Reprint: Our Own Writers: Belltoppers and Moleskins by Nettie Palmer

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Looking back over our hundred years, as we have lately been taught to do, we may be struck by the appearance of maturity, or at least of "grown-upness," in the early figures that chiefly catch the eye. Ladles in large and formal dress, gentlemen in belltopper and appropriate whiskers; houses with the term"gentleman's residence" written all over them-these are what we see when we pore over a record such as E. M. Robb's "Early Toorak and District," or that more recent treasure trove, "Georgiana's Journal." Each man described was a gentleman, a mister Whether in a town mansion or a station homestead he would never forget the social order; he and his friends, exiles from far-away countries would ever attempt to reproduce and sustain the ways of the different world they had left. Fashions in clothes, art, or literature would take some time to arrive here, and they would be all the more respected. Culture was something imported at great expense. If you painted, your subject -- unless it were a portrait or unless you were the sensitive Georgiana Mccrae -- would be a stag by a Yorkshire ford or an angel in Italy. If you wrote, literature was something abstract, a commentary on what had been brought to you by the mail; you wrote with your blinds down, your eyes averted from the scene. Or if, indeed, you decided to write some chapter of colonial experiences, a Peter Possum's Portfolio or Christopher Cockle's experiences you were carefully facetious and wrote as a Gulliver in Lilliput; in short, you were a belltopper.

Two solid books on Australian literature written in 1866 by G. B. Barton for   the International Exhibition in France -the whole thing is incredible enough -- show us the literary intentions of the period. One called "Literature in New South Wales" is devoted to specimens of work, but apart from Wentworth's early verse and a long descriptive poem by Charles Harpur there is little to make a reader remember that he is in a new country. There is distinct avoidance of atmosphere, the prose is rhetorical, abstract, above all imitative and sterile. Barton himself has unusually constructive ideas and a forthright style in the companion volume he even lays down propositions and makes demands still ahead of us in 1934 -- that we ought immediately to have literary and general reviews, build- ing up an intellectual life of our own. When he said that we needed more vigorous and firsthand intellectual experiences he knew what he was asking, for had he not been reading through all that had been produced here? He seemed to suggest that it was not enough to keep the world safe for imported belltoppers; that, in fact, we needed to grow up. Indeed those early writers, as we now see them, perhaps unkindly, seem like children playing "Father." They were not grown up; too many of them were for avoiding the real problems of this new world and of life in general. As colonials, not yet Australians, they were for making a fortune and going home with it.

The Old Bush Songs

Meanwhile, outside the view of these litterateurs, certain people were beginning to grow up. Bushmen in moleskins, scrambling for wood and water and the means of existence, miners and bullock-drivers, overlanders and informal explorers of all sorts -- these were the youth of Australia, their words the expression of a fumbling adolescence. You sometimes hear them still if you find one of the old bush songs, in its half comical roughness, suggesting a boy's voice breaking. Outrageous as they must have seemed to the frock-coated gentlemen, whose own words were a preservative of recognised cultural commodities, these old songs often harked back to more ancient traditions, those of the broadsheet ballad and its mysteriously anonymous predecessors. These bush songs are disappearing. Having an inkling of one of them, I asked more than once if any wireless listener could reclaim it, and this was recently done by taking the words down gradually from the memory of an old man who had not heard or sung them for 50 years.  This song without an author has a theme as old as the Crusaders at least-that of the young woman willing to dress as a page and go with her lover to the wars, the crusade of the bush being the industrial struggle. The transposition is grotesque, but by no means a parody; there is at least adolescent seriousness.

    Oh! hark, the dogs are barking,
      I can no longer stay.  
   The men they are out mustering,    
      I heard the squatter say.
   I am off down to Yanko,
      Though it's many a weary mile,
   And I'll meet the Sydney shearers    
      On the banks of the Condamine.

   Oh! Willy, lovely Willy,
      I'll go along with you,  
   I'll cut off all the auburn fringe  
      And be a shearer, too.  
   I'll shear and keep your tally, love,
      While ringer-o you shine,  
   And I'll wash your greasy moleskins out
      On the banks of the Condamine.

   Oh, Nancy, dear, oh, Nancy,
      With me you cannot go.
   The squatter he gave orders, love,
      No woman should do so.
   For your delicate constitution
      Is not equal unto mine.
   To stand the constant tigering
      On the banks of the Condamine.

There may be variant readings, there may be more verses; but such is the Condamine ballad, arising from the moleskins, the bushmen. Between the gentlemanly, retarding rhetoric of writers such as Richard Rowe and the rough-and-tumble illiteracy of these eager campfire balladists, how was a literature to emerge? Gordon, for all we can regret in him, did at times, as in "To the Wreck," achieve almost an impossible reconciliation of the two; but a genuine literature would have to discard more than it could retain from such beginnings. It would retain from the derivative sterility of the colonial gentleman only his respect for our literary inheritance: "Let us not lightly cast aside anything that belongs to the Past, for only with the Past can we rear the fabric of the Future." It would retain from the inconsequence of the balladists their feeling for romance, "quod semper, quod ubique"; also the spirit of a new comradeship, of what Lawson in his stories was to call mateship, and what Tom Collins in "Such is Life," was to make the corner-stone of his philosophy. This was only at the close of the last century when for the most part the gentlemen had discarded frock coats and belltoppers in favour of unimposing sacs and felts, while the bushmen, glowing self-conscious in regard to their naive songs, were represented by deliberate verse-writers, who used and adapted their refrains. Someone was needed to appreciate at the same time the two origins,   the belltoppers and the moleskins; to show that there was an exercise for intellect, for subtlety, for discrimination, in our own ways and works.  

An Expatriate's Lament

Did some colonial literary gentlemen, aghast at the prospect, write these words?:

An Australian to excel, has just ten times as much to learn as a European. We lack the deeper sense. We have neither taste nor tact nor power. How should we have them? Our crude and garish climate, our silent past, our deafening present, the constant pressure about us of unlovely circumstance, are as void of all that nourishes and prompts and inspires the artist, as my sad heart is void of bitterness in saying so!

No, the writer, of course, was Henry James, and he began with "An American," yet the parallel holds. When in another passage, writing to W. D. Howells, he lamented, as a restless expatriate, that America had no ivied churches, no Eton, no Westminster, no Royal Courts, no -- the list was enormous -- he asked, "With all these absent what is left?"

"What remains," said Howell stoutly, "what remains for us is simply the whole of life"; and he went on writing moderately well, his quiet novels that gave heart to later Americans to write better ones. The whole of life! Who was to show us that we too could share in the whole of life, and were not mere fugitive colonials clinging to a spot on its circumference? We have not been without our seers.

First published in The Argus, 16 February 1935

[Thanks to the National Library of Australia's newspaper digitisation project for this piece.]

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on October 5, 2012 7:05 AM.

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