Slide from Innocent Indirectness



The Slide From Innocent Directness to In-Your-Face Decadence

Contributed by Ian M Johnstone

3. Changes in our humour have roughly parallelled changes in entertainment generally.  Our humour was not always so coarse or crude.  Early last century and in the 1890’s it used to be much more innocent and restrained than it is now.

  • The Bulletin cartoon, from the early days of World War I, with two blokes chewing grass and chatting in the outback.  ‘Have you heard about the trouble they’ve got in Europe?’  ‘No, have they got a drought there as well?
  • A boy declared he was never going near the water, until he had first learned to swim.
  • A mother said to her child ‘If you climb that tree and fall and break your leg, don’t come running to me.’
  • The senior student of an all boys’ boarding school announced in assembly:  ‘Last Saturday I found a boy not watching the First XV.  I expect everyone to be there.  If I find anyone else not attending, I will have no choice but to make attendance compulsory.’
  • An Australian World War 1 Troopship Journal has this item, amongst a lot of similar ones:

    Local news from Porpoise Mail.   Hobart – Owing to the heavy gale Tasmania has broken away from its moorings, but it is expected the island will be back in its original position in a few days. (The Windbag Express, at sea, 14 May 1918)

  • H. R. Williams in his Comrades of the Great Adventure (Angus and  Robertson 1935)  tells the story of a Digger, called Campling, in Egypt who scrounged a camel, much to the annoyance of the owner:

    From a safe distance, after drying his tears, the nigger proclaimed his belief that Campling was suffering from several highly     contagious diseases, and further, that his ancestors had all lacked     respectability and good looks. (p. 3)

  •     A World War 1 Troopship Journal from February 1919 contains this item

  Whilst walking down a street in a town in France, my attention was drawn to a notice in an estaminet window, ‘English spoken  here – Australian understood’.

To the uninitiated, the Australian Soldier has a language all his own – he calls it ‘Dinkum Australian’.  It has three very marked properties – Forceful, Expressive, and Unprintable.  (All Abaht It) Quoted in David Kent’s From Trench and Troopship: The Experience of the Australian Imperial Force, 1914-1919, Hale and Iremonger, 1999.  (p 154)

  • Bill Gammage, in his wonderful book The Broken YearsAustralian Soldiers in the Great War (Penguin Books 1975), comments thus on the humour of the Diggers:

Yet, the significance they attached to their achievements in battle notwithstanding, many Australians behaved as though war were a game.   Before the landing an old soldier in the 11th Battalion told his men that flying bullets sounded like small birds passing overhead.  During the battalion’s dash across the open water north of Ari Burnu to the beach on 25 April, a man recalled the comment, looked skyward and remarked to his neighbour, ‘Just like little birds, ain’t they Snow?’.  The whole boat collapsed into laughter.  In other boats at the landing men played cards under fire, and talked and joked.  ‘They want to cut that shooting out’, a soldier protested, ‘somebody might get killed’.  ‘They’re carrying this too far, they’re using ball ammunition’, another exclaimed, and the merriment rose to mingle with the roar of the shells.  As they touched the shore, one man climbed from his boat remarking that it was bloody poor farming country, and at least two, while bullets kicked the sand around them, pulled out vest cameras and photographed the scene before strolling on.  Other Australians, too eager to dally on the beach, laughed and sang as they charged up the hills, and their casual gait as they broke the dawn skyline on Plugge’s Plateau first informed watchers on the ships that the covering force was ashore.  They had come to their greatest and gayest adventure, and they were enjoying it.  (p.  89)

Time faded Anzac’s discomfort – ‘It’s the humour that they always remember.  They forget all the troubles and hardships’ (Letter from Chinner 16/02/1916) (p. 115)

A popular story was of two Australians who found a man buried to the neck in soupy mud.  Carefully they laid duckboards out to him, and pulled.  He did not move.  His rescuers cleared away as much mud as they could, and tugged and scraped, but the man remained trapped, until at last they decided to find help.  Then the man in the mud offered an alternative suggestion. ‘Wait a minute mates’, he said, ‘and I’ll take me feet out of the stirrups.’ (p. 251)

Another joke was the stock reply to civilians who asked what soldiers did in the trenches all day: ‘Oh, we just sit around chatting’.  ‘Chats’ were lice.  (p. 252)

Early in 1919 two Australian lieutenants stood in a line of men at Buckingham Palace, waiting to meet the King.  The King had been delayed, and the two Australians were restless. ‘George is late on parade’, one finally declared, ‘we’ll have to “crime” him’.  He was Joe Maxwell, come to receive the Victoria Cross.  His mate was E.W. Mattner, and, after the King had given him his third decoration for bravery in the field, the two chatted for a few minutes, while the King recalled his visit to Australia.  In a busy Palace routine a discussion of that length was unusual, and when Lieutenant Mattner left the King the Lord Chamberlain, heading a clutch of titled officials, pressed towards him, asking excitedly, ‘What did he say? What did he say?’ ‘Well,’ the young officer told them, ‘he said, “I’m sick of this turnout.  Let’s go down to the corner pub and have a couple of beers”.’  The Lord Chamberlain, shocked to the marrow, ‘dressed him down’.  (p. 230)

  • Bill Harney’s stories from World War I are indelibly, typically and quintessentially Australian.  There is really no substitute to listening to the tape of this interview on the ABC in 1958, but here are two samples:

And there we were and we were pretty miserable and we had no money, and then a crocodile pinched one of our horses, pulled it into the river and ate it, and this made us more worried about everything. And while we were in these real doldrums, a bloke come along to me and he said, “How’s the war going?” and Andy and I said, “What do you mean, war?  What war?”  He said, “ You remember the war that was on when we were all together on the run.”  He was a mate of ours.  And he said, “Yes blimey there’s a war on”.  “What, is it still on?”  “Yes, it’s been going on there, fighting on”.  I said, “I thought it would be over in a fortnight.”  “Not on your life,” he said.  “They’re still going”.  He said, “These Germans are tough guys.  They’re giving us a go.” “Oh blimey,” we said, “What about this?”  “Well,” he said, “why don’t you go to the war?”  We said, “Why, do they want us?”  “Yes,” he said, “they’ll take you to the war.”  “How do you get to it?”  “Oh,” he said, “you just go up to the doctor and you get him to look at you, and if you’re healthy and all that there they’ll take you away.”   So Andy said, “Listen, it would be a good idea to get away from these poor horses.”  You know, our horses were as poor as anything and they get covered in cattle ticks over there, and -oh, it’s a terrible place. (Overland, October 1958) (p. 3) 

However, we gets in and I’m in this great big trench.  And we had our headquarters here.  We gradually sorted ourselves out, and we had headquarters.  And it’s a big deep trench.  It’s about eight feet deep and it’s all little alcoves cut out where the Germans used to sleep, and  I was sitting there.  And they had a great big rum jar, I’ll never forget that, and they left it there.  There was about five or six gallons.   And every now and then a bloke would take a nip out of it and go away, and there was two to three getting around and they’re talking, and I got tired.

Funny thing, I found that there was three kinds of fear in the line.  There was one chap that’d laugh, and we always suspected him.  He was just bordering between the line of shell-shock and normal stability.  Then there was the crying bloke.  If a man cried, somehow he didn’t worry what other people thought about him.  He was relieving himself, and strange enough that bloke – he’d always been there.  But I was a type that had a sleeping fear.  I had a strange thing.  If I got very, very frightened I’d go to sleep.  It was kind of nature to kind of knock me out, as much as to say, “Poor coot, we don’t want to let him go ratty, so we’ll send him to sleep.”  So this time I laid in one of these little alcoves. And there I am laying.  Sleeping away.  And the German is shelling us with an enormous big Navy gun.  Terrific thing.  And there was three blokes sitting in front of me.  And they’re drinking this rum and I was there for a while.  And suddenly I woke up.  Everything was quiet.  I didn’t know what was happening.  Complete darkness.  And I felt around and it suddenly dawned on me that I’d been buried.  I found afterwards that one of these big naval shells had hit the trench and folded it right in on us.  Eight feet down.  And it never exploded.  If it had exploded it’d have blown the lot of us up.  However, there we were.  So I shouted and yelled and kicked and bellowed and bawled and nobody – suddenly I could hear ‘em.  They couldn’t hear me.  I could hear them say, “Hello, there’s a voice under there”.  And I bellowed again, and presently there’s a round hole and the air come through, and I poked my hand out of this hole.  I was terrified by this time.  I poked my hand out, they had a shake-hands with me, and then I started digging myself out like a mallee-hen getting out of a nest when it’s born.  And I’m digging myself out and presently I poked my head out and as I did a bloke poured water on my head and I said, “What’s the gag? What’s the gag?” He said, “Get him out.  Get him out.  He’ll know.”  And these other blokes that were in front of me, they were dead.  The thing had folded right in their faces and killed them.  But I was all right.  There was about seven of them smothered and here am I. 

And they said, “He knows where it is”.  I said, “What are you talking about?  What’s the joke?”  And he said, “Isn’t this headquarters?”  I said, “Yes, it was headquarters.  Well, it was a kind of a semi-headquarters”.  “Well,” he said “these blokes – where was that bottle – where’s that big jar of rum?” “Oh,” I said, “they were drinking it here when I went to sleep.  Just down here”.  “Righto mates.  Come on, here she is.”  And they left me and started digging round.  So they gets it and presently they drug it up, and they give a whoopee over it, and I thought to myself.  “My God, it’s a good job the bottle of – the big old jar of rum was buried there.  If it hadn’t been for that, if it hadn’t been that they knew the jar of rum was buried with us, I’d have been still there”.  (ibid., pp. 6-7)

  • The magazine of St Andrew’s College at Sydney University includes this report in July 1909 of ‘A Musical Evening’:

Dr Harper suggested the formation of a Choral Society within the College would be a most desirable thing …  Accordingly, at the beginning of the present year, an unlimited committee was formed to investigate whether any of the Freshers had brought sufficient vocal ability with them to justify the establishment of the new society.  It was decided to test each man in turn, but, as it was considered a rather dangerous experiment to give a number of unknown voices an excuse for indulging in an unusual amount of practice, this decision was kept a complete secret.  Subsequently events proved the wisdom of this course. 

By way of compensation for the loss of preparation, the performers were allowed about an hour’s sleep before being called upon to sing.  It was expected that this arrangement would also give them a better chance of displaying the natural beauty of their voices.  In this respect, however, the members of the committee were bitterly disappointed.  Further consideration was shown in that each artist was permitted to sing in his own room in the presence of the Committee only.  On the appointed evening – Thursday, April 29th – the members of the Committee assembled in the Common Room and, the sleeping time having expired, the tour of inspection began.  Mr W-r opened the programme with the National Anthem, thus early showing the contempt for convention which characterised the whole performance.  The number of times on which this item was subsequently offered (and refused), while it testifies grandly to the loyalty of the Freshman, suggests that their repertoire is not very extensive ….  The Committee will probably require a further trial before coming to a definite decision. (p. 14)

  • The St Andrew’s College Magazine of November 1918 contains the following open letter to a Fresher:

We are really more pleased to see you than you might think.  We have strange ways of showing our pleasure.  We don’t look down on you a little bit – except when we are emptying a bucket of water on you, when, of course, it is necessary to look down.  Nor, on the other hand, do we look up to you.  If you are a budding reformer don’t let anybody know it till next year – when you will probably not be a reformer at all.  Many a man has regretted being a reformer too soon.   …   If you are eighteen years of age, you probably know everything.  We all do. 

But if you are nineteen or over we shall have quite a lot of things to teach you, and they will be taught mostly in darkness, in absence, in silence – and from a great height.  Learn the lessons of the heights!  President Wilson once said that the object  of a University was to make a man as much unlike his parents as possible … Now, I don’t wish to insult your progenitors in the slightest – but most of what’s wrong with you just now is that you are far too much like them; and we have had cases where it would seem that a particular fresher has only had one progenitor – and she a maiden aunt!  If you suffer from maiden-auntliness, you will soon be either cured or killed … We shall laugh at you till our sides ache, but no worthy College man wants to laugh you out of anything that’s really good or into anything that’s really bad. 


Though some might make you think the contrary, it is not considered a defect in a fresher that he should have some of those very awkward things called principles.  All principles are a nuisance at times – no matter which way you spell them.  So if you have a hazy notion, for instance, that it’s a mug’s game to booze, and womanise, and gamble, stick to it – and with glue.  By doing so, you will not lose an ounce of popularity that’s worth the having. 

This notion is not yours alone; most of it was discovered centuries ago by a College man named Solomon who had exceptional opportunities of finding out.  But to return to Wilson.  It is generally rather hard to know exactly what he means – but here it seems pretty plain.  It is this – the object of a University training is to develop your individuality – to make you more like yourself than anybody else.  That’s what we want.  But there is another side to it.  We don’t want individualities with so many points that they stick into everybody else’ and the object of your fresher discipline is to knock the sharp points off and make you ‘fit in’ – as Dr Johnson would say, ‘a clubbable man’.  Cultivate clubability – especially with the fellow you don’t particularly like.  Both of you will be better College men for it.  …  A few final words: Pray twice daily.  Answer the telephone – and SING OUT. (p. 17)

  • A Bulletin cartoon of 1913 has a bearded puritan-looking Sunday School Teacher saying:   ‘And it rained for 40 days and 40 nights’.  A Smart Lad asks ‘An’ was the cockies satisfied then?’.
  • My father told a story of how, when he sailed in the Queen Mary on 4 February, 1941 for Singapore with the 2/18th Battalion, after passing through Sydney Harbour Heads and being over the three mile limit, as it was then, a Captain observed, ‘Now we are all Returned Soldiers, but the difficulty is to get home again’.  He did return, but only after being a prisoner-of-war for three and a half years and working on the Burma-Thailand Railway.
  • Another Bulletin cartoon in 1942 has an army officer confronting a cook surrounded by flies.  ‘There’s far too many flies about the cookhouse!’  ‘Yessir.  How many should there be?’           


They buzz all day in zig zag flight,
For buzzing is their hell’s delight.
 They cluster round the jam pot top,
And in my tea they take a flop.
I curse and chase ‘em off the bread,
they just loop the loop around my head.
They taste the sugar, lick the cheese,
they kiss my nose with perfect ease.
I often hit myself a bash,
Trying to settle their dirty hash,
and when I strike with all my might,
They skelter off with hell’s delight.
They’re in my ears and up my nose,
They even crawl between my toes.
Go here and there with speed of light,
they buzz around me out of sight.
If I could move as fast as they,
I’d beat Joe Louis any day.
Sometimes they make me realise
That strength doesn’t always lie in size,
Nor does it lie in what they eat,
You’ll find them underneath the seat,
Of the little place where you go alone,
A place that stands out on its own.
They gorge themselves in sweet retreat,
To later spit it on your meat.
They torment all on earth who breathe,
Charged with pain and Hell’s disease,
This flying, crawling, insect vile
has Japs and Jerry licked a mile.
They’ve tortured me for many a year,
And now my mind grows faint with fear,
Grows faint with this obsessions dread,
They’re going to eat me when I’m dead.
– Paddy Graham

(Paddy Graham was Irish and a Nackeroo and wrote this in Darwin in 1944.  It is  included in Curtin’s Cowboys: Australia’s Secret Bush Commandos by Richard and Helen Walker, Allen and Unwin, 1986,  pp. 166-167)

Gradually our humour has changed from innocence to decadence, or at least to indelicacy or crudeness. We have become desensitised to restrained subtlety, much as we have become desensitised to sex and violence in the media.   Jokes were cleaner when the movies did not have so much explicit “adult” material.  In the last hundred years or so we have changed from naivety to cynicism, from comparative purity to foulness, from some restraint to the lack of inhibition, for example, in the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.  

We have changed from stoicism to self-indulgence, from accepting arduousness and hardships, to insisting on instant gratification in lotus land.  We’ve gone from artless, innocuous, unsophistication to vulgarity, coarseness, dissipation and depravity.

  •  H. G. Nelson and Roy Slaven reckon they have invented a new pain killer which is so good that you would feel absolutely nothing if a bus were shoved up your backside, until the passengers got out.                           
  • Dad and Dave were standing watching a dingo licking its privates.  Dave said to Dad, ‘Just between you and me, I’ve wanted to do that all my life.’  Dad said, ‘Go ahead but I’d pat him a bit first.  He looks pretty vicious to me.’
  •    ‘It was cold enough to freeze the walls off a bark humpy.’
  • The army recruit is asked to fill the bottle ‘over there on the shelf’.  He asks ‘What?  From here?’
  • Two nuns stopped their car at the traffic lights and a young man jumped on the bonnet.  The older nun said to the younger one ‘Show him your cross’.  The younger one then yelled at him in obscene language to show him just how cross she was.

   A lot of our humour, like these examples,  makes us wince because it breaks some social taboo.  A joke is a verbal throwdown cracker.  It will amuse some and offend some.  Somehow it takes more to make us laugh now than it used to.  We used to enjoy small ironies and contrasts.  Now we need shocking ones, often in shocking language.  It is as if humour is a health-giving drug like antibiotics, and we need stronger doses now to achieve the same effect.  Our humour now has to be savage biting satire, or crude hard hitting, in-your-face, unsubtle and obvious, using obscenities, taboo and swear words.  In a sense it is a strange thing that as real hardships have diminished, crudities and foul language have increased.

Another notable change has been a marked reduction in practical jokes.  There was a time when April 1 was the occasion of practical jokes.  Now it seems that ‘social correctness’ or the fear of being misunderstood is too great a deterrent.

  •    The practical jokes played by Barry Humphries are legendary.   He describes one in his autobiography, More Please, 1993:

The firm of H. J. Heinz had an excellent product called Russian Salad.  It consisted largely of diced potato in mayonnaise with a few peas and carrot chips.  Surreptitiously spilt and splashed in large quantities on the pavement of a city block, it closely resembled human vomit.  It was a simple and delightful recreation of mine to approach a recent deposit of salad in the  guise, once again, of a tramp.  Disgusted pedestrians were already giving it a very wide berth, holding their breaths and looking away with watering eyes.  Not I, as I knelt beside one of the larger puddles, curdled and carrot-flecked.  Drawing a spoon from my top pocket I devoured several mouthfuls, noticing out of the corner of my eye, and with some satisfaction, several people actually being sick at the spectacle.

The observations of folklorist, Graham Seal, about the significant changes to our humour over the last hundred years or so are interesting:

‘Bad’ language – actual or implied – is a constant feature of bush humour (particularly associated with the figure of the hard-swearing ‘bullocky’, forerunner of the modern ‘truckie’), of digger humour and of more recent folk humour forms also.  What has changed is that contemporary folk humour is more likely to use – even revel in – words and images that are only hinted at in most bush humour and which is partially disguised by dashes, dots and euphemisms like ‘blanky’ and ‘beggar’ in First World War and even much Second World War soldier humour.  By the time of Australian involvement in the Vietnam war, from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s, all attempts at subterfuge are largely abandoned and the appropriate terms are freely employed. (In his article on Folk humour, in The Oxford Companion to Australian Folklore, edited by Graham Seal and Gwenda B Davey, Oxford University Press, 1993, p. 214).