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.

IT’S OVER AT LAST

Scott Morrison announces the return of better times

The Prime Minister, Scott Morrison will today announce that the record drought is officially over.

Speaking from the basement at Kirribilli House, his official Sydney residence, Morrison said, “I have always believed in miracles, and today another one has manifested itself before me.”

The PM will make his welcome announcement later today in company with Ministers Angus Taylor and Matt Canavan, backbencher George Christensen and One Nation’s Malcolm Roberts. It is believed Deputy PM, Michael McCormack will later make an announcement from a safe house somewhere near Nyngan.

“I was praying last night that the world would herald our success at cutting greenhouse gas emissions by including reductions made under the Kyoto agreement, when the Lord spoke to me,” Morrison said.

“So today I will announce that I have instructed all relevant bodies to add surplus rainfall and flood heights from our wet years to the figures for 2018–19.”

“Thanks to my government’s initiative, the rivers will flow again and grateful farmers will be in full recovery mode.”

Asked about the toxic smoke pall covering Sydney, the PM said that his government was still struggling with Labor’s mishandling of the economy and that he did not respond to gossip.

“How good is creative accounting?” he said.

A birds’ war corroboree

We now know that birds, and bird song, originated in that part of Gondwana that is now Australia, which is why this continent and its neighbours are so richly endowed with species – the pigeon and parrot tribes, for example, reached their greatest diversity in this region.

I have admired birds ever since I can remember; the first – and only – request I ever made of Father Christmas was for a galah. All my life I have watched them, kept them, talked to them and marvelled at their diversity, their beauty and their intelligence. And during this, the time of endless burning, I weep for them.

Because I weep for them today, I want to remember the joy they have given me over the years, so I will share a magic interlude nearly forty years ago. It happened in and around a tamarisk tree growing outside a pickers’ hut on a dried-grape block in Coomealla district, New South Wales, near the town of Dareton and not far from where the Murray River is joined by the now imperilled Darling, and featured a tribe of Apostle birds (Struthidea cinerea) and a not-very-bright Collared sparrowhawk (Accipiter cirrocephalus).

A male Apostle bird —Wikipedia Commons/Benjamin Wild 444

Meet the Apostle bird, so named because a popular, though unfounded, belief has it that it is always found in groups of twelve. It is also known as lousy jack, happy jack, grey jumper, and CWA bird, this last a somewhat derogatory reference to its habit of constantly chattering, putting the less charitable in mind of a Country Women’s Association meeting. It is a mud-nest builder and, like so many of Australia’s birds, raises the young communally, a dominant pair breeding and the rest of the tribe helping to feed the offspring – a very useful strategy in Australia’s erratic climate. They are also solicitous of each other. Feeding a group of youngsters in my backyard one day – their babysitter was perched on the clothesline – I noticed that  if the smallest of the brood flapped its wings, its larger siblings would immediately offer food.

Youngsters in a Bourke backyard

They are, like most birds, very intelligent. They also have a sense of humour.

On that day at Coomealla, my then partner/fellow picker and I were sitting on the rickety bench outside the hut, when a tribe of Apostle birds came swaggering up to fossick under the Atholl pine, as tamarisks are called in those parts. They knew us well, so we were pretty much ignored apart from the occasional derogatory remark when a fierce stare failed to produce a handout.

They’d not long been there when a Collared sparrowhawk flew on to the scene, immediately diving into the thick cover of the tamarisk’s higher branches. Rather than flee, a likely fatal manoeuvre, the tribe went into what can only be described as a war dance. Spreading their wings above their backs, they stamped their feet, fluttered and bowed, and raised a cacophony of squawks, causing the sparrowhawk to shift uncomfortably on its perch and peer intently at the dancers as if to see which of this seemingly demented tribe posed the greatest threat.

While its gaze was fixed on the centre of the rowdy mob, the bird closest to the tree quietly slipped around to the other side of the trunk and slowly began to climb towards the hawk’s perch. The closer it got, the more frantic became the dancing. Reaching the enemy’s branch, the Apostle bird seemed to shrink, as a cat does when it goes into the final phase of a stalk. Creeping along till it couldn’t have been more than fifteen centimetres from the target, the Struthidean hero, shrieking like an enraged panther, leaped into the air and with wings flapping and feet forward hit the hawk fair in the back.

The result was dramatic. The hawk literally fell from the branch and for a second we thought it would hit the ground, but at the last minute it spread its wings and fled. Wings beating like the clappers and flying almost at ground level, it disappeared among the rows of sultanas.

And the Apsotle birds? When the warrior returned to the bosom of the family, they began a corroboree of celebration. They bobbed and bowed, flapped and flirted, exchange gentle pecks and, I swear, they laughed. Long and raucously, they laughed. There’s no other word for the noise they were making.

The old hut, scene of the Apostle birds’ victory dance

A Moral Verse for Quiet Australians

Hubble bubble, toil and trouble,
Turmoil in the Canberra bubble;
Angus Taylor, an MP,
Of note in Government Ministry,
Had pulled another little rort,
It seemed (at last) he had been caught.

But no, his tubby little frame,
Ablaze with Pentecostal flame,
The PM stood in Parliament,
His anger on the House to vent;
“This persecution has to stop,
“I’ve phoned my mate, New South’s top cop.

“And young Mick told me it’s a joke,
“That Angus is a bonzer bloke.
“And so, you Opposition jerks,
“Who claim he’s pulled a dozen perks,
“Ease up on Angus, that good man,
“Who likes his finger in the jam.”

How grand it is for us to be,
Living in democracy;
Where our national leader bold,
Has put our Parliament on hold;
And Coppers in another State,
Decide a Federal pollie’s fate.