraton definitely looks better like this
The theme colours of red and black glow from city buildings as I make my way into town. In Dark Park, one of the venues, triangular obelisks spew forth flames at regular intervals lighting up small knots of people clustered around burning braziers. The flames not only feel warm, but give off the most delicious scent of eucalypt, of bush and of long forgotten fires.

The entrance to Dark Park where I spent most of the evening
I follow the red glowing lines that take you to various attractions in the park. It is set in the old industrial heart of the colony – behind the Gasworks with its tall chimney, behind the Wharves with their long sheds, in front of Henry Jones’ old Jam Factory and the former foundry, their architectural details picked out in ribbons of glowing red. It’s definitely our new red light district tonight. Beyond it the cenotaph glows darkly.  

After wandering around for a bit, I come upon the long queues lining up for the House of Mirrors. Why not? It proves to be a remarkable installation, well worth the $10 it cost to go in.
Illusion, disorientation and sepulchral music
Occasional moments of panic and confusion

Dark Angel
I’m not quite as thrilled with the next group of attractions in the Arts Building. Here too the queues are long but at least admission appears to be free. The scents and the music are evocative and deeply relaxing, yet visually I am somewhat disappointed. There are more queues lining up for Bodystorm, but  I follow the red ribbons of light through a food hall and a packed food court where people are balancing waffles and icecream, tacos and drinks. The mood is upbeat and people are good natured despite having to queue for everything, even the battery of portaloos. It's a funfair for grown - ups, with scary bits. I pass Reuben still working on a mural and venture into a light show which looks like constellations of planets moving and bending to music in the dark.

Aesop - very relaxing, lovely music, beautiful scent and the curtains billowed in and out in time with the music but I rather hoped that the curtains would part and something more would happen... dancing? Skin?
Buzzing Foodcourt
Reuben and a work in progress
Another shed houses a giant papier maché sculpture of a sea serpent the Ogoh –Ogoh, made by the Balinese contingent which is still working on the scales. Each New Year, such figures are carried through Balinese villages to attract dark forces and evil spirits and they are subsequently burnt to restore harmony between the spirit world and the world of humans. Here we are invited to write our regrets on slips of paper and post them into the body of the beast which will be burnt on the solstice. It’s quite satisfying and something truly different. That’s one thing you can count on at Mofo.

The Ogoh - Ogoh - giant seadragon
I won't tell you what I wrote
The Balinese  modelmakers - Ketut Kina, Komang,  I. B. Gusman. (Apologies for not knowing the lady's name who joined us for the photo)
There are big queues waiting at the maze, so I eschew that for some live music – a South American Band playing in the Tasmanian Brewing Company’s shed, and then make my way slowly around the block. The evening’s performance of “Lustmord” in Shed 2 has not yet started. There are lots of other activities around the town and further afield at MONA and other venues including the long time and rather creepy former Mental Hospital at New Norfolk, but that’s about as much excitement as I can handle for one night. I'm pleased to report that I didn't feel cold once!

You can see the full program which runs until 21/6/2016 here. While I may go along to some of the exhibitions and dark music gigs, I promise I will not be lining up for the dawn nude Solstice Swim! However, it is good to see so many people out and about and or coming to Tasmania especially for Dark Mofo. Last year it attracted 174,000 visitors with 8,000 of them coming from interstate or overseas.

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Bat in the Belfry - An evening with the Bellringers of Hobart

Entrance to St. David's belltower - it's much bigger than it looks

 It was going to be a cracker of a frost. It was already freezing when I met with the Hobart Bellringers outside St. David’s Cathedral last night. Then we made our way up into the tower. While the present Cathedral (begun 1872 with the belltower completed in 1931) has always been an imposing Hobart landmark, I had never really appreciated how enormous it was until I began climbing those narrow spiral stairs. Tonight I was being initiated into the arcane world of bell ringing or more precisely, change ringing which Wiki defines as “The art of ringing a set of tuned bells in a controlled manner.”

While many countries have wonderful church bells, this particular branch of campanology is largely confined to the Anglophone world.  Initially Christian missionaries used hand bells to call the faithful to church, but by the 550’s church bells were installed in many parishes. By the C7th a number of beliefs had evolved around bells, imbuing them with the power to heal, to ward off enemies, the plague and assorted evil spirits and to protect the souls of the recently departed from being caught by the devil.

Although the Reformation of 1536 resulted in many churches and their bells being destroyed, the revival in 1600 led to incorporation of new technologies such as the mounting of bells on wheels which allowed them  to swing 360° and made them easier to control. The latter part of the 1600s saw the publication of  guide books which enabled ringers to follow complex sequences, rather than having them called by the chief ringer. A full rendition of such peals involving all the permutations takes much skill and many hours. The current record holders, ringers from all over the UK who performed at the Loughborough  Bell Foundry where St. David's bells were also made, took almost eighteen hours to achieve this on eight bells in 1963. An ‘extent’ as it’s called, on twelve bells, would take over thirty years

The local bellringers are a friendly bunch
Originally a pastime of the aristocracy, bell ringing became popular with all classes. Women entered the field in 1896 and in keeping with the times a Ladies Guild of Change Ringers formed in 1912. Despite decline in both churchgoing and bellringing after World War 1, change ringing began to enjoy renewed popularity in the 1950s, reaching a climax with the beginning of the new Millenium when 95% of the church bells in the UK were rung.  ( Click here for more on the History of Bellringing).

According to Wiki, the UK still has the largest concentration of English - style rings (sets of change ringing bells) with 6798 in England, 24 in Scotland, 37 in Ireland, and 227 in Wales. There are also 48 in the USA,  8 each in Canada and New Zealand and 13 in the whole of Africa, but Australia with 59 is well represented.

Nor is bellringing as solemn a pastime as you might expect
The Hobart Branch has around twenty members who mostly ring at St. David’s with occasional performances at Trinity Church in North Hobart.  Only about twelve are present tonight and  a friendly bunch they are –  ranging from teenagers to seniors and from all walks of life. At the top of the first set of stairs we enter a brightly lit room where about a dozen ropes ending in what look like hangman's nooses (they aren't - a bellringer's knot is specifically designed to unravel if someone should accidentally become entangled) are hanging  from  holes in the  high ceiling.

The ringing room is largely insulated from the sound of the bells by two more floors
After introducing themselves, they take up their places before the ropes. As the bells begin to chime above us, I must have looked a little disappointed at only being able to see them on a TV monitor with no idea of what they actually looked like or how big they were. Then Miranda, one of the members, hands me some headphones and offers  to take me to the belfry. We climb up two more spiral staircases to a glass door through which I can see the bells in action. St. David’s has ten bells plus a #3 and #7 and five extra chiming bells. The bells are huge  - they range in size from 200kg up to 1056kg (over a tonne) and the sound is deafening despite the headphones and glass door. 

Two floors up in the belfry the sound is deafening as the bells swing into action
Back down in the ringing room, the ringers are hard at work. The looks on their faces are a mixture of meditative rapture and deep concentration. It looks easy enough – pull down the ropes, let the sally – that  coloured woollen  part, rise almost to the ceiling and then  gently pull it down again, but it must be a lot harder than it looks – getting the sequence right, getting the rhythm right and never ever repeating a movement.  Eli who has been practising for about six weeks is not allowed to join in and two of the ropes are tantalisingly vacant. I ask Doug if I can give the one nearest to me a test pull to see what it feels like.

L-R  David, Doug, Kate and Rachael hard at work

“No!“ he cries in alarm.  “That one will pull you straight up to the ceiling.“  Suitably daunted I sit down again. They will be practising for another two hours. It must take quite a bit of stamina. No wonder some groups in the UK are calling for it to be recognised as a sport.

Why do it? As Doug says on the Hobart Bellringers website, it’s not just fun, but addictive as well. There is the friendship of fellow ringers not just locally but around the world, with visiting ringers being welcome in belltowers everywhere. There is the sense of being part of the community and part of important events.  Then there’s the challenge.  As Doug puts it,
“Change ringing requires physical coordination, memory, rhythm and concentration, but gives you a real buzz when everything comes together.”  
And then there is the sound. As Doug says,
“Bells rung in the English tradition have a glorious sound. Being part of its creation can be a spine tingling experience.”

Doug became involved because in the 1970s  a school friend in the UK was going to learn it and it seemed like a good idea. Eli says he had gone to St. Andrews School in Sydney and had always been fascinated by the bells there. I would have liked to talk to some of the younger members too, but it's getting late and those biscuits on the table are starting to look way too tempting.

What the ringers see
The cold air hits me as I leave the tower. The joyful sound of the bells is all around. Though you can hear them often in most parts of Hobart, knowing who’s making it happen – real people with names and faces, gives this an entirely new dimension.  
Thank you Doug, David, Miranda, Eli and all those other lovely people who made me so welcome. Should you be interested in joining the Hobart Bellringers or finding out more about bell ringing generally, feel free to contact them via their website

St. David's belltower in quiet repose in daylight