Toodyay, in the West Australian Wheatbelt and 85km north-east of Perth, was founded as Newcastle by European settlers with its name later changed and pronounced Too-dyay, as it is to this day, with the plum further into the mouth the higher one’s imagined social standing.
However, to the Ballardong Nyungar, in whose ancestral land it sits, it is Tudjii (u as in book, ii as in feet), sometimes written Duidgee. And not only to the Nyungar. Relatives of my parents’ generation who farmed at Moora also called it Tudjii, with a local rhyme to back them up:
Tudjii was Tudjii, when Northam was a pup; And Tudjii will be Tudjii, when Northam’s buggered up.
Whenever I begin to write down reminiscences it seems that I have to approach my tale widdershins, and this telling is no exception. It must be the Celt in me still longing, after generations in exile, to use openings such as “Morgan was a strong, sea-wise man in the summer of his days” and to a certain extent succeeding. That’s my excuse anyway, so I’m asking you to bear with me for a while as in my long-winded way I get around to telling you about a man whom I never actually met but whose influence was great, though it went unnoticed until many decades after I first saw him. I’m speaking of the clothes-prop man, an much-anticipated visitor to our street when I was still a small child.
Before the days of the now-ubiquitous Hill’s Hoist – itself in danger of being replaced by the indoor drier, a stupid indulgence in Australia’s climate – most of Australia’s Monday washing was hung on homemade backyard clotheslines. A couple of stout poles or 4 x 4s were sunk in the ground and fixed to the top of each was a cross arm, like that on a utilities pole, loosely bolted at the centre so it could swivel up and down. The line was often number-8 galvanized fence wire and to prevent it sagging under the weight of the wet clothes and allowing them to drag in the dirt, the wire was supported by one or more hardwood saplings, 2 to 3 metres or so long with a short fork at one end and roughly sharpened at the other. This is what the clothes-prop man sold.
The man who visited our area was tall and rangy and always dressed in cast-offs, pants rolled up at the cuffs and held up by an old tie or rope. Shoeless, he wore a battered hat tipped to one side so that it wouldn’t be knocked from his head by the load of clothes props he carried on his right shoulder. Beautifully dark-coffee brown, like many of the Nyungar people, he had a voice that caressed the air like an owl’s wing. “Cloooo-otse prups, throop’ns heach; cloooo-otse prups, throopn’s heach. Clotse prups missus?” Poor bugger. He would’ve cut those saplings miles away, in the hills perhaps or out on the sandplain towards Gingin or Wanneroo, then walked 20 or 30 miles with them on his shoulder to tramp the suburbs of Perth to sell them for a trey bit (threepence, roughly 3 cents) a throw. He could carry perhaps six, so two or three days’ work might have netted him the equivalent of a couple of loaves of bread. When she heard him, Mum would take out a glass of water and a biscuit, or a sandwich if it was around lunchtime. This country’s indigenous peoples were never invisible to our family.
Australia’s treatment of the country’s traditional owners was – still is – shameful and deserves a hearing by an international tribunal. To the vast majority of the population, Aboriginal people and the conditions under which they were forced to live were invisible. Things were beginning to improve till John Howard came on the scene. His government, bigoted, xenophobic and, at times, overtly racist, set Australian attitudes back 50 years or more. Howard opposed a multicultural society, introduced legislation that stalled or complicated previous court decisions on Aboriginal land rights, insulted Australia’s Chinese community – many of whom have a history in this country at least as long as Howard’s – and gave covert support to the anti-immigrant-for-any-reason-or-just-because-they’re-not-like-us fringe. Faced with a loss of votes to a newly emergent One Nation Party, a sort of neo-conservative thoughtless tank very similar in thought and deed to the US Tea Party, Howard’s Government had no hesitation in enthusiastically adopting many of its policies and sentiments and pandering to its uninformed, unthinking extremist views. The present mob are following in his footsteps with gusto. It is worth mentioning, however, that at least in Australia, Aboriginal issues are raised on the news. In my five years in the USA, there was only one news item I recall concerning Native Americans, and that was a sensationalised, obviously ill-informed child-custody battle.
You’ll be pleased to know that the clothes-prop man still lives. Years ago, while performing at a blues festival in Queensland, I was being interviewed for a magazine. The writer noted that I had been described by another publication as having a voice like “gum-leaf smoke on gravel” and asked who were my influences. Of course I stoutly denied that my singing style had been influenced by anyone. More recently and for a different sort of audience, I was singing one of my favourite calm-the-drunks songs, Dave Guard’s Scotch and Soda, and I heard the clothes-prop man singing through me from the past.
It pains me to say it, but if you’re a 21st-century kid, please don’t experiment at home with anything mentioned here. Not only is there a risk of injury to yourself and others – indeed, in some parts of the country you may really get eaten by a crocodile or Admonished by a Stranger – but, and perhaps this is worse, your parents may be thought too poor to buy you an X-box.
There’s an old Australian poem with a chorus that goes something like: Stringybark and greenhide, it’ll never fail ya! Stringybark and greenhide, it’s the mainstay of Australia. By the time I was old enough to be aware of such things, greenhide was still in common use on the big cattle stations – probably still is in some places – but farmhouse roofs of stringybark had long been replaced by that enduring symbol of Australia, corrugated iron. Relatively cheap, easily transported, white-ant proof and to a large extent fire resistant, it was the wonder material of the 19th and early 20th centuries. To an Australian kid growing up in the 40s and 50s, discarded corrugated iron, no matter how small or damaged the piece, was a commodity more precious than gold and number one in childhood’s Catalogue of Desirable And Useful Things To Have. This catalogue, verbally handed down through generations of child-artisans had at its head three items, the first two of which were scrap lead and Number 8 fencing wire.
Hard to come by, the lead was assiduously hoarded to use as a trade good or to make sinkers for fishing lines. Easily melted in a jam tin over a fire in the backyard, the metal was poured into sand moulds formed in another tin, or dropped by the teaspoonful from shoulder height into a bucket of water. Number 8 wire could be used for many things, but if you were lucky enough to score some offcuts in good condition, reasonably rust-free and more than a couple of feet long, they could immediately be converted into bob wires for the entrance trap on a pigeon loft or, in the case of AAA-grade samples, into tines for a gidgee, the three-pronged, barbed fishing spear, the design and name of which came to its makers from the Nyungar-speaking peoples of the south-west.Three lengths of wire were hammered straight then one end of each was bent at 90 degrees to fit into holes burned with wire into a shaft made of a very young sapling, preferably tea-tree or paperbark. The other end was heated and bent into a tight tick; the bottom of the vee sharpened as much as could be without weakening it too much and the upstroke highly sharpened at its end to make a very effective barb. The tines were then fastened to the shaft by wrapping with finer wire or, if you were lucky to have a piece of the right size, by forcing a short piece of water pipe down the shaft and over the tines. Gidgees were used to spear flounder, mullet, blue manna crabs and cobbler, the large estuary dwelling catfish whose poisonous spines made their delicious flesh a perilous prize.
Wonderful stuff lead and wire may have been, but it was corrugated iron that topped the list. A piece 60 cm or so long could be folded lengthwise, belted flat with a length of pipe – fathers’ hammers were precious things, reserved strictly for nails – folded and flattened again then bent over at the centre to form a vee. This was a kylie, the south-west’s hunting boomerang and another legacy of the Nyungar, used to throw into the shoals of mullet that in those days schooled in shallow water by the tens upon tens of thousands during the annual run. But all these desirable things paled into insignificance if you found a sheet big enough and sound enough to make that most prized of all possessions – the tin canoe. Such a treasure was lugged or dragged home and laid reverently in the backyard, weighted down with old bricks or coondies – big stones – until the other necessary materials could be gathered: a fruit crate, preferably an orange dump; some flathead case nails – these could sometimes be salvaged from the crate; a short length of 2 x 4 or thereabouts; and some tar, gouged from the roads on hot days or scrounged from council patch gangs. The rest was easy. The corrugations at each end were hammered out as well as could be done with a piece of pipe or heavy wood, the stern was one end of the fruit crate nailed in place and the bow was the 2 x 4 similarly attached. The tar, heated over a fire, was used to patch nail holes and the “seams” around the wood. A thin board from the side of the crate was sawn in half to make the hand-held paddles, the use of which was an art in itself, almost as difficult as balancing and steering the canoes whose combination of construction method and materials often made for interesting forward progress.
With a good kylie and a well-made gidgee you had dominion over the denizens of river and shoreline, able to provide a bounty of fish and crabs for the table – if they weren’t so badly damaged that your Mum made you feed them to the chooks. The “thwoock” as a kylie caused panic among a school of mullet was enough to wipe away the cares of the world and three feet, a metre, of cobbler – okay, okay, two feet then – wriggling on the gidgee made the sky blaze with righteous light. But a canoe made you King of the World; Master of River and Swamp; intrepid explorer of Hitherto Unknown reedbed and billabong and beholden to none. Until, that is, you heard your little brother yelling from the water’s edge: “Ma said if yer don’t come home for yer tea she’ll bastard skin yer alive.” Dan took a while to master the art of swearing.