The Argus 13 Nov. 1937
WHAT IS OUR NATIONAL TYPE?
Round the Continent in Search of True Sons of the Austral Pan
By J. M. HARCOURT
(Mr. Harcourt is a young Australian author who has travelled widely through
the Commonwealth. He has written several books and many magazine articles.)
THE spirit of a land expresses itself in the types of humanity it pro-duces. In the course of time, from a multiplicity of types, one emerges, steps out from the ranks as it were, and stands forward as a symbol of the land, a vial of its quintessential essence. John Bull appears in England, Uncle Sam in the United States. Australia is too young yet to have evolved a human symbol, but there are men in whom one seems to catch a glimpse of the symbol that is to be.
I met him at the recent Melbourne Royal Show. His face was thin, his features aquiline, and his lank, lean body as tough as whipcord. His straight gaze was half cynical, half pitiful, as if he had known hardship and treachery, but had not been broken by them, only scarred. And-no, he was not a farmer. He was a tramp, the spiritual descendant of the original sundowner.
But none of your ordinary tramps who hump a bluey between shearing-sheds or cut up a farmer’s woodheap for a hand-out, though he has done those things, too.
“Why pound the hoof with a bluey on your back when you can travel first class in comfort?” he inquired. “Nobody looks for tramps in first-class carriages. A man gets to know where ticket inspectors are likely to get on trains and just slips into the lavatory, or maybe, if the other fellers in the carriage look a bit human, under a seat. I walk when I feel like it and I don’t when I don’t.”
YOU think this is Australia,” he said moving his hand in a gesture which embraced the whole Royal Show. “But it isn’t. It’s only a part of it. You’ve got to be a tramp to know Australia – a tramp with seven-league boots like me. Australia isn’t Henry Lawson and Steele Rudd, boundary riders and drovers, and Dad and Dave. And it isn’t the Sentimental Bloke either, if you know what I mean. There are Dads and Daves and Sentimental Blokes, and maybe they’re typical enough, but they don’t make up the whole of the people of Australia. “I put up matilda when I was a bit of a kid -17 or thereabouts- and I’ve been waltzing her ever since. Sort of long-distance dancing competition! When I began I didn’t know anything, so I walked and did all the things the common run of tramps do. When I was hungry I’d go up to a farmhouse and beg a meal or offer to chop wood in exchange for it.
“I dug spuds for the Irish in Bungaree, picked grapes for Scotsmen round Stawell, and swung a pick for the Water Commission in the Mallee. And they were all as different as chalk and cheese, and I’ve found ’em just as different in other places I’ve been. Australia’s a Tait like a crazy quilt-all sorts of little patches of all shapes and sizes, and it’s only when you take it in from a distance, like, that you sort of see the pattern that’s really in it.
“There’s Australians that can’t speak English – and that ain’t a crack at the Orstrylian accent either!
“Up in Gilgandra, in New South Wales, I struck a farmer named Mackenzie, who was born in South Australia, but could speak only German. He had a Scottish name, but his people were Germans. I suppose his forebears migrated from Scotland to Germany, and then some of them came out with the crowd that began the German colony in South Australia. Anyway, that was where this Mackenzie came from-South Australia. But he couldn’t speak English.
“He looked like an Aussie, too. . . . have you noticed that Australians don’t look like Englishmen; that you can always tell ’em apart? But how often do you meet a Jugoslav that you can tell on sight? There’s plenty of them out here, but you don’t notice them particularly, because it’s only when you hear them talking in their own lingo that you know they’re foreigners. The Australians I’ve said that to don’t like it much, because they sort of look down on Jugoslavs. But we look like ’em all the same. You can tell an Aussie from an Englishman, or from an Irishman, or a Scot, or a German, or a Swede, for that matter. But you can’t tell him apart from the average Jugoslav.
“I was talking about Australians who can’t speak English. There are plenty of them up in Queensland, round Halifax and Innisfail, where the sugar cane grows. ‘Little Italy,’ they call it. Italian schools for kids born in Australia. Whole Italian towns. But them Italians, like that Mackenzie feller, look like Australians, look like Jugoslavs. “I knew a writer bloke in the west once. Peter Hopegood was his name. He had an idea that every country was inhabited by a sort of genii who was an artist, a sort of sculptor, like, who took hold of everything new and remodelled it ac-cording to his own ideals.
“This Hopegood bloke reckoned everything Australian looked alike. D’you get what I’m driving at? That there’s a sort of similarity between all the birds and animals and trees and flowers. And human beings, too. He thought this genii – he called him Austral Pan – got to work on migrants as soon as they came here, and in a generation or two changed them so that their mothers wouldn’t know them.
“I can’t pay that genii idea myself, but I reckon there’s something in this country that changes the people that come to it-turns ’em into Aussies. Because wherever you go the Aussie sort of face is the same. It can be dark or it can be fair, and it can be round or long and fat or thin, but there’s always some-thing about it that you can recognise. “Anyway, I’ve seen it everywhere. “Gumsuckers are different from Cornstalks, Cornstalks from Croweaters, and Croweaters from Sandgropers. You can almost tell ’em apart. Yet you find the sort of thing I’m talking about in all their faces-something Australian.
A man’s possie in life or his morals don’t make any difference. I knew a bloke in Western Australia. He was one of the big wigs. Owned properties all over the place, and businesses and things. Used to have agents on the immigrant ships before the depression set in to sign up Pommies for his farms at 10 bob a week and tucker. Posed as a sort of philanthropist. Soon as he’d worn ’em out he’d sack ’em. “I was hanging round an employment bureau in Perth one day when a message from this chap came through. It looked like his look-’em-outs on the ships had fallen down on their job, because he said:
‘Send me up a truck-load of Pommies, will yuh, so’s I might be able to pick a farm labourer out of the bunch.’ “
He was an Aussie. He wasn’t the kind I’ve got any time for, but he sort of symbolised a “brand of arrogance some Aussies have got; you know – reckon they’re better than Pommies – though they aren’t all bad who feel like that. This chap had the Aussie sort of face, too, though his father was a Pommie. Inland they’re all Aussies – the blokes on the cattle stations. You could almost see where this Austral Pan had carved the lines in their faces, as I sup-pose he’s carved them in mine, and drained the colour out of ’em like and made ’em his own. But they weren’t Japs and Koepangers, of course. They were whites. It doesn’t seem to matter what country they come from if they’re whites.
Then at Wyndham when the meat-works open and the blokes come from all over the place for the killing. It’s good pay at the meat-works. There’s men there from every quarter of the earth, yet pick one without an Aussie face and ask him and you’ll find he’s new been up once or twice before, perhaps – but that’s all.
My mate fell silent. Then presently he yawned and said he had to go. He had a date with a bloke out at the aerodrome who was going to put him wise to jumping a plane for Sydney. He’d never jumped a plane before, but he thought it ought to be a good lurk. Nobody would look for tramps in a plane. I bade him good-bye and he walked off unhurriedly, a son, if there ever was one, of that Austral Pan, in whom he refused to believe.