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anticipated Cracker Night, Empire Night, Guy Fawkes Night – the name varied State by State – and associated mayhem have been replaced by organised, multi-million dollar spectacles aimed more at swelling corporate coffers and earning votes for politicians than celebrating tradition.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.

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.

I’ve got nothing against Mickey Mouse personally, but…

As I said up there, I’ve got nothing against Mickey Mouse. Well, that’s not quite true, I can’t stand his voice; but that’s uncharitable, one shouldn’t judge others by their physical or mental shortcomings and in any case, it’s not his fault, Walt Disney gave it to him. Neither do I bear any ill will towards Walt Disney himself, not personally anyway. Even though my mother enjoyed telling all who would listen that for six weeks I had nightmares over the bushfire sequences in Bambi after Bernie Jamieson took me to see it back in the ’40s, I bear him no grudge. None whatsoever.

No, none of that matters. It’s what he – or his studio, and I’ll get the two confused here, I know – has done to children’s literature that gets up my nose. Fair enough, the Disney Cinderella was just one of a long line of modifications to an ancient Chinese folk tale, that is the way of folk tales, and for the same reason I could probably almost tolerate the latest rehash of Rapunzel. I will even argue that his Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Fantasia are just interpretations of the classics – after all, the culture police condone Shakespeare or Wagner set in the Bronx or East London or The Rocks because we of the uncultured classes are too dense to appreciate it otherwise and it makes them feel good to think they are bringing a little high art to the masses.

What I can’t condone, however, is what’s been done to Mowgli, and Alice, and Winnie-the-Pooh, and The Wind In The Willows, and Peter Pan – and this from someone who was never much taken by Peter Pan to begin with. Take Winnie. By growing up only knowing the film character, kids have been denied all the wonderful jokes and subtle asides in the stories and they’ve also missed a pleasant introduction to poetry.

Look what Disney did to the creatures in Kipling’s Mowgli stories. What’s become of Mowgli’s terrible nemesis Shere Khan, his guarantor Bagheera and his tutor, the disciplinarian Baloo? The dance of Kaa as described by Kipling is a terrifying thing and I can remember shuddering at what I knew would be the fate of some of the Bandar-Log when the python said: “…what follows it is not well that thou shouldst see”, but I could appreciate the justice in Bagheera’s admonition that Mowgli was never to eat beef because his life had been bought at the price of a bull. Where is all that in the bumbling, ever-so-cute stuffed toys that populate Disney’s version?

Once again, the introduction to poetry has been taken away, but if you’ve been raised on the screen version, why expend the effort of stimulating your own imagination by reading the original?

As a kid I had a beautiful folio edition of the Mowgli stories. The frontispiece was a color plate from a watercolor depicting a long-haired, slender Indian teenager, naked save for an abbreviated dhoti, loping through a fantastic jungle. Around his neck were a garland of flowers and a sheathed knife suspended from a cord. Those who worry about such things could probably read volumes into the flowers, loincloth and long hair, and good luck to them  – zip-a-de-dooh-dah indeed – but it beat the heck out of the Disney version.

Originally written for LiketheDew in 2010.

Illustration from Gayneck, the Story of a Pigeon by Dhan Gopal Mukerji; illustrated by Boris Artzybashef. Publ Thomas Dent, USA, date unknown

Love the fact that a Russian did these oh so Indian illustrations for a book by an Indian about India

A midwinter nightmare

This was also written in the USA. Since returning to Australia I am now more than ever convinced that Tony Abbott and Rand Paul are related

Things get in the way. This morning I was going to write the second instalment of a story begun last week but it wasn’t to be. On Friday last, the postie – that’s Australian for mailman or, in my case, mailwoman – delivered a piece of junk mail that saw Rabbie Burns’ Law kick in. The Great Scot’s ghost was still hovering about the house when I read a Dana Milbank (Washington Post) piece in the Opinion pages of Sunday’s Lexington Herald-Leader, and is looking over my shoulder today as I listen to UK’s public radio station WUKY. I was going to ignore it, but it’s just no good to try; part two will have to wait while I get this off my chest. I’ll deal with Burns’ mischief-making in reverse, beginning with this morning. Here goes.

This morning WUKY reported on the results of a study into the eruditeness, or rather lack of it, among lawmakers in Washington. The study found that the level of debate among federal legislators is now about equal to that of middle-school students. I will, however, say it’s probably a world-wide phenomenon: I know Australian parliamentarians aren’t much better. What has happened? Back in the very late 19th century, when Australia was gaining nationhood, the following exchange* was recorded in the Parliamentary Hansard:

The Hon. The Member for Yarra: The Honourable Member opposite has got the brains of a sheep.

Hon. Members: Shame, shame. For Shame.

The Hon. The Member for Ballarat: Mr Speaker, I demand the member for Yarra withdraw that remark.

The Hon. Speaker of the House: Yes. The Hon. The Member for Yarra will withdraw that remark.

The Hon. The Member for Yarra: Mr Speaker, I apologize and withdraw. The Hon. Member opposite does not have the brains of a sheep.

How many of the current crop of politicians anywhere would get the joke, let alone be capable of a repartee anything like it? And so to Sunday’s paper.

According to Dana Milbank, Sen. Rand Paul, most eccentric of the Tea Party’s Mad Hatters (my words), told a meeting in Iowa that he wasn’t sure President Obama’s view of marriage could “…get any gayer.” According to Milbank, Paul – I won’t dignify him with a title because he, along with many Republicans and teevee ‘journalists’, denies the President that courtesy – wants to cut Social Security benefits by nearly 40 per cent, slash defense spending to “catastrophic levels” and end Medicare for current and future recipients within two years.

Paul, Milbank goes on, also will eliminate the departments of commerce, education, energy, and housing, as well as gut homeland security and programs for the poor while reducing the top tax rate to 17 per cent. (I know that Paul also opposes government oversight of home-schooling and wants to get rid of the Environment Protection Authority  because it is “anti-coal”.) Paul doesn’t have to get it. He is the joke.

Rand Paul demonstrating that you don’t have to listen or even see constituents while talking to them—Photo Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons.
Rand Paul demonstrating that you don’t have to listen or even see constituents while talking to them—Photo Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons.

And now to one of my pet gripes: telecommunications and the ISPs and teevee service retailers who allege they give us blisteringly fast internet and unsurpassed programming. Among Friday’s mail was a flyer from my ISP, HughesNet, urging me to make the most of my service. Dripping with hyperbole about the wonders of its technology and the assurance that there are “so many reasons to love” my service, it told me that Gen4 is getting closer. My ISP’s “bold new service” will “revolutionize the world of satellite internet” – its bolded type, not mine. However, within the spiel for this “dramatically faster” service was revealed the reason my internet service is so crappy: HughesNet doesn’t know where its satellites are! According to the blurb, the new satellite is on its way to a rocket launch site in French New Guinea.

I am of the firm belief that my clothesline picks up a satellite signal equally as well as my HughesNet receiver.
I am of the firm belief that my clothesline picks up a satellite signal equally as well as my HughesNet receiver.

That’s right, my ISP is sending a satellite to French New Guinea, a country that doesn’t exist. From this I can only assume the company has done this on previous occasions and, because its whizzkids don’t know the exact orbits – other than somewhere in the sky – its earth stations only manage to pick up intermittent signals from other satellites, hence the patchy service in Stamping Ground, Kentucky.

Can’t you hear the conversation in the shipping line’s boardroom? “We’ve got another booking from HughesNet. They want to send a satellite to French New Guinea this time. Where did the last one go? Scottish New Caledonia, that’s it. Just tell the captain the same thing; sail around the South Pacific for three months or so then drop it off on an island somewhere. Should do wonders for the bottom line.”

Like Rand Paul, HughesNet is lost in space. It’d be funny if I wasn’t paying for both of them.

*I can’t remember the seats the members represented and couldn’t find the reference in which it is recorded, though it’s in my shelves somewhere, but I’ll vouch for the accuracy of the dialog.

My Farewell To The USA

This was written as I was preparing to leave Kentucky to return to Australia, and it is with not a little horror that I note that since the Abbott government came to power we are sliding rapidly into a facsimile of those aspects of the USA that so troubled me.

It seems donkey’s years since I’ve put finger to keyboard to contribute, and I don’t really know why. LikeTheDew is always a great read and just as I’ve enjoyed contributing, I’ve enjoyed the many and varied passions of its contributors. But these past few months I seem to have been visited by that come-and-go ennui that seems from time to time to plague anyone involved in creative pursuits, but the packers have been and gone and with them the mood that has prevailed over the past few months.

The packers? Yep, in three weeks or so we’ll be stepping onto the tarmac at Hobart International Airport and walking the 50 yards to the terminal building to wait for the baggage cart to drive into the passenger lounge where Quarantine Beagle will give it the once over before we can grab our gear off the trailer. In other words, I’m going home – not to the state in which I was born, but to the island state I love equally as much.

It’s not without great sadness that I’m leaving. I’ve enjoyed my time here in Kentucky and forged many friendships that I know will stand the test of time – or what’s left to me of it anyway. I think I’m finally admitting to myself that I’m getting older, though a lot of what remains of my brain may still be stuck somewhere between 1960 and 1980. I also feel that I’ve got to know many of you out there; though we’ve never met, you’ve said some nice things about me from time to time.

I’m going to miss the great jam sessions I’ve had close to the source of the music I so much love: the mountain ballits and dance-tunes, and the blues and jug band music that once flourished in the south, all of which appeal to the brooding Celtic genes my forebears passed on to me. I came with eight guitars, an autoharp, two ukuleles, a set of small pipes and a piano accordion; I’m returning with three of the guitars, the ukes, the accordion, the small pipes and autoharp, and a custom-made mountain dulcimer and an open-back banjo bought two months ago and on which I may one day be competent. You’ve got no idea what it feels like for me to put that banjo in sawmill tuning and play Pretty Polly close to the hills that for a century more kept it from escaping back to the wider world from whence it came.

And I’ll be able to boast that I met an old feller named Deward who was once in demand to play fiddle for dances, and how we sat on his porch fronting a narrow road hidden in the woods and I accompanied him with guitar and voice while he played Leather Britches and Handsome Molly on a fiddle whose friction tuning pegs had been replaced with ones made for a guitar because Deward had a “tetch of the roomatics” in his fingers. He would say: “Thisun’s a hay chord,” and he’d start in on her and I’d pick her up and he’d yell, “You got ’er there boy, you got ’er,” and away we’d go, buckin’ and skippin’ over the hills and far away into that bright, gravity-free nirvana that musicians sometimes reach. We’d play Oh the Dreadful Wind and Rain to summon the shades of Celts long dead and then he’d change the mood, the battered old fiddle calling on Old Jimmy Sutton to dance for us, hearing him in our souls as he flat-footed on the ancient boards of the porch.

Always remembered will be the family gathering I attended up in the mountains. Asked to sing a song, I played Crow Black Chicken and was at first taken aback at the shocked faces, relaxing when the expressions changed to ones of delight as some of the guests began dancing.

I’ll also miss the green moistness of Kentucky, especially when I’m back to nursing a vegie garden through yet another Australian dry spell, but I won’t miss the frost and snow, nor the guilt I feel every time I mutter, “All right Hughie, that’ll do for a bit” when the rain gauge is full yet again.

I’ll look back with fondness on the polite way my stories about life in Australia were received. Even though I know a lot of what I said was taken with a grain of salt, people still listened – they were after all the ones who asked the questions. But after nearly five years here, the disbelief is understandable. The other day I told a Good Ol’ Boy that his all the bells and whistles Chevy Silverado would cost him just shy of $126,000 in Australia, and that the repayments on the nifty little V-Dub van I drove back home were nearly twice as much as what I’d pay on a Cadillac here. He shook his head and said, “Lawda mercy,” but I could tell what he really meant: “Pull the other leg, it plays Dixie.”

The talented surgeons who undoubtedly saved my life will always have my gratitude, for not only did they save me, they were incredibly kind to my then wife through a very trying few days. I know that if I had died there would have been no meaningless platitudes but genuine sympathy and that’s comforting. If ever you badly need a heart surgeon you could do a lot worse than Dr Hamid Mohammed-Zadeh.

Oh, there’s lots of nice stuff I’ll miss, but there’s also lots of stuff I’ll be shaking my head over for years. When you’re a foreigner hailing from a country that apparently is only second-rate or at least not the best on earth, you know that the USA Hollywood and Teeveeland like to show you isn’t true. I mean, fair crack of the whip, cobber, I’m not as green as I am cabbage-lookin’. Not everyone lives with five bedrooms, four bathrooms, a swimming pool, two cars, perpetually clean shirts and permanently fixed-in-place hair, but movies and teevee have been telling you most of your life that it’s the land of golden opportunity where anyone can become president and there seemed a ring of truth to that.

You grew up listening to your Dad and his mates, whose first experiences of “The Yanks” were during World War II. They told you how shocked they were when they saw what the GIs ate for breakfast: “Bloody Golden Syrup on their bloody bacon for chrissake!” The fact that a country could be so generous as to feed its PBI bacon was astounding enough, but to see those same footsloggers pour what the Diggers at first thought was Cocky’s Joy over it, well jesus, mate, strike me bloody pink, you just wouldn’t credit it, would yer? Then in the next breath you’d detect thinly disguised awe as your Old Man – who had done his four-and-a-half years in the Forward Field Workshops in the Mediterranean, Africa and the Solomons – describe how if the “…Yanks’d want an airstrip, they’d throw everybloodything at ’er. Our mob’d still be workin’ out if the requisition forms should be in triple- or duplibloodycate and the Yanks’d have bombers landin’ on theirs. Fair dinkum. Couldn’t beat the bastards at that game.” Then the mood would darken. “Their officers did the same thing with their bloody men. Threw ’em at the Japs like there was no bloody termorrer. Bastards. Like the Poms did to our blokes in the first big stoush. Lousy bastards.”

So when you get here you know it’s not going to be like Hollywood or Disneyland, but everything you’ve ever read or heard hasn’t prepared you for the reality that is the USA, the Great Idea, in the 21st century.

It’s the apparent opulence that hits you first, the abundance of everything that makes you want to rush around and buy up the world: autos, tools, clothes, giant meals; all ridiculously cheap and easy to buy on tick at rates so low it’s hard to believe. After a while you begin to slow down to your usual pace and look around a bit more. As you move around in your day-to-day life, the varnish begins to crack a bit, peeling off here and there as the poverty becomes a little more evident. You begin to see the families and older, single people living in decaying trailers stuck on tiny lots right on the road verges in rural areas so beautiful they’d break your heart. You see the evidence of poverty – and its handmaiden, ignorance for lack of education – everywhere in the supermarkets where food and drink that’ll poison you is less than half the price of fruits and vegetables shipped in from all over the US, Mexico and China. Not that a lot of this food’s much chop, picked so green that it’ll rot before it ripens, denying many of its benefits. (Sadly, this result of factory farming is now common in Australia. At least a couple of generations have now grown up without ever having tasted ripe fruit.)

After a while you begin to pick up on the “National Mood” – a generalization to be sure, but palpable nevertheless. The contempt in which the poor are held still shocks me – as does the national attitude to welfare and anything else that might suggest a social conscience, the latter seemingly confused with socialism à la the Nazis. On the national news, I may have heard Native Americans mentioned maybe twice in the almost five years I’ve been here and I’ve heard and seen coverage of heaps of protests about the war on coal, but none at all on the social plight of families in Appalachian coal counties. When the mountain folk are mentioned, it’s usually to reinforce the stereotype of shack-dwelling, drug-crazed, incestuous, gap-toothed, banjer-playin’ dumb yokels but nary a word about why their society is in crisis and why it is that the coal counties of Kentucky and West Virginia, producing a commodity allegedly “vital to the national economy” are among the nation’s poorest. As long as I live I’ll not forget a local teevee channel’s 6pm bulletin. The bright young thing opened with: “Three coalminers have been killed in a mine accident in Eastern Kentucky and we’ll return to that soon, but first our Big Story…” then proceeded to rabbit on about the latest doings of the UK Wildcats basketball team.

It’s also hard to believe that anybody with most of their screws reasonably tight would vote for politicians who claim to believe a god created the world and that this should be presented to students as an alternative to evolution. That journalists would treat such people as credible candidates for any office – let alone the presidency – and devote hours of space and time to them hardly bears thinking about.

And I’ll be glad to have my freedom back. Living under a Constitution that insists on a citizen’s right to freedom of speech and freedom of and from religion gets a bit harrowing at times. The number of times I have been chastised in supermarkets for forgetting where I was and slipping into Australian dialect have not been all that many, but they have been unsettling. Sometimes, when looking at prices, an Australian jumps into my mouth and I’ll let slip with “jesus bloody christ” or something like that. One bloke demanded of me – demanded – that: “You fall upon your knees sir, and ask the good lord to forgive you before you are struck dead.” When I told him he’d better rack off out of it if he wanted to avoid the heavenly bolt himself, I thought he was going to call the cops. I once asked a political canvasser if he was aware that the god-bothering bastard he represented was concerned about freedom from union interference but apparently didn’t care about the Peabody rip-off of miners’ pension funds. He told me I was going straight to hell, which to me is a good thing if heaven is populated by his candidate’s ilk. Mention taxpayer-funded universal health care, compulsory wearing of helmets when riding a motorbike or pushbike and a near-total ban on private ownership of handguns, and the response is nearly as bad.

Another great puzzle to me has been the attitude to sex – or anything that suggests it – and anything viewed as profanity. Who sets the standard? I once saw, with my own eyes, on ABC’s 6.30 news, Brian Williams apologize because “children might be watching” and he was about to mention a book title containing the word ‘hell’. PBS is currently airing an English police drama that is sometimes, to my mind, a little too gratuitous with the gore. But that’s seems not to disturb whoever’s job it is to worry about such things. Instead, English vernacular as mild as “tosser” and “arse” are bleeped out and bare breasts and bums are a definite nay sir – even dead ones on a morgue slab are blurred out. Look at the “news” clips on even the upmarket sites purveying news.” ———’s [insert name here] topless bikini too raunchy for San Tropez (pictures)”. No blurring here, just a big black bar straight out of the 1940s. On the other hand, we can turn to cable teevee and watch 4 year olds dressed and acting like, at best, ghastly parodies of Las Vegas showgirls or, at worst, $20 bagswingers moonlighting as 1930s burlesque queens.

Lest I be thought churlish, I am painfully aware that I am returning to a country almost totally in the clutches of the mining industry. Not long ago, the presently governing Labor Party had a rush of blood to its collective head and appointed as Prime Minister someone who should have been held up as an example to the world – the child of working-class Welsh immigrants, irreligious, intelligent, in a caring relationship though unmarried and a woman. Instead she was held up to the same sort of insults, scrutiny and opprobrium that have plagued President Obama and for similar reasons. She wasn’t the status quo and she wanted to change things and industry and the establishment weren’t happy with that.

Despite the fact that Australia is getting ahead of it’s green energy targets, that it has a national debt less than 25 per cent of GDP, that it has experienced 21 straight years of economic growth despite the horrors of universal health care, subsidized education and a reasonable pension in old age, despite all this she was sacked and replaced by the man she herself replaced, a wishy washy Christian who backed down on the carbon tax that will now probably be repealed and who suggested, but lacked the guts to push through the nationwide fibre-optic roll-out that Ms Gillard got going.

It is possible that the Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition – laughingly calling itself the Liberal Party and led by Tony “The Mad Monk” Abbott, a charismatic Catholic – may win the imminent election, so in anticipation it has been in talks with Rupert Murdoch to discuss the introduction of policies that have proved popular in the US, e.g. allowing corporations to make covert donations to political parties, changing media ownership laws thus allowing mining magnates to own a greater share of the press, teevee and radio and presumably allowing Rupe to at last accomplish what he has always wanted to do – own a larger share of Australia’s media, previously forbidden him by law and so motivating him to take up residence in the USA and Britain, the consequences of which are painfully evident – and other progressive measures.

I know all this and it saddens me that it’s what I’m going back to, but it’s my country and my fight. I’ll be able to write angry letters to the editor based on my experience of life in the USA and getting up the ratbag politicians for wanting to go the same way. When at political rallies someone claims that corporations have the same rights as individuals, I’ll be able to yell “If America’s so bloody good, why don’t you go and live there?” and have the moral authority to do so.

In New South Wales, near the little farm I once lived on, is a well-preserved and vibrant 19th century gold-rush town named Gulgong, site of the last of “the poor man’s rushes”. It was my watering hole in the days when I drank and I used to sing every year at its Folk Festival. My dear, dear, entertainingly alcoholic friend, the late Jules Sackville lived there and I followed the horse and dray that bore him up Mayne Street to the cemetery where, at his request, I sang “Go To Sleep You Weary Hobo” over his grave.

Gulgong’s facades and most of its buildings have been preserved as National Heritage and among them are two of my favourite things, two wooden facades fronting stores built in the 19th century. One bears the legend “The Wonder of the World” and close by is the “American Emporium”. Whenever I looked at them, for some reason I thought of John Steinbeck and America. To me, John Steinbeck was America and America was the Wonder of the World, the Noble Experiment, the Great Idea, Democracy with a capital D and uninhibited by monarchy and class. Where is the America of my imagination? As an Australian I feel crushed by the dead weight of the religious bigotry and money-based caste system that are holding this country back. You, my dear American friends, may not be able to feel it, but as an Australian born and bred I do, and it scares me.

I was once a fervent anti-monarchist and hoped to see the Old Brown Land at last truly free of the English in my lifetime. Australia’s parliamentary system is a mix of both England’s and the USA’s and now I’m not sure if it doesn’t work better than both of those from which it drew.

I hope that this is only temporary, a blip in the continuum, and that soon the people will rise-up to reclaim their heritage, to stage another revolution, though bloodless this time, to reiterate what the first one sought: equality for all. Even better, perhaps my inborn Celtic love of sweeping, embroidered oratory has so clouded my thinking that all this is mere imagination, the hoop-de-doodle so frowned upon in the Palace Flop-House and Grill. I hope so, I truly hope so, because there is so much about this country and its people that I love. So, if you’ll allow me, when I’m not busy fighting to change Australia’s stupid bloody flag or railing at some other insult to the country that bore me, I’d like to drop you all the occasional line.

Farewell, my friends, and a thousand thank yous for making me feel so welcome.

Dan’s leg, and a guilt that just won’t go away

Dan and his big brother, circa 1950 maybe
Dan and his big brother, circa late 1940s

We’d lost Dan by the time he was six; even at that age I reckon he’d already decided society really didn’t have much to offer a kid who had to wear an iron and leather calliper on one leg and who, if he couldn’t keep up, then no-one was going to wait for him. Problem was, by the time he was three or four years old, Dan, like so many kids in his position, had already experienced enough pain and mental anguish to last a lifetime, though no one seemed to notice. Problem was, Dan’s Old Man, like so many others, had not long been back from five years in the “Big Stoush” – World War II – and had his own demons to fight. Problem was, unlike his old man, he didn’t have the companionship of mates with shared experiences. Problem was, even had he been aware of their existence, there was no network connecting him with the millions of kids all over the world who were going through the same terrible, spirit-grinding mill and whose parents, like his, didn’t have the wherewithal to engage the services of flash doctors or world-renowned clinics. So Dan had to battle through it pretty much on his own. And he tried, he really tried; Dan is nothing if not game.

Sorry, I’ve got ahead of myself. Daniel is the third-born of the five kids in our family and this year he’ll be around 65, though I find that difficult to believe – just as I have trouble understanding how the years have managed to sneak up on me. Just yesterday I was belting out How Long Blues on a stage somewhere, and the day before that I was walking through the door of an already old building in Fremantle, ready to begin an apprenticeship with the Fremantle Printing Company Pty Ltd; but back to Dan.

One morning, on his first birthday, Dan began whimpering and refused to sit up or be comforted. Face flushed and in obvious pain, he was getting worse by the hour. I don’t know what moved Mum to act as she did. I know the Old Man was away working somewhere – Tasmania if I remember rightly – so there would probably have been no ready cash in the house, making a doctor out of the question. Maybe Peg didn’t want to admit she was broke, maybe she wasn’t thinking straight. Who knows? Whatever her reasons, she picked Dan up in her arms and with Kerry – at that time the middle kid – and me in tow she set out from Austin Street to walk the two miles or so to Princess Margaret Children’s Hospital, on the way asking our closest neighbours to let our relatives know where she was going. News must have travelled fast because they were at the hospital not long after we got there.

Dan was literally dragged from her arms and taken somewhere into the hospital, Mum was ushered to a waiting room and we were instructed to wait outside with Bernie, presumably so as not to disturb the calm of the Great Institution. An age passed, an aeon, until at last a sobbing Peg emerged to tell us that they weren’t sure what was wrong but they were going to “keep him in”. What it turned out to be was infantile paralysis, polio, and Dan was just another casualty of the great epidemics that swept Western Australia – and the world – until Dr Salk’s vaccine became readily available.

The next few months were hell, for us and for Dan. The expert view was that it would be better for him if he weren’t to see us during what was going to be his long stay in hospital; reminders of home would only upset him. During the early stages of his treatment Mum was only allowed to peer at her youngest through a glass screen, as she had done when he was a newborn and the first of her children not to be born at home and the hospital was closed to his brother and sister. It was very effective. On the first day he came home I returned from school to find a complete stranger crawling around on a blanket spread on the grass in the front yard and it was a couple of hours, I’m told, before they could convince me my brother was indeed back among us.

Later he was fitted with a calliper of iron and leather attached to a cumbersome boot with a thickened, cork filled sole and heel that was supposed to minimise the limp but I think served mainly to brand him as different.

A couple of years passed and we’d moved to another house a few miles away and right next to what was then known as Butler’s Swamp. Dan had started school by then and one day came home with a long note from the headmaster accusing him of being uncooperative, a vandal and badly behaved; in short, a budding criminal. He had, the letter went on, so badly damaged a fellow pupil’s pushbike as to render it inoperable. I already knew that. On the day the atrocity occurred, I was waggin’ it, and in my circuitous route to a hideout in the swamp had seen my brother using his booted and callipered limb to smash up the spokes in someone’s bike. That night I’d asked him why he’d done it and he told me that the bike’s owner followed him around the schoolyard every day, imitating his limp and knuckling him, all the while taunting him with “limpy, gimpy”. Mum was mortified – the Old Man was away again – and offered to pay for the damage over time. To this day I feel guilt over not revealing what I knew, fearful of the wrath I thought would descend on Dan and me. Now I know it probably wouldn’t have done Dan much good. The prevailing attitude back then was that kids should withstand the knocks of bullies, should stick up for themselves. Of course if they did there were often repercussions, but the philosophy held strong. No excuse though, and I still feel the guilt.

More years passed and though Daniel grew stronger, tougher and more withdrawn, he was still full of great affection for his mother and siblings – affection he wasn’t afraid to show – though his run-ins with the Old Man were every bit as spectacular as mine. He had long ago given up on the leg iron with the consequence that his foot turned under and he walked on the ankle, causing intense pain. To remedy this, a plate was inserted in his leg and the ankle joint fused – it seemed to work.

I left home and began my rambling years, wandering the length and breadth of Australia and New Zealand with only sporadic contact with my family, mostly in the form of letters written when the urgings of my conscience triumphed. One day, like a kick in the guts, I received a letter postmarked Fremantle Gaol, the old convict-built hell-hole that is now a major tourist attraction: “My Dearest Big Brother,” it began, “I suppose you’re wondering why I’m writing to you from between these four walls…” that’s verbatim, it’s as clear now as the day I opened the envelope. Dan went on to tell me that he’d been sentenced to eight years for car theft and subsequent burning of the car. That was it. I was too stunned to take much notice of the don’t worries, and I love yous. It was the eight years; eight years! For car theft? Even with the arson added it seemed to be coming on a bit strong.

I telephoned my sister to get the full story, a story later corroborated by others. This was the early 60s and the always conservative and pro-establishment West Australian press was expressing concern about the evil ways intruding from the Eastern States. Rising crime rates, violence, underage drinking, car theft, rock and roll, bodgies and widgies; all could be laid squarely at the doorstep of the Eastern States and must be stamped out. The judiciary must act. So Dan got eight years for a first offence. His accomplice, who had prior form, was given 6 months but, the judge said, he would make “an example” of Dan.

There was one positive outcome. Her Majesty’s representatives were duty bound to take care of Dan’s health while he was a guest in one of her prisons and a routine X-ray revealed that his fibula had been split by the screws holding the plate in place (Dan later told me it had hurt like hell for years) so they amputated his leg below the knee. But life was never easy for my brother. One day during his recuperation, a wheelchair-bound Dan was taking his allotted hour in the sun of the exercise yard. That was the day that the long-suffering inmates of Freo had chosen to begin a food riot or, more correctly, an anti-food riot. Everyone, including Dan, was locked out and firehoses were later used to quell the rioters. In the aftermath, all parole credits were revoked. A few years later, a more enlightened administration allowed Dan to finish his sentence at a community prison in a town up the coast a few hundred miles. Mum, the Old Man and the two youngest kids had moved up there a couple of years before.

I made the long trip back to WA to visit him there which led to my first meeting with my youngest sister – then 5 years old – but that’s another story. I stayed 6 months and Dan and I rekindled our affection for each other but soon the road called and I was off again. I should have stayed, I know I should have, but I was young and the home State felt stifling after the freedoms I’d found. I could have found them there, too, of course, but you don’t think like that when you’re a kid.

A few years later I heard from him again – this time he was in Grafton jail, one of Australia’s toughest. Apparently he’d picked a fight with a walloper and won – bad on two counts, previous record and winning a stoush with a John Hop. After that things went a little smoother. He went back to his roots and worked as a stockman on a big cattle run for a while. His plastic leg was a hassle at first, he said, but he soon worked it out and there weren’t too many horses could put him on his arse on the ground, he said. He got a job with a State forestry department and that went really well until a tree he was felling busted his good leg up pretty bad. With his compensation payout (the arbitration judge wanted to know why the department had allowed a one-legged man to fell trees alone in a forest. I could’ve told Hizzonner there was no way they could’ve stopped him) he bought a house and a motorbike and took up leatherwork and later became an illusionist. I was singing on the festival circuit a lot in those days and we saw each other often, Dan always had a concession stand at the major festivals. This surprised me a bit; given the way the world had treated him I thought the bike might have led to a life with a gang but now I can dismiss that as an unworthy thought, Dan liked people too much for that, he was too human.

I neither saw nor heard from Dan for years. I thought he may have done a perish or had decided at last to withdraw from the world, which would be sad, though understandable. At night, when the old ones come visiting in the soft dark, I couldn’t find Dan among them, no matter how hard I tried. I liked to think he’d found someone whose company was all he needed to heal the wounds; it made me feel better though it didn’t wash away the guilt.

Then one day, not long after this piece was published in an excellent Southern US online review titled LiketheDew, an email from a couple in northern New South Wales lobbed on my screen. Dan was alive and well, it read, and often stayed with them in his travels on the market circuit. They sent a photo, and there he was, large as bloody life. We’ll get him to email, the girl wrote. And he did, once or twice, and then nothing. But I know he’s alive and I know why he doesn’t write. And he’s survived, and he’s happy and I’m delirious – but the bloody guilt won’t go away and probably will go with me to the grave.

Why am I putting this out there? Perhaps I needed to get it off my chest in the hope the guilt might go away, but I think not. I’ve always liked to pick and probe at my psyche in an effort to understand the what and the why of me and it’s getting worse as I get older. Dan’s life is a not insignificant part of the fabric of my own. His experiences reinforced an already jaundiced view of the education system of the times and strengthened my own Australian-ness, that almost-vanished culture that beatified Ned Kelly and wrote irate letters to editors when the police, in collusion with a former Prime Minister John Howard, mounted a campaign to blacken his name. The old Australian-ness that still holds a gut-searing yearning after Home Rule; that calls its dearest friend a bastard and pronounces jesus christ in lower case; that Australian-ness that led my grandfather to often remark that our beloved country was “stuffed for the want of an Irish king”.

I have heard it said, both here and in Australia, that everyone is a radical until they turn 40, when they gain maturity by realising the establishment was right all along and so become sensible conservatives. I’ve never believed that but, if there is a glimmer of truth there, then the thing that calls itself the establishment is doing its level best to give the lie to its own smug, self-serving platitude. And I’ll never change – Dan helped make sure of that.

…and it’s got worse

Parts of this piece were originally published under the title Back home to what? on a now-defunct blogsite. I wrote it almost in despair on arriving home after five years in Stamping Ground, Kentucky.

KENTUCKY, that beautiful, down-in-the-dirt poverty ridden State is now behind me, along with the bloody minded bedlam that is US politics and the shadowy, home-grown militias and aggressive Christians who wield power and influence out of all proportion to their numbers. It wasn’t all Thompsonesque of course. The jist plain folks that were our friends and neighbours were wonderful, some of them devout Christians, but unlike the moral minority kept their faith for church and home. There were the music and food nights that did the rounds of our friends’ houses – Kentucky cooking may one day kill you, but it’s something else I tell you. In the next holler to ours there were a fiddle player, an extremely gifted songwriter/singer and a guitarist vocalist who was also the local pharmacist. Just up the road was another guitarist whose voice and singing style reeked of the mountains where he was born. Every weekend we would get together to eat and sing and play: guitars, fiddle, autoharp, banjo, dulcimer and whatever other instrument might turn up along with the wild and beautiful harmonies that seem to be genetically imprinted in most of the mountain people.

Kentuckians love a good yarn and one of my favourites concerns a hamlet up in the hills whose residents had been waiting months for a new minister to shout the gospel, bury the dead and save the young folks from sin by marrying them. Word got out that there was a new man on the way, heading for the house of Cletis MacFarlane, a pillar of the community. One hot afternoon, Cletis was ploughing the tobacco patch on the bottom land when his oldest son came racing down the mountainside: “Paw, Paw, the new preacher’s done come to the house.”
“What ‘nomination do he be, son”
He hain’t a said, Paw.”
“Well son, y’all git on up the hill to the house quicker’n get out and ask ‘un. If’n he’s a Baptist, hide the whiskey; if’n he’s a Methodist, hide the ham; and if’n he’s an Evangelical, y’all git up on your Ma’s lap and don’t move till I gits there.”

When I arrived back in Tasmania, it was only to be confronted by a late blast of winter and a far bleaker election result. What astounded me about the campaign was some of the policy ‘promises’: Turn back the boats, abolish the mining and carbon taxes, wind back the NBN and on and on. All tainted with the same ideology as espoused by the US Tea Party, a bunch of intelligent nut-cases and misfits yearning for 1950 and given an unwarranted respectability by media networks afraid to report objectively for fear of ratings reprisals. Abbott’s “This is our country and we will decide who comes here” was almost word for word for statements made at Mad Hatters’ rallies in the US.

I was also puzzled by the Julia Gillard TV chat with Anne Summers. Ms Gillard’s rise to PM was unreported in the US and I only knew of it when I did my monthly rounds of the Australian online news sites. She is obviously very popular – more widely so than she was given credit for, it seems – so who allowed her to be stabbed in the back? Was there an uproar? Was the Labor Party told that it had done the wrong thing? It seems not. During the campaign, Rudd was as smug as a rat with an umbrella and even her former supporters seemed to take the drainpipe exit: “It was for the good of the party.” From what I could glean from my distant perch, Julia Gillard was the subject of the same sort of institutionalised abuse aided and abetted by Murdoch’s shit spreader that Obama copped in the USA, and for many of the same reasons: different, attempting to do the right thing, ignoring the naysayers and putting bills on the table that outraged the Gina Rhineharts and her ilk – the born-to-rulers.

Back to the NBN for a while. Abbott (he’s not worth a title) and his cronies obviously wanted to sell it off to another provider and go for the cheapest and quickest option – and it was also pretty obvious that they were more than a little motivated by wanting to get rid of anything that might be seen as a legacy of a woman who had made them look fools by showing them up for what they are. Stupid.

What I experienced in the US has more than ever convinced me that Australia should head back on the course it once started unless we want to emulate the States and settle for appalling internet and phone services – unless you live in a major city and even then it’s not too flash. A couple of years ago, a survey found that a shade more than half the population had access to high-speed internet and of those who did, in 40 per cent of cases it could not technically be classed as true broadband. Less than 30 minutes from the State capital and about 40 from the second largest city I was paying $80 per month for a satellite link that delivered half the speed I paid for, dropped out every time there was heavy rain and delivered slower times than I get from ADSL here on the outskirts of a small Tasmanian town. The satellite TV cost $80 a month and also couldn’t cope with heavy rain (common in Kentucky) while the phone – a shaky landline and antiquated exchanges that played up in wet weather – cost $60 for basic service under which calls to the same area code could be treated as long distance in some areas. There was no mobile coverage.

A lot of things in the US are mired in the 1950s, including politics, social attitudes and attitudes to religion. Though a little over half the population classes itself as “no religion” or “other”, the religious extremists and the mainstream churches hold sway at all levels. The US is also, generally speaking, a very prudish country and for me all these factors marred an otherwise wonderful time. Yet now Australia is rushing headlong down the slope that will land us back in 1945 or even earlier. It is beyond comprehension.

Nurture by numbers: an inexpert view of children

These older relatives (c. 1930s) and kids of my generation were pretty much left to their own devices.
These older relatives (c. 1930s) and kids of my generation were pretty much left to their own devices.

Before I get underway, let me say that my childhood shouldn’t be taken as typical for every Australian kid of my generation. I’ll also admit that times have changed since I was fighting against becoming a grown-up. And I suppose I’d better whack in a disclaimer: these are personal views formulated over many years spent in all sorts of places among all sorts of people and not the result of valid scientific yibberda, yibberda, yibberda…

So, in my usual fashion, I’ll start this long-winded – though hopefully not boring – story by approaching it widdershins. Don’t hold your breath while your waiting for me to pick up the thread.

In the social strata occupied by my family, and thousands of other families like us, it was far from uncommon for older relatives to share houses with younger ones who had the space: a spinster aunt, the love of whose life did a perish with the 10th Light Horse in Egypt, a grandparent slipping into dementia or perhaps an eccentric uncle who “went a bit funny because of the Great War”, often living in the “sleepout”, a section of verandah converted into a small bedroom.

As a general rule, most of the rest of the extended family lived inside an hour’s walk from one another or were easily reached, relatively speaking, by public transport. Cars were scarce and any rellies wealthy enough to own one regularly and religiously did the rounds of others in the clan. This sort of family structure provided young mothers with not only a pool of babysitters, but also a vast storehouse of accumulated knowledge and wisdom from which to draw. Doctors were an expensive luxury and an experienced aunt or gran knew the difference between a bad cold, the croup and whooping cough, say, and between the gripe (love that word)) and wind, between need and tantrum. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it was all the good old days and anybody that says it was has a lousy memory. Vaccination wasn’t the norm and babies (and adults) died from things you hardly ever hear of these days. My family copped diphtheria, polio and scarlet fever along with the ‘usual’ mumps, chicken pox, measles, etc. How our parents got us physically through to adulthood in an era when anti-bacterial wipes that kill 99.9 per cent of household green cartoon characters were unknown is a mystery to me.

So when did parents stop raising their own offspring and hand the job over to experts?

I reckon the trend began when home births began to wane, accelerating as families fragmented and moved apart. Delivered by Great-Grandma Ada I was born at home, not unusual for the time but certainly not as common as it had been a generation before. A bit of trivia: I was born with my head sort of scrunched onto a shoulder, so Great-Grandma put me in warm ashes and massaged me for an hour or so. By the time my first sister was born, (conceived when the Old Man was home on leave en route from the battles in the Middle East to the South Pacific campaign) hospitals were angling for a monopoly on the baby business and the experts had the boot of scientific theory firmly planted in the door and Bertie Germ loomed large in life.

Littlies were taken from their mothers almost as soon as they were born – “Don’t want the little chap exposed to nasty germs now, do we, dear?” –  and placed in the nursery where, behind a glass partition, regimented rows of wheeled cribs, like shopping carts from some god-awful baby Woolworths, confined tightly wrapped infants in the process of being conditioned to The Schedule. For about the first week, sires, siblings and relatives were only allowed to peer at the hygienically incarcerated youngsters through the glass, gauze-masked nurses holding them up for inspection at allotted times.

Mothers were told that crying was good for babies, it developed their lungs, and so it wasn’t necessary to pick them up or feed or change them every time they bawled. No indeed, baby must learn The Schedule: eat, pee, poop, sleep and associate with Ma by the clock. Breast-feeding was a bit of a worry, too. Was it hygienic? Could baby catch germs by this too-close association with the mother? Grandmothers and aunts whose experiences led them to contradict these scientific truths were seen as dangerous heretics and, even worse, old-fashioned, and I suppose with a lot of the men away the younger, first-time mums must have felt awfully vulnerable and open to coercion. The experts were gaining ground.

By the 1950s the social structure I grew up with was vanishing as post-war reconstruction saw families split into smaller units, spreading far and wide. Parents lost that pool of knowledge, that back-up, and so began to turn to the experts. Some time around then, the disciples of the experts responsible for The Schedule were telling us that discipline was a Bad Thing, children should be free to express themselves at all times and in all ways. Chucking a deepy on a department-store floor was seen as fulfilling some primal need rather than a leg-weary kid’s reaction to being told no, she couldn’t have the three-storey dolls’ house. “Reason with the child,” they told the parents. Reason with a Tasmanian Devil’s changeling? They had to be joking.  Perhaps the experts should have explained the theory a little better, for its adoption by many parents had far-reaching consequences. A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

My youngest son at about 4 years old actually survived exposure to the germs in the post-flood Goulburn River, on whose banks we lived.
My youngest son at about 4 years old actually survived exposure to the germs in the post-flood Goulburn River, on whose banks we lived.

A brief example. When I was growing up (there, I got it in!), kids in rural areas were carted along to all the dances and other functions at The Hall  (Ladies, a plate please, Gentlemen a tie), often only a galvanized-iron shed next to an ant-bed tennis court somewhere east of the black stump. When they could no longer stay awake, the kids collapsed on old cushions and blankets stuffed under the wall-benches. At supper time if the hall was big enough, the kids would have a separate buffet, if not they waited till the adults had got their fill of tea, sandwiches and cake and then were allowed in to clean up the rest.

It was beneficial to both parties. Raspberry vinegar and grubby hands were kept away from best dresses and suits and the adults didn’t have to shout to make themselves heard above the feeding frenzy as ravenous kids devoured the queen pudding, cream sponge and fairy bread. For our part we weren’t bombarded with “wipe your mouth, use a serviette, chew your food before you swallow it, don’t rub mock cream in Jennifer’s hair”. It was far more sensible and civilized. Such supper-hall etiquette had all but disappeared by the late 70s. In its turn, the no-discipline theory was replaced by the doctrine of ‘We should be friends with our children who are, after all, adults in miniature and must have their independence’. The experts were tightening their grip.

When I was a nipper, as I think I’ve said before, kids and grown-ups lived on the same planet, but that’s about all you could say of them. Friends be buggered. Both generations lived under a sort of permanent flag of truce, as long as the rules were observed by both sides. Oh you loved you parents and siblings all right, along with your extended family, but that was in that other, private hemisphere reserved for badly cut legs and big disappointments and broken carts that needed fixing and wanting to know how fast crocodiles could run; reserved for when the dog died, or a relative was in a coffin in the best room of their house and you were afraid that the ghost might come and tap you on the shoulder or, worse still, you just might be called on to be the sin-eater (thank my childhood investigation into the folklore of my Welsh great-grandfather for that one). But on the surface at least it was a fragile peace, easily broken by the injustices of adults or rule infringements by kids. Outside school hours, you were expected to stay out of the house and the adults’ hair. Once you’d done your chores they didn’t want to see you until it was time to sit down to a meal.

I’ve heard it said that even young kids are entitled to the privacy of their own room. Yeah? In the 40s and 50s kids didn’t have private lives, even if you didn’t have to share a room with a sibling. You were left pretty much to your own devices but all the time knowing you were under the scrutiny of Big Brother in the person of any adult within earshot. A grown-up didn’t have to know you to chastise you, that was part of the rules. They could threaten the boot in the backside, even to skin you alive or, worst of all, to “…tell your mother, Sonny Jim and don’t think I don’t know her”. Such threats had to be warranted, the rules allowed for juvenile retribution if they weren’t. All in all the system worked pretty well, armistice reigning most of the time.

It was a given that kids on public transport gave their seat up to an adult – even little kids. It was also a given that the beneficiary would offer to sit you on their lap, Mum or aunty’s lap being occupied with babies or parcels, for the duration of the journey.

Again, it wasn’t all it’s often cracked up to be. Teachers were allowed to cane you – I still maintain that too many ‘six of the bests’ contributed to finger-joint problems that are today beginning to affect my guitar playing – and for the most part the law turned a blind eye to domestic violence and maltreated kids.

But as a kid you accepted your lot. Okay, so you’d broken some stupid school rule and you were up for the cane. So you copped it sweet. That was the rules. You were a kid and you knew your place and you could always hope to get bitten by a norn* and die and that’d learn ‘em. Even as a teenager in full-time paid work, as long as you lived at home you paid ‘board’ to your mother and continued to do chores, the younger kids taking over the ones befitting their place in the pecking order. By then you might also have begun to realise that a Grampa had nightmares because he spent the last of his teenage years in the mind-scarring muck of the Western Front and that your mate’s Dad was only 21 when he copped it in the Middle East, leaving him fatherless and his mum a widow, so you’d grudgingly admit they had some sort of right to control you.

But by then the pursuit of dreams had taken over from simpler pleasures, families were strewn across the country and generational gaps appeared into which fell or were thrown the accumulated folk-wisdom and child-raising skills of numberless generations. Parents were now firmly in the grip of the Experts who maintained that children are really adults but without an adult’s responsibilities.

We believed them, and both kids and adults were to suffer the consequences.

*Norn is the Nyungar word we used for the black colour variant of the tiger snake. Unwilling to move when disturbed, they will often strike before they retreat.

Another place, another life

There was just something about them. This team is carting bagged wheat in the days before bulk handling. It could have been taken any time between the 30s and 50s
There was just something about them. This team is carting bagged wheat in the days before bulk handling. It could have been taken any time between the 30s and 50s

When I was a little kid temporarily living in a Perth suburb, the hours and days were measured and enlivened by horses. Early in the weekday mornings I’d lie awake following the progress of the milk-man by the sound of his horse’s shoes on the road. Clip, clop; clip, clop; then clip-te-clop, as it dragged a toe. The float would stop outside our house and I’d hear the gate open and the soft scuffle of the milkoh’s sandshoes on the path. Then the muted clank as his half-pint measure tapped against our milk billy, followed by the clink of our pennies into the leather bag strapped around his waist. Pad, pad, pad back down the path, the clack of the gate latch and a soft whistle: clip-clop, clip, clop, clip-te-clop, an occasional, soft “Whoa there”, another whistle, and the sound faded away in the pre-dawn, down the street and around the corner.

Two or three days a week we’d see the baker’s cart, one of dozens owned by a large bakery named, with delightful irony, Brown & Burns. Beautifully painted in maroon and gold, wooden wheel spokes and felloes trimmed in the same colors, they were set high off the ground with small wooden doors at the rear of the box body giving way to an interior lined with tin or zinc. The driver stood on a small step at the rear of the cart, looking over the top. Brown and Burns’ horses were all bay or brown half-draughts; quick on the trot, sure-footed – they had to be on the tar roads criss-crossed by steel tram lines –  and intelligent.

The driver’s standard uniform was shorts, sandshoes and a snow-white sleeveless singlet protected by a short canvas apron of pale green. Around his waist was a brown leather bag with compartments for change and a receipt book for those respectable or solvent enough to run a weekly account. The bread was carried in a heavy wicker basket and covered with a sheet of the same material as the apron. No gloves for the driver and no plastic or paper to mask the stomach-tightening, spit-raising smell when he opened the breadbox door or uncovered the basket.

“Bah—aaaker!” and the women and kids would come out of the houses to gather round: “Half a sandwich loaf and a poppy-seed, please.”  “Just a milk loaf thanks, baker.” The driver would whip the loaves from his basket, flirting with the women all the while – a good cartside manner no doubt sold more bread.

“Half a loaf and no stale rubbish, driver.”

“As if I’d sell yesterdee’s bread to someone with those legs!”

“Yer’d sell stale bread to yer own grandma yer cheeky sod…and don’t forget I know ’er!” This from an older woman.

Meantime, the kids would be at the horse end of the cart, slapping the bay’s neck and inhaling the heady tang of salty horse sweat.

There were occasional visits by other hawkers and their horse-drawn carts: a greengrocer; the bottle-oh, collecting scrap and empty bottles; the rabbit-oh, corpses of bunnies, Australia’s scourge, trapped on the outskirts of Perth, Fremantle and further afield dangling from his cart to be skinned on the spot when you bought one. More rarely we’d see a fish-oh, probably an opportunist with a cart who’d bought a surplus from the professional fishermen on the river or at Fremantle, packed them in ice and drove them around the suburbs till they were all gone, the price decreasing as the day drew on.

Once a week the iceman drew up in our street, his insulated van drawn by a big, brown clumper with a nose like the King of China’s silk handkerchief and an inquisitive, bread-seeking upper lip. The blocks were dragged from the icebox onto a board where the iceman – also in shorts, singlet and apron but with a leather pad over one shoulder – expertly broke them into the required size with an icepick. When we could afford them, we could just squeeze two threepenny blocks into our little green and cream ice chest, where it would last almost a week. Everything was green and bloody cream in the 40s, even the enamel water jug in our kitchen. When we didn’t have ice, we used the Coolgardie safe.

Some districts still had “night-soil collection”, as it was delicately referred to by the good aldermen of the time – it was still a fact of daily life in some houses we lived in up to the early 1950s. Two or three times a week the “night cart” would clip-clop down the back alleways, stopping at each dunny. The dunny man would lift the trapdoor at the back of the outhouse and remove the full bucket – galvanized sheet metal reinforced with iron bands – from under the wooden bench seat and replace it with an empty one smelling of the cup or so of Phenyl that sloshed about in it. The full “pan” was emptied through a heavy sliding door near the top of the Nissen Hut-shaped tank on the cart and placed with the other empties in a compartment at the rear.

The dunny man was a legendary figure in my boyhood and we kids even sang a song about him, to the tune of Ghost Riders In The Sky:

The municipal dunny cart was full up to the brim;
The municipal dunny man fell in and couldn’t swim;
And as he was a-sinkin’, a-sinkin’ like a stone,
He heard the maggots singin’: “There’s no-ho place like home”.

All this horse traffic meant occasional deposits of steaming manure – a bonus in the days when vegetable gardens were more common than not. There was a sort of collection roster, unwritten but strictly observed. A tail would lift and whoever was at the top of the roster that day would order a kid away to fetch the spade and bucket. Thup, thup, thup. If the horse was a quiet one, and most were, the treasure would be scooped up almost before it hit the ground

Leggings: Concertinas and workaday “Springsures” similar to those that one of my grand-dads wore.
Leggings: Concertinas and a pair of workaday “Springsures”
similar to those that one of my grand-dads wore.

Among our favourite horses were the police mounts. The WA Mounted kept a stable of bay thoroughbreds for State occasions, but it was the equine proletariat used for crowd and traffic control at footie matches and other really important events that attracted us. Light greys – a colour that set off beautifully the royal-blue saddle blanket with its police crest – leaning towards the military packhorse type: big boned, big footed and broad across the bum but with a nice head and intelligent eye. The kids loved them – if you thought the copper wasn’t watching you could lean against a front leg and feel the horse return the pressure until the trooper pretended to have just noticed what was going on and growl: “That’s enough of that, Sonny Jim. Git orf his leg or ’e’ll step on yer foot.” You and the horse would exchange knowing looks and you’d give him a bit of a pat on the nose so he’d know it wasn’t your fault the camaraderie was broken.

The troopers, or “traps” were also a great favorite of the younger boys, just below their horses, and there was always a lot of jostling to stand in one of the two choicest positions: close to the horse’s head, handy to its silky nose, or by the stirrups where you could cast envious glances at the chrome-plated, government-issue spurs and the much-admired concertina leggings – much flasher than the workaday springsures of the drover – worn by the trooper. A smart rig of blue shirt, black bum-freezer jacket, black peaked cap and light-khaki jodphurs completed the uniform. But it was the spurs and leggings that did it for the boys.

They’ve gone now, the workhorses of the cities and towns, only the police mounts survive. I wonder do kids still rush out into the street to pat their noses and feel their warm, moist breath on their faces, or are their parents too frightened they might catch something? A sense of awe and wonder perhaps?