Jan '03 [Home]


"Yer Mad, Yer Barstard!":  That Colorful Outback
by Patrick Henry

. . .

On the plane from London, I read The Fatal Impact, Alan Moorhead's study of Captain Cook, the Yorkshireman whose voyages discovered Australia, and, in the implication of this title, destroyed its outlandish, unique innocence by making it a British Colony, a convict settlement, and the Western Power it is today.

But here remains a lot of naïve innocence that I discovered for myself. Melbourne is refreshingly non-British, more like Italy, or even San Francisco. Quaint trams parallel cable-cars, passing tropical gardens, Greek, Italian and Chinese restaurants, the largest Greek population of any town outside Athens. The old town jail museum shows a realistic set-up of the hanging of Ned Kelly, the outlaw from Ireland, here finding his misfortune, grim reminder that if outlandish itself, Australia dealt harshly with those going too far that way.

The train took me to Sydney, where the station accommodation office said the town was full, but a cheap hostel would take me in and a truck pick me up outside shortly. In gloomy lamplight on the edge of the dark, roaring city, I was greeted by two brawny, badly dressed characters who seemed to recognise me. Humouring them cautiously, I tried to work this out. I was staying at Johnny Frenchman's hostel, they said, though I had not been there yet, and wondered if I would ever get anywhere again, from the attentions of this duo. Gradually I realised that they had not either, but had been told by the station office to look out for me to get the lift to the same hostel. The local manner spares introductions and gives the feeling of lifelong familiarity.

In the truck, they let me know they were sheep-shearers, the best in the state. I could not see them getting much work in this three million megapolis, but I was wrong. They were here for a big agricultural exhibition, and shearing competitions would take place. Fresh of mind, they were awkwardly nervous in the city they only visited every few years, like creatures of the outback, out of place here. They were going to sleep straight away to be ready for tomorrow, while I went out on the town. Heading home, I went into a late café for a pasta dish, and shared a man's table in the crowded joint. His eyes were shut and his lips muttering. I sat down anyway.

He woke up and said he had been praying. Was he a priest? His clothes were black, his beard clerical. No, but he had people under his roof risking trouble. In my father's house are many mansions, he added, as if a coda to his recent prayer. And could I buy him a coffee? In such a biblical atmosphere, it seemed churlish to refuse.

I had seen him before, but how? This déjà-vu sense must be spreading from the shearing men.Thinking of them snoring heartily now in the hostel, it sprang to mind who this prayer man was. It was Johnny Frenchman, who had registered me for a few dollars in his dim office hours before. Who were at risk under his roof? The sheep men? Myself? He read my mind and said that most regular residents there were local drug addicts or mental patients. He looked after them. He looked after everybody. That was why he never had any money left, even for another coffee.

In the daytime, Sydney looked like London: powerful, grey, arrogant and straight lined. The vast harbour dates from the landings of Cook and the subsequent convict ships, untouchables of an Empire destined to fashion a new white nation halfway across the globe. The new Opera House attracts many metaphors. A food-mixer from Disneyland occurred to me. I ignored it.

My sightseeing ended in King's Cross, the Hell's Kitchen of this city. A vast bar contained louche characters of both sexes, or maybe all three, trying to get dramatically drunk or pick each other up, and failing in everything. One claimed to be related to a famous cricketer, but was clearly not striking in that direction himself. He thought my planned trip to cover the country in two months was pointless. Out there was just desert, animals and lonely people. Here was the real country. I should stay in this bar for the duration. I turned down his suggestion and found myself a bus to the Great Barrier Reef.

The trip took two and a half days. Once out of Cairns harbour, Captain Perry confessed his boat was really owned by the bank. When it anchored, the Reef lay just feet below, ridges of coral threaded with strange marine creatures, including myself trying to scuba dive and snorkel without much success. Perry's agile First Mate rescued me. "We lose a few tourists each year," he told me. "Too reckless." I am unambitious enough to survive anywhere. Cook's ship was wrecked near here and he repaired it brilliantly. But he was not on my trip, that needed a lot of luck.

A safari bus from the coast drove through rainforests where we paused to swim under waterfalls, huge invigorating shower-cubicles, and later in a small town bar where a dreamy local was hanging out. "I'm travelling all of Australia," I said to him, making conversation. "Yer mad, yer barstard!" he responded, unabusively, in a trance-like mantra. "I've been all through Victoria, New South Wales, The Gold Coast, The Reef," I went on. "Yer mad, yer barstard!" he repeated. "I'm going through Queensland, Northern Territory, the mountains, the desert, the Transcontinental Railway, seventeen thousand miles to the end," I continued. "Yer mad, yer barstard!" was all he spoke. When the bar girl served me another drink, I told her I could get nothing out of this man. "Him?" she said. "He's mad, the barstard."

Despite threat of cyclones, we followed the old dirt cattle highway for fifteen hundred miles, over the axles in water, at times. Nightfall we reached camp at a café on a cattle station. The owner said last safari trip a vegetarian got off this bus and might as well have stayed on it—nothing here for him. Twenty-seven thousand head of cattle and trying to eat them all as rapidly as possible, by the look of the huge beef stew provided to us. No problem. Then, at the bar, I got a can of beer and asked for a glass. The boss said, "Last week, the vegetarian. Now you want a flamin' glass. We got none." He did find a pink plastic tooth beaker belonging to his wife. "Perfect," I said, and poured it full.

All next day we saw nobody on the trail but eagles, kangaroos, cathedral ant-hills fifteen feet high, termite mounds like sci-fi models, and a bulldozer driver occupied, like Hercules, with maintaining the road. "Loneliest job on earth. Kevin likes being on his own," the driver said, who was supposed to tell us about the old explorers if he could remember. I could and did so instead. Burke and Wills tried the first expedition to cross the continent in 1860. Their party split up, fell out and made errors, the leaders perished and the survivors went insane.

Emboldened by success, I said it was my birthday. The bus all sang the old song to me. In return, I read out my poem about Gallipoli that I had visited three years earlier, and where in World War I thousands of Aussies had died in the trenches due to a British error. Another matter to hold against Mother England, maybe the focus of it all.

Our bus terminated in Alice Springs, the only town for fifteen hundred miles. It controls the centre of the continent, The Flying Doctor Service, the University of the Air, radio education for pupils of all ages too far away from schools. Not even Wyoming is as sparsely populated as here.

Another Kevin met us in a bar. Only came to town to buy a newspaper he claimed, from a cattle place a thousand miles out, showing the page to prove it, a photo of his pal in a rodeo up there. He buys the supplies here once a month. A fifty thousand dollar shopping list, and it's a swine if you forget the flour or the soap. Driving in yesterday, his jeep hit a Broomby, a wild horse, so the vehicle needs fixing. He should have grabbed the horse to ride home, I thought. But it's dogmeat now.

I made trips to many mountains in the centre and the Northern Territory, often having rock pictures and writings, art and literature of the oldest people on the earth that are still amongst us, where they hang around the edge of towns on welfare, drinks and drugs, as in ethnic ghettos of New York or anyplace. But others live proudly out in tribes the same for forty thousand years, their code harsh and exact as the rock designs. Town trash dropouts are those expelled for their failures.


Then to Perth, the remotest and most perfect of the white cities, a wedding cake of Wasp achievement where the only dark, ethnic faces serve in cafés or sweep streets. From there, the train took me on the longest straight railway track on the globe, through the desert at Nullarbor, three days and nights back to Sydney.

We took all meals together; three of us, a New Zealand professor, a geologist from Idaho, and myself, each finding something familiar or contrasting in this crossing of the extreme of a dry, flat country. The waiter asked were we all acquainted before. No. That is the magic of this train. From photos of my paintings, the Idaho man bought two canvases that I would post to him.

The Kiwi professor turned his nose up at my work, but asked me about the royalty and structure of England. I do not relate to that. My people came from Ireland that the English starved, and had to drudge in their industry or fight their wars, or be convicted for stealing food and transported here to Australia. From this train of events stretched a vast landscape I had not yet painted and which seemed hardly yet ready to take a grasp of itself, a land still in the making, raw and awkward as a creature never yet contained.

(Poet Patrick Henry is the magazine's chief contributing editor in the U.K. A Yorkshireman, he leaves in April for another extended residence in Australia. All images are reproduced from his paintings.)