Poems by Denis Kevans, Australia’s Poet Lorikeet. (1939–2005)
The announcement by the traditional owners and the Uluru–Kata Tjuta National Park Board that climbing Uluru (officially Uluru/Ayers Rock) will be officially prohibited from October 26th this year, has prompted a rush of tourists intent on climbing this globally recognised natural feature, sacred to the Pitjantjatjara Anangu for at least 300 generations.
This isn’t surprising, given the wailing and gnashing of teeth rising from the ranks of Australians – latter day would-be Nazis among them – who are convinced that their “white culture” and “Christian beliefs” are under attack from everyone everywhere including, but not confined to, the United Nations, various halal certification boards, and a race of shape-shifting lizards of interplanetary origin who control the world financial system and appear to humans as Jews.
There have been reports of parents dragging small children with them as they attempted the climb – one couple even leaving an eight-year-old unattended at Uluru’s base while they did so – and rangers and others complain of people camping in prohibited areas and dumping rubbish and “black water” from campervan and caravan toilets and waste-water tanks all over the landscape.
Pauline Hanson, is vocal in her support of these culture warriors. And why wouldn’t she be? She has after all claimed that she is an Indigenous woman, having been born in Australia. Some might dispute her understanding of the term, but it is fairly obvious that dictionaries of any sort have never been high on her reading list. Her political party, such as it now is, has also expressed support, though thankfully its voice in our Parliaments is now more of a bleat than a loud croak.
As I said, none of this is surprising, but it is – or should be – a great source of shame to us as a nation; a shame amplified by the deafening silence emanating from the supposed leaders of the country. It would be a great thing if a Greta Thunberg, a Joan of the Rock, could rise to organise a sit-in at Uluru until the ban takes effect, or the nation comes to its senses. A thousand or so people assembled at the base of the climb chanting “shame, shame, shame” during daylight hours would be a wondrous thing, though it’s Sydney to the bush-On that the Northern Territory police would wade in. It was, you might remember, the NT government that boycotted the handback ceremony and vowed to rename the sacred feature “Ayers Rock” if and when the Territory attains statehood.
I’d probably be unable to attend such a sit-in – and I’m happy to explain why to anyone who cares – which distresses me a bit, but there is another great Australian tradition to which I can and will resort. In the days of our Colonial past, a swaggie named McQuade, for reasons now unknown, penned a curse on the Victorian town of Tallarook, and I’d like to invoke his spirit in the belief that being a self-professed Christian white person (usually male), doesn’t automatically endow some sort of Divine Right to trample on the beliefs and lives of others.
Over the ages, many cultures have developed forms of social punishment that don’t necessarily entail physical violence. The earliest Icelandic Althing (Parliament) once banished people from society for certain transgressions, cursing them as “far as an eagle may fly with a fair wind uplifting both wings” and “for as long as there are men to hunt wolves” according to one writer whose name now escapes me.
The English have long had transgressors “sent to Coventry“, imposing drastic social ostracism on individuals, a tradition so old that its origins are lost, and trade unionists’ hostility to scab labour sees the offenders and their families “blacked”, sometimes for generations. And there are some cultures that completely deny the existence of those who sin against them.
So, to all you sad, soul-less seekers of self-gratification, you arch-bastards who, through a misguided belief that your interests and personal ambitions including those as petty and meaningless as the need to upload a selfie, override all else, here’s a message:
When you come down from Uluru, that place which to you is just a rock put there for your enjoyment, think about what you have done. If you could hear, you might note the sound of distant weeping. If you could feel, you might sense the ancient earth, the red rust of mountains worn by time to sand and the keeping place for the bones of 2000 and more generations.
But you won’t hear or feel these things. There will never be a breeze gentle enough to cool you, nor a tree kind enough to shade you. No sunset will ever promise you a balmy night, no sunrise ever promise rain. The night skies will be dull to you and the glory of the universe closed to you. Birds will no longer sing for you; ravens and crows will not speak of you, and even Tjerit-tjerit, the Willy Wagtail, will spread no gossip of you.
The flowers will dull for you and no dew shall ever soften the summer grass through which you might wish to walk. The wind will never be at your back and all the paths before you will be stone.
You will exist only in your own mind and the world will have no memory of you, for you will never have been.
Photo credits Top: Panorama of Uluru by Stuart Edwards/Wikipedia People on Uluru: Uluru Climb by ennekapeapeon [Nathalie Kafurt]/Instagram
Tallarook (pop. ±790), a town in central Victoria, became infamous in 19th-century Australia as the folk-tale of McQuade’s Curse spread throughout the colonies. Who he was and why he cursed the town is not known, but the expression “things are crook in Tallarook” is still in use today.
As an Australian disgusted by the way this country is being dragged into the muck by the self-styled “political class” – who do they think they are, these ideology driven egoists who love to boast we are a classless society in which all are entitled to a fair go – I thought Mr McQuade should rise again. Here are a a few stanzas from his wonderful curse:
May every paddock yield a stook, of smutty wheat in Tallarook; May good St Peter overlook, the good deeds done in Tallarook; May each Don Juan who forsook, his sweetheart live in Tallarook;
There is also an old “shearer’s curse”:
May the Lord above, send down a dove, With wings as sharp as razors; To cut the throat, of the heartless goat, Who lowered shearers’ wages.
I homage to these unknown battlers I’d like to add these lines (the latter first):
May the powers that be who stiffened me, by cutting my aged pension, Be caged for all eternity, on Manus in detention.
And now back to McQuade
May those who pray in Scomo’s flock find heaven is a barren rock; May those who on dull Dutton dote, be roundly swiven by a goat; May all who marked the Hanson chit, spend eternity neck-deep in shit; May all who preach mad Abbott’s lies, spend their lives ingesting flies.
Scomo is Scott Morrison, a smug, born-again Pentecostal and member of the Liberal Party and treasurer in the Liberal/National Coalition government. If it’s only his lot that are going up to heaven, why is he pretending to be running the economy for all Australians?
Dutton is Peter Dutton (Liberal Party). Seemingly bloodless and devoid of any human emotion, he now heads the new Department of Home Affairs, a super-portfolio covering immigration, national security and what else only Old Harry knows. Among the troops at his command are those of Border Force, a new body, whose name and B-grade US TV cop drama uniforms are down to
Tony Abbot (Liberal Party), failed seminarian, failed prime minister. Once known as the Mad Monk he is the right-wing Christian’s Christian. His antics and Putinesque dress sense would be funny if it were not for the position he holds, and are too well known to bear repeating here, but suffice it to say that he once turned up for a meeting with Japan’s Prime Minister dressed in a Lycra urban Olympian bikerider outfit and wheeling a pushbike.
Hanson is Pauline Hanson, a self-styled patriot who was first elected to Parliament on a platform of stripping Indigenous Australians of what rights they have managed to regain, and holding back the Asian hordes massing in some unspecified lair to overwhelm Australia and breed us out of existence. She didn’t last long the first time round, but in the most recent election made a comeback on a platform of stopping Sharia law, banning the burqua and halal food, and suppressing the spread of scientists’ lies about climate change. Believing the royalties raised by brands bearing halal certification are used to fund terrorism, she asked a witness during a Senate inquiry into the matter whether or not it was true that cows were alive before they were killed. She also urged Australians to buy non-halal Easter eggs.
Manus and Nauru are small Pacific islands on which “boat people” escaping oppressive regimes are illegally detained in concentration camps. The present government justifies this on moral grounds by claiming they are “stopping the drownings at sea”. The policy, backed by the Labor Opposition, is turning Australia into an international pariah.
And a note to our US cousins, “Liberal” in Australian equates to Republican in your country and, like that party, is increasingly hostage to the backward forces within the party. I refuse to use the word conservative, properly defined as moderate; avoiding extremes.
Written at the height of public interest in Australia’s Royal Commission into the institutional abuse of children
For the first couple of lines I wish to acknowledge my admiration of Joe Hill, who influenced them.
Your altars are of marble, your plate of beaten gold,
But your souls are of base metal and your hearts are stony cold;
Your bells are cast of finest bronze and they peal your man-god’s name,
But all the bells in all the world can’t drown out years of pain.
Gentle jesus meek and mild, look upon this weeping child Please let me die before I wake…
You march to your salvation, with tambourine and drum,
And say you’ll be uplifted on a day that’s yet to come;
On judgment day you will be saved, and bathed in holy light,
While those that you have raped and flogged remain in dreadful night.
Onward christian soldiers, marching as to war With the cross of Jesus, crushing all before
You took the dark-skinned children, and stole both tongue and mind,
Defiled their bodies and their souls and left just shells behind;
You scoured the streets of England for the children of the poor,
And gave them into slavery, then locked and barred the door.
Jesus loves the little children, all the little children of the world; Black, yellow brown and white, they are precious in his sight
At least that’s what your hymnals say, the ones you make them read,
To sing your holy songs of praise, to spread your blighted creed;
But all the hymns and all the psalms, shouted at the sky,
Will not erase the wrong you’ve done, and know that when you die
Washed in the blood of the lamb
Your prayers and praise of jesus’ name, your blinding faith in god,
Won’t serve to straighten out the path, the crooked road you trod;
It seems a pity, really, that one day you will die,
For if you lived for ever, you might just learn to cry.
Your father, who art in heaven; Blackened is his name…
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.
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.