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Here even Gulf war took a back seat to flower shows and beauty queens - a letter from Tasmania

ANNETTE JOHNSON was named the Dahlia Queen recently in Devonport, on Tasmania's north coast. What makes the event noteworthy to the rest of the world is that Miss Johnson's reign occupied most of the front page of the Advocate, the local paper, on the eve of the Gulf war. Buried on page 2 in a three-inch story were a few paragraphs informing people that 1 million men were squaring off in the desert.

Yes, wars may come and go, but Dahlia Queens are an annual event on Tasmania, which in many ways seems totally removed from the rest of the world.

The talk at Ross, a small mid-island hamlet, was not about Saddam Hussein but about lunch. At noon, the Village Tea Room serves lunch. Forget about tea, because if you tell the proprietor, Brian Arnott, you only want tea, he looks at the reserved signs on the empty tables and says, "I'm afraid I am all booked up, you'll have to go down the street." Later, Mr. Arnott confides that he makes a good living by ensuring that only lunch is eaten during lunch hour. Scones and devonshire teas are just fine after 2 p.m.

The Middle East is not completely out of the picture here. One of the papers found a local angle to the war, even though it took place 10,000 miles away. A Japanese businessman had canceled his trip to Tasmania because of his concerns about flying. "Gulf War kills off Fujii's great yen for Tasmania," was the headline in the Mercury, Hobart's newspaper.

Perhaps Tasmania's closest connection to the Gulf war is the town of Bagdad. But if you blink twice, you will miss both the town and its butcher. On the day I passed through Bagdad, there was little sign of life. Certainly no sign of Cable News Network. Only some sheep and a cow wandering around the paddocks.

The residents of St. Helens on Tasmania's east coast may have some idea of what it's like in the Persian Gulf. After dinner, the power fails. No problem, it happens all the time, says Barry Hicks, the owner of the Sandcastles restaurant. Out come the candles. Without traffic lights, or traffic for that matter, the lack of power only inconveniences those who need to reset their electric clocks.

THE remoteness of St. Helens and Tasmania is appealing, says Barbara Lawson, who runs a charming guest cottage. In the front yard are a dozen sheep. "My lawnmowers," explains Mrs. Lawson, an Englishwoman who moved to Tasmania thirteen years ago. She and her husband Eric consider St. Helens a paradise, with or without power failures.

In fact, many Tasmanians consider the whole island a gem that should not be developed. The longest running battle is between the loggers and the conservationists.

To listen to the loggers, the conservationists want to drive them out of business. After a night of sleeping close to the main highway in Swansea, however, I can assure the loggers that logging activity is still quite robust. The first logging truck rolls through town at 5:45 a.m.

And, to listen to the environmental groups, the loggers are now trying to cut down the last trees. On the drive from Launceston to Derby, however, I saw mile after mile of dense rain forest. There wasn't a power saw in sight.

In fact, the people of Tasmania seem to delight in growing things. The Hobart Horticultural Society's annual dahlia and flower show is bursting with color. An exhibitor gives my wife a prize-winning dahlia, named "Mr. Joy." The stem is strong and straight, showing off the oval-shaped mauve blossom. The secret to winning prizes, says John Allport, the flower giver, is to show them just before they are past their prime. "They seem to have something extra," he tells me.

Given the turmoil in other parts of the world, it is reassuring to have flower shows and dahlia queens.

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