Upfield Commentary – Jessica Hawke’s ‘Follow My Dust’ (Part 2)

Posted on Wed 09/29/2010 by


As I mentioned in Part 1 of this Jessica Hawke Commentary, I found a wealth of information. Although that information is self explanatory, some of it needs expanding a little so it can be more readily understood, due in the main to the passage of time since it was originally written and now, and also for the benefit of readers who may not have an in depth understanding of what might specifically refer to things in Australia that may in fact be taken for granted, both now, and also at the time of writing. Because of that, then the notes I have here may cover in some depth what was originally only a line or two in the original writing of this book.

The reference to Charles Garvice.

1.    The reference to Charles Garvice was one that aroused interest. It gave me knowledge of what was mentioned in Upfield’s novel, ‘Death Of A Lake’, where I falsely presumed that it might have been a reference to a fur felt hat, the largest manufacturer here in Australia being the World renowned Akubra hats, similar to Stetson in the U.S.

In actual fact, this  was a reference to a book that was written by the author of that name, Charles Garvice. We are led to believe in the age old adage that swagmen, (or swaggies) sundowners, whatever name that they go by, might have been, in the main, characters who seemed to have been less well educated than the normal run of people, and here I will digress a little to explain why that inference may have been falsely drawn.

The reference here to Swaggies and Sundowners needs to be expanded also. They are both uniquely Australian terms. Swagmen were quite common in Australia right up until the start of the Second World War, and these were men who tramped around the vast Australian Continent. They were called Swagmen. They carried all they owned in their rolled up bedding, and this was called a Swag, hence the term.

The song ‘Waltzing Matilda’ used the lyrics written by one of Australia’s two major poets, A.B. (Andrew Barton) Patterson, who was probably better known by his nickname ‘Banjo’ Paterson. The first line of that poem, and the song is, “Once a jolly Swagman camped by a Billabong”, so the term was in quite common usage, because there were so many of them.

Swagmen were quite prolific in fact, and were a form of itinerant workforce for the many farms throughout the Australian bush.

‘Real’ Swagmen however were not keen on being associated in the same breath with the term Sundowners. The true Swagman would usually turn up early in the morning at a farm, or property, or Station, as they are often referred to here in Australia. They would work for the farmer or property owner for the full day, and their form of payment was the evening meal, and sometimes, they would be allowed to sleep in a shed or outstation on that property. At the opposite end of the scale, Sundowners were Swagmen of the type who usually turned up late in the afternoon, or early evening, just in time for the free meal, without having first put in a days work. They were two different types of the same men, only the one term carries more of a connotation than the other.

I can understand that times were tough in those early years. These days a downturn in the economy is termed a recession, and more often than not does not turn into a full blown depression, and this is because to term it a depression would be almost fatal for our political masters, especially those in power and running the country. If pundits were to term it a depression, then the political party in power would in all reality be thrown out of office at the next election, hence, these days they term it a recession, and we, the people, hardly blink, because, in reality, we are a little more well off than those people of earlier times, and the system has been so well refined that we know how better to handle something like this.

Having said that, in reference to the modern times, the situation in those early times back in the late nineteenth and early twentieth Centuries, and almost right through to the outbreak of The Second World War, a depression was just that. A depression. They did not have the political acumen to be aware of the political fallout that ensued from such a catastrophic financial downturn. It was called a depression. The people believed it was a depression, and this belief led the situation to snowball into something that these days might just be termed a technical downturn, aware as we are today of what might ensue if it was called what it really was. Here I use the Stock Market crash of 1987, far greater a crash in percentage losses than that of 1929, but much more quickly recovered from.

What has all this got to do with swaggies, you may ask?

The colourful picture we have of swaggies is that they tramped around the country looking for work on the stations. This leads to an inherent belief, one that is almost endemic in this day and age, this belief being that because a similar situation exists today, and we treat it in the way we have become accustomed to treat it, then, therefore it must have been the same in those days, and similarly, they must have treated it the same way as we do today, another case of putting today’s values on the past, when in actual fact, they treated it in an entirely different manner to the way we do now.

Hence, as colourful and likable as swaggies were, they were, after all, just as we have been led to believe, the unemployed, only in a Rural setting. So, putting today’s standards on that situation, then the belief is that the unemployed are, in the main, poorly educated, and the bulk of us probably think this in the privacy of our own minds without ever voicing it publicly for fear of drawing the ‘Politically Correct Police’ down on us. Hence, swaggies are as we perceive them today with today’s values, unemployed, poorly educated bums, stooging around the country.

In actual fact, the depression of those days lasted for many years, and not just the months that a recession might last in our time. For those many years, the swaggies roamed Australia, and we are given the impression that they were just the unemployed from the cities. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Because the depression lasted for so long, they spent their time in the bush, and most of them were only unemployed while they were on the road, and here you need to realise that none of them owned cars. They walked everywhere, sometimes thousands of miles over the years. Whenever they came to the next station, farm, or property, they filled jobs of work for the station owner or manager, and were treated as a form of an itinerant workforce.

Upfield himself could be said to have taken that role himself, that of a swaggie, as he tramped around Australia. He later used all his experiences from those times in his novels, but he actually did most of these things himself.

Because there were so many of these swaggies, then it only stands to reason that a large quantity of them were in fact well educated, and that brings me back to Charles Garvice, again.

Upfield, through Jessica Hawke mentions this in quite a few places. As these men moved from place to place, they met others coming from somewhere else. Besides the interchange of stories from the track, there was also interchange of books. Upfield specifically mentions this as happening to him on a few occasions, one of these being on one of his meetings with Leon Wood, the original spur for the Bony character. When they met, they exchanged books, and one of the books the exchanged was one of the four original volumes of John Abbot’s opus, The Life of Napoleon Bonaparte, again further destroying the adage that these Swaggies, or in the case of Leon Wood, a half caste aborigine, do not have the willingness to take on something that might be perceived as being fairly heavy reading. This meeting with Leon Wood also provided the actual genesis of Upfield’s character Bony’s name in fact, and all Upfield then had to do from that was to work out a way to work that into his novels, something he did as early as his second novel, and then mentioned it again in some of his later novels.

Having said all this, it also stands to reason that a lot of these swaggies were not in the bush just because there was no work in the cities. A lot of them were in the bush because that’s where they wanted to be, to see the country, to get the feel of life in the bush. From all this came a vast resource of knowledge. Each of these characters had a story to tell, and each of the men learned something from the others among them, forming a strong bond that was to last a lifetime. It made them so experienced, an experience that we can only imagine, an experience that this book brings to us, enriching us. We read this book and marvel at these hard men, secretly thinking to ourselves how lucky we are to be able to just read about it, and not to have had to do it for ourselves. This hardness has been lost to us forever, and all we can do now is read about it.