Holidays in the Sun, Part One: departure

On 8 July 2013 I left London, heading to Botany Bay, having decided to transport myself to Sydney (albeit courtesy of Qantas, rather than an eight month voyage in the bowels of a prison ship).

This journey had begun in 1990 when I arrived at Kingsford Smith for the first time, half way through a round-the-world adventure. I was in my 20s then. It continued over the following two decades. At first I was a frequent visitor, taking two or three weeks in Sydney every few years, usually when Christmas loomed and the thought of endless uninterrupted dark winters in London became too much. In the most recent decade, I had visited just once, thinking I was done with Australia.

I thought that I had scratched the Sydney itch, but then in February 2013 found myself back here, renting an apartment in the CBD for a three week holiday – into which I snuck several professional appointments. I had a notion to become a trans-continental cultural consultant, rather than one based in London with most clients not far beyond the end of my arm. Wouldn’t it be great to spend summers in Sydney and in London – maybe four months down under, eight months up top? Of course, it didn’t turn out quite like that.

My interest in Sydney had been reawakened, strangely, as a result of becoming bored in the declining days of my employment at Tate. I had dreamt up a side-line as a tour guide, deciding – correctly as it turned out – that Tate Members would be interested in the history of Tate Britain’s Millbank site and its little known role in the transportation of prisoners to Terra Australis during the mid-19th Century. The more tours I led – at £10 a head – the more research I did, the more fascinating I found the story.

What is now Tate Britain, formerly the Tate Gallery, was built on the site of Millbank Penitentiary. From approximately 1842 until 1857 this was the point of embarkation for thousands of petty crooks as they began the long, hard journey to the Land Beyond The Seas. Transportation was by then being downscaled as Australia became increasingly self-sufficient, free settlers were building the colony apace, and the gold-rush made the destination even more desirable. New South Wales was unwilling to take any further convicts and the final prison ship to reach Sydney docked in 1850; ships were by this time more likely to go directly to Perth or Van Diemen’s Land. Transportation ceased in 1868.

The entrance to the Tate gallery is pretty much where the front door of the prison stood, and some of the gallery’s foundations date from the earlier building. Moreover the local pub, favoured by Tate staff – the Morpeth Arms – was frequented by prison staff and, on occasion, housed felons in its cellars for their final night before leaving the putrid London air for all time. It is also thought that the Millbank Estate – public housing which sits behind the gallery – is partially built from brick recycled when the prison was demolished. There was, after all, no eBay in those days.

The vessels of the First Fleet (1787/88) initially dropped anchor at Botany Bay on 19 January 1788, the location recommended by Captain Cook after his voyage of 1770. Finding no fresh water supply, a week later they disembarked at what is now Circular Quay, Sydney. Upon its shore today sits the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, housed in the former Maritime Services Board building. During my February 2013 holiday, it was the MCA that showed most interest in my proposition. However, they weren’t looking for a consultant to have a cheap holiday at other people’s misery, more someone to take a new role directing their commercial and philanthropic offers.

When fate starts pulling you in a new direction, you really have to let it do its thing. As discussions with the MCA developed, I kept checking the fundamentals: what have I to lose, and could my life could be even better if I rolled the dice and hopped on the Sydney express? There was only one way to find the answers.

Once the decision was made, at the end of March – following a five day trip back to Sydney to present  my vision to the MCA Board – there was then the small matter of completing a load of client work and unpacking and re-packing my life. Inevitably things happened during the following three months which pulled very hard indeed in the opposite direction to the prevailing wind, but tickets were booked, boxes packed, parties held and tears shed as departure loomed. Somehow I also squeezed in a landmark birthday. It really did seem like the end of part one…

(to be continued in part two)    

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