Suffer The Little Children

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 a past life?

We once swam together, you and I;
In some viscous, tropic sea, aglow
With phosphorescence; corals spread
In vivid chaos, like rumpled bedding
Beneath our naked bodies.

I felt your legs brush mine; soft
As the touch of lapping wavelets and so
I stroked your stomach, watching
As your wriggled, magic sea-thing
Beckoning me to follow as you swam to shore

Where, caressed by wavelets, you took me
Into your being, rising and falling with the sea
And as you came, you cried in joy, to feel
The wavelets lap us, claiming what we’d given…

The moon smiled and earth turned once more.

Memories of elections past and thoughts on healthcare – so what’s changed?

Romney-Vs-Obama-480x342
Image of candidate Romney vs. President Obama: By DonkeyHotey from his flickr photostream and used under creative commons license

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

Dan’s leg and a guilt that 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.

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?

An open letter to our elected so-called representatives

My son Ned admiring a Latvian ship at Franklin, Tasmania. It was sailed from Europe to Hobart.
My son Ned admiring a Latvian ship at Franklin, Tasmania. 

This present Australian Government is trotting dog-like down the path to destruction behind its conservative counterparts in the US and elsewhere, trying to transform us into a country where the environment, social responsibility and the economy are left to the tender mercies of the free market and corporate self-regulation.

Already under threat from human-induced climate change, the Great Barrier Reef now faces the added burden of an assault by coal producers. The hard won – and publicly supported – World Heritage areas of Tasmania are facing fragmentation, and for no appreciable economic benefit. In Western Australia we are witnessing the greatest act of cultural vandalism ever perpetrated by one culture against another and the eventual destruction not only of a priceless legacy of art, but of an entire archipelago. We expressed horror when the Taliban destroyed effigies of Buddha in Afghanistan but the miners and industrialists have been given carte blanche to destroy numberless ancient petroglyphs in Australia’s north-west, along with an archipelago that was once a coral garden and a breeding ground for whales, dugong and sea turtles.

And, as if to deliver the final blow to a people’s aspirations for the country that cradles them, we again have to wait while politicians, beguiled by the blandishments of financiers and industrialists, debate the future of what remains of Australia’s fisheries. The gem fish have largely gone, the orange roughy, the barracouta, the huge runs of sea mullet and blue swimmer crabs are following them, and the men and women who fished them have faded into the masses of people displaced from occupations that once meant something to them, their boats rotted onshore, broken up for their timbers or bought as collectible trophies. Now life in our deeper, offshore waters is at the mercy of self-regulating fishing vessels owned by interests whose definition of sustainability only extends to boardroom mega-bonuses and share dividends. Allowing super-trawlers to strip our waters of life and wreck the sea-floor in the process will bring very little return to Australia. Replacing fillets with fishcakes in the national diet will do nothing for the national economy and add to the country’s already declining collective health.

We need to say no to unsustainable industry, to the hedge and equity fund managers who have seized control and take back our country and our economy for ourselves.