‘The Speewah Ballad’

Australian poet and author Peter Nicholson writes 3 Quarks Daily’s Poetry and Culture column (see other columns here). There is an introduction to his work at peternicholson.com.au and at the NLA.

Since one should always take art seriously (Duchamp, anyone?), there is always the danger of then taking yourself terribly seriously too. Therein lies the error. You must laugh at yourself and the world. That is essential. Laughter is, as is said, the best medicine.

I guess I’ve seen the episode of Seinfeld where Elaine thinks she’s contracted rabies several times now, yet it still makes me laugh out loud. ‘I don’t need you to tell me what I don’t want, you stupid, hipster doofus!’ she barks at Kramer when he tells her that she doesn’t want to get rabies because it can be fatal. Please don’t give me any guff about being ‘oppressed’ by American cultural product. I’m quite capable of recognising Elmer Gantry when he comes in through the door, or the screen. There may not be any laughs when listening to Mahler, and you unlikely to guffaw in the middle of Kafka, but art is contradictory in that way. Often, in implausible places, laughter can get hold of you and bring you haughty stares. Getting overcome by a sense of the ridiculous at some earnest art installation; Queen of the Night journalists who think they are remedying, rather than discussing, complex problems with their columns; some chefs, having mistaken themselves for artists, making a giant fuss about meals you wouldn’t feed to a brown dog; fashionista stick insects dressed in clothes that might have been lifted from an alley bin—everyone could go on to make their own list. We need satirists to show us our foolishness, nowhere more so than in our political certainties or lifestyle choices. For example, there seems to be a new fashion amongst some for going up into space with astronauts, or getting ‘buried’ in space. Can’t you see the comic possibilities here. ‘I’d like to walk on Mars on your next expedition.’ ‘O.K. That’ll be 50 gazillion dollars thanks.’  Having done a comprehensive job of wrecking everything on Earth, manimal goes forth in his/her quest for future dominance. What a prospect. Let’s hope the newly-discovered earth ‘double’ isn’t too close for comfort. 

Have a look at Uncyclopedia—the ‘content-free’ encyclopaedia—sometime, the parody of Wikipedia. You encounter some very politically-incorrect writing, but we’re all grown up enough to get past that, aren’t we. Try the article on the slate industry in Wales. If that doesn’t give you a laugh, not much will, though humour is, like everything else, a matter of taste.   

Australian humour tends to be cynical of established orders or of anyone who is seen as getting above themself, which has both positive and negative aspects. The larrikin spirit, defined in the convict, colonial years, has had many a poetic devolution in present times. Here is a poem that parodies, not unkindly I hope, the bush ballad tradition, made famous by ‘Banjo’ Paterson, among others, with its sturdy carapace, perhaps predictable rhythms and thumping rhymes. You can’t expect the fine shadings or metaphysical heft of a Rilke or Milosz in verse like this, but the Australian ballad form can be enjoyed on its own terms, reflecting, beneath the broiling and sometimes mannered surface, shadows, ambiguities. Speewah refers to an imaginary outback station, what Americans would call a ranch. 


                       The Speewah Ballad

It had come to my attention in the local boozers’ pub
   That my yarns were getting hoary and my wit had missed the mark,
They were getting tired of hearing all my macho, matey turns
   And wanted something different to raise their spirits as they worked
For bosses who looked down on them and found their habits slack;
   My name is Terry Overall—my humour’s pretty black!

One chap, old Stubby Collins, had touched me for a shout,
   Said, Now get on, you young galoot, your tales are up the spout.
But as I rolled on home that night reviewing what I’d told
   I thought that I was really quite a sentimental cove
And Collins was right up himself, for who was he to tell
   My stories couldn’t bore them least of all in that hotel.

I left the bar round tennish, walked past the closed-up shops,
   Called out Debbie’s name when home and cursed the booze bus cops
Who took away my licence—I’d only knocked down two—
   Because one evening after work I’d got into a blue;
One’s in a wheelchair now, he’s great, his splints are off his legs,
   The others got a compo cheque but can’t remember facts.

Debbie, I call out once again, and then I see a note
   Left on the kitchen sink beside a half-drunk can of Coke:
I’ve left you Terry, you’re no good, you’ve bashed me up too much.
   I’ve got the kids and I’m sure glad I’ve left this dump at last.

Well I’ll be blowed, I cogitate and scratch my sweating brow,
   I never was much keen on that two-timing Goddam cow.

Then down I sit and exercise my mind on lots of things,
   There’s rubbish on the unmown grass and murder in the wind,
But what’s the good of hitching ’bout a woman who’s like that;
   I’ll go and visit Micky out on Speewah’s lambing flats.
He said he’d like to see me last time he was in to town,
   He’s a lark, this mate of mine, a bonzer, strapping clown.

He almost drowned at Bondi once when we were at the beach.
   He swam way out, then got cramp, was almost out of reach,
When in the nick of time a surfer helped him back to shore;
   Better than a shark, he said, but hell my guts are sore.
He always sees the bright side, even off his scrawny pins—
   I’d told him not to eat those greasy, cold dim sims.

Well anyhow next morning I packed my bag to go,
   Made sure the ute was ready for a thousand miles or so,
Rang the boss and asked for leave, I told him I was sick—
   I work down at the abattoir, Jesus it’s the pits.
He wasn’t pleased but when I told him what had really happened
   He softened up and told me that I really must feel flattened.

And so I left the suburbs—my place is in the west—
   You need a car to get about, it’s hot, you get depressed.
I feel much better knowing that I’m leaving for a while
   (The house is still unpainted, the yard looks like a sty),
And now the wife has left me I think I’ll chuck the lot,
   Leave the place as well as get myself another job.

Soon the city vanished as I shot off down the highway,
   The road was beaut to drive on, you could speed down there quite safely;
I gave a few slow motorists a scare or two at times—
   Without the licence handy I still avoid the speeding fines!
The coppers never touched me, I was lucky to escape
   Their nosy parker checking of bald tyres and number plates.

After an hour of travelling I picked a hiker up
   Who said he was off to Melbourne for a talk on a chap called Bart—
It didn’t make much sense to me, but passed the time of day.
   He was full of himself, this fellow, I thought he could’ve been gay,
But later on a female hiker came into our view;
   We stopped for her and he soon implied that it might be nice to smooch.

She took up the offer quickly, her hands were on his crutch,
   And soon I had to stop the ute because of all their thrust.
I let them out on the grass beside the highway’s steaming tar;
   They finished off their business then while flies about them buzzed.
At last they hitched their jeans back up and brushed the ants away,
   Leaning by me tiredly as the miles blurred into haze.

It wasn’t what I’d planned of course, and I felt pretty slack,
   This trip was getting stranger and time felt out of whack.
At last I reached the turnoff and I had to wake them up—
   Sorry, turning off here. Hope you’ll have some better luck,
And left them thumbing lazily beside a dusty corner,
   Making off for Speewah as the afternoon drew nearer.

Then suddenly I thought, The dog! My God I haven’t got the dog!,
   I’d left him in the yard at home, the poor old pooch, poor Trog;
The neighbours will look after him and give him cans of Pal,
   I hope he doesn’t bark all night and give the whole street hell.
That dog is worth a dozen Debbies, so much better than the missus,
   That if I had to choose between them, sure as eggs, he’d come up roses.

Now as I travelled westward the weather grew quite blustery,
   The sun shone in my bloodshot eyes, the road became real uppity.
Then all at once the countryside seemed different and remote—
   The east had had a bit of green but now the land seemed broke,
Dead branches lay beside the road and bones were everywhere;
   I wasn’t one to worry but this country had me scared.

Last time I’d gone to Speewah I had come another way,
   But that was several years ago in summer, Christmas Day.
Now it’s late in autumn and the days are so much shorter
   You wouldn’t think the place the same—maybe I’m just getting older,
Though I’m only thirty-three and still got all my marbles;
   This time it sure seemed different as the distant thunder rumbled.

Soon I was low on petrol and the sky was getting darker
   And so I kept a lookout for a garage or a parked car
From which to siphon off a bit in case I couldn’t find
   Out on this lonely country road a service station sign,
But strike me lucky, there was one not half a mile ahead
   Set just beneath a ring of hills whose sides around me reared.

I pulled into the bowser and got out to stretch my legs,
   A cold wind stirred the eucalypts as blackness round me spread,
I looked about in hope of finding someone who would fill
   My ute with oil and petrol so that I could cross those hills.
Then out of the blue a hand descended, gripping me on the  shoulder,
   And when I turned my stomach churned and through me went a shudder.

Before me stood a shrunken form in khaki dungarees,
   With hollow face and staring eyes, he seemed to be diseased,
But he was just a loner, not complex or a pain—
   West of the Great Dividing Range that sort of bloke remains
What city folk are wary of, though country types are sure
   They’ve got it over big smoke types—they tell it through the year.

Of course back in the city people couldn’t give a damn,
   As long as the fridge is chocka, then bugger-all the farm.
Their usual way of spending time is spending money freely
   On objects that technology deems right for yuppie needies
Distinguished for their empty chat at groaning restaurant tables,
   Whinging through three courses on the subject of tax rebates.

At any rate this spectral form looked right beyond my face
   And drawled, Don’t go beyond this point, the road’s a real disgrace.
There’s boulders up them mountains strewn right across the track.
   They say to get to Speewah now you need a sturdy nag.

I told him I was going on, he looked at me disgusted,
   Then filled the tank and checked the oil, turned round and darkly muttered

Something indistinct as I got back inside to drive
   Up through those purple mountains to the land on the other side.
Now as I drove on high beam the weather grew more curious,
   Lightning nearly struck me once, the winds were cold and furious;
Eventually I reached the peak and saw the valley stretching
   Into the flashing distance as the gullies started crumbling.

At last I reached the bottom of that terrible descent,
   Weaving round the rocks that would have made my ute a wreck
If I’d been careless driving, but I was bloody beaut—
   The night had been a rotten one but I had gotten through.
We Aussies love a battler, like me against the landscape,
   We’re proud of what we pull off when we get into a bad scrape.

Well I looked forward to seeing Mick now I had crossed the ranges,
   I picked up speed as crows flew round against the morning sunrise;
My legs were stiff, my eyes were tired, I needed to have a snooze,
   But what was tempting much more was the prospect of a booze
With Mick and me recalling all the great times we had passed
   In Sydney when we worked together at the abattoir.

And so at last on Friday morning I got into town,
   Speewah seemed the same since last time I had come on down;
It’s true the rhythm of the place can get a bit monotonous
   And seem old-fashioned and remote, the language quite preposterous,
But where in Sydney’s main streets can you really angle park
   Or sit on nice veranda seats and chew a piece of bark?

But after I had parked the ute and met some of the locals
   They stared at me suspiciously and started getting vocal;
I realised they were not too pleased to have a stranger present
   When one of them walked up to me and told me I was different.
Well I could see these local folk were not prepared to yarn
   And so I headed off to Micky’s not-too-distant farm.

Soon I reached the entrance to the station where Mick lived,
   I looked into their valley feeling pleased I had arrived.
He’s lived with both his parents now for two years in a row,
   His dad is Dave, his mum is Mum, they’re over sixty now.
They’ve had some ding-dong arguments, but most times they are silent,
   Their Easter Island statue stare could make a sheep turn violent.

I knocked upon the front door hard and waited for an answer,
   Then suddenly it opened and Mick stood there flabbergasted.
Son of a gun, he called out loud, why didn’t you give us a phone call
   And tell us you were coming down? Come in and meet the parents.

He took me into the kitchen where they’d all been eating lunch
   And sat me down and fed me full of steak and kidney mush.

His parents hardly looked at me but kept on eating noiselessly
   While I told Mick my sorry tale of Debbie’s damn adultery;
He lectured to me sagely then on women and their practices,
   On how they couldn’t be trusted unless well-controlled on mattresses,
But as he argy-bargied on I felt my body crumple,
   Mick showed me a bed out the back of the house and into it I tumbled.

Next morning I got up refreshed and ate my cindered toast,
   Mick said he was going rabbiting, he didn’t like to boast
But told how last time he’d shot down some forty furry bunnies
   And filled the trailer out beside their rusted, rotten dunny.
It seemed like fun to use a gun—might shoot some older kangas
   Out on those endless plains or even shoot a few goannas.

We scampered off in his four wheel drive leaving mum and dad complaining,
   Right out to the farthest boundary where there needn’t be no explaining.
We got the lot, but as it got on and the sunset grew spectacular
   I said, We’d better get back before the Bunyip has a grab at us.
Mick laughed his crazy laugh as he raced over to a stream
   To cool his sunburnt skin, diving noisily beneath.

But out almost at once he jumped with wild cries and fierce moans—
   A yabby had bitten him on the shin then right through to the bone.
Mick sat down on the bank and cursed the hidden crustacean
   Who’d caused the whole palaver and brought cries of wild damnation.
Let’s get from here, he thundered, and get plastered at the pub
   And play some darts with some mates of mine and have a bit of grub.

We sped off back to Speewah with our bounty thrown in the back,
   Dumped it out the back of the shed, then into town we tracked;
I wasn’t keen on seeing once again those crusty bachelors
   But Mick assured me I would meet some willing female customers—
There’s many there who’re desperate for any bloke to do it.
   Keep your eye on the girl at the bar, a friendly sort called Judith.

Into the pub we stumbled, the pace here was uproarious,
   A larrikin spirit was evident, shenanigans fast and furious,
Fellas were after a good time and things were getting raunchy
   As a giant group grope proceeded; no one seemed to be too lonely.
Mick and me tossed down some tinnies, sampling the action—
   Some bloke last week got too involved and now one leg’s in traction.

Well I’d been drinking steadily for an hour or so that night
   When a stunning brunette came up to me with plenty of flashing thigh,
She asked me if I was new to Speewah and when I said I was visiting
   She practically tore me from my seat and said, Let’s do some dancing.
Bored with all the locals, she wanted someone pleasant,
   And soon enough to her I showed that I was not indifferent.

After a while she led me out the back into the dark,
   She had my pants off quickly as I unhitched her bra.
Soon we were going at it like you wouldn’t want to know
   When suddenly my mate appeared with some of his cronies in tow
Saying, This’ll help you two to get together closer,
   He poured some honey between us, rubbing our skin all over,

Then disappeared with a laugh inside as we continued heaving—
   We’d got so close I couldn’t stop, our bodies both were sweating;
I clenched my buttocks firmly, she wrapped her legs around me
   As we built towards the climax that was coming pretty quickly;
We were just about to finish off and go the whole damn hog
   When I raised myself for the ending, and saw before me—Trog!

In shock I lay back quivering, supported by weak pectorals,
   Trog advanced and quickly licked the honey off my genitals;
That dog, he must have followed me so faithfully behind,
   I started bawling noisily, hugging his matted sides.
My new-found friend did not enjoy this second intervention
   And stormed off through the darkness cursing Trog and my abstention.

I dressed and raced back into the pub with Trog right there behind me,
   Fed him a plate of sausage rolls—Trog didn’t look too sprightly.
I told Mick I was going back to brush his fur and rest him,
   He tossed me the keys to his car and said, I quote verbatim,
Don’t forget the picnic races on tomorrow arvo.
   There’s a horse called Geebung Snowyball who’s s’posed to be a goer.

Back we went to the homestead where the reception wasn’t too pleasant—
   Dave cautioned me implying I was bringing Mick to error
And when they saw my dog they said he couldn’t possibly enter
   So I said we’d go to the shed outside and sleep in there together.
With a kerosene lamp for light we settled snoozily onto the hay;
   Soon Trog and I were sleeping like a pair of new-born babes.

I won’t describe the atmosphere next morning round the table
   For I was sour with Mick and he looked suitably bashful.
However we brightened up a lot when we thought of the autumn carnival
   And Mick seemed sure he’d win with this horse sired by Fred out of Know It All.
We spruced ourselves up, packed the tucker and checked our dusty vehicles over,
   Mick’s parents and Trog got on board, then we headed off to the oval.

The local footy team was there, already under the weather,
   The councillor on the take from every shoddy site contractor;
Some socialites from the city enjoyed this annual jaunt to the races,
   Set up their nosh in the back of the Rolls, putting on airs and graces.
They wouldn’t believe this back home, this weird, unbelievable festival;
   Strange place to see the townfolk lark or get to train the horses well.

So all was great—then Mick revealed that he had fixed the race—
He’d done it several times he said, I pulled a doubting face;
A bunch of nags was ready, one spiked with curious chemicals,
This one could run with the wind and bring home the bacon in handsome style.
Then I saw on the ground near my feet yesterday’s rag almost fly away,

But that was the couple I’d given a lift to
only last Thursday—they were dead?
I picked up the paper and read the whole story.
That was them; I recognised their clothes.
As the horses raced by my head was thumping
and my throat was dry.

I went over to Mick and told him
I had to leave straight away.
Of course he didn’t understand. I thanked him
for having me, put the dog in the front seat,
then went and rang the police
who came and asked me about my trip.

Next day some Sydney coppers interviewed me
at home, even though I was tired
and couldn’t remember all the details
of that poor couple. Later I asked around
about Debbie and found she’d been living
at a refuge, and there wasn’t any other bloke

involved, though if there had been
I couldn’t really have blamed her.
On the weekend I went to the refuge
feeling nervous. Everything seemed different
as I waited for my wife to speak to me
and for us, perhaps, to begin a new life.

Written 1985/86 Published 1994 Such Sweet Thunder 11–22