Everyone is illuminated

[Press Association, December 7, 2004]

In Tasmania, by Nicholas Shakespeare, published by Harvill, £20. Available now

Nicholas Shakespeare came to Tasmania expecting to be wiped clean of his past. He would travel as far from England as anyone can, to one of the few places never visited by his biographical subject Bruce Chatwin. He would breathe the world's purest air, and see by some of its strongest light. He would begin anew.

In Tasmania is a testament to how wrong he was. Reading it, you come to suspect that everybody on the island is somehow related to the author - including those who identify themselves as aborigines. The land mass turns out once to have been linked with Patagonia, Bruce Chatwin's most famous destination, and to contain a whole village of Chatwins (distant relatives of Shakespeare's, naturally). Even the clear light ends up as a rhetorical contrast with the darkness of Tasmania's history. When the air-pollution reports come back clean, it's almost a disappointment.

The most interesting relative Shakespeare uncovers is his great-great-great-great-uncle Anthony Fenn Kemp, "the Father of Tasmania". Kemp was a conservative's ideal radical: he squandered a large inheritance, abandoned children as easily as he foreswore debts and, despite his democratic principles, used every sniff of power he got to punish those who crossed him. He remade his fortune by monopolising the rum trade and defrauding Shakespeare's great-great-great-grandfather. By his death, with his aim of Tasmanian independence realised, he was one of the island's most respectable citizens.

Kemp's long life takes us through most of Tasmania's early colonial history; Shakespeare's endearing free-associative style throws in most of what else you might want covered, from Lord Lucan to the Tasmanian tiger. It's just a shame that it allows so much scope for name-dropping. Who needs to know that our man went to the same prep school as Nevil Shute? Tasmania, Shakespeare says, showed him that everything is connected; Shakespeare shows us that everything is connected to him.