Search This Blog

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.