A grand Australian failure



'The promised land' The Age Saturday Review 24 January (2004)

On 28 March 1942, a young man walked alone into the remote wilderness of south-west Tasmania, seeking a promised land for the Jewish refugees of Nazi Europe. But rather than save a generation from the death camps, the Melbourne-born Critchley Parker succeeded only in continuing the grand Australian tradition of misadventure. Parker seems to follow the footsteps of Burke, Leichhardt, Lasseter & co. Yet this tale of deluded glory has a special relevance that is particular to our time.

The Tasmania's wild south-west resists settlement. Matthew Flinders described the landscape as 'the most dismal that can be imagined. The eye ranges over these peaks with astonishment and horror.' It would be hard to imagine anywhere on earth further from the civilisation of Europe. But at that time in history, with the Final Solution gearing into action, such distance was more an aspiration than a tyranny.

Before the establishment of Israel, the Freeland League considered Australia as the preferred site for a Jewish homeland. In 1941, Dr Isaac Steinberg came to explore the feasibility of a settlement in the Kimberleys. Steinberg had been the first Commissariat of Justice in the Bolshevik government. In frustration with the abandonment of due process by the young revolutionary government, Steinberg challenged Lenin to rename his office as the 'Commissariat for Social Extermination'. Lenin replied, 'Well put. that's exactly what it should be. but we can't say that.' Steinberg left the Soviet Union and took up the cause of his other chosen people.

Parker met Steinberg at the home of Caroline Isaacson, a progressive Zionist. Caroline had been a journalist with the Argus -Elizabeth Street was one of her pseudonyms. At the time of the meeting she was editing the women's page of The Age . Parker's father published a mining journal and was author of a book Tasmania: the Jewel of the Commonwealth which advocated utilisation of the vast riches that remained untapped on the island. The earnest son eventually convinced Steinberg to visit Tasmania and explore its potential as an alternative to the Kimberleys. It was, one senses, also an opportunity for Critchley to show his feelings towards Caroline.

Today, Tasmanian politicians proudly champion those seeking asylum. The island has a long history of commitment to refugees, often thwarted by Federal governments. Premier Cosgrove welcomed the proposal and an official visit was organised for Parker, Steinberg, Isaacson and a team of experts.

During his tour of Tasmania in1941, Steinberg received a warm reception. There was much talk of Tasmania's prospects for development. Meanwhile, time passed and the situation in Europe looked no better. Parker decided to take fate into his own hands.

In March 1942, Parker set off to explore the site of the future settlement. Others advised against the trip, but the thirty-one year old adventurer was a practised walker with experience in north Lapland. He was dropped off by boat at the foot of Mount Mackenzie by Charlie King, the only inhabitant in the vicinity. They agreed that if Parker needed assistance, he would make two columns of smoke from the button grass.

Parker set off to imagine a promised land out of this bleak landscape. The going was made difficult with heavy dew, but Parked was buoyed by the sublime scenery. Settlement seemed almost predestined. He found an inlet teaming with swans and named the future homeland Poynduk, the local Aboriginal word for 'swan'.

Parker continued on his way, exploring possible sites for towns and industry. But on the third day, the weather turned bad. Parker was forced to return to his base and send the agreed distress signal. But there was mist, making smoke difficult to see. Matches were his only guarantee of rescue, but he accidentally burnt a whole packet and damp rendered the rest useless. Pleurisy took hold of his lungs. There seemed nothing to do but retire to his tent and to eek out what remained of his life in precious words.

On the 8 April, Critchley wrote to Caroline explaining his predicament and advising the best path for the venture to succeed. He concluded, '. if this joint existence cannot be in the flesh let it be in the spirit & I would ask you to live on... to reach that perfection which we had dreamed of for us both.' He then wrote to Steinberg, 'To die in the service of so noble a cause is to me a great satisfaction & if, as I hope, the settlement brings happiness to many refugees & in so doing serves the state of Tasmania, I die happy.'

Posterity seemed his only salvation. It was during his dying days that Parker inscribed in his journal a remarkable vision. Port Davey promised an opportunity to graft onto the new world the best qualities of the old. The 'genius of the race' lends the region the same enterprise as had been found by Jews thus far in Palestine. This includes the manufacture of 'small things', such as perfumes, leather goods and fashion accessories. Dutch Jews assist with drainage. Wealth flows from a mix of mining, flax and fur farming. Coastal highways modelled on German autobahns open the area for tourists. Games combining European arts with Australian sports are developed including athletics, tapestry weaving and oratorical contests. A Pacific Fair proudly displays the wares of the settlement.

Underpinning this flourishing society is the solid base of a Soviet-style planned economy. Farms are collectivised. University scholarships are given to peoples of the world, including Burmese, Aztecs and 'African negroes'. Parker nominates Le Corbusier as the architect to realise his vision.

This antipodean Israel reached its zenith in Parker's imagination. As wealth accumulates, the community begins to acquire art treasures as well as 'entire buildings castles etc. that can be reconstituted in identical surroundings.' Port Davey seems destined to contain the world in microcosm. 'There seems no reason why Port Davey should not become the Paris of Australasia.' The north will come to the south.

After three weeks in the tent, Parker was still alive. His diet was reduced to water and aspirin. Search parties were sent out to find the missing walker. He heard a distant engine, but was too weak to respond. A boat passed by, but his tent was obscured from their vision. Did he prefer a noble death with promise over a fraught life against the odds?

Every sentence in his journal is potentially his epitaph. He made a farewell wish to Caroline, 'What Madame Rubenstein has done for perfumes in U.S.A. you can do for Communism in Australia'. His final words are for Caroline's children, 'Commend me to Peter & Joan, tell them to be worthy of their mother.' It took three months before Parker was finally discovered, rotting in his sleeping bag.

Schopenhauer once remarked how each individual has their assigned level poured into their cup of happiness. In Parker's brief life, it seemed as though he had spilled his cup into the overflowing vessels of those around him.

While the plan for a block settlement of refugees was eventually dismissed by John Curtin in 1944, Caroline Isaacson continued her brilliant career as a progressive socialite. In 1961, she embarked on a world trip and visited the young nation of Israel, where she witnessed the trail of Nazi henchman Adolf Eichmann, whose wife she interviewed later in Germany. She met with the future Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, who asked her to set up the Australia-Israel Association and become the honorary council for Israel in Melbourne. After meeting the Queen at a garden party, and sipping champagne with Maurice Chevalier in Paris, she began to make her way back to Australia, only to pass away in Genoa of a heart problem.

Parker's demise is most dramatically inverted in the son Peter's remarkable life of success. Peter Isaacson has made his mark on Australian folklore as a war pilot, known for his daredevil bombing raids across Nazi Germany and flying his Lancaster under Sydney Harbour Bridge to promote war bonds. On return to Australia, Peter followed his mother's footsteps into a highly successful career in publishing. In his biography, Pathfinder , Peter cites his principle of life as 'When in doubt, do the courageous thing.' As though acknowledging the shadow of his success, Peter treasures the whiskey flask that Critchley had given him.

The story of Parker's demise still troubles Caroline's daughter Joan. Despite the distance of more than sixty years since she last saw her mother's friend, Joan recalls quite vividly a 'sensitive young man with a bit of a frail look about him, more of an English look.' Joan invokes a quiet chap, not quite suited to the rough 'n ready Australian lifestyle.

Like some other Australian Don Quixote's, Parker is now having a second life. In Tasmania, Parker is being recovered as a local hero on two counts. He joins historical figures such as Lake Pedder photographer Olegas Truchanas as a martyr to the wilderness. And in a state whose popular support for refugees puts it at odds with the 'white fortress' of the mainland, Parker symbolises the role of Tasmania as a haven for the world.

There was a recent public forum in Hobart about Parker's relevance to contemporary Tasmania. The audience included representatives of the local Jewish community, descendants of Charlie King, and novelist Richard Flanagan, who is writing a novel based on the story. The forum coincided with an exhibition including a ceramic testament to Parker by Pip McManus, featuring Tasmanian landscape overlaid with maps of the Holy Lands. One of the speakers was painter Janet Fenton, Charlie King's granddaughter who grew up in the site of Parker's Poynduk. Janet continues to tend his grave site on the base of Mount Mackenzie.

Janet described her childhood home with a keenness that contrasts with those morbid few who'd passed by the area, 'Grey Precambrian quartzites, long leached of nutrients, protrude like bones through poor shallow peats clad with moorland vegetation in soft umber and sienna hues.' She continues to nurture this legacy of wilderness sensibility, fostered by Charlie King and celebrated in the book about his son, King of the Wilderness . King's descendents are testimony to a promised land that was always there, though Parker was too Eurocentric to actually see it.

Despite his beatification in Tasmania, the Parker story has one enduring disappointment. The physical journal cannot be found. Australia's literary canon is distinguished by its archive of failure. Peter Carey has shown the creative potential of these documents in his recent novels based on Ned Kelly's Jerilderie letter and Ern Malley's poems. So where is Parker's journal?

Despite a lapse of sixty years, the trail is surprisingly fresh. I followed a rumour that the man who found Parker's body was still alive, living in a boat at the end of the pier in Franklin, a departure point for Port Davey. As though according to a script, I walked to the end of the pier to find a sturdy little boat. Inside, an old man with a wisp of white hair sat staring out to sea. With a slightly resigned air, he let me in to his cabin.

Clyde Clayton remembers having a drink with Critchley before he set off. The 'silly bugger' didn't know his way around the south-west. He describes how his dog found Parker's body-Clyde hasn't slept in a sleeping bag since. Sadly, there's no recollection of the journal, or his mission. When I ask how he would have acted then if he'd know Parker was surveying the land for a Jewish colony, Clyde tightened his lips, 'I'd have carved him up and used him as cray bait.'

Indeed, it seems in retrospect that Parker's failure was the best result for the area. His dream would have destroyed a rare pocket of the world hitherto safe from human development. Meanwhile, poor soils, atrocious weather and lack of minerals would have made it almost impossible to sustain a viable settlement, as remains true today. Wilderness would have become wasteland,

Parker's legacy is a field of ironies, foibles and mysteries, surrounded by a horizon of dark tragedy with the faint aurora of a posthumous halo. Poynduk, named after a people swept from the land by the Black Line, remains part of Australia's rich speculative tradition. In the story of Critchley Parker, we have discovered another 'black swan of trespass'.

See the Haven exhibition

Thanks to Sheva Zucker, League for Yiddish/Afn Shvel for clarification about the nature of the Freeland League. For more information, read Alexander Heldring's thesis on the alternative Surinam project.