A new tradition?

Crude I know, but it was spur of the moment.

IN LIGHT OF recent announcements by various members of the LNP Cabinet, and given Prime Minister Scott (How Good’s Volunteering) Morrison’s attitude to the catastrophic events unfolding throughout the country, perhaps we could look at reworking some old traditions that have faded into obscurity and at the same time celebrate the Pentecostal PM’s famous pledge.

The once anticipated Cracker Night, Empire Night, Guy Fawkes Night – the name varied State by State – and associated mayhem have been replaced by organised, multi-million dollar spectacles aimed more at swelling corporate coffers and earning votes for politicians than celebrating tradition. Halloween has replaced them to a certain extent, but it’s not the same. I doubt kids today get as much as satisfaction out of playing dress-ups and begging as we did in using a gumnut bomb to demolish the letterbox of a detested local dignity.

In my home State, Western Australia, preparations began weeks before “Guy Fawkes Night” on November 5th. Kids scrounged cardboard, wood and anything else combustible, stacking the spoils anywhere they thought they could get away with a bonfire. Old clothes were snaffled and stuffed with rags and grass – with a last-minute addition of Penny Bungers if you were more solvent – and turned into a “Guy”, an effigy of the plotter of whom it was once said that he was the only man ever to enter Parliament with the right intention.

For a couple of weeks or so before the big night, groups of kids dragged their Guy around the streets chanting “Penny for the Guy; Penny for the Guy, Mister,” paying particular attention to barber shops, pubs and shop fronts behind which they knew the SP bookies lurked. Those pennies purchased supplementary cracker supplies.

So, here’s my plan. To mitigate the dangers associated with pyrotechnics and summers that thanks to the climate crisis are beginning ever earlier, we could recognise the Winter Solstice as Scott Morrison Day or, if you’d prefer, Pentecostal Eve, combining the temporal and the holier-than-thou.

On this day, in towns all over Australia, effigies of our hopefully former PM could be set aflame to chants of “Throw another Big Aussie Barbie on the Fire”.

After all, he did say he would burn for Australia.

Christmas in the Poorhouse

I learned this from Allan Cust in about 1955. He was my “supervising tradesman” when I began my apprenticeship at the Fremantle Printing Company, Western Australia. Allan had survived being a Prisoner of War on the infamous Burma Railway, with a bayonet scar running from the collar bone on his right-hand side to above the hip on the left to prove it. I only knew that because I caught him changing his singlet in the paper store one afternoon.

Christmas Dinner 2019, Vale Nursing Home South Australia. Photo courtesy Revd Andrew Klein (Chaplain)/Twitter

It was Christmas in the poorhouse, and the supervisor swore by all the gods,
There’d be no Christmas pudding for this bunch of wretched yobs;
Up stood a worthy pensioner, her face as bold as brass:
“We don’t want your Christmas pudding, shove it up your arse.”

What a friend we have in Can’bra

Tune: What a friend we have in Jesus.

The giant corporate, Pentecostal Hillsong Church this year broadcast Christmas messages on commercial TV. Acknowledged as a mentor by Scott Morrison, the current Prime Minister of Australia, Frank Houston, father of the current “Chief Pastor” Brian Houston, was implicated in the sexual abuse of at least nine children, atrocities covered up by his son and the company’s hierarchy. Despite being under police investigation, Brian Houston is still a close confidante of Morrison and the Australian Hillsong cult is expanding and now controls a profitable global empire.

What a friend we have in Canb’ra,
Christ almighty what a pal;
We can safely damage children,
While Scotty’s there then all is well.

Chorus:
We can blithely gather millions,
Stuff the hungry and the poor;
Watch the countryside a-burning,
As the Rapture opens heaven’s door.

Have no fear of p’lice inquiries,
They are helpless in our sway;
From the GG  to Chief Wallopers,
Born-agains now rule the day.

Chorus:

Jesus loves the Pentecostals,
Blessed be the rich and smug
We control this loony government,
The voter taken for a mug.

Chorus:

Heroes of my autumn years

Bill Dunbabbin, Dunalley, Tasmania

Bill in his natural habitat, Dunalley fishermen’s wharf, Tasmania. Rest easy, old timer.

For me Dunalley will always evoke fond memories. It’s one of those rare places, which, like the Buccaneer Archipelago of my childhood, are forever changeless, magically fixed in time and space. There are people like that, too; those dear departed ones still vivid and warm in recollection. My old knockabout mates Bob Pomeroy and Julio, lovers, parents and grandparents, uncles, aunts – and Bill Dunbabbin.

Bill Dunbabbin is to me a large part of what makes Dunalley such a special place in my soul. In him are the sea and the wind and the enduring rocks of his beloved island; the great gums and the peaty rivers; the wave-battered cliffs and the quiet reaches of the sea-hammered West. But Bill was also a paradox: a quiet man who loved a yarn and a lively discussion as much as he enjoyed sitting in silent company, feeling the breeze off the bay and savouring the aroma that make coastal settlements what they are the world over: that sea whiff with its hints of far-off lands and adventures in great and noble causes.

He also liked a good read, especially from books about the lives and achievements of the great explorer–adventurers. We had a bit of a book club going there for a while, Bill and I, borrowing from each other’s collections. In Pat’s cheerful kitchen overlooking the bay and fuelled by her delicious home cooking, we exchanged views on authors and their subjects. Flinders (who Bill, in common with many seafaring folk, rated as probably the greatest navigator of them all), Baudin, D’Entrecasteaux, and Cook were discussed and dissected, along with accounts of great journeys by land and sea and tales of shipwrecks and wonders the world over.

In my past dealings with a national magazine, I was often in contact with modern-day adventurers and their achievements – mountaineers, kayakers, travellers in exotic overlands – and I respect their steadfast resolve to achieve what they do, but for all their wonderful feats, the fact remains that, when all is said and done, they are the modern-day equivalents of the “gentleman adventurers” of Victorian and Edwardian times.

Pat and Bill – like so many of their time – were adventurers in the course of earning a living and their time at Port Davey is almost the stuff of legend. Their generation drew strength from this rugged old land of ours and went quietly about their business, enduring much as they did so. They were the overlanders; the fishermen under sail; the soldiers, sailors and airmen, the Waafs and Waves and Wrans of great and terrible conflicts and the endurers of harsh economic times. And in them our Colonial past wasn’t history – it was in the conversations and recollections of their parents and grandparents. Let the politicians rant about flags and patriotism; I’ll stick to my Bill and Pat Dunbabbins.

If by chance you should ever be in Port Davey, that legendary haven of Tasmanian seafolk and, I suspect, Australia’s equivalent of Fiddler’s Green, rest soft a while. Let the moist morning air wash over you and open your soul to the voice of the water. There’s a good chance you’ll hear a soft, strong greeting: “Good morning, Captain.” Be not alarmed but instead be happy in the knowledge that Bill Dunbabbin has come home.Rest in peace, Bill, and condolences to dear Pat and family.

Afterthought – Where are the monuments?

Even though just a nipper as nations go, Australia has a proud maritime heritage. This is the only continent first populated by sea, and before the first European skippers sighted our coasts, with sometimes disastrous consequences, the Macassa Men traded with the northern Aboriginals for the right to dive for bêche-de-mer, or sea-cucumber. This link was once very strong. When I was a youngster, we knew this once-valuable commodity by its Malay name, trepang.

Ships and the seafarers that crew them have carried Australia’s economic lifeblood since the days of European settlement, while the RAN and its predecessors have always played a vital role in our defence. Our seaborne navigators and scientists add daily to our knowledge of the world and our fishing fleet, though a fraction of its former size, is still an important contributor to our economy.

A Tasmanian friend from another generation, the late Billy Dunbabbin, and I once discussed whether or not there should be a statue of Matthew Flinders, the greatest navigator of them all, in every coastal town, and if Flinders, then why not D’Entrecasteaux?

Billy himself was the stuff of legend – a former fisherman who with his wife Pat had for a time lived aboard their boat in Port Davey. On still, misty mornings I sometimes hear Bill’s low greeting: “Mornin’ captain. A soft day.” When the wind roars across the hilltops, I can visualise the whitecaps in Norfolk Bay and hear him opine that “It’d blow the milk outa y’ tea.”

So where then are the monuments and memorials? Who has heard of Harry Robertson, whose days with the Antarctic whaling fleets gave rise to a treasury of songs? When tourists take a Murray River cruise do they hear the songs and tales of the Mud Pirates?

Who collects the lore of the fishermen? Like the tale of the notoriously stingy crayboat skipper whose deckhand brother was lost overboard. Days later he radioed the police with the news he’d found the body. When told to bring it in he replied: “Can’t. I dropped him back in.”

When a horrified constable asked why, he replied: “’E was on good ground. I got 35 crays orf ’uv ’im.”

https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Harry_Robertson_(folk_singer)

Under the weather

Since the 1970s, airconditioning in cars, homes and the buildings in which we shop and work has meant we’re exposed to the elements for just minutes at a time on most days. For many, the weather is a TV weatherperson’s breathless description of a mini-tornado in Oodnagalarbie East or hail-damaged flowerbeds in Pavlova Circle.

We watch as HOSE FROZEN of Angora Heights (formerly Billygoat Hill) demands the authorities do something about his garden tap, rendered inoperative by the lowest temperature in 80 years, and ends his complaint with a derisive remark about global warming. But those same TV “personalities” and their melodramatic presentations have probably made city dwellers more aware of the weather than at any time in the past 40 years – even if that mini-tornado was in fact a willy-willy lifting skirts and raising dust in the supermarket carpark.

To the fishermen, farmers and others who depend on it for their livelihood, the weather is a living thing. It’s seen in the 10-metre rogue wave looming over your boat in the vastness of the Southern Ocean, or in the searing wind that rattles the stalks of a failing crop; and in the staggering, rheumy eyed, dust-stained ewes, weakened by a year or more of drought. To these enduring folk, the weather means poor or plenty, a smaller overdraft or another season of make-do.

The weather can also be a life-changing experience – like the Tasmanian thunderstorm that struck me almost dumb, and nearly made me get religion. It was the mid-60s and there were six of us crammed with our instruments and the Speech Therapist from Sassafras into a tiny Standard, on our way to play a gig in the north of the island.

The little car struggled up St Peter’s Pass into the maw of a fierce thunderstorm and as we reached the summit I stuck my head out of a window , yelling: “Send ’er down Hughie, you old bastard!”  Whack! Lightning struck a road sign just ahead of us, setting its post afire and briefly cutting our motor. There wasn’t a word said for an hour, and from that day I’ve never again yelled at Hughie during a thunderstorm

Before our beards were grey

This was written more than twenty years ago now.
The memories are still bright.

My old mate Bob Pomeroy has left us. My mad old mate from the reckless knockabout days, my grand old mate with his winning knockabout ways… I got the news last night cobber, and I suppose I’d been expecting it, but that hasn’t made it any easier.

We saw a lot together you and I. From one end of our beloved Australia to the other, and over the length and breadth of New Zealand we knocked about in those wild and wandering days, working at all sorts of jobs and all sorts of lurks as we travelled: tin-mine pump guards on Tassie’s sodden west coast; sideshow spruikers in Hobart and Adelaide; freezing-works labourers and wharfie “seagulls” in Kiwiland, you and I did it mate, hard and soft.


We put up in and put up with single-men’s camps of all sorts and shared flats and boarding-houses of all descriptions and some better left undescribed. We’ve been overnight guests of the English Queen in the days when being three sheets to the wind and full of the joys of living could get you lumbered in some of our less-understanding communities.


We earned big money in some places, sometimes, and bugger-all at others; shout for the bar one week and roll up our cigarette butts the next. We blued with each other and blued our cheques together. We laughed in defiance at an establishment that spurned us because they couldn’t understand us, and we wept together at the sheer beauty of being alive in this sometimes sad old world. We were mates in the sense described so well by Henry Lawson.


And always there was the music. We supported ourselves by singing in pubs and clubs from Zeehan to Invercargill, Auckland to Adelaide. For miners and ministers, crims and coppers, bag-swingers and socialites we sang Old Shep and The Spaniard who Blighted my Life, Love is Pleasin’ and The Wild Colonial Boy and everything in between, and never missed a beat or a beer in the doing of it.


Some of our escapades together have achieved legendary status Bob old cobber, and they seem to have grown a bit in the retelling, but who are we to gainsay that, we of a generation and background which idolises Ned Kelly, that other defiant Native Son from good though dirt-poor Celtic stock?


Do you remind the time we found the old 1000-gallon tank lying in the bush between the mine and Stan Roy’s Renison Hotel? Remember how we decided to see if we could still walk inside it the way we we did as kids and how it got away from us on the last slope? How it crashed through the jerry-built fibro wall of the back “lounge” and came to rest against a table? And do you recall the aplomb with which you stepped from the tank, raised a hand in the air and said “Two middies thanks Stan”?


Remember saying to the angry young constable in Adelaide – the one I’d abused and in whose general direction I’d swung a vague, somewhat worse for the booze hand because of the way he was treating some old meths drinker: “You can’t lumber him, he’s me best bloody mate!” Do you remember the Top Pub at Zeehan and Daniel and Roy and the Blessed Virgin Mary, and Kerosene Jack and the Wallaby Twins and Nipponhausenberg and Strahan?


And what about the time you made the sign from a bedsheet pilfered from the single-men’s quarters in Zeehan. “Honest John’s Used Trains” it read. We hung it from the Cyclone fence surrounding the steam loco display at that mineral museum and, dressed in our best clothes supplemented with borrowed vests and ties, waited for the daily coachload of tourists to arrive. Do you remember the freezing purgatory that was the mine pump house on a winter’s night? The skin-lifting, gritty blast of compressed air on the face as we fought to clear the blockage in a leaky, rusted-out vanning table feed-pipe?


Oh they were the days mate. The days when yarns were born and legends made. The beer tasted better, the sun was warmer, the winters wetter and the work easier, even though the bosses were bastards one and all. The lovers and the loved, the laughter and the tears. I’m glad to have shared those times, the fat and the lean. And the music mate, always the music.


I’m crying as I write this Bob. I know you’d prefer I didn’t, but you’re a mate and mates understand. They mightn’t agree, but they don’t criticise. I don’t know how much time I’ve got left old china, so I can’t say when I’ll see you again, but we were never in a hurry to get anywhere. I know he’ll come for me in his own good time, that old ratbag of an ex council-ganger with the scythe. And fair’s fair I suppose, we gave life a bloody good shake, so we have to give the other a whirl too. I’ll see you straight after he’s been, old mate. Your hair’ll be flaming red again, and our beards’ll have no grey again, and we’ll rant and we’ll roar like we did again.


He’s half-hinched your body mate, but he can’t take the memories. See you later, cobber.

What’s that? Of course I’ll bring me bloody guitar!

Australianisms: Mug Lair

You can laugh off ratbag and hoon, Dubbo and dill, but mug lair?
Try copping that sweet, mate.

Hoon’s a pretty good word but it’s lost a lot of its sting. Once a term for a prostitute’s pimp, it now refers mainly to those hooligans an octane or so below petrol-heads in the Church of Internal Combustion. However, once officialdom got hold of it and made it respectable by enshrining it in “anti-hooning” legislation and by-laws, its fate was sealed. Its use in headlines and news bulletins on every news-weak day has made it a rallying call and a symbol of identity.  Ridicule does as much as anything to stem anti-social behaviour, and, if the truth be told, hoon was never really strong enough to do much damage, so let’s resurrect another good old Aussie phrase, one with a lot more sting: “mug lair”. Mug lair. You can’t laugh that down and no-one, no matter how addicted to infamy, would want to wear it. It’s a terrible phrase from which there’s no escape.

And where can we find a better definition for the term than in our current Prime Minister, The Pentecostal Peregrinator, Scott Morrison. The newspaper proprietors and industrial pirates who elected him might want us to think of him as a “Daggy Dad”, but my generation – and my forebears – wouldn’t wear that. They’d call him for what he is, a mug lair with a head like a boarding-house cup of tea, big and bloody weak.

An ancient story retold

This is not an attempt to copy the joyous art I was privileged to see in the rock-shelter somewhere beyond the
Blue Mountains; that masterpiece is imbued with 60,000 years and more of knowledge and tradition and
is there to commemorate a momentous event, the breaking of a monstrous drought. If any of my Indigenous
friends and readers are offended, please tell me and I will take it down.

I first came across this wonderful legend in Mrs Eve Langloh-Parker‘s Australian Legendary Tales, first published in 1896. I have read and heard abbreviated versions and been shown sites associated with the legend. There are many stories connected to this drought, and various reasons for it. In some versions Tidda-link (the Frog) and Coola (the Koala) are named as two beings who stole the water, and many and various were the ruses by which they were tricked into returning it. In retelling this story, I have added snippets of what I heard. Mrs Parker’s transcript of the version she was given all those years ago is wonderful and worth reading. Despite the criticism she has received, I believe she had a genuine interest in the lore of the people she encountered in her daily life and treated their philosophy and artistry with far more respect than did some of the early reviewers of her work. Some of my Indigenous friends agree with me. You can decide for yourself.

Mulla-mulla photographed in the arid country around Menzies, Western Australia, where my maternal
great-grandparents settled when they came out from Wales.—Photo courtesy Brooke Collins

Drought is a fact of life in Australia and studies have shown that one such event, recent in geological terms, lasted for about 1000 years; this beautiful story from the central west of NSW no doubt recalls that time. Set in the time after the hero, Baiame (or Bayamii), had finished his work on Earth and returned with his wives to his home along the great river that we call the Milky Way, it speaks of the interconnection between all living things, the joy the Indigenous peoples find in flowers, and the importance of social cohesion. Our climate-denialist politicians need to listen to the wisdom in these ancient stories and learn the lessons they impart.

BAYAAMII’S LAST TASK on Earth had been to carve his mark on three giant gums, telling the Bagiin, the Clever Men, that the Bee people who lived among them were never to be raided for their sugar bag, the dark, thin, delicious honey so loved by his people. “No matter what,” he told them, “these are always for the Bees in times of need, for without them many of the flowers will never grow and a time may come when the Bees are needed.”

Bayaamii had gone, taking his wives with him. South-east wind, their earthly relative, missed her kinfolk and began to sulk, causing the rain-bearing winds to cease. As the country dried, so the flowers gradually disappeared until the Bees – sacred to Bayaamii – had only tree sap and the occasional blossom from which to make honey to store in their comibii, their bags.

As the generations passed, the young people became angry with their elders the Lawmen, and scoffed at their stories about a time when the south-easterly brought spring rains and the land was covered in flowers; stories about the delicious sugar bag that could be found in rock overhangs, tree hollows and, in exceptionally good seasons, even in cracks in high ground.

“You are lying,” they would say. “Prove it’s true by letting us raid Bayaamii’s trees for their sugar bag.”

“We must not,” their elders would say, “It is the Law.”

But as the long, bitter years passed, the younger generations became even less inclined to listen to advice and, fearing that the injunctions would be overturned, the Bagiin consulted the Yuurii, the little hairy people who have links to the secret Other World. Feeling the people’s plight and knowing the consequences of breaking Law, the Yuurii pleaded with Bayaamii who told them they could guide a group of Bagiin from every corner of the land up to his home on the great river where he would tell them what to do.

The Bagiin were led to the sacred mountain – where even today you can see the steps Bayaamii cut when he returned to his home – and up to the ancient, sacred Bora, the ceremonial ground, on its summit.

There, the Bagiin and Yuurii danced a great Borraa, driving away obstacles and preparing the path to Bayaamii’s home. As the dancing reached its peak, the men were dragged upward by a great wind, twisting and whirling, sucking them up to the great river. When they had recovered the courage to open their eyes, they found themselves standing on river flats covered in all manner of beautiful flowers stretching away as far as they could see.

Bayaamii’s great voice spoke to them from somewhere along the river: “Go now,” he thundered, “and gather all the flowers you can carry and I will send you with them back to your home in my country on Earth. When you get there, you must give them to the women, who will place them on the ground. Do not,” his voice grew louder, “stop the children in whatever they might do, for you know they are special to me and my wives.” The magic of Bayaamii entered the Bagiin and they collected flowers in huge bundles, enough to cover the land it seemed, but they kept at it until another giant buuli, a willy-willy, swept them and their precious cargo up, returning them to Earth, each to his own country.

Hakea near Menzies, WA —Courtesy Brooke Collins

Back on Earth, the women cried with joy to see the beauty the Bagiin had brought with them and dashed to and fro placing the flowers in great bunches all over the ground.

The children were amazed. Never before had they seen such colours, nor smelled such sweet scents. “It’s true,” they yelled, “what the Old Ones tell us must be true.” Filled with joy, the children leaped and danced and as they did so their feet kicked the bunches of flowers in all directions. So happy was the sound of the youngsters, that the South-East women caused the rain- bearing winds to blow steady and strong, bringing the warm, spring rains to the land. Wherever a particular flower lay, there its children grow to this day.

The dance of the children is remembered for what it returned to the land. Some people will tell you that if a grown-up has a pain in the binjii– a belly ache – it’s because they have been unkind to their children and Bayaamii’s wives are punishing them.

If you visit the sandstone country behind the Blue Mountains, there is a sacred mountain with huge steps cut in one side and with its summit flattened by Bayaamii’s Great Borraa. This is the place where the Bagiin were lifted into the sky.

In the same general area, there is a large rock overhang in which is painted a line of women, 15 or more metres long. Facing the viewer, they are holding hands and dancing with joy at the beauty of their world. Some of this country is in constant danger of disappearing into a great pit.

And last, but not least, all over Australia are old place names commemorating this great event. In the greater Sydney area and again near Tenterfield, NSW, there are localities named Girraween – the place where the flowers returned.

More about the Sandgroper

The Sandgroper is the older ego of Frank Povah who was born in an aunt’s house in Western Australia at the onset of World War Two, the latter event overshadowing the former. As a child he lived in lots of different places: from Cockatoo Island in the Buccaneer Archipelago to Wundowie in the days when it was still in the midst of a vast wandoo forest alive with chuditch – the Nyungar word for “quoll” – and gloved wallabies, and boasted a charcoal iron smelter staffed largely by people from a large DP (Displaced Persons) camp, the civilian casualties of WWII; from a hovel in Hay Street and a house at the edge of Butler’s Swamp – now Lake Claremont  – to State Housing in Fremantle. His nomadic ways continued after he completed a compositor’s apprenticeship and he has travelled widely throughout Australia and New Zealand, working at many and varied occupations; occupations as diverse as pump guard at a Tasmanian tin mine to general whatever in a New Zealand fish-and-chip shop.

The Sandgroper is also a musician, who can be found in the archive of the National Library of Australia. He is a folklorist, writer, and champion of lost and perhaps futile causes. Respected by his peers Frank still performs at the occasional festival and other venues.

He was the featured performer in 2018 at Poet on a Plate, a well-known venue featuring Australian “bush poetry” music and yarn telling at Kidman’s Camp, a caravan park in Bourke, the legendary outback town in New South Wales. He also appeared there as the guest performer for a few months in 2019.

For five-and-a-bit years he lived on Butterfly Bottom, a small property with its own graveyard and a beautiful, Irish-mason built root cellar near Stamping Ground Kentucky, where he observed in bewilderment the US way of life as it was lived outside of his immediate environs.

For more than thirty years the Sandgroper edited and wrote for Australian Geographic – always working from various homes in the bush, and was commissioned by Ivy Press (UK) to provide the text for a modest coffee table book, Beautiful Pigeons. He also produced magazines for the fancy pigeon community in both Australia and the USA and has undertaken commissions both private and corporate for copy editing and/or book designing, typesetting, indexing and copy fitting.

He was for a time managing editor of The Western Herald, a small newspaper serving the legendary town of Bourke, in outback New South Wales, until a disagreement over articles detailing irregularities in large scale irrigation practices and alleged water theft – and he suspects his radical policy of publishing press releases from any political party that submitted them – led to a parting of the ways.

In the 1980s, the Sandgroper self-published a booklet titled You Kids Count Your Shadows: Hairymen and other Aboriginal folklore in New South Wales. Aimed mainly at children, it contains anecdotes of traditional beliefs taken from transcripts of recordings of conversations with so called “urban Aboriginals” of several groups living in country NSW.  This little book made the NSW Premier’s Recommended Reading list and has been used as evidence in at least two Land Rights hearings. It is currently in its third printing and can be ordered direct from Frank.

He occasionally works part-time at the Molong Express, a rural newspaper serving Molong (pop. 2000 give or take) in the Central Tablelands of New South Wales.

If you’ve managed  to stick with me thus far, you can read more about these and other things in the following pages.