Eight Best Places In Hobart For The Literary-Minded
You like reading? Go to Hobart, you nerds!
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The first time I saw Richard Flanagan I was saying something loud and obnoxious like “Who’s going to save Oz lit?!”, waving my arms about and thumping the table like I knew what I was saying and it mattered. We were sitting at a table in a pub called Knopwoods (more on that later), a group of writerly types, talking about writerly things, and because I’d arrived late I had my back to almost everyone else in the pub. I backed up my insightful question by answering it—seeing as though my companions were obviously still racking their brains: ‘I don’t know. Maybe Flanagan. Maybe Flanagan.’ (Please keep in mind: they sell beer at Knopwoods.)
It’s hard to miss Richard (he’s ‘Richard’ to Hobartians); he’s tall with a big, slap-bald head, a booming voice (his ‘pub’ voice) and, on this particular night, he was wearing a florescent orange Hawaiian shirt that seemed blessed with the power to generate its own light.
The silence with which my question was greeted was not, to my surprise, because of its challenging nature. It was mainly (let’s face it: wholly) because they were trying to tell me, with distressed eyes and nodding heads, to shut up. But because Knopwoods sells beer I was immune to their subtle hints. ‘And, I mean, who even knows if he could do it?’ More sighs and shaking heads that were trying to alert me to something happening behind me. In the end I took a breath and turned around.
Luckily, Richard’s pub voice is louder than his shirts, and unless he reads this (hi, Richard), he’ll never know about it. Still, he was close. I chose not to introduce myself that night—though I did about a year or so later, at an event for the Booker Prize-winning Narrow Road to the Deep North where I told him I was getting a copy for my mother-in-law and could he sign it. (I’m not good with people.)
Hobart has been tarting itself up over the last decade or so. We’ve all heard of MONA and its benevolent dictator, whose galleries and festivals are attracting butt-loads of Ray-Bans and man-buns. We’ve also heard of the produce, culinary delights, fresh air, buena vistas and (relatively) cheap housing. The colonialists called it idyllic; seems the neo-liberals are too.
But there’s a flipside to all this hip and happening stuff. Hobart is also known affectionately as Slow-bart. It’s small. It’s quiet. Shit shuts early. Maybe it’s the climate (brass-monkey cold); maybe it’s because everything closes early; or maybe the people are just more intelligent, but people read here. Booksellers often punch well above their weight in comparison to Sydney, Melbourne and the UK. Also, Hobart seems to attract writers. Here you can drink and then be left alone to write—or vice versa. But there are still a few distractions for the literary-minded, and while they like to keep relatively quiet (unless they’re Richard), there are still some truly inspiring places that get the juice (as Papa said) flowing.
The Brisbane Hotel
Where: 3 Brisbane St, Hobart
For fans of: The Lost Boys, Aphex Twin, Roberto Bolaño and Kingswood Country
You know those pubs where your pop once sat with his mates and a small pile of change on the bar? The ones that smelled like beer and were all brown? The ones that’ve now become all shiny and open and lined with glass and mirrors and the bars are stacked with expensive liqueurs and look something like Superman’s icy Fortress of Solitude? Well, the Briz has actively resisted all this gentrification—from the carpets to the toilets to the menu, seriously—and if the owners ever considered it there’d be a riot. Your pop would be proud.
I don’t think there’s ever been much of a literary scene at the Briz (apart from the excellent poetry on the dunny walls), but it is one of the best places for innovation and resistance in town. The punters range from punk to metal to indie, sad, happy, crazy, sane, musicians, painters, writers, karaoke specialists and jukebox junkies. It’s the home of some of the best emerging musicians you’re likely to see anywhere, and it really is a study of Hobart culture in one dirty, dimly lit, funky-smelling, rapturous place. In the words of one regular: ‘Me and my partner met here…I told him I was a nymphomaniac…it worked out!’
Where: 131 Collins St, Hobart
For fans of: The smell of books and coffee in the morning…
Let’s face it: you can’t sniff a Kindle. Well, you can, but it’s likely going to smell like a sex doll. And that’s cool if that’s your thing. I tend to like my books to smell like books and latex to smell like latex.
As the big book chains crumble, the independents are returning with a vengeance. And not many do it as well as this lot. In the past year alone it has played host to two former Prime Ministers, a Booker Prize-winner, Molly Meldrum, Bob Brown, a pirate/sea shanty band, just about every Tasmanian author and poet, and an endless line of people who decided to wait in line with armfuls of books rather than obey the fire alarm. (Seriously: the firies had to tell them to get out.)
They’ve been around for almost a century (founded in 1920), so there ain’t much they haven’t seen. One of the country’s best. You’ll find just about anything you want and then you can warm your beret and turtleneck in the big window with a long black and a view of ‘the mountain’ (Mt Wellington).
Where: 22 Salamanca Sq, Hobart
For fans of: Literary celebrity sightings
Another barnstorming indie. You almost have to walk sideways through the aisles here. It’s full to the gunnels and nestled into one of the oldest warehouses in town, around the back of busy, pretty, Salamanca Place. Their literature, art and architecture sections are stellar. And when there’s an event on you have to fight your way in.
It’s the place the writers go. One day I looked up from browsing to see Richard Flanagan (I know, right, he gets around), Robert Dessaix, Peter Timms and Christopher Koch, each minding his own business. (Clearly I got out of there before opening my mouth.)
The State Cinema and Bookshop
Where: 375 Elizabeth St, Hobart
For fans of: Maggie Smith AND Alain Robbe-Grillet
OK, so you’ve just got out of the next instalment of the Next Best Marigold Hotel thingy and you’re trying to make yourself feel better about yourself and silence the voice inside your head that’s suggesting that maybe Maggie Smith really is a treasure. Well, if it’s summer, you can go up onto the rooftop and see any number of classics or arty contemporaries. Or you can drown your sorrows at the café/bar. Or you can browse the bookshop that includes a killer cinema section and a stunning array of cookbooks.
The Lark Distillery
Where: 14 Davey St, Hobart
For fans of: J.P. Donleavy, Bram Stoker, the drinks trolleys in Mad Men
It was at a literary gathering at the Lark that I first learned about the Hobart vampire. ‘Yeah,’ said my learned acquaintance, ‘he lives below me. When I first moved in I went down to introduce myself and all the windows were blanked out, there was porn on the widescreen TV and dismantled carburettors all over the floor.’ ‘Cool,’ I said. ‘What kind of carburettors?’ Beside me was a tall dark figure, all in black, editor of the somewhat renegade Tasmanian Times, Lindsay Tuffin, who gave me a nod and said, ‘Hobart’s full of them. You’d be surprised.’ ‘Carburettors?’ Obviously I don’t get out enough.
With its low ceilings and decorative/functional whisky barrels, and the scent of wood and smoke, it doesn’t take much of an imagination to catapult yourself into some romantic literary dream where you’re sitting hunched over page after page, sipping shot after shot, and wiping the sweat from your brow with your fanned cuff. And: the whisky works. The Tasmanian Writers’ Centre holds many events here; there’s the odd folk band (by odd I mean weird), and plenty of atmosphere …
Where: 39 Salamanca Place, Hobart
For fans of: Gould’s Book of Fish, history, beer, making outrageous, unsupportable claims
So you’ve already read about the kind of literary things that happen at Knoppies. The group I was there with that night was a small posse of writers who prefer to go by the handle ‘Under the Fat Man,’ which refers to the photograph of the legendary and hefty Thomas Dewhurst Jennings (1824-1890), fourth wonder of Hobart after the river, the mountain and the climate. Jennings was known as ‘the biggest man in Australia if not in the world’. There’s a big print of him above the table where we sit spouting on about books and putting our feet in our mouths. Good, old sandstone building. Open fire. Quiet enough to talk, then rowdy enough to drown out what you say.
Mt Wellington Secret Hut
Where: Somewhere on Mt Wellington
For fans of: The Magic Mountain, Italo Calvino, Paul Auster, bushwalking, huts
If you’re going trekking across the top of a mountain to a secret hut that clings to its edge, the first thing you should do is not wear heels. I know someone who learned this the hard way. You can do all sorts of things up a mountain, and getting together with your lit-minded buddies and schlepping around in the rain to do readings and eat cheese is one of them.
Things to look out for: low-hanging branches, sudden changes in the weather, complainy indoorsy-types, those not suitably dressed, speaking up over the high winds, keeping the dodgy tin door shut so the rain doesn’t get in. Other than that, you should be right. Pro: best views in town. Con: might get lost forever.
Cracked and Spineless New & Used Books
Where: 138 Collins St, Hobart
For fans of: Bernard Black-type proprietors, being glared at for stupid questions, intimidating range, all things pulp, The Maltese Falcon, evil-looking skeletons, look just about everything
Ask Richard (no, not that Richard, another Richard) just about anything to do with books and he’ll have an answer for you. It might not be what you want to hear, but you’ll hear it. Going in here is an experience. A unique one. Character-building, let’s say. But, as the cliché goes when it comes to Hobart: you might just never want to leave.