There is no doubt the Australian sense of humour is unique. It reflects our national identity and, like much of our makeup was born in the bush. It is the humour of pioneering frustration, determination and success. We battled a harsh environment and, to some degree, won the day.
Even the convict class developed a sense of humour. They referred to a sentence of flogging with the vicious cat-0-nine-tails as ‘getting a new red shirt’, a month on the treadmill was ‘the dancing academy’.
Men worked hard, and the population in the bush was predominately male until the 1870s, and, when the opportunity arose, be it the shanty drinking establishment or campfire, the conversation soon led to humour. Laughter is the best medicine. New chums were taunted simply because they were new, spoke differently and needed ‘education’ in bush ways. Humour helped diffuse tense situations. The campfire was also neutral territory where the boss, workers and even the dogs, were as one. You could speak freely. Whilst it would have been unwise to criticise the boss during work time a bit of pointed ridicule in the form of humour was acceptable.
Humour also got us through the mean and lean times of economic depression and war. The humour from the swaggies and frontline diggers tells us a lot about ourselves and our ability to keep going at the worst of times.
I am reminded of the old cocky who had seen hard times on the farm. Drought one year, floods the next. Every time he was about to give up he’d muster the strength to keep going for another year. He finally gave up and when questioned about why, he shrugged and muttered, “I could cope with the floods, drought and all but when the bloody locusts arrived they were carrying packed lunches – I knew it was hopeless and I had to give up.”
Yarning is the Australian word for tale telling. Folks weren’t in such a hurry back then so their tales were lengthy, often introducing several anecdotes into one rambling tale. Word usage, especially colloquial expressions, were part and parcel of yarn-telling. My departed folklorist mate, Ron Edwards, always believed that storytelling, even humourless stories, were all valid forms of yarning. A chat with Ron was a yarn.
In the Aarne-Thompson folktale classification this cante-fable is a form of Type 570 The Rabbit Herd, which has parallels in Britain, Russia, France, the Cape Verde Islands and Antilles but, except for Bert’s, not, it seems, in Australia. Australian Mark Gregory recorded Bert telling the story at the Singers’ Club, London, some forty years ago.
HOLD ON HAMILTON
‘It concerns a fellow I knew name of Hamilton. There’s a saying along the western line of New South Wales if someone gets too excited in an argument his opponent will say ‘Hold on Hamilton’! And this story is sort of the origin of that saying. There’s also another saying ‘Mean as hungry Tyson’ that refers to a historical character, a multi-millionaire he was by the time he finished. Cattle owner. He had an enormous station. He was very very mean, Tyson. I s’pose you have to be if you’re gonna be a millionaire. He was so mean he wouldn’t even let his dog drink out of a mirage.
Hamilton was a very handsome feller; he was a bit Tom Jonesy, a bit loutish, but still. He always wore a very fanciful muffler, I remember. Fancied himself with the girls, but he fell on hard times and he was humping his bluey through one of Tyson’s property, and he called in at the homestead and he said, ‘Do you want any horse-breaking done?’ So Tyson said, ‘No, I have Abos to do me horse breaking. Don’t have to pay ‘em much’. He said, ‘D’you want any shearing done?’ He said, ‘No, I’ve Japanese to do the shearing’. So Hamilton said, ‘Have you got any rabbitting?’ ‘Cos he noticed an awful lot of rabbits about the place. Rabbits were so thick on Tyson’s place ‘cos he hadn’t hired any rabbiters for years. The rabbiters told Hamilton on his way that rabbitting on Tyson’s place you had to put your hand in the burrow and pull some rabbits up before you could get your ferrets in. Anyway, Hamilton said, ‘Have you got any rabbitting?’ Well, Tyson looked at him and said, ‘How much?’ ‘Well,’ said Hamilton, ‘I’ll tell you what, I‘ll clear your rabbits for ten pounds a paddock’. Well, of course, that was ridiculous, ‘cos Tyson’s paddocks were big, and he knew it was six months work, but still he could never resist a bargain like that. So he said, ‘All right, I’ll try you for one paddock. But only for one, mind you’. So Hamilton said, ‘Yeah, all right’. So early next morning Hamilton harnessed a horse, got up on the sulky with a crowbar, a shovel and some traps, and set off for Tyson’s back paddock. He come back lunchtime, he said, ‘Well, your paddock’s clear, boss, I want me ten pounds’. So Tyson thought that’s bloody impossible. He went driving out to see what it was like. He went to his back paddock. No sign of a rabbit anywhere, not a trace. So he said, ‘Hey, my lignum paddock’s in a bad way would you like to clear it for the same price?’ So Hamilton said, ‘Right’. So next morning same deal. Off he went to the lignum paddock, come back lunchtime, ’Your paddock’s clear,’ he said, ‘I’ll have me money’. So Tyson said, ‘Well, hold on’, and he drove out, had a look, couldn’t see anything. He thought,’ My Christ, this is a good thing. So he come back and he said, ‘Well, I‘ll get you to clear one more paddock, That big L shaped paddock’. So Hamilton said, ‘Okay, I’ll do it’. So Tyson had a daughter called Effy. It was a good name for her. He said to Effy go and see how he does it. There’s something as queer as a two-pound note here. So off went Hamilton, and Effy dogged his tracks at a convenient distance. She come back, she said to her Father, ‘Too right it’s queer. She said, ‘D’you know what he does? He had a tin whistle, he stood by the creek there, and he took it out his tin whistle and he started to play it and all the rabbits come streaming out of their holes, come tearing towards him, and he just stepped aside and the whole lot went into the drink.’ So Tyson said, ‘By golly, a whistle like that’d be worth something, wouldn’t it? And he thought and thought and he said to Effy , ‘I’ll tell you what, if you can get that whistle off him I’ll give you ten bob’. She said, ‘I’ll have a try.’ And there was Hamilton sitting on the step of his hut and she said to him, ’It’s pretty boring round here, isn’t it?‘ So he said, ‘Oh, it’s not so bad.’ ‘Well’ she said, ‘there’s no dances, or no music or nothing. Are you fond of music? He said. ’Yeah!’ She said, ‘Do you play?’ ‘Well I play the tin whistle a bit.’ ‘Go on,’ she said, ‘can I see it?’ So he showed her the whistle ‘That’s a good whistle,’ she said. ‘Must be worth a bit. I bet you keep a good eye on a whistle like that’. He said, ‘Well, yes I do as a matter of fact. I even take it to bed with me.’ ‘Go on,’ she said. So along about midnight. She thought she’d earn her ten bob. She crept into Hamilton’s hut, he was fast asleep, She felt under the pillow for the whistle. Couldn’t find it. Then she felt down the blankets a bit. He woke up. He said ‘I know what you’re after, you’re after me whistle, aren’t you?’ She said, ‘I’d like to see it. D’you think you could play me a tune on it?’ So he said ‘I wouldn’t be surprised at that’. So he said ‘Roll in’. So she rolled in and he played her a tune she hadn’t heard played before in her life. She thought this is great stuff. She was so pleased with the tune he played her on the whistle that she gave him the ten bob and she left the hut. The next morning Tyson says to her, ‘So, how d’you get on?’ She said, ‘Well, er..it was no good, dad, I couldn’t find the whistle he had it hidden away too well.’ So he said, ‘It’s no good trusting any responsible job to you. I’ll have to get your mother to do it. He said to his wife, he said, ‘Look if you can get that whistle off that feller I’ll give you a quid’. So she said, ‘Well give it to us now’. He give her two ten bob notes. So she tried, course it was the same game. She found the whistle but she wanted him to play it and it was the type of concert that she’d never heard before. She stood on her head with it. So next morning the same trick. Tyson says, ‘Did you get the whistle?’ She said, ‘No, I couldn’t get it, he’s got that whistle hidden away pretty good when you come to it’. So he said, ‘Oh God, I’ll have to try and get it meself’. So midnightagain he crept into Hamilton’s hut and he was feeling round, feeling round, and Hamilton woke up, and he said ‘Hey is that your whistle?’ Hamilton, he said, ‘Yeah, er..yeah…um.. have you ever come across a whistle like that before? So Tyson said, ‘Well, not quite like this one’. So Hamilton said, ‘Well, roll in and see how it plays’. So Tyson rolled in and it was a cultural revelation, and to give you an idea of the ecstasy old Tyson was in when he stepped out of the bed he give the feller a fiver. It’s the only time in history that’s ever been recorded.
So Hamilton turned up next morning at the office and he said, ‘Well, your place is clear enough of rabbits, I’m moving off now, and that’s thirty quid you owe me‘. So Tyson said, ‘Well, thirty quid for three days work, that’s not on, you know’. So Hamilton says, ‘What d’you mean it’s not on? You contracted to pay me ten pounds for every paddock I cleared of rabbits’. ‘Yeah, I know but..I’ll tell you what I’ll do,’ said Tyson. ‘I’ll give you double or quits. Double if you can get some water into my water tank, because there was a bit of a drought on at the time. And if you can’t do it you don’t get anything.’ So Hamilton said, ‘Okay, I’ll put some water in your water tank, that’s all right’. So Tyson says, ‘How you gonna do it?’ ‘Get everyone on to the veranda, your wife, your daughter, and all the station hands, and set ‘em all on the veranda there and I’ll show you how it’s done’. So everyone was mustered on the veranda, sitting round, and Hamilton took out his whistle and he started to play and he stopped playing for a moment and he said:
‘Oh, the boss’s daughter come to me bed,
All for to try me skill,
I pulled her in and rolled her well,
And the tank is still to fill, fill, fill, the tank is still to fill.’
And a little drop of water started running from the pipe. So he played some more on his whistle and stopped playing and sang:
‘Oh the boss’s wife come to me door,
All for to try me skill,
I pulled her in and rolled her well,
And the tank is still to fill, fill, fill, and the tank is still to fill’.
And the water started running quite steady. Hamilton played a bit more and he stopped and he said:
‘Oh, Old Tyson himself come to me bed,
All for to try me skill, I pulled him in…’
‘Hold on Hamilton!’ said Tyson, ‘You can have your blasted money, and get off me property’.
On the Mudcat Café website Jim Carroll remembered hearing Bert tell the above story and other Australian ‘tall tales’ at the Singers’ Club:
‘…like those of the Speewah, a place in the Outback where everything was ten times the size of anywhere else. One such was how he once travelled on a mule for three days through a tunnel that turned out to be a hollow tree trunk. …Then there was the one of a farmer who suspected one of his employees of seducing his daughter, so he hung a carrot over a bowl of milk under the bed; when he looked the following morning, the milk had turned into whipped cream.’
The Speewah, the setting for a cycle of tall tales, is a mythical sheep station which, according to Australian storytellers, is ‘back o’ Burke’, ‘west of the sunset’ or maybe ‘out west’. Queenslanders will tell you that the Speewah is in the Kimberleys. It can be anywhere the storyteller situates it. On the Speewah crows fly backwards to keep the dust out of their eyes, dust storms are so thick that rabbits dig warrens in them, and the station cook needs a motorbike to ride around his frying pan. Crooked Mick, who would eat two sheep for lunch and pick his teeth with small trees, lived on the Speewah and is the hero of many of the Speewah tales, as Bert told Gregory:
‘What with Uncle Harry and Crooked Mick and all the others, they’re sort of god-like figures; it’s easy to attach specific adventures to them, according to their characters. That used to happen with us, and the telling of tales was certainly a livelier pursuit among us station-hands than the singing of songs.’
Australian writer and folklore collector Bill Wannan gave the following advice:
‘If ever you come across anyone who claims to have spent time on the Speewah or met Crooked Mick, listen to them with deep respect, for they will be a prodigious liar.’
Another contributor to the Mudcat Café forum mentions one of his favourite Bert stories:
‘One of Bert’s best tales was ‘The Sleeve Job’. It was about a sailor who hears about a young lady who can perform a legendary erotic act. He goes off in search of this person, hoping that he can persuade her to perform the sleeve job on him. He very nearly achieves his ambition….’
I never heard Bert tell ‘The Sleeve Job’ but in November 2008 shanty-singer Chris Roche told a version of it for me at Tooting’s Court Sessions Folk Club. It had obviously changed over the years since Roche first heard Bert tell it but, allowing for Chris’s and my own interpolations, the outline of the story, went something like this:
‘A young sailor, in port somewhere around the Mediterranean, is invited to experience the ‘sleeve job’ by the employee of a mysterious woman whose silk-clad arm beckoned tantalisingly to the sailor from a dark-windowed limousine parked on the dockside. Having no idea what the ‘sleeve job’ is, but convinced that it must be the height of eroticism and preferable to slaving away in the bowels of a tramp steamer, the sailor agrees to go with them and jumps ship. He is whisked away in another limousine to a beautiful palace where he is bathed, oiled, shaved, massaged and generally pampered in preparation for the ‘sleeve job’ – for which he waits with growing anticipation. Finally the time arrives and, clad in a silk robe, he is led through marble-floored corridors, hung with precious tapestries, past fountains flowing with rose-water until, eventually, he arrives at the head of a sweeping, Hollywoodesque, staircase leading down into a sumptuously decorated, pink boudoir where, on a large, circular, silk-covered bed, lay the most beautiful young woman he’d ever seen, or, indeed, ever imagined, clad in little but gossamer-thin veils. She looked up at him imploringly and beckoned for him to join her. In his eagerness to get to her and to discover the secret of the ‘sleeve job’ he missed his footing on the top step and fell headlong down the stairs.
When he awoke he found himself lying in his bunk on board his ship, heading for Marseilles, with a splitting headache, bruised body and, in lieu of a bandage, a fine gossamer-thin veil tied carefully around his aching head. And although he searched the world for the rest of his life he never did discover the secret of the ‘sleeve job’.
When interviewed by Mark Gregory in Greenwich, England, in 1969, Bert lamented the fact that at that time the collection of folktales was a neglected aspect of Australian folklore. When he was a bush-worker in Australia in the 1920s stories were, in fact, in a ‘much better condition’ than bush songs and there were more opportunities to tell stories than to sing. When they did sing, as he also found when he went whaling in the 1930s, the most popular songs of workingmen were of the tin-pan-alley variety – items such as ‘My Blue Heaven’. They also favoured hymns, sentimental ballads (‘Just before the Battle Mother’, ‘Don’t Go Down the Mine, Daddy’) and light operatic pieces.
‘But tales – there was any amount of opportunity for tales. We used to tell tales to each other while we were mustering, or on similar jobs. Riding along rather slowly once the mob was together, moving from one paddock to another, or to the shearing shed or the railway yards. We would often ride together instead of being spread out…and we would spend hours in yarning, telling strings of anecdotes with sometimes quite complicated stories, lasting a quarter of an hour or more….the kind of tales we used to swap were considerable almost epic.
What used to happen often was, because we were bored and most of us had little to read or to fill our minds with beyond talk, somebody would tell an anecdote, and that would stick in our heads, and perhaps three or four such anecdotes would begin to form a little cluster; and, lying in your bunk, you’d think it over and make an extended story with several narrative threads to it, just simply by putting anecdotes together and giving them an overall form. So that from, say, three two-minute stories, you’d make a ten or twelve-minute story simply by embedding them in a cocoon of nonsense, and you’d trot it out as an extended tale. That used to happen over and over again.’
Bert didn’t write down the bush tales but prided himself on his memory, which enabled him to re-create them whenever needed. As he said to Gregory: ‘I used to fancy myself as a re-creator of tales’. Which is how folktales should be told – with every telling a new creation. Bert continued:
‘…of course, an enormous lot of them have quite naturally dropped out of my head. But I still like to recall quite a number of the kind of tales that we used to tell. Those that I have in my head I have not as objects of received folklore, but as objects of reconstructed folklore. That is, I still tell many of them, but I don’t tell them in the form I got them.’
As well as actual folk tales, Bert had a fund of personal anecdotes about his experiences in
1920s Australia, on the factory whaling ship the Southern Empress in the 1930s, and his later travels around the world as a roving journalist and later folklorist and singer, which he would use to introduce certain songs, as in this folk club recording of an introduction to the song ‘The Shearer’s Dream’:
‘Last time I sung it [‘The Shearer’s Dream’] was to Ian Campbell and his sister, twelve Birmingham millionaires, who mostly made their fortunes in scrap-metal during the war and now own islands in the West Indies, and Princess Margaret, and the lady who was attending her. We were floating up and down London’s Regents Canal at midnight in a narrow boat, and the millionaires were all drunk as fools, it was terrible. Margaret was fond of songs so Ian suggested that he, Lorna and I might sing some songs to try and salvage the evening, which was turning into a shambles, with these scrap-metal millionaires all clustering around Princess Margaret and telling her dirty stories, and slapping her on the thigh – a little higher with each slap. So we sung some songs. Margaret was quite a sport, she was there till long after midnight singing ‘Ricky doo dum da.’ Tony Armstrong-Jones [her husband] wasn’t around. I don’t usually find myself in such company, I must say.’
In the early 1970s Ian Campbell had the unfulfilled dream of forming a national folk dance and song ensemble, and he had got Sir Frank Price, a Birmingham magnate and the boss of Inland Waterways, interested in the scheme. Sir Frank had gathered together the group of millionaires and provided a sumptuously fitted out Inland Waterways narrow boat for an evening’s fund-raising. As Bert explained, Sir Frank felt he needed some bait to lure them aboard:
‘It needed an attraction to get the millionaires aboard and he thought he would try Princess Margaret, and if she wouldn’t work perhaps Diana Dors would do it! I’m not kidding. And to his surprise Margaret had a free time and had finished her library book, so she agreed. So they got her instead of Diana, who might have taken a little less frostily to the stories and the thigh pinching. Anyway, after all this, Sir Frank rose to his feet to make a speech that would induce all the millionaires to agree to back the venture. But he and they were so drunk that first of all they couldn’t take in what he was saying, and secondly, he quite forgot, in his enthusiasm, what they were really on the boat for, and so nothing much happened. A few cheques for a fiver floated in, but nothing more. We’d all wasted our time, including Madame herself.‘
An alternative Bert introduction to ‘The Shearers Dream’ went:
‘This Cocky, he seldom saw his nearest neighbour. But he bumped into him one day and they were yarning. You know with cockies, and on the sheep stations, too, you don’t get much but mutton to eat. You get it for Christmas and Easter, and you get it for breakfast and cold for lunch when you’re out on the plains, and you have it hot when you get back. You get a bit tired of mutton. And no sort of meat can you eat without Worcester sauce, of course. Well, these cockies were yarning and one said, ‘By Christ, I had a marvellous dream the other night. I dreamt we had some beef steak. It looked lovely and we was just going to cook it and eat it when we found we was out of Worcester sauce. But in my dream I had a motorcar, and I got in my motorcar and drove off to Wogga. Fifteen mile there and fifteen mile back again to get the Worcester sauce, and got home just at tucker time, and that steak was done marvellous’.
The other cocky said, ‘That’s funny, I had a dream, too. I dreamed I was in my hut asleep under my blanket and there come a scratching at the door. Got up and opened the door and there in the moonlight was a little woman all dressed in white. She had a diamond crown on her head, an’ I seen it was that Pommy princess, what’s her name? Margaret! And she said to me, “Can I come in?” I said, “Yes, Ma’m, you’re welcome.” So I let her in and she said, “I hear that you Australians are all right when it comes to that.” I said, “Well, we’ll see if what you heard is true.” It must have been, ‘cos she stayed about half-an-hour and left humming to herself. She was well pleased, and so was I.
I pulled the old blanket over meself and I was just going off to sleep when there was a scratching at the door. I went and opened it and there was this tall woman all in black, and I seen in the moonlight it was that film-star Sophia Loren. She said, “Can I come in, please?” And I said, “Well, Miss, you can come in but…er…it’s only fair to tell you I just had a visitor. Still, we’ll see what we can do.” We seem to have done all right ‘cos she went off humming to herself and well pleased, and so was I. So I pulled the old blanket over meself and I was just dropping off when there come another scratching. So I went and opened the door and there in the moonlight and starlight stood a little woman. She wasn’t dressed in white or black, or nothing else much, but she had a lot of hair over here. It was Brigitte Bardot and she was in trouble and she was crying. And she said, “Can I come in, please? I must have some company.” I said, “Well, Miss, you can come in but I think I’m only good for a bit of conversation.” So she sat on the edge of the bed for about half-an-hour and went off still crying’.
So his friend said, ‘Was that the end of your dream?’ ‘Well, yes it was, as a matter of fact.’ So the other cocky said, ‘Why the hell didn’t you send for me?’ And his mate said, ‘Well, to tell you the truth I was going to. In my dream at the back of the farm I had an aeroplane, and I got in my aeroplane and I was at your place in a few minutes, and your missus told me you’d gone to Wogga for some Worcester sauce’.
And finally, one of my favourite Bert stories, ‘The Horse-breaker and the Cocky’s Wife’:
‘They used to say that the heart of the Australian nation was the…nomad tribe the…um.. shearers, station hands, drovers, swaggies; always on the move across the continent. At Dubbo one of these fellers, contract horse-breaker he was, and…uh… he was making for the coast. He’d come from, oh, back of Nyngan somewhere..umm..very dry country. Ate nothing but…uh…mutton and Worcester sauce, and.. uh.. before he got to the coast he got to a cocky’s place. It was coming on night and..uh..he knocked on the cocky’s door asked if he could put him up for the night. And the.. uh.. cocky says ‘Yes I can put you up.’
So..uh..this horse-breaker he come in and..uh..there was the missus. The cocky was an old feller but the missus was young and pretty and.. uh.. she looked at this horse-breaker the horse-breaker looked at her, and she set about setting the table. They had some salt pork and green beans, and by golly that was about the most delicious meal this horse-breaker ever had. He’d never had such a thing before in his life. Only thing was they were rather light eaters so he didn’t get much.
She put the rest of the stuff away in the old meat safe, just a kerosene thing with holes, you know, punched in it and bit of fly netting over it. And…uh..they decided they’d turn in. The old cocky said they always turned in early. Well, they had only the one bed so the horse-breaker stretched out along one edge of the bed, and the missus stretched out along the other edge with the old cocky in the middle, and the cocky was soon snoring. But the horse-breaker and the missus they couldn’t get to sleep, and she’d sigh and he’d sigh and so it went on. Pretty soon she reached over the old feller found the horse-breaker’s hand and give it a squeeze, and he squeezed back and so it went on. By the middle of the night there come a terrible squawking the old cocky’s jumped up in bed, ‘By Christ it’s that blasted fox.’ And he grabbed his gun and ran out in his nightshirt. And the missus said to the horse-breaker, ‘Now’s your chance, Dick!’ ‘Too right’ he said, and he rolled across the bed, jumped clean across that woman, run over to the meat safe and ate up the rest of that meat.
That’s horse-breakers for you’.