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Thursday, 20 April 2017

Not Your Usual Australian Tales

This is a new, all-singing, all-dancing  Australian social history, and it's in e-book format, because that way, I can offer the reader >1200 hotlinks to the sources that I used. It is just a tad under a quarter of a million words, in 48 chapters.

You can buy it from Kindle for $4 (US or ~$5.27 AUD) right now. If you go to that link, you can view the first six or so chapters for free, using the 'Look Inside' link on the left.

And there's a great deal more background on the book if you look at this link.

What I am trying to do before I get old and gaga, is  quite deliberately to subvert the way people see e-books: this work is self-published, but that's because no commercial publisher has yet realised that there are really exciting things you can only do by exploiting a new medium.

I have no plan of going gaga soon, but I want to put my feet up in the next few years, and then howl with mirth as newbies realise I was right, and try to claim my ideas for themselves.  They are going to have this priority claim to get around :-)

How is this book subversive?

This is history like you never saw before: it is participatory history, where the reader can become a player.  You don't have to, but I hope you will.

If you are Australian, this book fleshes out the bald, dead-white-male hero story you learned at school. It introduces new characters (not all of them white, or male, or heroes); provides contexts; and encourages you to ask your own questions.

And if you have the misfortune not to be an Australian, Mark Twain explains why you should read this book:
“Australian history … does not read like history, but like the most beautiful lies. And all of a fresh new sort, no mouldy old stale ones. It is full of surprises, and adventures, and incongruities, and contradictions, and incredibilities; but they are all true, they all happened.”
Here, you will meet reformed would-be assassins who fought bushrangers; the first cases of redbacks on the dunny seat; the truth about bunyips and the crocodile in Sydney’s Rocks; methods for getting rid of fleas; how horse thieves worked; what had to be done before paddle steamers could run on the Murray River; the Russian invasion ‘scare’ in Melbourne; duels fought by foolish men; a scandal over a dead horse; cruel treatment dished out to coolies; wrecks, floods, bushfires, droughts and plague; booms and busts; early schools and early poets: some sublime and some awful.

The real history of Australia, the untold stuff, has many diversions, like the case of the society ladies who stood on their chairs, waving their handkerchiefs: their action was one of the starting points for the book, and in chapter 48, you will learn why they did it.

The real Australian history is very different from the packaged stuff that you get from written and dramatic fiction in books. The judges weren’t all monsters, screaming “Hang Them!”. Judges often worked very hard to save prisoners from the gallows (even Samuel Burt, who really wanted to hang!). That said, quite a few of the convicts were serious villains, who did far more than “steal a loaf of bread to feed their hungry children”.

Then again, some of the other convicts were political prisoners, and at least one was falsely convicted: you’ll find all of those here, and you’ll also learn that transported convicts weren’t kept below decks, in chains, the whole voyage — and Norfolk Island wasn’t always the hell-hole it was in later years.

Then again, the people they called squatters weren’t always rich, the first bushrangers weren’t thieves, and Edward Hammond Hargraves wasn’t the first to discover gold — in fact, he never did discover gold, but he conspired to make Australia’s gold rush happen. Oh, yes, and if you learned about the explorers at school, they weren’t all heroes, some were villains, and some of them were fools.

The surprises don’t stop there: specialist pedants will tell you that Matthew Flinders was the first to use the name ‘Australia’, but this book offers two earlier documented sources for that name. Then again, pop history has swimming only starting with ‘neck-to-knee’ costumes in the 1890s: sorry, but your ancestors, if you are Australian, probably skinny-dipped. Certainly, the nation’s first swimming races came off with it all off, so to speak.

In short, this book tells it like it was, but more importantly, in the age of Fake News and Alternative Facts, this book gives you the sources, so you can ask the important questions:
* what happened before that?
* do you really expect us to believe that? and
* what happened next?

Come on in: the water's fine!

Friday, 14 April 2017

Our Easter is in the autumn

Easter in Australia is a major holiday period.  Our schools have a four-term year, with the first two terms being divided by a break beginning around (or before) Good Friday and running through the following week.  Nominally, it is autumn, but this blog includes a dozen or so species of wildflowers that were photographed, in bloom, in the sanctuary where I work on North Head, on 11 April 2017.

Our seasons are weird, as I said before. Anyhow, the first six are: three banksias and three Acacia species.

Many Sydney people will be off to the coast, or inland, or anywhere, queuing in bumper-to-bumper traffic for hours, just to escape the crowds.  We who stay here say nothing about how Sydney at Easter can be very quiet indeed, for most of the remaining locals gather in just a few crowded venues.

In a research plot, fenced from rabbits,
the flannel flowers and wattle do well.
Here is a flannel flower or Actinotus,
called by that name from the feel of the petals.
Australia is a nominally Christian country, but once again this year, we will be reminded of just how nominal that allegiance is.  All over the nation, churches will swell to almost-full, as they only ever do at Christmas and Easter, but even then, few churches will overflow as they did in my youth.

Australian people seem to be able to find the comfort they need in more material things.  Perhaps we miss the symbolism northern hemisphere people get from celebrating the Resurrection in the spring.

Lambertia sp.
Epacris longiflora, long known also
as Native Fuchsia
Be that as it may, it is still autumn for us now.  We have just had two days in a row with 20 degree (C) temperatures in Sydney.  Over the Easter weekend, we have been promised maxima of 25C each day.

In Canberra, and in the mountains west of Sydney, and in the more pretentious suburbs, their foreign deciduous trees are turning to autumn colours and losing their leaves.  Elsewhere, people grow sensible Australian trees which are never bare, except after a bushfire.

One year at this time, a small bushfire broke out on the next ridge, smothering us in smoke.  It was a minor burn, though it crowned once or twice, sending flames up into the sky, and raining ash on the the houses nearby.

The blaze was soon controlled, but it's an ill wind, they say.  During the holidays that year, I found time to poke around the burnt areas, to see what relics I could uncover of the earliest inhabitants, whose engravings dawn many of the sandstone rock faces throughout the bush.  After a fire, many of these surfaces become accessible for the first time in maybe thirty years.

The clean smell of bush smoke was actually a blessing, for there had been a smell of mothballs on the bus, as woollen jumpers (our name for what others may call a pullover or a sweater) are resurrected from storage for yet another year.  All over Sydney, electric one-bar radiators are being pulled out and given their annual run-in, adding a distinctive burnt dust smell to the great indoors.

Our old dog always recognised autumn.  He would lie curled on his bed in their conservatory each morning, rather than standing hopefully and peering through the glass at us as we ate breakfast.  The humans are often a little less wise, and many of them will be swimming still. perhaps I will be among them.

Glycine, a delicate member of the pea family
We are ambivalent about our autumn.  Many people will cross the mountains to Bathurst on Thursday and Friday for a weekend of camping, drinking, and motor-bike races, but many will decide that it is too cold for a last swim, and spend their time in museums and art galleries.  After six years working in the museum industry, I have some sympathy for my former colleagues as they prepare for the onslaught of the masses.

Grevillea buxifolia, the grey spider flower,
is around for most of each year,
Few people will go walking in the bush, which is where you will find us in the next week or so, making the most of the peace and quiet.

My wife and I found a whole new series of rock engravings two weeks ago on an isolated ridge.  We will work our way slowly along the ridge, following the fine smooth sandstone bed that attracted the artists. 

Hakea or needle bush
Not all sandstones are the same, but this stratum was once a washed-out river bed, filled later by sand that was particularly pure and free of clay, making a smooth, flat, tough sandstone surface to work on.

The bush tracks around Sydney are deserted right now, partly because there are fewer flowers blooming, maybe as few as a dozen or so species right now, and also because it is also Easter Show time.

I go to ‘the Show’ about once in ten years, and always come away swearing I will never do it again.  It looked for a while as if we would be going this year, and I found myself looking contemplatively at places I might fall from, breaking a leg as I land. That would  have saved me, but strategically placed rain did the job instead. Now the crowds will be too large.

Woollsia pungens commemorates an early Australian botanist,
William Woolls. Like Grevillea buxifolia, it flowers all the
year, almost.
One thing is certain: you will never find me travelling the roads at Easter.  There are just too many people driving at Easter.  Not that they can drive fast, of course, but there will be an ill-concealed fury in their driving that I have decided I can do without.

It would be enough to have to mill around the Royal Agricultural Society Showground with 150 000 other people, growing footsore and weary, getting annoyed by either dust or mud or both, becoming exasperated by outrageous prices, and yet somehow being entranced by some of the sights and smells that return me to my childhood.

Instead, I am at home, doing a last listen to the mp3 files version of my next book, a massive Australian history, as big as three normal paperbacks, which will be called Not Your Usual Australian Tales.

I will have more to say about that in a week or so, but here's an anecdote from the end of my foreword:
On a personal note, I have another reason for doubting paper records: I was born in Queensland in the latter days of World War II. When my father, who was in the RAAF, moved north into “the islands”, my mother flew to Sydney with me as a babe in arms on an Air Force Catalina.
The RAAF was subject to inflexible regulations, and the number of passengers allowed on a Catalina was restricted. An Air Commodore on the flight ordered that I be embarked as a Gladstone bag, and that was how I appeared on the manifest, so anybody would seek in vain who sought evidence of my travels on faded, curled, foolscap sheets.
I am grateful to the Air Commodore, but according to my mother, not the most reliable of witnesses, I showed my gratitude at the time by throwing up on him. I tend to believe this, because I have always been a bit of an anarchist at heart, but posthumously (so far as he is concerned), I express my thanks to that kindly and probably slightly smelly Air Commodore.
Still, neither my travel nor the arc allegedly described by my stomach contents appear anywhere in any surviving record. There is a lesson there for us all.

Monday, 10 April 2017

Life in Hyde Park

The easy way to Sydney's Hyde Park is by train.  There are two stations on the city circle that drop you off there: St James station at the northern end, named for the nearby early colonial church (designed by that great convict, forger and architect, Francis Greenway), and Museum station at the southern end, not too far from the Australian Museum.  Any number of buses run along Elizabeth Street past the park.

The pleasant way to get there is to walk.  Hyde Park lies along the eastern side of the main city district, so you can reach it by heading up almost any east-west street in the middle of the city.  If you miss it, you will probably bump into either the open grassed areas of the Domain, or the Royal Botanic Gardens.  Between them, these three open areas make an almost continuous belt of green, penetrating more than a mile from the harbour, up into the CBD.

There are no real times for Hyde Park to be open, and no gates or fences to keep you out, but it may not be the best of places to wander in the middle of the night.  It is not, however, a muggers' paradise like Central Park in New York.  Not yet, anyway...  On the other hand, it would be a shame not to go there at night, for the giant Moreton Bay fig trees are filled with tiny bud lights, making the park a fairyland for young children.  Fairyland with a bite, maybe, for you will often hear the harsh squabbling of the fruit bats as they feast on the figs overhead.

Tawny frogmouth, Middle Head, Sydney.
There are birds as well, ranging from daylight's noisy, pushy gulls and pigeons, to ibis with long curved beaks, prowling the garden beds and spearing the soil in search of worms.  By day, there will be a couple of tawny frogmouths, owl-like birds which imitate dead stumps, sitting motionless somewhere in the park, their disguise betrayed only by the spatter of white droppings beneath their favourite roost.  At night they hunt insects and small mammals, but by day, they remain motionless.

In about 1992, I was working nearby, took a camera into the park in the early morning, at a time when I calculated that the perch would be in sunlight, and took several careful photos.  An old man, one of life's less fortunate beings, wandered past.  He stopped to see what my target was, and said gravely, ‘Excuse me, mate, I think that kookaburra's dead.’  Then he wandered on without waiting for a reply.  Next came one of the gardeners, wanting to know how I had stuck ‘that thing’ up in the tree.  She had been working in the immediate area for a month, and had never noticed the bird on its branch, just three metres up.

The gardeners know all about the other wild life in the park.  There is an active population of possums living there, and the thick leaf litter of the garden beds provides a rich source of invertebrates to stoke a food chain which is also supported by the park's visitors.

The invertebrates have mostly come in with potted plants at various times, and include some rare treasures.  Around that time, I worked at the nearby museum, and we were in the habit of paying serious money to get Peripatus, velvet worms, from Victoria, so we could show these unusual animals to people.

Velvet worms have stubby little legs, and look like the missing links between the worms and the arthropods.  They catch their prey by spitting sticky slime at them, but they look delightful, with a jet-black matte skin.  You can imagine my delight (and the museum accountant's annoyance) when a children's workshop that I was running started to find velvet worms in leaf litter samples from Hyde Park!  Later, we found giant pseudoscorpions, 5 mm in length, and all sorts of other treasures that the passing tourist would never know about.  My friends the gardeners were equally excited when I took part of our catch back to show them what we were getting.

Once upon a time, it was just a race course and a cricket ground, sometimes referred to as ‘the exercising ground’.  By 1816, it was Hyde Park, but even in 1840 it was nothing grand.  Mrs. Charles Meredith called it ‘a park utterly destitute of trees . . . merely a large piece of brown ground fenced in, where is a well of good water, from which most of the houses are supplied by means of water-carts.’
Hyde Park in the 1850s: no trees, but sheep as lawn mowers.

Here, that usually reliable observer was a little off beam.  After the original water supply for Sydney, the Tank Stream, was completely polluted, Busby's Bore was established.  The ‘Bore’ was a long sloping tunnel, running down from swamps in what is now Centennial Park to Hyde Park.  From there, the water ran in wooden above-ground pipes to the corner of Elizabeth and Park Streets, high enough for the water carts to be filled by water pouring from the pipes.

At least one modern guide-book to Sydney tells a sad tale of the convicts toiling away with windlass and bucket, hauling water to the surface, but the whole tunnel was started at the lower end, at ground level, and was always drained on gravity.  The only thing to be hauled out by windlass was the rock spoil from the tunnel, once the tunnel had gone far enough to make it difficult to haul the spoil back to the lower opening.

Water remains a theme throughout the park, with fountains and pools in many places.  The Archibald Fountain at the northern end is a delight when it is running  On a more serious note, the southern end of the park contains a large War Memorial and the Pool of Remembrance, which seems mainly to commemorate fallen leaves and ice cream wrappers.
The Archibald fountain can be fun when the wind blows.
The statue of James Cook at the southern end was set up where he could look down on the harbour, but now the trees have grown, buildings have sprung up, and poor old Cook is more or less landlocked.  Still, the statue can, if viewed from the appropriate angle, cause uncontrolled lewdness and hilarity in most adolescents, due to a most unfortunate telescope.

Hyde Park is largely a passive activity area, although the old men who play chess there are anything but passive, crowing with delight as they capture each other's pieces.  This activity is well worth watching, but be warned: they can be scathing in their response to those who offer advice.  Their version of chess is a no-quarters form of psychological warfare, and no prisoners are taken.

Anybody who walks there often gets to recognise the regulars, like the man with the long pole who goes around putting slices of bread in the trees for the possums, the power-walkers, the dawdlers and the bird-watchers.  The gardeners know the regulars as well, and when a flower bed is cleaned out in the early morning, the flowers are saved in bundles, and handed out to the recognised faces as they trudged along the gravel paths.  In a city of five million people, it is nice to know that there can still be a sense of community like that.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Goanna Friends

16 February 1788 An alligator, ab’t 8 feet long, was seen close by where I go to birdlime just behind the camp, and has been seen among the tents at night more than once.— Arthur Bowes Smyth, Journal, HRNSW (2), 394.
A lace monitor (goanna) from Phillip's The Voyage to Botany Bay, 1790.
Gum trees in Australia are often identified by their bark type.  Stringybarks and ironbarks are fairly straightforward, and bloodwoods have a bark filled with gum pockets that spray out at you when you hit them with an axe.  Other gum trees have smooth barks which are kept that way because the outside layer of bark dies and peels off regularly.

In some cases, the bark lies thick on the ground, keeping down other plants that might compete for precious water, but the smooth-bark habit has another advantage.  It keeps a nice clean surface on which animals may leave their tracks, on which animals must leave their tracks, if they are to climb the tree.

One of my favourite picnic haunts is a clearing, close to a stream, surrounded by smooth-barked apples.  At least half of that name is self-explanatory, although the tree is a relative of the gum, and certainly bears no apples.  The smooth pale bark of these trees is a perfect place to go detecting, looking for signs of previous climbers.  No possum can climb up to its nesting hollow without leaving scratches, no bird can perch on a low branch without leaving claw marks, and no goanna can climb, looking for eggs, without leaving signs of its passing.
Perentie, a different sort of varanid, seen near Uluru.

Goannas are varanid lizards, members of a group that is mainly in Australia, but found also across Asia and Africa.  Their most famous member is undoubtedly the Komodo dragon of Indonesia, which is about 3 metres long, and able to attack children or sleeping adults.  We used to have an even bigger giant varanid in Australia, up until 30 000 years ago, about 7 metres long, but the biggest Australian varanid today is only about 2 metres in length, and much less fearsome.

Mind you, that was enough to convince the early white settlers that there were ‘alligators’ around Sydney, and just recently, an alarmed tourist claimed to have seen a ‘crocodile’, probably at my favourite picnic site, but it was only a goanna, an old friend that we greet each time we stop by there.  Goannas are carrion eaters, and I suspect that it makes quite a good living from discarded scraps and from people like us, who feed it deliberately.

The goannas are supposed to get their name from a fancied resemblance to iguanas, a completely unrelated bunch of reptiles, but they are themselves, all 25 species in Australia, along with the other fifteen or so, scattered around the world.  You can find them scattered right across Australia.

A goanna on the prowl has a slightly evil look to it.  They walk with their upper leg joints held out horizontally, and there is an almost calculated threat in the way each foot is lifted, rolled around, and placed on the ground, like a sailor swaggering down the street.  The goanna holds its head high, then lowers it to the ground, moving it from side to side, and it flicks its tongue in and out, tasting the air to see what may be on offer.
Lace monitor, Port Stephens.

For a slow-moving menace, the goanna has an amazing turn of speed when it is threatened.  It rushes at the nearest tree, and hurls itself up the trunk, moving quickly to the far side of the tree.  Walk around to the other side of the tree, and the goanna will move with you, keeping a handy barrier of timber between you and it.  Goannas do not trust humans more than they have to.  Except in open country that is.  Frighten a goanna on a treeless piece of ground, and you may find yourself playing the part of a tree.  Avoid this if you can, for all tree climbing animals have sharp claws.

A treed goanna may be persuaded to leave its shelter, provided a reasonable offer is made to it.  Anybody who has ever kept poultry in Australia will know that there is one thing a goanna cannot resist: the chance to get its muzzle dripping in egg.  Put a hen's egg at the bottom of the tree, stand back about six to eight metres, and hunger will soon overcome its sense of distrust.

Turning around on a narrow tree trunk ought to be something of a challenge for something as long as a human, but not for the goanna.  Deftly, it turns from head-up to head-down, and stealthily approaches the egg, watching its watchers as it comes.

Goannas use their tongues only to sense things, and never to eat, so the feeding goanna needs to slip the egg into its mouth before crushing it.  If ever a reptile could be said to exhibit sheer sensual pleasure, it would have to be a goanna, sitting at the base of a tree, with traces of egg white and yolk dribbling down from its mouth.
You can find them close to homes, but they usually move away.

Many Australians accept without question that the goanna is an evil animal.  They will assure you that goanna bites ‘come back’ each year for seven years after you have been bitten, that they are venomous or worse.  Some Australians will make every effort to run over a goanna, believing that they are protecting the cuddly birds by doing so.  They have been conditioned to this by children's stories, and by a judgement based on appearances rather than knowledge.

In truth, a goanna bite might go septic on you, for they are great eaters of carrion.  Certainly they take a few eggs, but they also take lizards, snakes, and other invertebrates.  However you look at it, their reputation for evil is greatly exaggerated.

Many years ago, I worked as a ranger in a local National Park.  There was a large goanna in the park which was in the habit of basking on a rock, just below a lookout.  We park workers would often time our labours so that we were near the lookout at lunchtime, so we could take our break there, looking out over the sea and admiring ‘our’ goanna.  Looking back, it was unwise, but we got into the habit of sharing small bits of our sandwiches with our friend the goanna.  We would show our goanna to people, and encourage them to share suitable food with it as well.  After all, it was a carrion eater, so a dead sandwich would be no worse than any other dead thing, we thought.

Lace monitor, Port Stephens.
That argument was even more misguided.  One Sunday, I arrived to find some distressed people at the lookout.  A lout had proven his heroism by dropping down onto the warm rock, and smashing the goanna's skull with a stone before driving off.  Sadly, I picked up the body and I carried it around with me for the next hour or so, while I was on duty in the area.

Our goanna did not die entirely in vain, for I managed to explain in gentle factual terms to any questioners that this was an old friend, done to death most foully, and to no purpose.  I would add that we would at least be able to investigate its stomach contents to see what it had been eating, and I probably won a few hearts and minds that day.  I did not mention that we would probably find sandwiches as a major item.

I like winning hearts and minds to good causes.  It is something I do well, and I have no qualms about using whatever subterfuges and histrionics are needed to achieve my ends.  And while I feel that the ends properly justify the means, looking back, I cannot help wishing that I had not had the necessary means that day.

Friday, 24 March 2017

Not Your Usual Australian Villains

This is an amended version: I have been lazily thinking of this as Not Your Usual Villains, but it's actually Not Your Usual Australian Villains! Update March 25: the Kindle version of this book is now available at

I have rumbled from time to time about a planned series of e-books, using up my leftover notes to write some fun history. One of these is now ready to go, though some portions have already appeared here, like my tale of Moondyne Joe, a sort of bushranger,  a wicked publican, and others.

Now here's another taster from the collection: once I have done this, I will create the Facebook page for the book, and then set myself to work, getting Not Your Usual Australian Villains out on Amazon Kindle.

The book is a set of essays adding up to about 80,000 words on topics that mainly relate to colonial history, though when I look at women wearing trousers, that story comes up to 1950 (which many young'ns already think of as "history"). My book, my rules, but it's an amusing read.

A wicked legal clerk

The management of the law in the earliest colonial days was something of a problem. The first Judge-Advocate, David Collins, lacked legal training, but he had common sense. The second Judge-Advocate, Richard Atkins, was also the fourth, and he served throughout Governor Bligh’s time. Unfortunately, he was a drunkard and a crook, and even John MacArthur called him “a public cheater living in the most boundless dissipation”.

MacArthur later wanted to prosecute Atkins for libel, but that may have been just a ploy: suffice it to say that there was no love lost between these two villains. Roger Therry describes the situation from hearsay, but it seems to match the facts:
The Governor [Bligh] was also placed in a position of great embarrassment from the want of competent legal assistance. The Judge-Advocate, Atkins, was a person of no professional mark, and was besides of a very disreputable character. There is no term of reproach too strong to apply to him, if what Bligh reported of him to the Secretary of State be true, — “that he had been known to pronounce sentence of death when intoxicated!”
With Atkins was associated one Crossley, holding no office nominally, but really performing the principal functions of the law department. He was a convict, whose true character is disclosed in the enormity of the crime that caused him to be transported. His case was this: Crossley had resorted to the ingenious device of putting a living fly into the mouth of a dead man, and then guiding his hand to trace his signature to the writing that purported to be the will of the deceased person.
Upon the trial, he swore, with audacious assurance, “that he saw the testator sign the will with his own hand while life was in him!” In passing sentence on his conviction for perjury, Lord Ellenborough took the opportunity of congratulating the profession in getting rid of such a pest. Moreover, he had been convicted of swindling in the Colony. Much should be pardoned to the erroneous courses of a Governor who was obliged to lean upon the support of such a worthless pair for legal assistance…
— Roger Therry, Reminiscences, 75.
Therry went on to outline some of the ways in which the activities of Atkins and Crossley served to push the Rum Rebellion forward. There can be no doubt that the real villains in that piece were the rebellious officers who would, in an honest world, have been convicted of treason, but Atkins and Crossley helped cause the trouble.

Just recall that if somebody swallows a fly, you can console them with the thought that they have life in them.

Don’t say it to a lawyer, though, or you may be seen as a villain.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

A judge of poetry

Any polite biography would have to list Barron Field as lawyer, poet and scientist. He was a passable lawyer, most of the time, and well-informed on matters of science. His poetry was another matter, though there were some in England who admired what others called mere doggerel.

Still, when he published his First Fruits of Australian Poetry in Sydney in 1819, these were the first alleged Australian poems to appear in book form. When Barron Field edited and published his Geographical Memoirs on New South Wales [1] in 1825, it included two chapters (chapters 6 and 13) by Allan Cunningham. So Field could mix it with the best when it came to the sciences.

Yet if he was a passable scientist, Field was less skilled at taking Australian animal life into poetry. I cannot bring myself to offer more than one verse of his Kangaroo, which surely eclipses anything written by Erasmus Darwin or William McGonagall. We would get good poets in due course, but it would take time.


To describe thee, it is hard:
Converse of the cameleopard,
Which beginneth camel-wise,
But endeth of the panther-size,
Thy fore half, it would appear,
Had belong’d to some “small deer,”
Such as liveth in a tree;
By thy hinder, thou should’st be
A large animal of chace,
Bounding o’er the forest’s space;-
Join’d by some divine mistake,
None but Nature’s hand can make-
Nature, in her wisdom’s play,
On Creation’s holiday.
— Barron Field

The problem for Australia’s earliest poets, Robinson, Field and Wentworth, at least, was that they were English-educated gentlemen, and their imagery had English roots. Still, Field did a decent job in two sonnets on Australian historical themes:


Note: In this sonnet, the barrack tow’r is the fort at Bare Island on Botany Bay.

I have been musing what our Banks had said
And Cook, had they had second sight, that here
(Where fifty years ago the first they were
Of voyagers, whose feet did ever tread
These savage shores) - that here on this south head
Should stand an English farm-hut; and that there
On yon north shore, a barrack tow’r should peer;
Still more had they this simple Tablet read,
Erected by their own compatriots born,
Colonists here of a discordant state,
Yet big with virtues (though the flow’ry name
Which Science left it, has become a scorn
And hissing to the nations), if our Great
Be Wise and Good. So fairest Rome became!
— Barron Field

On visiting the spot where Captain Cook and Sir Joseph Banks first landed in Botany Bay.
Here fix the tablet. This must be the place
Where our Columbus of the South did land.
He saw the Indian village on that sand
And on this rock first met the simple race
Of Austral Indians who presumed to face
With lance and spear his musket. Close at hand
Is the clear stream from which his vent’rous band
Refreshed their ship; and thence a little space
Lies Sutherland, their shipmate; for the sound
Of Christian burial better did proclaim
Possession than the flag, in England’s name.
These were the commelinae Banks first found;
But where’s the tree, with the ship’s wood-carved fame?
Fix, then, the Ephesian brass — ‘tis classic ground!
— Barron Field

One thing that people notice about Field is his name, which must provoke the question: what were his parents thinking? The answer is simple: they were thinking of his mother’s maiden name: she was born Esther Barron.

[1] Barron Field (ed.), Geographical Memoirs on New South Wales by various hands. London: John Murray, 1825.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Thinking about seasons

Well, the manuscript of Australian Backyard Earth Scientist has gone to the editor, so here's a small sample. I had a lot of fun writing this, because while it was on the slab, I played the role of "visiting scientist" at a local school, and I shared the progressively tweaked drafts with five Stage 2 (Year 3/4) classes. All of my best stuff comes when I write stuff to be read, and this is more polished than most.

I declare myself fairly happy with it, but till to come are the improvements the editor will make. Jo Karmel is my favourite and she knows my foibles, and this is nearly there. In essence, this little essay seeks to get kids thinking differently.

So this is an unpolished taster for people to savour. For more, you'll have to wait a while.

The PBI at the end is a 'Partly Baked Idea', an open-ended question for readers to play with. The book has lots of those.

In the northern hemisphere, away from the tropics, they have four seasons: spring, summer, autumn and winter, but is that number right for Australia? Much of Australia doesn’t have a real winter, leaving just three seasons, but there might be five or six seasons in other places.

The First Fleeters called Australia “a land of contrarieties”. The swans were black, not white; trees kept their leaves but dropped their bark; it was warm on the hills and cool in the valleys; the eagles were white; the bees had no sting — and the seasons were the wrong way around!

Telopea speciosissima or waratah,
a spring marker for Sydney.
Legend says the NSW Corps soldiers changed between winter and summer uniforms, using seasons based on the first days of March, June, September and December.

Those arbitrary dates worked, sort of. The invaders might have been better off with the natural calendar of the Dharawal people of Sydney. You can find the details on the internet, if you search on <Dharawal seasons>.

This chapter was written during Ngoonungi, which is cool, getting warmer, when the Miwa Gawaian (waratah) flowers.

 Ngoonungi is also the time of the gathering of the flying foxes. In my part of Sydney, just north of Dharawal lands, as dusk gathers each night, I see these fruit bats fluttering east along the valley below me, sometimes near my window, rushing to gorge on figs nearby.
Flying foxes over Manly Vale, as seen from Fairlight.
Seeing them, I know the time has come to work barefoot by day. It is my season of happy toes, lasting eight delicious months.

Far to my north, in Yolngu country, the stringybark is in flower then, as Rarranhdharr comes to an end. In the Anangu Pitjantjatjara country, which we call the north of South Australia, it is the end of Piriyakutu/Piriya-Piriya, when the hibernating reptiles come out. In Western Australia, the Noongar people call this time Kambarang, when the rain gets less, and the quandong is in fruit.

I notice the first blowfly, cicada or koel; the first magpie attack; the first funnelweb in the swimming pool or the first Christmas beetle. My children knew it was proper summer when the first Bogong moth started banging around on the ceiling at night.

Angophora costata, or Sydney Smooth-barked Apple,
shedding its bark, November, Forty Baskets area.
My high summer starts when the trunks of the Sydney smooth-barked apple, Angophora costata, turn orange-brown in mid-November. We take friends on mystery walks through a grove of these trees, just to watch their delight.

Sydney’s very first jacaranda comes out each year at Circular Quay, and I saw it the day I wrote this. The day I saw the first orange tinges on the Angophoras, I noticed that the Quay jacarandas were in decline. I also notice the first evening storms with warm rain that people want to run around in, and the first big electrical storm that people should not run around in.

But what do city folk use as season markers? I asked my friends, and we found these: the first time your breath comes out of your mouth like smoke, as the water vapour in your breath condenses in the cold; the time when parents stop nagging their children to wear a hat and have to start nagging them to wear a jumper, or when you wake up in spring and hate the thought of porridge, so you switch to muesli — and when you go back again, in autumn.

I really loved this thought from Anil Tortop, a Turkish-born illustrator in Brisbane: “The time I use/stop using the hair dryer. Or when ants start to invade the kitchen. Or when geckos start singing all together.”

A PBI: remember, all the PBIs are your play spaces!
What seasons would you like to use? There are no rules about numbers, but most Indigenous calendars seem to have six seasons.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Cocky Saturday

Oops! I accidentally deleted this, so here it is again.

Sulphur-crested cockatoo,
Cacatua galerita.

As a noun, Australians know three meanings for "cocky". It can be a cockroach, or a parrot-like bird, or a farmer. The second and third meanings are said to be related, and the farmer version goes back some distance: Elizabeth Ramsay-Laye encountered it around 1853:

    Further on we passed close to a very flourishing little farm, and on my pointing it out to one of the Miss R——’s, she said, “Oh! a cockatoo.” Thinking she had misunderstood me, I said, “I mean that pretty little farm.” “Yes,” she repeated, “we call that a ‘cockatoo;’ small farmers who settle themselves on another person’s run are so called here.” This perhaps gives the best idea of an Australian run, when such an intrusion is of no moment.
    — Elizabeth Ramsay-Laye, Social Life and Manners in Australia, 1861, 50.

Breaker Morant used the term "cocky" in one of his rollicking verses in 1894.

    It was a Western manager, and a language-man was he,
    Thus spoke he to the shed-boss*: “Send ‘The Rager’ round to me;
    I’ll hie me to the office where I’ll write his crimson cheque,
    Bid him roll his dusty swag up, or I’ll break his no-good neck.”

    So when the bell was ringing—when “smoke-oh” time was o’er,
    Says the shed-boss, “Mick, your services are wanted here no more.”
    Then “The Rager” hung his shears up, stepped from the shearing floor,
    And went a-swapping swear-words round at the office-door.

    For the boss began to language, and “The Rager” languaged back;
    Says “The Rager”, “There’s my brother, can’t you give him, too, the sack?”
    “Your brother? D—n your brother! Yes, send him round here quick!”
    “That narks yez,” Michael answered—”he’s a cocky down in Vic*.”

    — Breaker Morant (1856 – 1902), 1894.
Two points of translation here: the shed boss was a shearing shed supervisor and "Vic" is the state of Victoria.

wet cocky
wet cocky
There are two alleged and related derivations of cocky-the-farmer: either early settlers, sowing seed, found that the cockatoos came and dug them up, causing them to say "Look at me paddock — I'm just growing cockies," and the other is similar. Basically, a cocky is a small-scale farmer, and we speak of cow-cockies, wheat-cockies, and might discuss sheep-cockies.

My interest is with the feathered variety. This is Saturday, it's raining, and two cockies came to visit. They often perch on the light fitting, outside my study: see the picture above. Two wet ones sat on the balcony railing today, probably hoping for a feed, but anybody feeding them is asking for trouble. These birds are gangsters, and they move around in mobs, and feeding them is to invite an invasion of extremely destructive birds who can shred timber and rubber trims.

Some 30 years ago, a neighbour who was a bit of a fruit loop, had a cocky problem of his own making. He would run around his balcony, flailing at them with a big stick, but they liked it there, and just moved out of reach.

Somebody (and we all knew who) tracked them to their roosting tree, threw a string over a branch, and hauling up two sticks of gelignite, and setting them off at night. The police helicopter came around, suspecting thieves had been trying to "blow" a safe, but they found nothing: we found a few feathers under the tree, but there was no drop in the cocky population.

As they say, if cockies were any tougher, they'd rust, but they are definitely clowns.

This one was feeding on seeds, but got into an embarrassing position when the two stalks it was hanging onto, gave way under its weight, making it "do the splits".

We laughed, and it rewarded us with a dirty look and a scream: the thing our neighbour objected to most was their raucous screeching.

From my study window, I can see across a broad valley, about 3 km across, and sometimes, there can be a flock of 60 or so, racing back and forth, screaming. Take it from me: the sounds carry.

Still, cockatoos are part of the bush, and they even roost there: I caught this one popping out of its hollow tree one day, and this pic will probably go into the new book that I signed off on yesterday, as an example of how animals use resources.

One last picture, though, to illustrate a piece of vernacular which the British claim as their own, though I think it sounds more Australian. That is "as sick as a parrot", and to illustrate this, here is a cockatoo that was carrying "beak and feather disease".

This, I am told is a virus disease, first reported from Australia in the 19th century. This bird was a member of a flock, which means there was a risk of transmission, but I have seen no other cases in the area.

Anyhow, if you want to know what "sick as a parrot" looks like, this will show you.

Cockroaches, by the way, were a matter of shame:

And you should never own to a mosquito. I once unfortunately stated to a Queensland gentleman that my coat had been bitten by cockroaches at his brother’s house, which I had just left. ‘You must have brought them with you then,’ was the fraternal defence immediately set up. I was compelled at once to antedate the cockroaches to my previous resting-place, owned by a friend, not by a brother. ‘It is possible,’ said the squatter, ‘but I think you must have had them with you longer than that.’ I acquiesced in silence, and said no more about my coat till I could get it mended elsewhere.

        — Anthony Trollope, Australia and New Zealand, London: 1873, 67.

But it seems we had cockroaches quite early, going on this:

To repel the Cock-roach. — Take a small quantity of white arsenic finely pulverised, strew it on crumbs of bread, and lay it near their haunts; a few nights will suffice.
     Launceston Advertiser, 20 December 1830, 4,
And even earlier, in 1820, Lt. (later Admiral) King tried to deal with pests in the cutter he was using to map Australia's coasts:
The cutter was careened at a place appointed for the purpose on the east side of Sydney Cove; and whilst undergoing her repair the crew lived on board a hulk hired for the occasion. This offered so favourable an opportunity for destroying the rats and cockroaches with which she was completely overrun, a measure that, from the experience of our last voyage, was considered absolutely necessary for our comfort as well as for our personal safety, that, as soon as the operation of coppering and caulking was finished, she was secured alongside of the hulk, and there immersed in the water for several days, by which process we hoped effectually to destroy them.

    Upon the vessel being raised and the water pumped out, I was rejoiced to find that the measure appeared to have had the desired effect; but, before we left Port Jackson, she was again infested by rats, and we had not been long at sea before the cockroaches also made their appearance in great numbers. In sinking the cutter it seemed, in respect to the insects, that we had only succeeded in destroying the living stock, and that the eggs, which were plentifully deposited in the recesses and cracks of the timbers and sides, proved so impervious to the sea-water, that no sooner had we reached the warmer climate, than they were hatched, and the vessel was quickly repossessed by them; but it was many months before we were so annoyed by their numbers as had been the case during the last voyage.

    — Lt. P. P. King, Narrative of a Survey of the intertropical and western coasts of Australia.