Whenever I begin to write down reminiscences it seems that I have to approach my tale widdershins, and this telling is no exception. It must be the Celt in me still longing, after generations of exile, to use openings such as “Ap Hwfa was a strong, sea-wise man in the summer of his days” and to a certain extent succeeding.
That’s my excuse anyway, so I’m asking you to bear with me while in my long-winded way I get round to telling you about a man whom I never really met but whose influence was great, though it went unnoticed until many decades after I first saw him. I shall tell of the clothes-prop man, a much-anticipated visitor to our street when I was still a small child.
Before the days of the now-ubiquitous Hill’s Hoist – itself in danger of being replaced by the indoor drier, a stupid indulgence in Australia’s climate – most of Australia’s Monday washing was hung on homemade backyard clotheslines. A couple of stout poles or 4 x 4s were sunk in the ground and fixed to the top of each was a cross arm, like that on a utilities pole but loosely bolted at the center so it could semaphore up and down. The line was often number-8 galvanized fence wire and to prevent it sagging under the weight of the wet clothes the wire was supported by one or more barked hardwood saplings, 8 or 10 feet long with a small fork at one end and roughly sharpened at the other. This is what the clothes-prop man sold.
The man who visited our area was a tall, rangy Aboriginal dressed in cast-offs, pants held up by an old tie or rope. Always shoeless he wore a battered hat tipped to one side so that it wouldn’t be knocked from his head by the load of poles he carried on his right shoulder. Very dark, as are many of the Noongar, he had a voice that caressed the air like an owl’s wing. “Cloooo-otse prups, throop’ns heach; cloooo-otse prups, throopn’s heach. Clotse prups missus?” Poor bugger. He would’ve cut those saplings miles away, in the hills perhaps or out on the sandplain towards Gingin or Wanneroo, then walked 20 or more miles with them on his shoulder to tramp the suburbs of Perth to sell them for a trey bit (threepence, roughly 3 cents) a throw. He could carry perhaps six, so two or three days’ work might have netted him the equivalent of a couple of loaves of bread. When she heard him, Mum would take out a glass of water and a biscuit – or a sandwich if it was around lunchtime. Australia’s indigenous peoples were never invisible to our family.
Australia’s treatment of the country’s traditional owners was – still is – shameful and deserves a hearing before an international tribunal. To the vast majority of the population, Aboriginal people and the conditions under which they were forced to live were invisible. Things were beginning to improve until John Howard came on the scene. His government, bigoted, xenophobic and, at times, overtly racist, set Australian attitudes back 50 years or more. Howard opposed a multicultural society, introduced legislation that stalled or complicated previous court decisions on Aboriginal land rights, insulted Australia’s Chinese community – many of whom have a history in Australia at least as long as Howard’s – and gave covert support to the anti-immigrant-for-any-reason-or-just-because-they’re-not-like-us fringe. Faced with a loss of votes to a newly emergent One Nation Party, a sort of neo-conservative thoughtless-tank, Howard’s Government had no hesitation in enthusiastically adopting many of its policies and sentiments and pandering to its uninformed, unthinking extremist views.
The clothes-prop man still lives. Back in the ’90s, while performing at a blues festival in Queensland, I was being interviewed for a magazine. The writer noted that I had been described by another critic as having a voice like “gum-leaf smoke on gravel” and asked if I’d copied it from anyone. I of course stoutly denied that assumption. More recently and for a different sort of audience, I was singing one of my favorite suitable-for-restaurant-crowd numbers, Dave Guard’s Scotch and Soda, and I heard the clothes-prop man’s voice, curling through me like gum-leaf smoke from the past.