My relatives have always been a source of inspiration and wonder to me and as a child I was in awe of the exploits of uncles, aunts, grands and those great-grands who were still living. Old age visited on a few of of them behaviour that these days would see them at best drugged and at worst institutionalized, but was back then considered among the side effects of ageing requiring very little intervention, if also a little tolerance.
If I slip into that sort of senility, I want my family to tell the authorities about these among my antecedents, pointing out that they lived among children and adults without causing mental or physical harm – indeed they were an inspiration to many of the youngsters about them, inspiring in us a love of music, recitation, storytelling and literature. Great-Grandma Ada, she of the brown, brown skin, the dropped h and glorious aspirants (“Don’t drop your haitches,” she’d admonish. “Hit hain’t perlite.”) was a shining, though disconcerting object lesson to young men that an interest in sexual activity need not necessarily vanish with advancing years. Most importantly though, they taught us forbearance of the aged, although we didn’t know it.
I had two paternal grandfathers but only one paternal grandmother. Like generations of Povah women on the male side, Grandma Florrie was of Irish stock and had two accomplishments that I hope will ensure her immortality among generations of her family yet unborn. Not only did she have “the sight” but she also had “The Irish”, a gift that elevated her to a status somewhat above royalty and ensured her place alongside Brian Boru in the Celtic afterlife. Florrie, it was claimed by older members of the family, also had “the gift of the hands” and could stop bleeding. She told fortunes – illegal at the time – and kept her crystal ball hidden covered in black velvet inside a honey tin in the backyard.
Florrie’s second partner was the boss drover, George Hamilton, of whom I have written. Her first was George’s friend Frank
Povah, the crocodile and bird trapper, for whom I am named and of whom I have not. Incidentally, she did not marry either of her men – and neither were her parents married – which makes for interesting genealogy searches when you’re trying to fill in the missing bits. We don’t know why Frank and Florrie parted ways but we do know that George and Frank remained friends all their days and that Frank once saved George’s life in the remote outback of their wild and wandering youth, though we were never told the circumstances.
So this brings me, in my usual widdershins fashion, to one of the inumerable stories about Frank. Some, like the one recounting the time he put a saddle and bridle on a crocodile and attempted to ride it down Wyndham’s main “street”, are true, documented in photographs; some may not be so. But who are we to judge, to cast the joyless shadow of moral reason over legend made flesh. If, as is claimed by some, Jesus made of water wine, then surely we can allow Frank Leslie Povah, descendant of a long line of men named Frank Ap Hwfa, to imbue reptiles with the power of magic.
Frank, the old ones said, had been away trapping for several months prior to the day he walked into the bar of the Ironclad Hotel. After ordering a meal and a lemon squash with a rum chaser he called on the patrons to pay attention to what he was about to show them. Taking a sugarbag from the floor by his feet, he upended it and shook it over the bar. Tumbling forth came a large death adder, a bungarra (a large sand-monitor) and a toy grand piano of the sort so popular with children of the day. Placing the piano in front of the bungarra, he commanded the giant lizard to “play for the nice people, boy-oh”. With a flourish of its tail, the bungarra began a soulful rendition of “Men of Harlech”, then turning to the adder it sharply commanded: “Sing: ha-one, ha-two…” and the adder gave voice in the manner of John Charles Thomas.
More was to follow. The rapidly swelling crowd was treated to renditions of everything from “Danny Boy” to a medley of selections from “Carmen”, a recital that might have gone on forever had not Frank stopped it, explaining that it had been a long trip and he and his artistes were extremely tired. Before he could leave, a gentleman in a suit and tie – as rare a sight as a feathered frog in the Wyndham of the day – came up to Frank, offering him and his entourage wealth untold if he would but accompany the blandisher south to the fleshpots of the goldfields where there was a fortune to be made by exploiting such talent.
“Yairs,” the crowd cried with one voice. “G’arn Frank, yer’d be a mug not ter. We’ll kick in ter get yer down there.”
Frank raised his hands and a silence fell upon the assembled host. “Dear friends,” he said in the soft, musical voice that spoke of his Welsh heritage, “Keep your hard-won money. Kind as your offer may be, I cannot accept it; for the whole act is a farce – a sham – and I fear that if I were to display it to the sophisticates in the south it would soon be discovered as such and my reputation ruined.”
“How can that be, sir?” asked the aspiring Barnum. “We have seen with our own eyes these wondrous reptilians and with our own ears heard the products of their prodigious and hitherto unrecognized talents.”
“Ah, sir; my dear, dear friends,” Frank replied, his voice heavy with regret, “As I have said, it is a sham and my conscience does not allow me to promulgate it. The truth is that the snake does not, indeed cannot, sing. You see the bungarra is a ventriloquist.”