Tolstoy to Tinglewood


Simon Mustoe

How is it Gary Muir ended up running from police in Russia with a handful of letters and papers from one of the country’s most notorious philosophers and anti-government propagandists? 

It started one day when he was running an ecocruise on the waterways of Walpole and received a call on the emergency marine radio from the manager of Rest Point, demanding he drop everything and head over.   

On the site is a boat shed, built by the Swarbrick family (who incidentally, still build boats today including Jessica Watson's round-the-world vessel). 

The shed was left when the family uprooted and moved to Perth and among the people to take over the land was the daughter of a certain Frank Skinner Thompson. She died in 1993, followed by her boyfriend ten years later.

On arrival at the manager’s house, on the kitchen table, was a massive case, laid open and filled with a treasure trove of books, letters, photos and maps. It had just that morning been uncovered, hidden in the false floor of the wooden boat shed. 

Inside was the unpublished - and unofficial - biography of Leo Tolstoy, by Frank Skinner Thompson, along with various letters between the two and other friends and confidants such as the famous British biologist Alfred Russell Wallace. 

Also contained were two letters of rejection - including one from Alymer Maude, who ultimately went on to be one of the translators of War and Peace.

Maude was Tolstoy’s official biographer and had Tolstoy’s works smuggled into England. Thompson was a good friend and general manager of his Free Age press. So, in West Sussex, they were to keep Tolstoy’s works alive, outside the rigours of Tsarist Russia.  

In 1906, during a brief interlude in the Tsar’s reign, Thompson got to travel and meet Tolstoy who was so impressed, he even allowed him to write prefaces for his translated texts. But things turned for the worse soon after.  

There was to be a falling out between Thompson and Tchertkoff, one of Tolstoy’s closest confidants.  Fearing for his own safety, as Russians infiltrating the UK had evidence he was behind the development of anti-government propaganda, Thompson fled for Fremantle in 1910. 

Thompson initially hoped to continue to the Cook Islands and create a Tolstoyan community there but on arriving in Australia, he was immediately captured by the place. 

He disembarked with a letter to the Prime Minister of Australia and was introduced to the Premier of Western Australia, Newton Moore. The region around Walpole was recommended, as it was to many Perth-bound pioneers, as like a paradise. 

To all intense and purpose, the challenges of settling and making a living must have seemed like a mammoth undertaking but it also must have been worth it, because those who found themselves there soon fell in love with the landscape. 

In fact, Thompson arrived just days after a monumental decision was made involving another significant historical figure who moved to the region.  

By no coincidence, Pierre Bellanger, junior counsel in the second trial of Captain Alfred Dreyfus of the 'Dreyfus Affair' had also ended up settling in this 'paradise'. The Dreyfus affair resulted in the creation of a newspaper that was printed on yellow paper and began the Tour de France - this is why the team leader wears a yellow jersey. The Dreyfus Affair remains one of the most influential law cases ever.  

Bellanger was so become with the landscape, that in 1910, he influenced Sir James Mitchell, who became the Western Australian Premier in 1919, who visited the Frankland River area and its preservation was immediately ordered - this historic moment may be the only reason why the coastline retains its majestic forests today. 

Thompson ended up living across the river from Bellanger and the feelings of people who live here are summed up by him towards the end of his life. Thompson described it as:

"A paradise round about, a survival, a part of Eden where so far, the virgin beauty of God's fair domain has been preserved intact".    

So the paradise that Thompson so eloquently describes is still preserved intact, including the largest flowering plants in the world, the great Karri and Tingle trees, some 10m across at their base. 

There are few places with road access in Australia that weren't cut to the turf by early settlers. It's impossible to put into words what it is about the region that captures the imagination. There is something inherently persuasive about the forests, a charisma that has long resisted economic temptations.   

In 2010, Gary started to co-write "Tolstoy to Tinglewood: The Case of Frank Skinner Thompson" with Geoff Fernie. He travelled to Russia for research, crossing the country on the Trans Siberian railway and crossing the Gobi Desert on a folding bike. It was on this research trip he narrowly avoiding arrest by police officers curious about the papers he was carrying. The book Tolstoy to Tinglewood is the culmination of that adventure. 

The second edition being written now ... watch this space.  

Wildiaries • July 2016