This was written more than twenty years ago now. The memories are still bright.
My old mate Bob Pomeroy has left us. My mad old mate from the reckless knockabout days, my grand old mate with his winning knockabout ways… I got the news last night cobber, and I suppose I’d been expecting it, but that hasn’t made it any easier.
We saw a lot together you and I. From one end of our beloved Australia to the other, and over the length and breadth of New Zealand we knocked about in those wild and wandering days, working at all sorts of jobs and all sorts of lurks as we travelled: tin-mine pump guards on Tassie’s sodden west coast; sideshow spruikers in Hobart and Adelaide; freezing-works labourers and wharfie “seagulls” in Kiwiland, you and I did it mate, hard and soft.
We put up in and put up with single-men’s camps of all sorts and shared flats and boarding-houses of all descriptions and some better left undescribed. We’ve been overnight guests of the English Queen in the days when being three sheets to the wind and full of the joys of living could get you lumbered in some of our less-understanding communities.
We earned big money in some places, sometimes, and bugger-all at others; shout for the bar one week and roll up our cigarette butts the next. We blued with each other and blued our cheques together. We laughed in defiance at an establishment that spurned us because they couldn’t understand us, and we wept together at the sheer beauty of being alive in this sometimes sad old world. We were mates in the sense described so well by Henry Lawson.
And always there was the music. We supported ourselves by singing in pubs and clubs from Zeehan to Invercargill, Auckland to Adelaide. For miners and ministers, crims and coppers, bag-swingers and socialites we sang Old Shep and The Spaniard who Blighted my Life, Love is Pleasin’ and The Wild Colonial Boy and everything in between, and never missed a beat or a beer in the doing of it.
Some of our escapades together have achieved legendary status Bob old cobber, and they seem to have grown a bit in the retelling, but who are we to gainsay that, we of a generation and background which idolises Ned Kelly, that other defiant Native Son from good though dirt-poor Celtic stock?
Do you remind the time we found the old 1000-gallon tank lying in the bush between the mine and Stan Roy’s Renison Hotel? Remember how we decided to see if we could still walk inside it the way we we did as kids and how it got away from us on the last slope? How it crashed through the jerry-built fibro wall of the back “lounge” and came to rest against a table? And do you recall the aplomb with which you stepped from the tank, raised a hand in the air and said “Two middies thanks Stan”?
Remember saying to the angry young constable in Adelaide – the one I’d abused and in whose general direction I’d swung a vague, somewhat worse for the booze hand because of the way he was treating some old meths drinker: “You can’t lumber him, he’s me best bloody mate!” Do you remember the Top Pub at Zeehan and Daniel and Roy and the Blessed Virgin Mary, and Kerosene Jack and the Wallaby Twins and Nipponhausenberg and Strahan?
And what about the time you made the sign from a bedsheet pilfered from the single-men’s quarters in Zeehan. “Honest John’s Used Trains” it read. We hung it from the Cyclone fence surrounding the steam loco display at that mineral museum and, dressed in our best clothes supplemented with borrowed vests and ties, waited for the daily coachload of tourists to arrive. Do you remember the freezing purgatory that was the mine pump house on a winter’s night? The skin-lifting, gritty blast of compressed air on the face as we fought to clear the blockage in a leaky, rusted-out vanning table feed-pipe?
Oh they were the days mate. The days when yarns were born and legends made. The beer tasted better, the sun was warmer, the winters wetter and the work easier, even though the bosses were bastards one and all. The lovers and the loved, the laughter and the tears. I’m glad to have shared those times, the fat and the lean. And the music mate, always the music.
I’m crying as I write this Bob. I know you’d prefer I didn’t, but you’re a mate and mates understand. They mightn’t agree, but they don’t criticise. I don’t know how much time I’ve got left old china, so I can’t say when I’ll see you again, but we were never in a hurry to get anywhere. I know he’ll come for me in his own good time, that old ratbag of an ex council-ganger with the scythe. And fair’s fair I suppose, we gave life a bloody good shake, so we have to give the other a whirl too. I’ll see you straight after he’s been, old mate. Your hair’ll be flaming red again, and our beards’ll have no grey again, and we’ll rant and we’ll roar like we did again.
He’s half-hinched your body mate, but he can’t take the memories. See you later, cobber.
What’s that? Of course I’ll bring me bloody guitar!
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.
Almost from the day I first met him, when he returned from his nearly five years in the army during WWII, my relationship with Dad was a troubled one. As far back as I can remember, only once did we have a moment of togetherness, so rare that it’s still clear in my mind. But though there may be no excuses for his attitude to his family, there were reasons, and as I came to appreciate them my attitude softened.
Young enough to be almost of another generation, my youngest brother, who along with my littlest sister missed the tempestuous earlier days of our family life, helped me forgive him and find some measure of peace in that part of me that always craved parental affection. Rest easy, Norm. You were loved by a lot of people and I learned to love you before you died. I’m glad I didn’t become you but I recognised enough of you in me early enough in life to escape.
I’ve told you a bit about Cockatoo Island and I’ve also mentioned Alf Brown, the Torres Strait man from Thursday Island and now you’ve heard a bit about my Dad. All these figure in what I’m about to tell you today, along with another protagonist – a female barramundi almost as big as I was – who didn’t want to be in this story at all but who provided source material for a valuable lesson that, when later in life I came to understand it, shaped my relationships with all children and helped my youngest son become the wonderful person that he is.
Cockatoo Island had very little permanent fresh water and to fill the big storage tanks up on the hill, supplies were brought by barge from Silver Gull Creek. This water barge was towed by Yampi Lass II and what with the speed of the tow, the giant tides – nearly 40 feet – and the time needed to pump the water, it involved a two-day trip about once every few weeks or thereabouts, depending on the season.
So, this one time I’m talking about, I’d had a pretty full-on blue with the Old Man and things in the house were pretty much on the toe. I’d stayed away overnight, in the little patch of sandy hillocks by the lagoon, and of course on an island that size there was no hiding the fact that things were a bit crook in the Povah household.
Two-Ton Tony, a mate of Dad’s and the man who gave me his first edition copy of Tarzan Of The Apes to read, suggested that if I wanted to go over to Silver Gull on the boat, he’d fix it up with Norm and Tas, the skipper and a good mate of both men. No sooner said than done. All set. I could go over on my Pat and not, as was usual, as part of a picnic excursion. You beaut!
Silver Gull was a magical spot, its mouth hidden among the mangroves, crocodiles making its banks exciting and its tide-torn, muddy little estuary promising the attention of voracious sharks and giant stingrays to anyone foolish enough to swim there. I suspected, too, that it’d probably be a good spot to hook a barramundi to cook up for tucker so I dipped into my bag.
The Boys who lived in Steinbeck’s flop-house had learned the same lesson as I had: anyone who went abroad in the land without salt and pepper and – along the West Australian coast at least – fishing gear was a dead-set mug. No-one ever went anywhere without Wax Vesta matches and a line. The lines were of green linen cord about as thick as number 12 fencing wire and wrapped around a flat piece of wood, the hooks and sinkers of a size to match. You needed weight to hold the line in the tidal rip and anything that wouldn’t bite on a big hook was bait – with the exception of garfish, long Tom and yellowtail.
In the absence of live bait we used whatever was handy, especially anything light-colored: tinned cheese (bait was about all it was good for), peanuts with the red skin rubbed off, white rag dipped in anything oily, a piece cut from a powdered-milk tin and twisted to turn in the current; you could catch fish by just thinking about it back then.
Back to my story. I’d just thrown the line in when Alf came up to me. “Sorry to tell yer this son,” he said dolefully, “knowing all yer worry about ’ome an’ all. But you won’t ketch nothin’ ’ere. Water’s all wrong.”
Scowling at the spot where my line met the water, I ignored him as best I could; adults, even Alf, weren’t in my good books just then. He’d hardly left my side when – bang! –a big barra hit the hook and, feeling the resistance; hurled herself out of the water. I let out a yell and wrapped a bit of line around a deck stanchion – I knew I wouldn’t be able to hang on just with my hands. Nobody came near me while I struggled with her, and I pulled and belayed, pulled and belayed, hoping like hell that something bigger wouldn’t take a lump out of her till she was tired enough to land.
When at last she was on deck, I stood looking at the brilliant silver body with that mixture of triumph and guilt that to this day still plagues me when I catch a fish. Alf’s shadow crossed us both. “Strike a light, boy,” he said. “My people, we’re saltwater people y’know; we’re big canoe people and we bin fishin’ for t’ousands of years in Hustralia and we’d never b’lieve to ketch a fish ’ere. No fear we wouldn’t.”
I forgot that it was one of my brown heroes who’d told me that barramundi bite best where saltwater met fresh, and I forgot that Alf came from an island on the other side of the country – and I forgot about my row with Dad. I also remembered I was actually worth something as a human being.
A big saltie croc cruised alongside the Lass, glowering at me for the loss of a free meal, but I ignored the old bugger. I could once again handle anything life threw at me.*
*This last paragraph may or may not be true, though there’s every chance that it could be. But the rest of the story is.
The lies and selective truths infesting the airwaves and muddying up the newspapers are becoming a bit overwhelming, so I thought I might give the politics a bit of a miss this week. Except for something I recently stumbled across. What follows is only a brief excerpt from an article in National Geographic (NG),that venerable US publication that has been almost a household name since the 19th century. Published in April this year, it looks at the cost of global warming and, in light of our current PM’s ardent desire to be enlightened on the subject, I thought I’d slip the relevant paragraph in. The article refers to the latest findings on warming in the Arctic regions, adds them to what has been estimated as the global cost of the challenge Earth is facing and claims that:
“The $25 to $70 trillion cost of Arctic warming adds four to
six percent to the total cost of climate change—which is estimated to reach
$1,390 trillion by the year 2300 if emissions cuts are not better than the
Paris Agreement. However, the costs of the current business-as-usual path could
be more than $2,000 trillion.”
According to the latest scientific reports, the Namoi has
now joined the list of threatened rivers in the Murray Darling Basin: “at
tipping point” was one description used. Once again, the gross lack of
oversight – not to mention foresight – on the part of regulators and
legislators has been brought to light. And until real changes are made, until
truly independent, science-based, expert bodies are appointed to manage the
ecosystems vital to our survival, it will not change. The key word here is
manage, not advise. Since when have politicians listened to advice they didn’t
want to hear?
No matter how many dams we build, how many aquifers we tap,
how many rivers we divert, there will never be enough water. Governments,
individual politicians, their corporate backers and good old human greed will
see to that. Some day, someone will come up with a scheme to grow roses in the
Simpson Desert and will convince a political party that it is vital to the
national interest that he do so. The politicians will commission a feasibility
study into the damming of the Finke River, and a committee of rural economists
will claim that if the scheme doesn’t go ahead, 200 Queensland jobs will be at
risk. Back to square one.
Far-fetched? Well not so long ago, a mega-rich American (with no experience in viticulture) planted grapes at Nundroo, in the country abutting the Nullarbor. Now Nundroo gets its water from bores by means of windmill power, using the old-fashioned, traditional type of windmill. Not much forward thinking there. I was through there not so long ago and didn’t see any evidence of a burgeoning wine industry.
If you don’t want to read the linked article, here’s an excerpt:
Case, 72, formed a trust to buy a 50,000-acre spread in South
Australia and planted the 10-acre test plot earlier this year. Next, he
wants to add some Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. The first crop won’t
come until 2005, but he is betting that the resulting wine (which he
expects to sell for $25 a bottle) will outshine other Australian
Cabernets and give Napa a run for its money.
“The Australians don’t know what they’re doing,” sniffed Case.
“Their Cabernets are wimpy. I hired some viticulture consultants, and
they just wanted to treat the vineyard like they do in McLaren Vale. I
hate McLaren Vale Cabernet.”
Case has no prior experience growing grapes or making wine. He is a chemical engineer with four degrees from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He holds more than 20 patents, and his current big project is to get a catalytic fusion plant working. That’s right, cold fusion. His process involves converting heavy water to helium using palladium and carbon as catalysts.
Note: I’m searching for more up-to-date information on this proposal to put at risk more of Australia’s scarce and fragile natural resources.
Why we used to have proofreaders and copy editors
We all make mistakes, of course we do, but increasingly we
are being bombarded with news stories, political handouts and company public-relations
releases that make absolutely no sense. They are written in such a way as to
obfuscate or at best appear intelligent, educated and well-read, leading to the
stripping of any real meaning from the reporting of even the most serious
events. This piece I wrote for the USA’s LiketheDew
springs to mind:
Writing in Kentucky
News Review, Lu-Ann Farrar said that “Peter Kraska, a professor at Eastern
Kentucky University had told the Detroit
Free Press that paramilitary troups are being used more often in police
Now right there I’m puzzled. What’s a police situation, a
job with the service? And do paramilitary services have entertainment units,
even misspelled ones? She goes on:
“A Detroit imam, Luqman Ameen Abdullah, was arrested and
shot by an elite FBI Hostage Rescue Team.” Arrested and shot? In that order? By
a rescue team? She continued: “Abdullah is the first time a religious leader
has been killed by government forces since…”
Abdullah is the first time? Wouldn’t “Abdullah’s is the
first death of a religious leader at the hands of…” have been a little less
confusing? Then Ms Farrar quotes the professor: “We’ve seen…real serious
problems with various SWAT tragedies…Real problems arise when it’s misapplied
to the wrong circumstances.” Pardon me; could you repeat that, please,
professor? Doesn’t writing an article about something this serious warrant a
This sort of stuff crops up all the time these days, and yet
just five minutes work by someone could have made the story more readable. Of
course, there’s the old Golden Rule to take into account: “Never proofread your
own work”. Why? Because you understand what you have written but a reader may
not – and there is also a tendency to overlook your own literals, which is
trade jargon for spelling mistakes; technically speaking, typos are very
I’ll never forget my chagrin when, on receiving the first
edition of a book I’d written (and proofread/copy edited) from the printer, I
opened to the Introduction: the first thing to hit my eye was a spelling error.
I’d ignored the golden rule I’d always preached to writers whose work I copy
I wonder if, given the chance, the ABC Breakfast News anchor
MJ Rowland, would like to do a retake of his part in the “promo” for ABCTV’s
election night broadcast, the part in which he says “…you can almost hear the
Of course you should always review your own work, making
improvements and correcting errors where you find them. But if it’s something
written for general consumption, then get someone else to cast an eye over it
before you send it “out there”.
A long-held passion
I’ve kept pigeons of one sort or another off and on since I
was about 13. Even in my most nomadic years, if I looked like being in one spot
for more than a couple of months, I’d put together a small flock to keep my
Why? Because I like them, I suppose is the best I can offer
in this brief introduction to that passion. People keep them for all sorts of
reasons: some are hooked on racing them, others like to show them, still others
enjoy the high-flying or aerobatic varieties. Me, I’ve always liked tumblers,
aerial acrobats that do flips of various sorts while in flight. But I also like
pigeons for the romance associated with them, the images they conjure up. They
were domesticated long before the horse was tamed in Europe and were being bred
for special attributes at least contemporarily with ancient Mesopotamia –
famous in antiquity for its white ‘doves’. (In the strictest sense, the words
‘dove’ and ‘pigeon’ are interchangeable, the former coming to us from the
Germanic languages, the latter from Latin via Old French. These days, however,
dove is used mainly to describe the smaller members of its large tribe – except
by poets who prefer it over pigeon on every occasion.)
Pigeons figure in the myths and legends of many of the
ancient civilisations. To the Hebrews, they were an acceptable sacrifice to
their god. The pigeon informed Noah that the waters were subsiding, a story
common to all the Abrahamic religions, and the pigeon is still symbolic of the
Holy Sprit to Christians.
They were carried with the caravans that plied the Silk Road
and traded along the way. The ancient cities of Bokhara, Lahore, Damascus,
Istanbul, Iskenderun and others are commemorated in the names of pigeons that
first came to the West from them, sometimes carried among the chattels of
Pigeons are bred in bewildering variety: for their voices;
for their speed, endurance and ability to navigate over hundreds of miles; for
their plumage; their aerobatic abilities; their colours, and yet they all share
many common traits. They are intelligent and affectionate to their keepers,
whom they recognise by their facial characteristics, and feral pigeons will
remember for years the face of someone who once fed them. Darwin kept pigeons
and they helped shape his thinking on evolution.
I once produced and edited the magazines of Australia’s National Pigeon Association and its US counterpart, and was commissioned by Ivy Press (UK) to write the text of a small coffee-table book titled Beautiful Pigeons. These days I keep Iranian Highflyers, an ancient breed of Persian origin, bred for its ability to fly for an extended time at great height, occasionally performing elegant backward somersaults.
If you’d like to learn a little more about what Andrew D Blechman called “the world’s most reviled and revered bird”, please ask me. If not, then forgive us pigeon keepers our passion – it takes all sorts, as my Grandmother would say.
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…
In September 2016 I was invited to give music and song performances at the 1000 Voices Festival held at Bourke, in western NSW. Bourke is an isolated town in a shire the size of Denmark with a total population 0f somewhere about 3000 and on the boundary between the zones of (relatively) reliable rainfall where grazing and some cropping under irrigation are still viable (the latter in good seasons) and the arid zone. The iconic Darling River, part of the country’s largest river system and once the highway for a bustling riverboat trade, still pervades the character and life of this resilient and warm-hearted town. As one of the artists in residence on a poet’s trek that retraced the footsteps of Lawson and Ogilvie during the festival, I thought I’d better contribute something original, so I penned this simple tale during a dinner camp. For the non-Australian, Hughie is the bloke who brings the rain – especially violent downpours. In the latter years of the twentieth century he also assumed the mantle of a surfing god.
One man’s creek is another man’s Barwon
You see a lot of rivers as you wander here and there —
I reckon in my travels I’ve seen a decent share —
But one feller’s “mighty river”, is another codger’s creek;
Try to tell him different, and he’ll argue for a week.
The south-west’s Avon River would be sneered at in the east;
And the Torrens? Strike me purple, it’s a weird sort of beast.
More mud than flamin’ water, like a claypan upside down;
And there’s another one just like it, runs through Melbourne town.
I lived in Old Kentucky, of Stephen Foster fame —
Though the beggar never went there, he just liked to use its name —
And if I said “the river” when I spoke of Cedar Creek;
It kept the boys in Stamping Ground laughin’ for a week.
To get to little Stamping Ground, you have to go across,
The South Branch of the Elkhorn Creek, where the buff’lo used to cross;
More water than the Murray — though nowhere near as long,
And wider, too, in places, with a flow that’s awful strong.
A 46-inch annual rainfall, keeps her flowing well,
And it’ll up and drown you, easy, when the summer storms give hell;
For what them durned hillbillies call a “summer shower”,
Is the edge of a tornado, and a foot of rain an hour.
But still, it’s just “a crik” to them, though it seemed much more to me,
The blow-in from the Old Brown Land, a place they’ll never see.
But like us old-time Aussies, those hill-folk love a yarn;
They love to hear what life is like on someone else’s farm.
And so we’d pass the evenin’s, swopping tales—all mostly true,
Though sometimes lightly seasoned with a little lie or two;
They loved to hear my stories, of a country that, to them,
Seemed strange—well weird really— and far beyond their ken.
One night as I recall it, a memory slipped out,
Of the Darling down at Wentworth, in the middle of a drought.
I told ‘em how that mighty stream, was down to three foot wide;
How the carp were wriggling up the banks, to pull grass from off the side.
I tried to tell them how, the mighty river gums,
Seemed to hunch their shoulders, as drought he country numbs;
And push their roots down deeper, into the drying mud,
To wait the Darling’s blessing, as she brings another flood.
“And,” I began — here I paused as all good yarners should,
To ratchet up the tension, make the telling of it good—
Here I ask indulgence, I should have taken time,
To do a little extra and fix that bloody awful rhyme…
“And,” I said, and drew a breath, adding drama to my tale,
“When the mighty Darling River floods, she’d drown a bloody whale!”
“Thar h’aint be whales in rivers,” the local cynic scoffed;
“He’s a-paintin’ pitchers, cuz you cain’t read, hush your mouth, Clem Goff.”
Rescued for the moment, I went on to tell them how,
The rains would always come at last – “Like it’s doing here right now”.
And then that sluggish river that they might call a creek,
Spreads out to cover acres by the million in a week.
Down she comes majestic like, a relentless, sliding flow,
Ignoring bends and channels, spreading as she goes.
The TV news might tell us that the “country is in strife”;
In strife Aunt Fanny’s bed socks! The country’s come to life!
The livestock will get fat again, the wildflowers bloom;
There’s money for improvements and for an extra room.
The outback wife will smile again, her old man not so gruff;
For when that river’s banking, things never seem so tough.
It was Dorothea Mackellar said they “could not understand”,
Our love for what outsiders see as barren, sunburned land;
Perhaps because they never wait, they never stick it out,
To see that Aussie miracle, the breaking of a drought.
They never know the joy that’s felt along the Darling side,
When Hughie smiles upon us and sends the swift brown tide.
When life’s transformed and the world’s turned bright, all in a single week,
As the mighty Darling River proves, she isn’t just a creek.
Boy, will I be happy when this election is over at last – though I use “happy” with qualifications. If Romney manages to crack it, I’ll be decidedly unhappy, if Obama wins I’ll be relieved more than joyful. Unless of course he at long last begins to assert himself and force the neo-reicht into revealing what they actually are: fascists in Christian investment banker’s clothing, though that’s possibly a tautology.
To touch briefly on last night’s debate, I have to admire Governor Romney. His ability to stand in front of a nation and keep a straight face while contradicting just about every statement he has ever made is just awesome –Mitt the Oxymormon. But he wasn’t lying, one of the commentators on msnbc told us he was merely exercising flexibility. It put me in mind of a former Prime Minister of Australia and admirer of George W Bush, John “Bonsai” Howard who, when it was pointed out that he’d broken more than 100 election “guarantees”, said that they were “non-core promises”.
You may, or may not be interested to know that two opinion polls recently held in Australia revealed that an overwhelming majority prefer President Obama over Romney. Each survey polled 1,000 people and the results in the President’s favour were 72 per cent and 80 per cent. Lest that that seem meaningless, let me say that US trade and foreign policies have a profound effect on Australia, though you never hear about that here, of course.
President Obama could also do worse than have a decko at a recent speech by Prime Minister Julia Gillard in which she attacked the Leader of the Opposition, Tony “The Mad Monk” Abbott, for his sexist attitudes and the misogynistic view held by many members of his party. The Prime Minister held the Parliamentary floor for more than 15 minutes in response to Abbott’s attacks on her links to the Speaker of the House who has been forced to resign over extremely sexist text messages. I won’t bore you with the details, but suffice it to say the PM did indeed back the former Speaker’s appointment but The Mad Monk is a close personal friend of that now extremely sorry individual. I’m told by friends back home that the video has gone viral.
How did I get here? What I started out to say was that when this election is at last behind us – I don’t want to think about the aftermath – perhaps I’ll hear less of: “America has the best health-care system in the world”. I’m sorry, but it’s just not true. I owe my life to US medical technology – probably the world’s most advanced – but the system that delivers it – or doesn’t, as the case may be – lags a long way behind that of most developed nations.
I am bringing this up because I’m pissed off about a recently received summary of services for which my insurance provider had relieved me of the need to pay, a service delivered on October 1, 2012. Great, except I haven’t seen a doctor at any time this month. So to save myself a long wait on the phone – and the accompanying blandishments – I decided to register on the website and deal with the enquiry that way. I’m pretty confident on a computer, I have to be, but I couldn’t enter my chosen password. The drop down gave me a list of about eight forbidden characters, so I hadn’t used them, the sidebar told me that I should use a mix of characters, numbers and symbols and I had followed its instructions to the letter (bad pun, sorry), but no joy. A phone call to the help desk informed me I couldn’t use symbols. So much for the website. When I did finally log on, the page I needed was “unavailable at this time”.
Back to the telephone, where I was told the matter would be “looked in to”. In frustration, I called the office of the alleged service provider. The young woman on the other end of the phone assured me that I had indeed seen the doctor on that date but I pointed out that that was impossible and why. She got quite shirty and told me that the good doctor had indeed seen me on October 1 at the hospital in question. On the verge of a dummy spit I retorted that I hadn’t been at that hospital in 12 months and asked was he just getting around to sending out his bills. She looked again: “Oh, it should be 2011 and we have already been paid for that. I’ll pass that on to the lady who deals with things like this.”
We’ve also been confronted with evidence of what appear to be at best billing errors since my brush with the ugly old bastard with the fern hook. One was a large charge for emergency room services which I just did not receive. I went straight from the operating theatre at one hospital to the operating theatre in another (well almost straight, they had to keep me on hold at the local hospital for the best part of a day until a team was available at the hospital in the big city). Others were for doctors who neither my [then] wife – for the time I was off with the Old Ones in the Milky Way she was constantly at my side – nor I recollect seeing, but it was the emergency room charges that got to us and a couple of other apparent double dips.
We called Medicare, the hospital and the insurance company but the end result was nothing. Medicare and the insurance company intimated that there wasn’t much they could do and the hospital…well there’s a lot I could say about the hospital but perhaps I’ll leave that for another time
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.
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.