Whenever I begin to write down reminiscences it seems that I have to approach my tale widdershins, and this telling is no exception. It must be the Celt in me still longing, after generations in exile, to use openings such as “Morgan was a strong, sea-wise man in the summer of his days” and to a certain extent succeeding. That’s my excuse anyway, so I’m asking you to bear with me for a while as in my long-winded way I get around to telling you about a man whom I never actually met but whose influence was great, though it went unnoticed until many decades after I first saw him. I’m speaking of the clothes-prop man, an much-anticipated visitor to our street when I was still a small child.
Before the days of the now-ubiquitous Hill’s Hoist – itself in danger of being replaced by the indoor drier, a stupid indulgence in Australia’s climate – most of Australia’s Monday washing was hung on homemade backyard clotheslines. A couple of stout poles or 4 x 4s were sunk in the ground and fixed to the top of each was a cross arm, like that on a utilities pole, loosely bolted at the centre so it could swivel up and down. The line was often number-8 galvanized fence wire and to prevent it sagging under the weight of the wet clothes and allowing them to drag in the dirt, the wire was supported by one or more hardwood saplings, 2 to 3 metres or so long with a short fork at one end and roughly sharpened at the other. This is what the clothes-prop man sold.
The man who visited our area was tall and rangy and always dressed in cast-offs, pants rolled up at the cuffs and held up by an old tie or rope. Shoeless, he wore a battered hat tipped to one side so that it wouldn’t be knocked from his head by the load of clothes props he carried on his right shoulder. Beautifully dark-coffee brown, like many of the Nyungar people, he had a voice that caressed the air like an owl’s wing. “Cloooo-otse prups, throop’ns heach; cloooo-otse prups, throopn’s heach. Clotse prups missus?” Poor bugger. He would’ve cut those saplings miles away, in the hills perhaps or out on the sandplain towards Gingin or Wanneroo, then walked 20 or 30 miles with them on his shoulder to tramp the suburbs of Perth to sell them for a trey bit (threepence, roughly 3 cents) a throw. He could carry perhaps six, so two or three days’ work might have netted him the equivalent of a couple of loaves of bread. When she heard him, Mum would take out a glass of water and a biscuit, or a sandwich if it was around lunchtime. This country’s indigenous peoples were never invisible to our family.
Australia’s treatment of the country’s traditional owners was – still is – shameful and deserves a hearing by an international tribunal. To the vast majority of the population, Aboriginal people and the conditions under which they were forced to live were invisible. Things were beginning to improve till John Howard came on the scene. His government, bigoted, xenophobic and, at times, overtly racist, set Australian attitudes back 50 years or more. Howard opposed a multicultural society, introduced legislation that stalled or complicated previous court decisions on Aboriginal land rights, insulted Australia’s Chinese community – many of whom have a history in this country at least as long as Howard’s – and gave covert support to the anti-immigrant-for-any-reason-or-just-because-they’re-not-like-us fringe. Faced with a loss of votes to a newly emergent One Nation Party, a sort of neo-conservative thoughtless tank very similar in thought and deed to the US Tea Party, Howard’s Government had no hesitation in enthusiastically adopting many of its policies and sentiments and pandering to its uninformed, unthinking extremist views. The present mob are following in his footsteps with gusto. It is worth mentioning, however, that at least in Australia, Aboriginal issues are raised on the news. In my five years in the USA, there was only one news item I recall concerning Native Americans, and that was a sensationalised, obviously ill-informed child-custody battle.
You’ll be pleased to know that the clothes-prop man still lives. Years ago, while performing at a blues festival in Queensland, I was being interviewed for a magazine. The writer noted that I had been described by another publication as having a voice like “gum-leaf smoke on gravel” and asked who were my influences. Of course I stoutly denied that my singing style had been influenced by anyone. More recently and for a different sort of audience, I was singing one of my favourite calm-the-drunks songs, Dave Guard’s Scotch and Soda, and I heard the clothes-prop man singing through me from the past.