Congratulations to The Australian. 99.9% of its Commentary pages content on the 29th October was devoted to bashing the left, the ABC, and to promoting its right wing bias. It delved into the past to pick out quotes it could use to effect to denigrate the left, and it sang its own praises as a responsible organ which breaks important stories.
Incredibly, both of these renowned explorers missed the mouth of Australia’s most important river, not far from their historic meeting. In their defence, the Murray meets the ocean via a large lake before meandering around islands in diverse channels, and a long narrow body of water stretches some eighty kilometres to the south-east, sheltered from the ocean by large sand dunes. This body of water is called the Coorong. Sand dunes on both sides of the modest volume of water which constitutes the Murray mouth, as well as a possible sea mist, coupled with the distance from the shore at which the ships would have been sailing, would all have contributed to the oversight by both Commanders.
Some of the earliest sketches of Aboriginal people can be found in Baudin’s collection, and his party’s contact with Aboriginal people was comprehensive, although not so much in South Australia, where the rugged coastline made anchoring difficult. It was established that Kangaroo Island was devoid of Aboriginal people, although subsequent archaeological work has established that it had previously been inhabited approximately 10,000 years ago, when the island was still part of the mainland. No reliable explanation has been proffered as to why such a large and productive island did not have people in numbers living there at the time of settlement. There were, however, a rag-tag band of sealers of various nationality, including Americans, escaped convicts, and the Aboriginal women they had gathered from where ever they could. This included Tasmanian women, and also women from the mainland. These women were taken by force, resulting in a tragic retaliation in later years. This motley crew would have been living on Kangaroo Island when the next important exploration of Southern Australia took place in 1829-30, although Captain Charles Sturt was probably unaware of their presence. For some detail of Sturt’s journey, click here. A little over a year later, the death of Captain Collet Barker at the mouth of the Murray River added a tragic chapter to Aboriginal/European first contact.
History is littered with easily defined tyrants, and their lust for power, resulting in wars quite justifiably deemed criminal and unjust. Some were so good at waging war that history views them with awe rather than horror. Figures such as Alexander the Great, Napoleon, and the Emperors of the Roman Empire come into this category. Although there was no justification for their acts of aggression, there is a kind of ‘they were good at what they did’ attitude which sees their exploits viewed as momentous rather than callous, murderous and greedy; chiefly because of the huge mark they left on recorded history.
In more modern times, when a more liberal and reasoned view of the causes of war could reasonably be expected to bring about a more civilised means of settling disputes, we nonetheless saw the bloody carnage of the First World War, with foot-soldiers massacred under the onslaught of heavy artillery, their fervent goals of King and Country converted to little more than mincemeat and fertiliser. Some ten million military personnel, and seven million civilians died in the ‘Great War’ for little more reason than it seemed like a good idea at the time.
Twenty years later the second World War, for which the seeds had been planted by crippling reparations included in the armistice of the first, resulted in a wrecked economy and crippling inflation, bringing about the conditions which enabled Hitler to seize control of a humiliated Germany. His evil is so pervasive that he may never be viewed with the awe of his bloodthirsty predecessors. The Japanese too, undertook an aggressive expansion, in part because of a dearth of energy and manufacturing supplies from the West, and in part because of humiliation at the hands of a Western expansionist arrogance which saw Asia as a Colonial plaything of pompous Empire builders. Whatever justifications the aggressors thought they might have had, there is little doubt that evil, bloodthirsty and expansionist tyrants were soundly beaten by allies united in justice and honour.
The Korean War served as a chess-board on which the mutual paranoia between the Western purveyors of Capitalism and the Totalitarianism of Communism played out a deadly draw; and the Vietnam War, a Chop Suey of of rotting imperialism, paranoia and domino theory, saw the slaughterhouse of the US withdraw like craven dogs, despite inflicting deaths in the millions upon their third world opponents.
The Vietnam War was the first war which included participants from civilian ranks, whose mass demonstrations and exposure of the Allied lies through the myriad forms of mass media, but especially through that of our television screens, saw ‘rat-bag’ protesters take considerable credit for the U.S.’s ignominous withdrawal; minus 50,000 war dead.
It is sobering and depressing, therefore, to have lived through an era in which the greatest mass movement in history, armed with the most revolutionary means of communication yet devised, in the form of the internet, found itself impotent against a regime who had suffered the traumatic humiliation of 9/11, and was determined to demonstrate what havoc it was capable of inflicting in retaliation. The evil Saddam Hussein was the convenient recipient of this demonstration, and Iraq, the cradle of civilisation, was the modern secular Middle Eastern country chosen to be blown into ruins and chaos through the implementation of Shock and Awe, and the dehumanisation of the Iraqi people.
The lies and distortions of the perpetrators were supplemented and augmented by News Ltd., the Murdoch Press, which unequivocally downplayed the protestations of weapons inspectors, and inflated every exaggeration, distortion and downright lie of the aggressors. Saddam Hussein, in no doubt as to the intentions of the US, released thousands of CDs containing information on previous weapons caches, (his harbouring of Weapons of Mass Destruction being the justification for the invasion) and gave carte blanche to weapons inspectors; and millions of demonstrators around the world, seeing through the lies, marched hopelessly against a tsunami of propaganda released by the Murdoch Empire.
Bush, Blair, Howard, and their Liars-in-chiefs, the Rumsfords, the Cheneys, the Downers, literally drove honest men to their graves in their crusade, and Bush’s Secretary of State, the respected Colin Powell, perjured himself in a televised performance at the United Nations, a humiliation he will never live down.
What could be more ironic and hypocritical, than a country accusing another of harbouring weapons of mass destruction while raining a torrent of bombs and rockets on a hopeless opponent, an attack designed not just to hit military targets, but to wipe out the power, the television stations, the roads, and the water supplies, to the extent that ten years later, such services remain crippled.
As the ‘war’ continued, The Australian delighted in showing the heroic invaders giving water to their captives, as examples of the humanitarian way the US and its allies were conducting the war. Not even the Oz could disguise the slaughter on the streets though, as vehicles full of families were blasted into oblivion, and American thugs invaded houses full of families and dragged men away from their wives and children; ultimately to subject them to the unspeakable and barbaric conditions of Abu Ghraib Prison.
No weapons of mass destruction were found. Not one.
That champion of free speech, that paragon of a free press awash with blood, which questioned the patriotism of those opposed to the war, which lauded the destruction of Iraqi society, (still suffering regular bomb attacks to this day) and which attacked those who did not whole-heartedly support this wanton slaughter, such as the ABC, was supportive of an invasion, a war of aggression, mass human rights violations, and a naked abuse of power.
It is now engaged in a holier-than-thou campaign against a mild reform of media laws which would see, in some small degree, some answerability for a failure to report fairly, to be answerable for distortions, to forgo bias. It is not hard see why they don’t like it.
The Bloodiest War. The Dirtiest Lies. The Murdoch Press.
Warning. This article contains images of Aboriginal people who have passed away.
I have long been a ‘worshipper’ of Mount Barker Summit, if that is not too strong a word. Standing aloof and dominant over the surrounding lush countryside, this sandstone based and heavily wooded outcrop has been the commanding feature of the region for the millennia of black occupation under its original names, ‘Woma Mu Kurta’ or ‘Mountain on the Plain’ for the Ngarrindjeri people of the lower Murray and lakes, and ‘Yaktanga’, or ‘Rocky Head’ by the hills dwelling Peramangk people. But even the white-fellah name was bestowed on the peak before any European had entered the region.
Captain Charles Sturt, who journeyed down (and named) the Murray in the summer of 1829-30, was the first white man to record the sighting of Woma Mu Kurta, although he mistakenly recorded it in his journal as Mount Lofty. Flinders had named Mount Lofty when he mapped the coast in 1802, and as Sturt assumed the twin peaked summit he saw from the lakes was the twin peaked Mount Lofty, he recorded it as such. The loss of his chronometer some time earlier on the journey affected accurate calculation of the position. View more photographs here.
Captain Collet Barker, a compatriot of Sturt’s, was the next explorer to sight the summit a year later, but his view was from Mount Lofty, twenty kilometres to the north-west. It was Barker’s sighting which confirmed the existence of two separate mounts, and following Barker’s tragic death by spearing at the Murray Mouth, it was Barker’s friend Sturt who named the peak after him. Barker died on the 30th April, in 1831, and the summit was therefore named five years before the establishment of the South Australian colony.
The region was one of the first to be farmed, owing to the lush countryside and plentiful water, and the town which grew in its shadow with the same name has long been a regional centre in the sparsely populated Adelaide Hills. The summit was spared the wholesale clearing the surrounding land was subject to, owing to the steepness of its terrain, and poor soil. It therefore became a microcosm of surviving bush, and representative of what had been lost. It was also representative of the countryside the Peramangk had inhabited, and from which they traded and interacted with the Ngarrindjeri.
For more than 150 years the summit was relatively undisturbed apart from a dirt track to the top, two levels of parking, and a short walking trail to the summit proper. From here a 360 degree panorama can be observed, to the southern lakes, Mount lofty and the ranges to the north-west, Callington Hill to the east, and Brukunga to the north. A magnificent sloping valley of fertility leads the eye to the township in the near distance. View more photographs here.
On the northern tail, a quarry saw the first major assault on the mount, although this did not affect the general ambiance of the experience for those accessing via the track. All of this was to change; in 1984. One day while driving up the track I noticed that a trench had been dug along the left side of the road. I was curious about this, but became more alarmed when I read in the Mount Barker Courier that a police communications tower was to be erected. There was no further information, either of location, height, what procedure had been undertaken to allow a tower on the site, or anything at all; yet the work proceeded. One day I discussed the tower proposal with a fiery red headed lady friend of mine, who had a passion for environmental causes, and the ability to inspire both dedicated commitment, and unmitigated hatred.
We considered calling a public meeting, to which we would invite members of the State Government; in particular the Department of the Environment and Planning, the Mount Barker Council, and representatives of the Police to reveal the details of the proposed tower. Within a couple of days, Aurora was on television declaring the summit a ‘Sacred Site’.
I never had any doubt about the summit being an important and significant place for the Aboriginal People, and had in fact taken a group of Warlpiri men from the Tanami Desert community of Yuendumu (300ks north-west of Alice Springs) to the summit when I met them in Mount Barker a couple of years earlier. I had been running a taxi in Mount Barker from my Littlehampton home, and was surprised to pick up the group from the Hotel Barker one night. They had come south to accompany a group of women who were performing ceremonial dancing in Adelaide for a period. (Yuendumu being a ‘dry’ community, they were also taking advantage of the opportunity to enjoy a few beers.) I got to know these very traditional men quite well over the next few days, but never dreamed that I would be living and working in an adjoining community to theirs less than ten years later, but that is another story. View more photographs here.
In 1984, eight years before the stunning Mabo decision gave recognition to land rights for Aboriginal people, Aurora’s flame-haired statement was analogous to a red rag to a bull. My determination right from the outset was to defend the summit from this intrusion as much as possible, to make the instigators answerable, and in the event that a tower did go ahead, to make such a fuss about it that no one would ever dare to try to erect another. I intended to fight the tower from a local environmental point of view, but an early rising tide of Aboriginal activism and awareness was to envelope the issue, and in the process, to reveal a deep seated sliver of racism and ignorance from a wide range of the community; a community which had never had their ‘right’ to take the land off of the original inhabitants questioned.
There was a particular night for me, which I recall as the hinge around which my reality was to swing over the next few months, but effectively for the rest of my life. I had arranged to visit Aurora this night, with the intention of formally organising the public meeting we had discussed previously. I was at home feeling totally buggered, and telling myself that I didn’t have the energy to take the issue any further, and decided to stay at home. I was still running my taxi service, and the phone rang. The customer wanted a ride from Mount Barker to Wistow, a rare destination, but one which took me past Aurora’s house. I completed my fare, but as I neared her house on my return journey, I was still intending to go straight home. As I passed the house, the headlights fell on Aurora’s cat; dead on the road – run over since I had passed by some twenty minutes earlier.
I pulled over, picked up the cat, and knocked on the door.
“I have some bad news for you.” I said.
“My cat has been run over.” she said.
We dug a hole in her yard, and as we patted the soil down, a bird whistled.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“It’s a willie wagtail, the Aboriginal harbinger of death,” she said.
“That’s not the wagtail,” I said, but even as I uttered the words the answering familiar ‘chitter’ came. We went inside, and organised a public meeting.
Over the next few days, we booked the supper room of the Littlehampton Institute, and invited the various parties to to the meeting, planned for a week or so later. I would travel up to the summit daily, and was disturbed to see that the work was continuing apace. At about this time I began writing letters to the Courier, expressing my concern for the integrity of the summit. I learnt that the Mount Barker Council had initially knocked back the Police Department’s application to erect the tower, but they had been bullied, and informed that they might as well agree, or they would be over-ruled on the decision. The Council complied, with the proviso that the tower should be erected in the upper car park rather than on the very top.
Now on my daily visits to the mount, it became obvious that a huge concrete slab would be poured any time soon. A large square of earth had been evacuated, and steel shuttering was in place in readiness for the pour. We had had no response to our invitations from the officials, and it seemed that the slab would be in place before our meeting took place, rendering it pointless, and allowing us and the community in general to be treated with contempt.
I rang a lawyer (who is now a judge) and asked if there was any way the work could be delayed, and he said that if there was a question of it being an important Aboriginal site, one could contact the Aboriginal Legal Rights Services. He gave me the phone number, and I passed it on to Aurora.
A day or two later I called in on Aurora. She had been busy. Despite a rabid response to her television appearance, Aurora had addressed the South Australian Trades Union Council, and pleaded with them to use whatever means they could to ensure a fair go for the Aboriginal cause in regard to the Summit. The union agreed, but insisted that a picket line needed to be formed, comprising Aboriginal people. To my amazement Aurora informed me that a group which included Aboriginal artist Bluey Roberts, the famous Police tracker Jimmy James, Ngarrindjeri elder and historian Paul Kropinnyerri, and various relatives would be arriving at Mount Barker at midnight: and could I guide them up to the summit in the darkness to set up their camp when they arrived? This I did.
What mere words can express the outrage and hysteria which broke out over the next days, weeks and months? Workers who turned up the next morning found the narrow track to the upper car park blocked by two vehicles and a rough stone wall, a makeshift ‘wurley’ next to a tree on the track, Aboriginal men, women and children, and the Aboriginal flag draped overhead.
The newspapers, television stations and local media swarmed like flies, and the issue had immediately been transformed from an environmental dispute, into literally, a black and white issue. At home my phone rang hot, and many locals told me that they were against the tower being erected, but would not get involved because of the involvement of the Aboriginals. Furthermore, a line was now being run that those Aboriginal people who were now camped on the summit for what turned out to be for months, were being manipulated by white activists. This was the prevailing climate when a crowd of around sixty people gathered in the Littlehampton Institute a few days later. I was the mug standing up front hoping to keep order.
There were no spokespeople of the various authorities we had invited to inform us of the dimensions and ramifications of the tower, although a couple of Mount Barker Councillors were there in an unofficial role. A day or two before the meeting, Aurora told me that a local who was active in organising slide-shows wanted to open the meeting with a presentation. I had seen a show by this man previously, which in that case was predominately focused on the threat of nuclear annihilation, and I was concerned that a slideshow might be unsuitable for the occasion, but Aurora prevailed, and I relented with the proviso it should be kept short.
The lights were dimmed, and a slide and music presentation, focused on the environment, whatever its ascetic merits, rolled interminably on, until many members of the audience began yelling angrily that this was not what they were there for. Sensing a disastrous start to the night, I killed the show by switching on the lights, and turned to face a hall full of angry people yelling at each other.
I immediately announced that if people were going to conduct themselves in that manner there was no point in holding a meeting, and I would be walking out. The crowd quietened down, and despite the dearth of any new information due to the lack of officials, the general concept and known facts were discussed somewhat civilly for awhile, but I knew I had to introduce Aurora, the ‘spokesperson’ for the Aboriginal people, and when I did the mood changed dramatically.
Predictably, Aurora was accused of manipulating the Aboriginal people, of being a self appointed spokesperson, and of ‘beating up a phony sacred site’. When asked why there were no Aboriginal people at the meeting, she replied that they did not want to be subjected to white racism. The meeting eventually struggled to a finish, with little civility, more heat than light, a standard of debate and discussion set in stone, and a paucity of information which was to set the tone for the whole sorry story. More pics here.
Now it was war. The police never addressed a single public meeting throughout the dispute, and were obviously pissed off that anyone, let alone trades unions, Blackfellows, and ‘greenies’ should dare to question their authority. They quickly determined that the key to their quest for the erection of the tower was to convince the Aboriginal people to relent, whereupon the union ban would be lifted, the tower erected, and the rest could ‘go jump’.
Further complicating matters, Paul Kropinyeri asked me to pass on a letter he had written to the already hostile Mount Barker Courier, in which he referred to white people using the summit like a ‘cesspit.’ Because of the hostility I was getting on the phone and wherever I went in the community, I held the letter back. When I told him this, he went very cold on me, and we were never close after that. I submitted the letter the following week, but it was never printed.
Meanwhile, the shuttering for the base was removed, and eventually, the hole filled in.
For the next few months a motley mixture of visitors trooped up to the summit. Many were supporters, many were hostile. Mini-buses of Aboriginal kids visited, as did Northern Territory Aboriginals, politicians, louts, and everything in between. A very dominant presence was that of the police. Jimmy James of course, was a police tracker, extremely famous for the cases he had helped the police with. He had tracked lost kids, escaped convicts, criminals, and was feted in South Australian newspapers and media. He was a Pitjantjatjara man from South Australia’s far north, but had married a Ngarrindjeri woman, so became a relative by marriage to Bluey Roberts, who to some extent was taught some of Jimmy’s skills. I was disgusted therefore, to observe a police Aboriginal liaison officer telling Jimmy that the Police had ‘lost respect’ for him, because of his stand.
Now the dispute ground on, for month after month. The weather grew colder, and a small group of three local whites, (including Aurora) and the Aboriginal group negotiated with the Police. Opposition politicians flayed the Government for not getting the tower erected, the Courier editorialised mercilessly against the protesters, and when Paul and Aurora formed a relationship, even my communication with her became more remote. I continued to write letters to the Courier, all of which were printed, and even managed to get a one-on-one meeting with the Minister for Planning and Environment. He milked me for information while he devoured some Kentucky Fried chicken, and dismissed me curtly when he had finished. The dispute was going no-where, but neither was the tower.
Eventually, having camped on the summit for months, the protesters moved back to their homes. They left in place the wurleys they had built, and the odd bits of furniture they had gathered. This stuff was soon scattered and thrown about, and the Courier was soon on the spot, photographing the ‘mess’ and lambasting the protestors for rubbishing the summit. One day I opened the Adelaide Advertiser, and read that the Government had decided not to build a tower on the mount, and would find a suitable alternative.
I rang Aurora, to express my delight, though her response was muted. I should have paid more attention to the final paragraph in the article referring to ‘further discussions continuing’. The next day I read that a tower would be erected on the summit, but a higher one, on the lower car park. I was furious, and I let Aurora know it.
Eventually the terms of the agreement, and to some extent the pressures applied emerged. A major component of the debate revolved around the safety of the public, especially in light of the devastating Ash Wednesday bush-fires preceding the dispute. An anthropological survey was promised, and a plaque in recognition of the Aboriginal prior occupation and significance was to be erected. Areas would be landscaped, and the upper car park would be closed to vehicles. The tower was to be erected in the centre of the lower car park.
At this stage myself and some other defenders of the summit called another public meeting, this time on the mount, and to which I again invited the various parties once more to advise the public as to the size of, the use of, and the impact on the mount. All of my invitees refused to attend. In frustration I built a dummy, and dressed it in a keystone cop uniform, and covered it with a sheet. When I was attacked for having the temerity to call the meeting I explained that I simply wanted the authorities, for the first time, to address the concerned public, and I whipped the sheet off the dummy and announced that “This is the only representative we could get”, to yells of outrage.
The mayor of the day announced that he hadn’t been invited to attend, and I responded by saying that I had spoken to the council engineer who had flatly rejected my invitation earlier that day. We then tried to pass a resolution condemning the Government, the Police, and the Courier, but the resolution failed to pass. At least I had tried to utilise some semblance of democracy throughout the fight, no-one else had. During the meeting, the man responsible for the quarry which still scars the northern ridge, informed me that “The Dreamtime is over, Bob.”
There is no doubt that the pressures applied to the group were enormous, but to have come so close to stopping it then relenting, was devastating. To cap it off, I rang the copper in charge of the tower’s erection, and asked him why the old concrete base which was used near the quarry site for a tower, years earlier, was not considered a suitable alternative site. To my amazement, he did not know of this location, and had ‘thought’ the quarry tower was on the summit proper.
Parts of the agreement were kept, but there was an attempt to locate the tower not in the centre of the car park, but on a corner to one side. I noticed and reported the excavations, and the union bans were on again. Finally the tower was erected in the centre of the park. More photos can be seen here.
It looms there to this day. When it was erected there was one building, now there are three. It is now twenty metres higher than first promised. Because of the extra height, stabilising cables were attached. The bases of the cables had to be protected, so mesh wire cages were erected around them. But I believe there it ends. My original goal of fighting to the finish was accomplished, and I don’t believe there will ever be another attempt to erect a tower on the summit. Indeed, I sometimes hear crazy ideas about a lease running out, and the tower being removed, but that is a wish too far for me.
Today, councils fly the Aboriginal flag, and the traditional owners are acknowledged. Monuments are erected, and the respect for Aboriginal culture is greater than it has ever been. That status has been accomplished due to many battles fought long ago (especially Mabo) by brave people like Aurora, like Bluey Roberts, Paul Kropinyeri, and their families. And, god bless him, Jimmy James. He deserved better.
I don’t consider myself to be a religious person, but I do have a very strong link with the Shady Grove Unitarian Church, set amongst a bush block off dirt roads near Littlehampton. There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, there is a strong family connection with the place. My Great Great Grandfather on my Mother’s side, Frederick Charles Smith was the ‘Preacher’ for many years, and a member of one of the original families who built and established the church. Frederick and his wife are buried in the adjoining Shady Grove Cemetery, as are both of my parents. In addition, the founder of the church, and the man who donated the land is also my Great Great Grandfather on my Mother’s side. My Mother’s Father was Cecil Smith, grandson of F. C. Smith, and son of Ernest Alfred Smith. Ernest Alfred married Editha Monks, the daughter of the founder of the church, John Monks.
The Unitarians are not set in their ways. They do not use the word Christian in their definition, and although they consider Jesus as a special person whose values they respect, they do not accept the Trinity, the Resurrection or ‘Son of God’ as part of their beliefs. Indeed the Unitarians have no fixed dogma at at all. Thus one may attend a service which contains the music of Bach, readings from Buddist texts, or anything from the wide range of human discourse and philosophy.
Accordingly, I was not surprised, but certainly delighted when I heard that a traditional Aboriginal ‘smoking’ ceremony was to be held as a part of a recent service at the church. In particular, the smoking was to be conducted by a descendant of the traditional Peramangk occupants of the Mount Lofty Ranges, Ivan Tiwu Copley. I had met Ivan on many previous occasions, mostly when he was presiding at events which commemorated the Peramangk people, something which has become increasingly regular I am happy to say, after an embarrassing silence of more than 150 years.
After a short but dignified service, which featured the music of Gurrumul, Ivan gave a talk on the Peramangk, before exiting and lighting his fire in a traditional ‘coolamon’. He wafted the smoke over the people with the feathers of the black cockatoo and a wedge-tailed eagle as they left the church, then smoked the interior after it was empty. We then moved to the adjoining hostel for more smoking and a feed. It was a deeply significant and moving afternoon, and much appreciated by the congregation of thirty odd people.
It was a pleasure to see Ivan bridging the gap between two aspects of life in the hills which I have had a lifelong interest in. He was involved for example, in the installation of of a large and beautiful Peramangk sign along the south-eastern freeway, which greets visitors as they pass the nearby Mount Barker Summit and enter the heart of the traditional Peramangk land.
Finally, inspired by last Sunday’s experience, I did some more research on my ancestors’ involvement with Shady Grove, and I was delighted to discover that Frederick Charles Smith was the driving force behind the erection of the memorial to Captain Collet Barker in the township, in 1903.
I have had a life long fascination with Collet Barker, and have done a lot of research on him. Barker was a very close friend of Aboriginal people both at Raffles Bay in the Northern Territory, where he was stationed in 1828, and at King Georges Sound in Western Australia, in 1829-30, (modern Albany) before he was speared to death at the Murray Mouth in 1831. Kangaroo Island sealers were responsible for this tragedy, as they had been mistreating the mainland people, who took their revenge out on the innocent Barker. (For more information on Collet Barker, see my ‘In Search of Collet Barker’ blog category).
I also discovered that Frederick Charles and I share a common birthday, the 24th June.
I didn’t shed a tear for Elvis when he died, even though I had been a fan since 1956 when I first saw Loving You. That was Elvis at his best, before ‘Colonel’ Tom Parker dumbed him down; and even though he made something of a come-back after 1969, he never re-captured the raw talent he had before he went into the army, and before he made the string of crappy movies which made money but sullied his career. For a while he came back, but a descent into obesity, drug abuse and increasingly mediocre performances, in my eyes, saw his death as a relief from his demons.
The announcement of Jimmy Little’s death today however, brought a flood of tears. There are two very strong memories of Jimmy for me. One was a performance at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Adelaide in 1999, when the then 63 year old performed with poise and humanity, in a cabaret style backed by a full orchestra, which empathised his wonderful golden voice, and his suprememe humanity. It was a polished and confident display of talent, and I swear he was wearing that gold sequined jacket of Elvis’s at the time, but perhaps that’s just the impression I got on the night.
The second, and perhaps the most endearing memory of Jimmy was in 2000, at Raukkaan on Lake Albert, when a large gathering of Aboriginal talent celebrated the culture and history of this Ngarrindjeri community. It was not Jimmy’s stage performance I remember, so much as later, when he strolled amongst a group of seated elders, mostly women, and for at least an hour entertained them with a huge variety of songs, unaccompanied except for his acoustic guitar, and that huge dose of humanity. He delighted in the pleasure he brought to that tiny audience, but it was obvious to anyone there that these were the qualities he delivered in spades to every performance. But this was simply a wonderful example of his love for his people, and I have no doubt, of his love for all people.
There is no-one for whom the epithet ‘Gentle-man’ is more appropriate. Dylan Thomas thought we should ‘Rage, rage against the dying of the light’ but I don’t think it was in Jimmy’s demeanor. I trust he died gently, for that is certainly how we shall remember him.
Willow Bank was fifty acres of farmland on an eastern facing slope. There were nine main paddocks, my favourite being the ‘top’ paddock, which was still partly wooded, including many large gum trees. Right in the middle, with a commanding outlook across a valley to a couple more farms was the farmhouse. Behind the farmhouse was a smattering of sheds, the largest being the hay-shed, the rear of which was a tall corrugated iron structure, while the single story to the front of it had timber slabs for walls. Another shed, with a couple of ‘bails’ for milking cows by hand, was also of wooden slab construction. At one end of this shed was a full blacksmith’s compliment of utensils, with an anvil, and a coke-burning ‘forge’ which heated steel to almost white hot when air was cranked through it. Tongs and heavy hammers completed the outfit. At the other end of this shed was a chaff cutter. Behind the milking shed was a dam, which collected the run-off from the top paddock. A windmill also fed the dam from a bore, and this was the main water source for the farm. House water was supplied by tanked rainwater from the house and shed roofs. There was also a small spring-fed dam amongst the southern paddocks, which seemed to be full all year long. A deep well at the front of the house rounded out the water supply.
There was also the stone barn, which served as a garage for the car, a workshop, and a repository for all manner of interesting junk. A loft above housed even more interesting stuff, turning up old shotguns, powder flasks and ball bearings, old photographs and so on. The barn would also later serve as the table tennis room. Beneath the barn at the downhill end, was a small damp room which served as a cool house, and below that a cellar containing a milk separator and a butter churn. A brick shithouse serviced by a large bucket, which required emptying into a hole every month or so, stood lonely at the back. A small section of the back verandah contained a bath, for which water was heated as it ran through a cylinder, through the centre of which a flue, heated by wood chips ran.
The house was built of solid stone, with four main rooms, a separate kitchen out the back, and my parent’s sleep-out on the front verandah, elevated because of the slope of the land, and served by a set of concrete steps enclosed in curved borders. Leaning on the rail on the verandah one overlooked the ‘lucerne paddock’, a railway line which ran slightly uphill to the left and separated the farm from Junction Road which ran past below, and the rolling farmland opposite. Mount Barker’s wooded summit peeked over the horizon from three miles away as one glanced to the right, and further to the right – a quarter of a mile away, the soporific village of Littlehampton nestled in its valley, albeit somewhat disturbed by the interstate traffic to and from Victoria along the Princess Highway which split the town. Littlehampton was light years from the dramas I had endured over the previous seven or eight years, but in a very real sense represented my true homecoming.
1956 looms large, even today, as the year I moved back to the town of my birth. It was the year of the Olympic Games in Melbourne, the year I was happy at my school and making friends, and the year I realised I was more capable at school-work than my miserable experience at Grange Primary had led me to believe. Magazines such as Pix, which was pure Australiana, featured photos of the huge Murray River flood of that year, which saw the river swell to miles in width, and the towns along its length drowned in metres of water. Pix also featured Aussie tales of crocodile hunters, Australian humour and bikini babes.
It was like a re-birth for me after the years in hospital, and although there was always some torment about my affliction, I generally made friends, and eventually threw away my crutches and splint, and became much fitter, even participating in chasing the Aussie Rules footy around, playing cricket, (badly) and eventually playing competitive tennis, (I developed a rocket serve which compensated for my lack of agility somewhat.)
This idyllic period however, was to suffer a rude interruption. I was told that I would be going into hospital again in 1957, for an operation on my hip. I guess it was necessary, because my left hip had been ravaged by the TB, and now that new drugs had the disease under control, the intention was to stabilise the joint by fusing it to the pelvis. This, as it turned out, resulted in a shortening of my withered left leg by more inches, and of course resulting in a life-time of restricted movement. Sadly, I recall one day at the school before the operation, when I ran freely on the oval, impressively enough for a friend to comment on it. I never ran freely again after 1957.
My recollections of hospital life were not so far removed from my memory as to make me sanguine about returning; it was an extremely traumatic experience after my taste of freedom. I was returned to the Adelaide Children’s Hospital, and as we still owned the house at Grange, my mother was able to visit easily.
There was no anticipation of the severe pain to follow, and I went into the operation with wide eyed innocence, even to the point of naivety when they shaved both my left hip and my right shin.
“Why are you shaving my shin?” I asked. “They like to keep the area clean,” was the bland answer.
A shy young parson who came to visit me the day before the operation, intrigued me with his nervousness, rather than alarmed me. The next day I was wheeled into the operating theatre in a semi-drugged state, and hours later I woke up with excruciating pain in both my left hip and my right shin, and clad in plaster from my waist to the toes of both legs. My mother was there.
“Why does my right leg hurt too?”
“They took some bone from your right shin, to help to splice your hip into place.”
As bad as the pain was, there was an even deeper hurt at not being told what my operation would entail.
Now that I had had a taste of home, a hospital bed was intolerable, and what seemed to be weeks of pain killers, enemas and lousy food was eased a little by an escape into Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I floated down the river with Huck and Jim, and longed for the days of a similar freedom.
I finally went home, still clad in plaster for another month, and when it was finally cut off and I began to painfully move about, had to suffer the trauma of being put into plaster again for a month, though only on the left leg this time, as the knitting had not established itself sufficiently. Finally I found myself back at Littlehampton School again, my left hip forever fixed in place, and the leg considerably shortened. For weeks the slightest bump on my leg caused sharp pain, but gradually the pain eased. One day a bone shattering bump from a lad I was playing footy with (keep-the-ball-away-from-the-other-team game) dumped me squarely on my hip. I guess it was my punishment for playing the part of a double agent, pretending I was on one side, then claiming victory as I clasped the ball when the recess siren sounded. For weeks every move was sheer agony, but I never said a word to any one. There was no way I was going into either hospital or plaster again.
At the same time as I was emerging from my incarcerations, rock ‘n roll was rattling the windows and kicking at the doors, and humanity rocked into the second half of the century. Youth snarled at the ‘squares’ and the squares tried to ignore us as they worked at blowing the planet into the next millennium.
One Thursday evening I attended ‘picture night’ at the Littlehampton War Memorial Institute, to see a movie called “Loving You”.
Here a black-haired blue-jeaned punk with a sneer on his face, a pelvis out of control and a voice like a coyote howling at the moon, said it all for us. For a few fleeting years, Elvis was God. Thrust into the glare of the public gaze, a legend barely out of his teens, Elvis was The King. Then Uncle Sam called him into National Service, and Elvis, at the bidding of the crook who managed him, did the all-American boy trick, and allowed himself to be shipped off to Germany for two years, as his Mother died.
When he returned, ‘Colonel’ Tom Parker signed him up for a string of crappy movies for eight years, and although Elvis made a triumphant come-back in 1969, the boy’s career had been handed a severe back-hander. I slicked back my greasy hair, threw a sneer on my face, tightened my jeans and told myself I was tough.
Back on the farm I pursued the obsession with guns I had nurtured over the years, a legacy of all the cowboy comics I had consumed no doubt. My brother Dean, and Dad were both rabbit shooters, and rabbit was often consumed at our table, along with the sheep Dad would kill and dress and hang in the cellar. I would rise with the sun, and take my single-shot .22 and dog ‘Ruff’ off into the bush in the hills behind our farm. I now realise that I never really enjoyed the killing of rabbits, but the long walks in the early light were wonderful. One day I topped a familiar ridge and found that the bush-covered valley had disappeared, and had been replaced by a shining ocean dotted with islands. It took a while to realise that the ocean was a sea of mist, and the islands the tops of trees.
Sometimes, when least expected, a fox and I would meet, and for a moment we would gaze at each other in amazement, then the fox would turn and streak away at incredible speed before I could raise my rifle above my hip.
On the farm we milked three or four cows, a job Dean would usually do, and I would turn the separator. Skim milk would go to the pigs, and fresh cream would be sold to Jacobs milk and cheese factory. About three hundred chooks would roam the farm laying eggs where we made nests for them, and often in nests they made for themselves. I would usually collect the eggs when I came home from school, gathering them in a cane basket. Mum would raise calves with buckets, which would be sold for beef when they matured and we also had sheep on the farm. Dad would also grow potatoes, which had to be artificially watered, and he would spend hours moving the aluminium pipes along for the next section, before running the motorised pump from the dam to feed the sprinklers.
The pigs were always a drama. Often we would come home from an outing to discover that that they had all escaped their pens (mostly wooden constructions assembled from old car crates the Old Man had gotten hold of). The pigs would somehow nose their way out, and the seven of us would spend the next hour or two trying to round them up. On one occasion a pig eluded us all for what seemed like hours, but finally, exhausted, it flopped under a sprinkler in the vegetable garden. We had to drag it from the mud and flop it into a wheel-barrow to return it to its pen.
After exploring various options, Mum and Dad selected a Rayburn stove for the kitchen. This slow combustion stove could cook, bake, and heat water for the home, and would rarely go unlit, dampened down at night and fired up for breakfast in the morning. The firewood was gathered from wood-fall on the farm, and carted to the saw-bench, a large jagged circular blade sitting at its centre, which was spun by a belt on a pulley driven from the pulley on the old Farmall tractor. I would pass the branches to Dad, he’d cut them into lengths with the screaming steel and the tractor roaring in unison, and throw the wood into a heap, which would then be carted down to the house and stacked in the wood-box.
Discussion of the Rayburn brings back a painful childhood memory. A second cousin had married a great guy called Ken Hoppy. I recall their marriage, their many visits to the farm in his sparkling FJ Holden, the birth of their child, and the many ways he helped to contribute to the running of the farm. A real handyman, Ken installed all the copper pipes which conducted the hot water from the Rayburn through the house. He also built a table tennis table for us, which was carted up from Adelaide when completed, and set up in the barn. In those days before television, we would spend many many hours learning to whack that little white ball at each other, eventually resulting in myself, Flossy (Lynette) and Dean all playing competitively in the years to come.
Ken always seemed to be laughing. He would also come out in his FJ shooting rabbits with us, particularly on the Callington Back Road, a nearby dirt track I still rumble along often to this day.
One day cousin Dot rang the farm to ask if we had seen Ken, as he had not been home for many days, a complete mystery. Then one day Mum took a phone call, and I knew immediately that he was dead. It transpired that Ken had driven to the Callington Back Road in his beloved FJ, put a hose from the exhaust through a window, and turned on the radio and started the engine. No explanation for this was ever forthcoming. Nothing could have upset childhood innocence more than this total shock.
Usually I would walk home from the school at Littlehampton, a meander along the bitumen road which had creek beds to explore and various childhood diversions. Once, under a bridge which crossed the creek, I found some watermelons. I took some home, and boasted of my find, only to be taken aside by brother Dean to be informed that they were ‘his’, a result of some midnight excursions with his mates. (Dean was driving at this stage, and doing a motor mechanic apprenticeship at Gilbert Motors).
One day I was picked up by a friendly young man in an old jalopy, and given a ride right up to the door of the farmhouse. It turned out that the young man, who lived on one of the farms across the road, had noticed my sister Yvonne, and was taking the opportunity to get to know her by taking me home. They dated for a while, although his failure to secure his car on the slope at the rear of our farm-house resulted in it careering into the house one day. ‘Bob’ became quite close to the family over the years, although we all agreed in the end that Yvonne was well rid of him.
What mere words can sum up the joy though, of living at Willow Bank? I always liked to sing, and would roam around in the paddocks singing to myself a lot. I practised remembering the words of songs. There were a lot of Elvis’s songs, but also Roy Orbison, Del Shannon, all the major artists of the day, but perhaps a song of a completely different nature sums up that period of my life better than any other. I might have had a rifle in my hand, but I would pause on a hill overlooking Littlehampton, and sing to myself the following song, a more sedate hit of the day.
“There’s a village, hidden deep in the valley,
Among the pine trees half forlorn,
And there on a sunny morning,
Little Jimmy Brown was born.
All the chapel bells were ringing,
In the little country town,
And the song that they were singing,
Was for baby Jimmy Brown…..”
And the song of birth, life, love, marriage and death wasn’t Jimmy Brown’s song, but my song.
And Littlehampton was my village.