It looks set to be an urgly fall

28 Aug

The black walnut in the drive

Here, in our little  corner of Kentucky, autumn is trying hard to nudge summer into the creek and out of sight, but summer is resisting mightily. It’s 32°C today and the humidity is steadily climbing. Thanks to the drought – we’ve been weeks without any real rain – it looks set to be what the people in this district call an “ugly (pronounced urgly) fall”: one in which the leaves yellow and die almost overnight. The black walnuts on our property – the last to leaf up in spring and the first to shed in autumn – are already covered in sickly yellow mantles that are noticeably more threadbare after each puff of wind, no matter how slight.

Back there in Australia you’re probably scoffing at my use of ‘drought’ to describe a dry spell of only weeks, but in a region with a usually reliable annual rainfall of more than 1000mm spread over the non-winter months, several weeks without rain can have a devastating effect on crops, pasture and gardens. To make matters worse, a mild winter with next to no snow has left waterways and groundwater seriously depleted.

Kentucky at its best is such a green and beautiful place. To someone from Western Australia, the green exuberance of the landscape and the voluptuous abundance of watercourses of all shapes and sizes borders almost on the pornographic – just too much of a good thing. But the Celt in me adores it and perhaps has thirsted for it since before I was born. My grandparents’ genes, but one generation removed from Wales and Ireland, may have passed on their inherited love of greenery and water, and that could explain why I fell in love with Kentucky when I first saw it while on holiday 10 years and more ago.

This state is a gardener’s dream. The University of Kentucky’s home garden extension service claims that in the Bluegrass, where we live, 1000 squ.ft of maintained vegetable garden will yield 700 lbs of produce (that’s 93 sq.m for 316 kg) – and they understate I reckon. Even during long drys – and we’ve had two in the nearly four years since we’ve been here – I’ve watered the vegetable garden no more than four or five times. As an indicator of the bounty of the Bluegrass earth, let me pass on a statistic. A neighbour who lives in the next holler (over the hill from us) in this not particularly good growing year has canned – as the Americans call bottling – 50 quart jars of beetroot, 100 quarts of sweet corn and 50 pint jars of pole beans (50 US quarts = approx. 47 L, so 50 pints are about 23.5 L) out of her home vegie garden.

Despite a growing season that has been all over the place, the vegie garden has survived and thriven – most of it has anyway. Pumpkins and cucumbers didn’t do very well; the warm early spring saw them get a great start, then the sudden hot, dry weather knocked them too far back for a lot of the fruit to mature. A spell of high humidity and torrential rain about three months ago put paid to most of what remained of the crop. It also cooked in the ground what had been a promising crop of onions. One cucumber that did moderately well was Poona, an Indian variety edible at all stages of growth. The tomatoes really got going late in the season and the Hillybilly Potato-Leaf, Cherokee Purple and Federle have been exceptional, so exceptional that I decided to resurrect one of my mother’s recipes. This is a dish Peg would make when money was short and tomatoes plentiful. We ate it as a main meal, or as an accompaniment-cum-gravy to sausages. Frozen, it can be resurrected as a quick stand-alone meal or a base for winter stews.

Very sweet, the Hillbilly Potato Leaf is pale yellow with a pink tinge

Peg’s Tomato Goop

(This is a good way to use up tomatoes too ripe or too blemished to bottle or freeze. I have modified the minor ingredients a little over the years but the basics have remained the same. Don’t be too fussy about the aesthetics of the preparation – it’s a meal in a hurry. Quantities will vary, depending on the size of your pan, so there’s a fair bit of your own judgement involved here. The recipe is based on our 45 cm wide x 10 cm deep, stainless steel frying pan.)

8-10 large tomatoes or equivalent, skin on and thickly sliced

1 or 2 capsicums, seeds and ribs removed, sliced

2 large onions

Garlic, crushed, to taste

1 cup chicken or vegetable stock, preferably low sodium organic, or stock cube dissolved in 1 cup water

Generous quantity basil leaves, roughly torn

Rosemary

Marjoram or oregano

Pepper and dry mustard, preferably fresh ground

Soy or Worcestershire sauce

Scant tsp treacle (optional)*

Flour for thickening

Salt (if you must, but bear in mind there is salt in the sauce and stock)

1 tbsp olive oil

Heat the oil in a pan over moderate heat

Add pepper and mustard, then garlic, capsicum and onions, sautéing until onions are transparent

Add tomatoes a little at a time so as not to cool pan. When all are cooking, raise heat slightly, add stock and simmer, stirring occasionally until tomatoes begin to break down. Add a dash of sauce, the treacle and herbs, stirring in well.

When hardest parts of tomatoes are soft, remove from heat until boil ceases. Sprinkle generously with flour and stir in well. Return to heat, and bring to boil, stirring constantly until mixture thickens.

Serve while piping hot over sausages, toast or macaroni, as a side dish or in a bowl on its own to be eaten with a spoon.

*I can’t get Cocky’s Joy of any sort here, so I substitute with Brer Rabbit (I’m not pulling your leg) molasses.

Golden Treasure, an heirloom capsicum we tried for the first time

I find there can indeed be liberation in work

15 Sep

I HATED SCHOOL – absolutely hated it – and almost from my very first day there couldn’t wait to get out. There were lots of reasons for my loathing and I’ll be first to admit that as my school years crawled by a lot of the things I hated were magnified by my own pig-headedness, but a lot weren’t; they were irritants engendered by a system still operating in the past and geared to deal only with privilege, the status quo and blind acceptance. I’ll also concede that I started my academic non-career at a bad time. Early on many of the teachers were probably dragged out of retirement to fill gaps left by those who were away fighting the war. These servicemen and women then returned to teaching no doubt finding it difficult to cope with a world far removed from the one they had known since 1939 – maybe since 1929. All that aside, I still hated it.

On my very first day I was involved in a Disturbing Incident (more of that another time) but it was literacy that was the real wellspring of my bitter gall. Yes, literacy. You see, I could read tolerably well by the time I was four and more than tolerably

The late Bernie Jamieson. I think this may have been taken on her 21st birthday.

The late Bernie Jamieson. I think this may have been taken on her 21st birthday.

well by age five. I’m not sure how, I think I taught myself by linking words to pictures in books being read to me, but I can still vividly remember the day the penny dropped. I was being taken out for a walk by Mum’s younger friend and one of my pantheon of major heroes, Bernie Jamieson, who at the time would have been around 16 or 17, give or take. Mum worked on the metropolitan buses as a connie – bus conductress, i.e. ticket seller – during the war and Bernie and my equally young Aunt Tina baby sat me after school, and at weekends if Mum was working and Nana needed a break. Bernie had a beautiful mind, and as she pushed me around in my stroller or walked at a pace befitting my short legs we would make up stories based on the names of the streets we travelled. “Violet Grove was a shy, reclusive girl who longed for great adventures,” I can still hear her saying as we turned into the little street bearing the name of that imaginary pale beauty. Then one day – I wasn’t much more than three – I pointed to the street sign above us and said: “This must be where Robinson Crusoe lived.” Bernie didn’t bat an eyelid: “It is little known, but in his declining years, Robinson Crusoe kept a house in Shenton Park, in the street that now bears his name.” We were, indeed, in Robinson Street. It was, I realised years later, A Huge Mistake.

The upshot of it all was that when I got to the Reading Primer stage at school, it all came crashing down. Come my turn at reading aloud and I opened my book and began: “Sam, can you see the ball? Rover (or

My beloved Aunt Tina, c 1930s. Recently deceased, she was a wonderful, intelligent woman with a quick and inquiring mind

My beloved Aunt Tina, c 1930s. Recently deceased, she was a wonderful, intelligent woman with a quick and inquiring mind

Spot, I can’t remember, but it was a half-pie border collie-looking thing) can see the ball.” And on I went at my usual storytelling speed, reading for punctuation and all as I’d been taught when reciting poems at home. I’d only got to the bottom of the page when the pedagogue spoke: “Sit down, Francis, no-one likes a showoff.” I was crushed.

Doubly so. Not only had I thought I was doing what I was supposed to do – despite the stupid storyline – but she had called me by the wrong name. I was Frank, registered as such in Official Government Documents and one of a long line of Frankish-eyed men in the Clan Hwfa, and not Francis. By the time I was a teenager, I swore to refuse to have anything more to do with any girl who asked me “Were you christened Frank or Francis?” It was a vow I didn’t keep, but back to my tale – that was that for primary school, and it went downhill from there on in.

Salvation came just a few months shy of my fifteenth birthday, in the form of a classified ad in the West Australian:

APPRENTICE HAND COMPOSITOR
Position available in Fremantle at small jobbing printer.
Apply to Mr R. Wade at
Fremantle Printing Company Pty Ltd
cnr Cliff and Phillimore Sts.

Next day, and without a word to anyone, I went into Fremantle instead of to school in West Perth. Cocky as a bantam rooster, I fronted up to the office counter in what is now a heritage-listed building and asked to speak to Mr R Wade. Ron, as I later knew him, sat me down in the tiny front office, asked me a few questions then, to my delight said: “You’ve got the job. When can you start?”

“One o’clock this arvo,” I promptly replied, and then overrode protests that there was no need, that I could start Monday – it was a Thursday – or in two weeks or whenever; but I was insistent, here was my chance at liberation. I was going to take it. Now! I caught the train back to West Perth and, as I’d expected, was grabbed by the headmaster. “Why are you late, Povah?”

“I’ve got a job and I’m startin’ terday. I need a letter sayin’ I’ve left school.”

“I’ll do it and glad to. You’ll never amount to anything, Povah, you’ll be a nothing all your life.”

“She’ll be right,” I replied. Failure I might be, but I was after all an Australian.

An eternity of long hours later and I was back in Fremantle to begin work as a probationary pre-apprentice. I got home a couple of hours late that day and was immediately bailed up by Mum: “Where have you been? What have you been up to.”

“I’ve been at work.” “Work? Work? What do you mean work?” and I told her.

indentures

And that’s how I became a hand compositor. I’ll tell you about the job and the people I knew another time, but I still get a thrill when I recall how proud I was to be a Probationary Apprentice beginning his six-year journey as an Indentured Apprentice on the way to becoming a Tradesman Hand Compositor and still later a Journeyman. Years later, Ron – who’d been a navigator in Lancaster bombers in wartime – told me he was so flabbergasted by my cocksuredness and the fact that I’d fronted up on my own and full of confidence (the ad had been running for a few days before I saw it and several other applicants had arrived with parents) that he’d had “no choice”.

The headmaster was right, of course. But I’ve had a better life than he ever did I’ll bet.

An open letter to our elected so-called representatives

4 Mar

This present Australian Government is trotting dog-like down the path to destruction behind its conservative counterparts in the US and elsewhere, bent on transforming us into a society where the environment, the economy and the national social conscience 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 and 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, in a few short months we will 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 the timber 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

A boy’s catalogue of useful things

19 Dec

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 iPad.

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 catalog, verbally handed down through generations of child-artisans had at its head three items, 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.

The gidgee, a fish-spear based on a Nyungar design was a prized possession

The gidgee, a fish-spear based on a Nyungar design was a prized possession

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 a couple of feet 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 center 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 boondies – 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 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 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.

A tin canoe was the most coveted possession a Sandgroper nipper could own

A tin canoe was the most coveted possession a Sandgroper nipper could own

How Father Christmas made of me a cynic

19 Dec

During my five years in the USA I’d occasionally be laid low by bouts of cultural malaria, that recurring melancholia triggered by sights, sounds or even things that don’t register on our conscious mind. Once or twice a year, I’d find myself feeling like a stranger in an unfamiliar land, and it was Christmas that was mostly to blame or, strictly speaking, the season in which it arrived. Perhaps due to a twinge of homesickness or maybe because I hadn’t had a sight of real sunshine for weeks, one day around Christmas I found myself looking at the weather data for south-western Australia. In Gingin, the town I’d left to come to the USA, the temperature was just breathing down the neck of 21°, falling from a high of 38. Pretty well normal for that time of year. During the last Christmas I spent there, Gingin registered the highest daytime temperature of any inhabited place on the planet – any place with a weather-recording station that is. The official reading on Christmas Day was a tad over 48° and on Boxing Day a couple of degrees higher. That would have put the temperature in my baby sister’s backyard, where we had the family get-together, at somewhere round the 55° mark, perhaps even higher and Tony Abbott notwithstanding, Christmases will only get hotter. While in Kentucky I didn’t miss the ‘new’ Aussie tradition of a seafood Xssie dinner, not too much anyway, largely because Kentucky cooking can wipe away all cares, but a bit of hot sunshine would have been nice and I reckon I even would’ve welcomed a few flies.

I once impersonated the god of European Winter during a bout of lust-induced insanity

I once impersonated the god of European Winter during a bout of lust-induced insanity

Now that all this reminiscing has got my brain creaking into action, I’m going to add my feelings about other reminders of Christmases past – might as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb, I suppose. Ever since I was about 17, December has always brought the same stupid greeting from the self-styled wits: “G’day Father Christmas.” Though “silly young bugger” and, later, “Are you a beatnik?” and later still “Bloody hippy” joined the list of things that rankled, the Father Christmas tag was the worst. Now that people have forgotten that hippies and beatniks ever existed and now that nobody in their right mind would now call me a silly young bugger, “G’day Father Christmas” has regained its position in first place on the list of clever things to say to Frank; “How often do you get asked to play Father Christmas?” running a close second. This last has become even more common now that what’s left of my beard is mostly white. So right here, right now I’m stating for the record that I’ve often been asked to impersonate the other impersonators of the original impersonator of whomsoever it was they’re all impersonating, but only once have I succumbed – and that for ulterior motives. I want to put that aside to perhaps resurface at another time, it was a one-off event, triggered by a temporary bout of lust-induced insanity.

I don’t mind when kids gawk at me in stores, becoming more  wide-eyed as the Big Day draws nearer, it’s the adults’ sniggers I can’t stand and it’s getting even worse now that I know that the pretty mums who give me a big “thank you” smile for tipping the wink and secret hand signal to their staring kids are mostly young enough to be my grandkids, and know it – and know that I know that they know it. Sad it may be, but all this is as a mere backpack when weighed against the dray-load of luggage with which the Christmas season has burdened me and has very little to do with my dislike, hatred almost, of the red-garbed impostor. For you see my first and only childhood encounter with Father Christmas – or Santa Claus or Saint Nik or whatever else you want to call him – was a bitter one and rankles still. I was about knee-high to a bull-ant’s nephew when my beloved Nana and Mum’s best friend Bernie took my cousin John and me to Boan’s Department Store in Perth, Western Australia, to sit on the Yule Figure’s knee and have our photo taken, a commercial bonanza still in the early stages of being mined. There was a big crowd of parents and kids, the latter in mental states ranging from excitement to abject fear, so when it was my turn to be lifted onto the red-trewed knee and crushed against the kapok paunch there was a large audience for what was to happen next.

After an exchange of social niceties, Daddy C. asked the traditional question: “And what do you want me to bring you for Christmas, little man?”

Woodrow W Woody, the galah belonging to Brooke. He would tear anyone else to shreds if they tried to handle him.

Woodrow W Woody, the galah belonging to Brooke. He would tear anyone else to shreds if they tried to handle him.

“A cocky,” I replied – in a loud, clear voice it was later said – “A galah.” The “little man” had been bad enough, but his next response was startling.

“A cocky,” he almost shouted, “A cocky,” then, milking the moment for all it was worth, he swept his sherry-tinged eyes over the waiting crowd and in a voice loud enough to be heard down at Perth Railway Station he informed the world: “This young feller wants a galah for Christmas!” and roared with laughter. There was a bit of a giggle from the waiting crowd, I seem to remember, but I wasn’t going to hang around to hear any more. I wriggled out of the comedian’s clutches and fled. Bernie later said it took her 10 minutes to catch me, but she may have been exaggerating.

Like all good melodramas, this one also has a happy ending. I woke up on Christmas Day to see, sitting on the homemade, kerosene box dresser that stood against the wall, a makeshift cage and inside it my cocky in the form of a young, female galah. Grandpa Frank, that gentle man with the faint Welsh accent inherited from his father, and who trapped crocodiles for a living, had gone out and caught me a bird. And more was to come. Sitting on the bare boards of the back “sleepout” was a large and beautiful cage. About 6 x 3 x 3 ft with a Cyclone mesh front and a gabled roof, it had a small feeding door and a larger door I could open to clean the cage and take Cocky out to play with her. Thanks Frank. You were a lovely man and you saved Christmas for me. I had Cocky for more than 15 years, up until the time she died in the 1960s. Father Christmas and I haven’t spoken since. As I said, I’ve been asked to represent him many times and have done so once, but I didn’t really enjoy it, the memory still hurts. And knowing what I do now, I think it’s a bit dangerous for me to impersonate him.

On the  other hand, if he really is the Green Man…

Could Father Christmas actually be the Green Man?

Could Father Christmas actually be the Green Man?

Footnote: Memories of Cocky’s cage remain vivid to this day. Back in the 90s I was living with a friend in Avalon, NSW and needed to make a cage for an injured lorikeet she had found. Looking back, it was very similar to the one Frank senior had made for me. It later went with the lorikeet to a wildlife carer.

Dried fruit, Seventh Day Adventists, smallpox, AIDS and crackpot theories

26 Oct

Back in late ’79 I’d just returned to the Old Brown Land from an extended stay in the Long Cloud, also known as the Shaky Isles and New Zealand, and after a brief sojourn in Sydney – where I worked as a reader of Acts and Bills for the State Government Printer – I decided it was time I rediscovered the Australia I had most missed during my time in voluntary exile. My new girlfriend suggested we go down to work in the fruit out on the irrigation country in the arid south-west corner of New South Wales, close to the confluence of the Murray and Darling rivers, rivers now in the desperate stages of what will be a terminal  illness unless government listens to the scientists fighting for its life. This is a tragedy made even more poignant by the rivers’ iconic status, for the Murray–Darling system holds the same place in Australians’ hearts as the Mississippi does in Americans’ and the Thames in the hearts of the English.

We decided to head for the Coomealla district of NSW, just over the river from Mildura on the Victoria side, so with a few clothes, provisions and some camp-cooking gear in a couple of small backpacks and my guitar case in my hand, we got out on the highway to thumb the 1,000-odd road kilometres to Dareton. It ended up taking about three days – school holiday times were never the best for hitching – but there were still enough farmhands and ordinary bush people on the road to get us there in relative comfort and summer temperatures made for easy sleeping under the sky.

Coomealla district, NSW. The old pickers' hut in which I spent a little over two years.

Coomealla district, NSW. The old pickers’ hut in which I spent a little over two years.

We were lucky. We got there about three weeks before the grape harvest began – it was a late season – but a few enquiries over beers at the Coomealla pub directed us to the extended Judd family who hired us in advance of the harvest, telling us we could have the use of their old pickers’ hut, one of the last in the district. We were doubly lucky; most of the old-style huts had been swept aside in a wave of local governments’ passion for “progress” with its counterpart in State government rationalisations that had resulted in the doing away of the “Fruit-Fly Special”  – a carriage attached to the regular passenger train service to Mildura that offered cheap transport to the fruit districts for itinerant workers.

We spent  a bit over two years in that hut. Shaded by huge old Atholl pines – tamarisks – that gave relief from the worst of the 120-in-the-shade summer days, it was basic but cosy. A small bedroom and larger kitchen with room for a table and chairs were in the hut proper, while outside were a shower – hot water courtesy of a little wood-fired “donkey-boiler” attached to a tank made from a 44-gallon fuel drum – and a traditional style outside dunny. The hut was ventilated by big corrugated iron-clad shutters that were propped open to allow for free passage of air.

The Judds were a close-knit family of Seventh Day Adventists whose dinky-di Australian-ness somehow blended with their religious beliefs, seemingly with no effort. They may have inwardly shuddered at the lifestyles of neighbors and employees, but without exception were neighborly and polite to all they encountered and always willing to help someone in need. More than once we were “loaned out” to help one of their fellow growers who’d had difficulty getting enough labor to do essential work. For two full seasons and a bit more we picked sultanas, currants and raisins, pruned and “pulled out” – removed the spent sultana canes from the trellis wires – and sweated on the drying racks. When not working for the Judds we picked oranges for Col, a very irreligious neighbour who was also a good drinking partner with a fine singing voice. With me on guitar we worked out a great arrangement of “Lucky Old Sun” that brought the house down at a hooley one night.

Being Seventh Day Adventists, the older generation of male Judds would not take up arms during World War Two, serving instead in the Medical Corps. At war’s end, not a few went back to the South Pacific to serve as what they called “medical missionaries” in Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia; one such was a Judd family member known to all as Uncle Tom.

I liked Tom. He had a wicked sense of humor and loved a yarn; he also had one of those minds that ceaselessy wander through the pastures of the imagination, picking a bit from here, a bit from there and chewing them  over and over till he’d extracted every bit of mental sustenance that he possibly could. I also admired his religious conviction. Like the rest of the Judd clan I never once heard him curse anyone. He might admit that he couldn’t understand this or that, but he would never condemn. A town desperate, known for his violence when the booze was on him, was known to have badly beaten his wife and Tom was so moved as to criticise: “He could be a better man were it not for the drink.” The elder of the clan, Charlie Judd was the same. A wealthy neighbour’s brats had opened the water channel near his house, flooding the front yard and a workshop. “I wish you had been there, Frank,” Charlie said. “You could have told them off much better than I was able.”

Back to the yarn. Uncle Tom had been a medical missionary for 10 years and smokos and the meal break were enlivened by stories of his time in the islands. Having a mind similar to Tom’s, I soaked up his anecdotes like a sponge. Being a staunch SDA, Tom was also a firm believer in natural foods and was full of criticisms of the modern diet. Homogenised milk was, according to Uncle Tom, very dangerous, because the process rendered the fat molecules small enough to pass through the stomach wall and directly into the bloodstream. Recent findings have borne Tom’s theories out, though the mechanics are a bit more complicated. I once put to Tom my  belief that we were doing ourselves harm by eating foods out of their season. I argued that humans have evolved to eat feast or famine style, gorging on what was abundant in its season and going without when it was scarce. How is it, I asked Tom, that south-eastern Aboriginal peoples, who during the season gorged on bogong moths until “every pore oozed with the oil they had consumed” and the Top End clans who during the nesting season eat goose eggs by the canoe load, how is it that they didn’t drop like flies from the cholesterol and fat overload? Tom sort of agreed with me, reckoning that it was probably better to gorge on homegrown tomatoes for their limited season and then go without for the remaining nine months.

Then there was the yaws story. Yaws is an ugly, tropical disease of the skin and bones caused by a spirochaete bacterium. The disease, Uncle Tom told us, was rife among the islanders he worked with and its control became a major concern. However, as yaws was brought under control, the incidence of syphillis began to rise. It was believed, Tom said, that the yaws spirochaete supressed that which caused syphillis.

And so we come to the point of this discourse – and if you think I’m a long-winded writer then be warned, never engage me in actual conversation. It must have been a year after I left the grape blocks that I was listening to a radio documentary on the rise and spread of AIDS. One of the scientists involved in the hunt for the culprit described how it had for so long eluded them because, and this is how I recall it, the virus “hid behind” the smallpox virus, to which it was very similar. Uncle Tom’s yaws story sprang  to mind. Didn’t AIDS proliferate at about the same time that smallpox was “eliminated”?

I remember another radio documentary about the rise in heart disease and the link to changes in the diet. The increase in consumption of fatty foods was seen as a major culprit and much discussion ensued about fats from seafood and fats from land animals – Omega 3 was soon to become a profitable buzz phrase. Yet another radio program, this one on the decline of traditional farming, contained a comment by an English farmer bemoaning the loss of diversity in livestock breeds, particularly pigs – there are now, generally speaking, only two or three breeds of pig raised commercially. This and the rise of factory farming, he said, has led to animals putting on what he called “soft fat”. Prior to WWII, he went on, animals were hardened by roaming pastures for feed and their fat had a different composition, “hard fat” as the old-timer put it.

Another documentary, another bit of trivia. The traditional meats consumed by Australia’s indigenous peoples contain higher levels of Omega-3s than does meat in the modern diet. Wild sheep, the ancestors of today’s breeds, also contain significant levels of this fatty acid. Has intensive farming and the livestock feeds associated with it changed the chemical composition of the meat we eat? I know that grain-fed beef smells and tastes faintly of the pellets you feed domestic chooks if you’ve run out of grains, so why wouldn’t this be so?

Okay, so you reckon it’s all far-fetched and fanciful, but spare me days, I have to do something with my mind.

Smoko in the rows. Uncle Tom is in the straw hat, his nephew Hayden in the sleeveless shirt. My partner and I and the Judds picked almost 60 acres of grapes that season - it was wet and so a lot of the regular pickers didn't show. The couple at the left lasted a week.

Smoko in the rows. Uncle Tom is in the straw hat, his nephew Hayden in the sleeveless shirt. My partner and I and the Judds picked almost 60 acres of grapes that season – it was wet and so a lot of the regular pickers didn’t show. The couple at the left lasted a week.

Of grampas, warships and inter-racial relationships

18 Oct
Stockmen on dinner camp butchering a cattle-beast.  The skin was removed in such a manner that the meat and entrails didn't contact the dirt.

Stockmen on dinner camp butchering a cattle-beast. The skin was removed in such a manner that the meat and entrails didn’t contact the dirt.

One of my grandfathers was a man named George Hamilton. In his younger days George had been a boss drover who on several occasions had taken mobs of cattle from the Snowy Mountains to Victoria River country in the Northern Territory. It was said among the Aboriginals in the Kimberley, his birthplace and home run, that he could smell water.

In later life, George drove a Chandler Six that his boys had cut down into a ute complete with  wood-framed canvas canopy over a tray that held wooden bench-seats when the occasion demanded. Years later, my dad fiddled with the gearing and converted it into an iron-wheeled tractor for use on the small farm George had by then bought. Testament to Norm’s genius with things mechanical, that tractor lasted George until the day he died, in the mid 60s.

But none of this has much to do with this story, though the ute does feature in it. Rather, I’d like to tell you about a lesson George taught me when I was just a nipper, way back near the end of World War II or perhaps in the months following the surrender of Japan – it was a long time ago anyway.

George had taken my sister Kerry – then about two, I’d say – and me for a run in the Chandler to visit rellies. We were almost home when we passed a group of maybe eight or 10 white and blue-uniformed sailors, heading no doubt for their ship in Fremantle, six miles away in the other direction. Grampa George chucked a uey, pulled alongside the men and offered them a lift.

Talking excitedly in one of the languages of the Indian sub-continent, they piled onto the benches in the back, slapping George on the back, laughing and grinning all the while. We hadn’t even got going before, with gestures and animated faces, they asked Grampa could they have us kids in back with them. No sweat. George handed us over, one of the men clambered into the front seat to keep George company and we were off to Freo.

Kez and I were enthralled. We’d never before seen people exactly that color, a sort of watered-down Bushell’s Coffee and Chicory Essence-brown. The sailors, who were actually from Pakistan, were equally fascinated. Kez is as dark as I am fair but we were both treated equally – having to endure hair strokings and cheek pinchings, along with being knee bounced and all the other things that adults do to little kids the world over. Having it done by such exotic beings made it an exciting experience. All the way to North Wharf, George and the matelots were chatting away in some sort of sign language punctuated by the odd word of English and lots of grins and “aaah”s.

When the Officer of the Watch spotted the men climbing out of the Chandler, we were all invited aboard the warship, the other ranks lining the rail to watch us come up the gangplank. It was a tour I’ll never forget.

In the galley there were three or four cooks shaping what I thought were big, flat Johnnycakes. “Not Johnnycakes,” George explained, “It’s how they make their bread.” A few minutes later we were ushered into the mess to sit down with the watch, Kez and I hoisted on to new sets of knees. In front of us a sailor placed the warm bread, straight from the ovens, and a small portion of their meal. The men holding us broke our bread, dipping it into the food and feeding us just like Mum did when we were smaller. We both tried to show them that we could feed ourselves, but it was no use – our sailors wouldn’t have it.

This i think was the same model as the Chandler that did George service in its incarnations as a ute and tractor.

This i think was the same model as the Chandler that did George service in its incarnations as a ute and tractor.

The food was strange, but tasty. We were used to what passed for curry in Australia back then. Made with Keen’s or Vencatachellum curry powder, curries were a regular part of our diet; useful stuff if the meat ration was getting a bit past its prime or to dress up sausages when they appeared on the table yet again.

Driving home, I asked Grampa why the sailors made such a fuss over us. George explained that they were grateful for the lift and were trying to repay us. He added: “The poor beggars are a long way from home. They’ve probably been away for years fighting the war and will be really missing their families. People are the same wherever they come from, son,” he said. “Never look at the color of a bloke’s skin.”

It sunk in. Trouble was, until I understood what he actually meant, I’d worry about the fact that I could still see people’s colour – even one of my childhood heroes, Old Sam, always looked black to me. Old Sam? I’ll tell you about him another time.

So why the Philippines, Pat?

15 Oct

A comment on twitter this morning about the Philippines earthquake led me to revisit a piece I’d written while living in Kentucky. During the horror that was the great earthquake in Haiti, one of the USA’s noisiest and most hateful fundamentalist preachers – and they are legion – blamed Haitian history for the misery that they were suffering. I’d like to know what he had to say about the recent events in Pakistan, the Philippines and elsewhere. With minor changes that piece is presented here.

A little while ago I confessed that I have a tendency, probably genetic, to approach a tale widdershins, and I can promise you that this will be no exception. In my defense I’d like to say that I’ve always enjoyed the journey as much as the destination, until, that is, I flew for the first time in one of those jet-propelled drainpipes posing as modern passenger aircraft. Fortunately for those of you still with me, that has no part in this tale. I just mention it as one of those things that lead some to repeatedly accuse me – possibly fairly – of being able to gripe about almost anyything.

I’ve been re-reading America and the Americans, that collection of Steinbeck oddments, to make sure I’d remembered aright what first sparked my interest in this country, its institutions and its peoples. Among this collection are articles he wrote about living conditions in the camps of displaced Americans, forced during the Great Depression to scrabble for an existence among the unimaginable wealth that was – still is – California’s horticultural industry.

SinThen this morning I read Mike Williams’ touching piece on Haiti, bringing experience, knowledge and humanity in contrast to the horrors of the Tv reports. Mike’s piece led me to Paul Raushenbush, who guided me to Pat Robertson one of that remarkable breed of moneygrubbers, the multi-something-aire pseudo religious who cause me, a non-Christian, to speculate about the particular version of the Gospels on which they seem to have based their business plans.

Robertson in turn led me to The Grapes of Wrath and Jim Casy. From Jim my mind wandered to Woody Guthrie’s Tom Joad and the origins of the Wobblies, from where, given my half-century-plus love affair with American folk music, it was just a short step to Joe Hill and the Wobblies’ Little Red Songbook.

And so I come back to Pat Robertson, the Preacher Man, hammer of sinner and Democrat alike and forthright spokesMAN for the Righteous Reicht. In the midst of the horror that reduced me – along with millions of others –  to tears, a Kentucky sect whose charitable works apparently consist entirely of building churches in Haiti worries about its missionaries and Robertson spouts the sort of tripe that I thought had disappeared soon after witch-burning was outlawed. According to Pat – and he’d know – his god is punishing Haiti because during the slave rebellion of 1791, they invoked the old gods of Voodoo – fairly reasonable you’d think seeing that the god of Abraham didn’t seem much interested in easing their misery and suffering. This, says Pat, equates to a pact with the devil and so they need to be punished. He didn’t mention why his god had waited for more than 200 years to dish it out, but I suppose it doesn’t matter if you’re preaching sin and retribution.

Pat, perhaps you and others like you should take a bit of a decko at the Wobblies’ book of “songs to fan the flames of discontent”. Joe Hill penned one that might have been written for you and your soulless ilk and I’d like to put part of it down here. Sung to that beautiful old tune, In the Sweet By and By, I’ve changed the first two lines very slightly to suit the times.

Wealthy preachers on TV every night,
Like to tell us what’s wrong and what’s right;
When you ask them for something to eat,
They will answer in voices so sweet:

You will eat, by and by;
In that glorious land in the sky;
Hope and pray, live on hay;
You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.

There, dear readers, I got here at last. I hope the journey wasn’t too boring for you.

Oh! and Pat – sorry, I’d almost forgotten about you – if you and your band of Sin-Finders are entitled to a place in heaven, I’m bloody glad I’m not a Christian. In fact I’m thinking seriously of moving to Turkey after something I saw on teev last night. At least there I’d probably be pretty safe for you and your mob, knowing your attitude towards anybody who doesn’t go along with your perverted morality. Why Turkey, Pat? Read on…

During NBC’s coverage of events in Haiti, there was captured on the record an all-too-brief moment that deserves to be shown over and over and over again; one of those heart-wrenching incidents that if we are extremely lucky we may occasionally see in a lifetime and that remind us that we really all brothers and sisters under the skin. Oh I know you’re not, Pat, but bear with me anyway.

A numbed Haitian man is sitting outside the ruins of his home. Apparently his wife’s voice was heard a few hours before but all is now silent. He is exhausted from digging with his bare and bleeding hands and his face is a study in awful nothingness. He does not want to think. He wishes to be, not there, but in some other existence, one where his wife still is.

A Turkish team, experienced in earthquake rescue and, we are told, one that had done sterling work in Japan, has just arrived on the scene. One of their number, an ordinary-looking bloke in rescue gear, touches the Haitian on the shoulder.

“We are here, my brother,” he says, in English.

The light of his humble humanity was so blinding that I bawled like a child.

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