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Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Writing Process Blog Hop

I said I would do this quite a while back, and I left the email about it in my personal email folder, marked unread, so I would keep being niggled about it. I got involved because Sandy Fussell agreed to my request to be tagged by her.

Keep in mind that I usually write non-fiction, typically around science, technology, mathematics and history, though every so often, I go off in another direction.  Like the Monster Maintenance Manual, which a Year 6 girl told me the other day was her favourite.  It's a bit of a weird book, but it was written for kids with brains like mine

What I have just been writing.
I started, 18 months back, on a set of ideas for books in a series, all called Not Your Usual...

The plan was that they would go out as unvarnished, unedited e-books, and some of them may still come out that way, but two of them had more going for them, so I sent off two mss to Five Mile Press, just on spec, and they (a) knew me from earlier work and (b) liked the stuff I can do and (c) didn't like what I had done.  They were too brief, and written for younger readers, but they had promise.

Note that I have one advantage over new starters: I have been around for quite a while, and there's a good chance of finding somebody in the firm who knows me when I try a new publisher

Anyhow, they considered (a) and (b) and said they would take them if I made changes.  So I attacked them again, expanded the text, changes all of the mixed-up bits into prose that an editor cam make something out of, and submitted on one July 31 and one on August 13, each one day ahead of the deadline set out in the contract.

I haven't heard yet, but I am hoping that all will go well, and Not Your Usual Bushrangers and Not Your Usual Gold Stories will see print in 2015.

For me, revising a manuscript involves making a PDF of the file which I transfer to my Samsung tablet. Then I read it and mark it up on the tablet, usually while riding a train to a country town and back, transferring the changes to the main copy on my desktop computer, converting the result to mp3 files that I listen to while closely reading it, making a new PDF that goes on my tablet and my wife's tablet, transferring mark-ups, reading through on-screen, making and listening to new mp3 files, and so on.

Why on a train?  Because I can, Sam-I-Am.  I am approaching advanced middle age, so I can travel all day on public transport for $2.50.  I walk down to the ferry, ride to town, reading as I go, get a train to Sydney's Central Railway, and take the first country train that leaves thereafter, usually Kiama or Newcastle.  When the time is ripe, I get off, have lunch, and retrace my steps.  I have an ipod loaded with classical music, and I work, uninterrupted.

What I did after that.
Once that was out of the way, I thought I might be able to get into doing this blog, but one of my other books, The Big Book of Australian History was to be reprinted, and we needed some changes. The editing had been slipshod (to say the least of it!), and while a lot of the messy bits were cleaned up before printing, once we had sidelined that editor, there was one editor-inserted factual error that I had missed (I got all of the others), and there were a number of updates that were needed, because this is history that comes right to the present.

So I got all the latest political and sporting changes done and sent off.

Where my ideas come from
Most ideas come to me as I am browsing old books, old newspapers, stuff like that. If I get curious enough, the curiosity is promoted to the level of Temporary Obsession, and I start recording details in a spreadsheet, an eccentric method that you can read about here.

What I am going to do next.

I am of several minds.  I may do a book, a bit like the Monster Maintenance Manual. Called (working title) Sheep May Safely Craze, it is for YAs and the permanently immature (like me) geek market. It involves sheep that wear Viking helmets so swagmen will mistake them for mad cows and not eat them, only they aren't really sheep, they just look like sheep, and they have amazing powers, a jeep that functions as a time machine and a hovercraft, and a friend called Gordon who is the same species but looks like a minotaur.

It also features the phrase "taking Gandhi from a baby" and a virtual normality machine as well as monkeys, typewriters and some rats.  Not to mention some musical ravens who are hoping to get the sheep to take them to the 19th century so they can kill Edgar Allan Poe.  I have 20,000 words of that written, and a storehouse of bad puns. No samples at this stage.

My next serious book is probably going to be on really peculiar medical treatments like using bacteria to kill cancers (that one worked!), doses of millipedes, scorpion oil, and electric shock or onions for fun and cures (those generally didn't work). It will be called Not Your Usual Treatments. It also looks at things like magnets, leeches and patent medicines, and it is fully researched but only in the rough-cut stage.  We will see,

To help you pursue a few other strands in the writing process, I point you to an old friend, Robyn Tennant-Wood who is also Miss Ruby's Bookshop, an equally old friend, Lynne Kelly who writes excellent books on spiders, megaliths and other stuff. Robyn and Lynne, you are now tagged.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Crooked Mick makes a mistake

Now don't get me wrong.  Crooked Mick was just an ordinary bloke, and just as inclined to make a mistake as I am — maybe more, because I know of at least one occasion when he did just that, though it was more a mistake of judgement than anything else.

It was the drop bears that were behind it, of course, that and Mick's dog being so lazy.  And I suppose Mick not thinking things through carefully enough.

A few of the back paddock drop bears were turning nasty, and attacking the women again.  This wasn't a problem for Smiling Annie who would just look up as they hurtled down, and smile at them, which'd make them turn right round and hurtle back up again.  It's true — one of Annie's special smiles was enough to repeal all the laws of physics, so bending gravity a bit was easy.

And Alice had no trouble at all, since she'd been strangling drop bears with her hands since she was five.  We have a name for hands as big as Alice's: we call them bear hands, but that's just our little joke.  You need a few jokes like that in the bush, because nothing much ever happens.

Anyhow, those two were safe enough, and Gertie, Greasy Smith's youngest, she'd just charm them with this charm thing an old Aboriginal lady gave her to ward off the evil spirits.  This charm was a piece of carved and fire-hardened brigalow about four foot long, and knobby, and Gertie always said it worked just like a charm, and had done for all of the twenty years she'd been using it.

Some of the other women and quite a few of the men, though, found themselves threatened by the drop bears, so Mick decided to do something creative.  He went out with his dog and showed the dog how he wanted it to roll a wave of rabbits over the drop bears after he'd gone running through, tempting the drop bears to have a go at him, and come down onto the ground.

Now as I said, the dog was lazy, and it soon got fed up with rounding up enough rabbits to trample the drop bears to death, and because they never got them all, Mick was always wanting him to turn the rabbit wave around, and run it back through the bear trees once more.

So being lazy, the dog decided to fix the drop bears once and for all, and he taught four of the other dogs how to work the rabbit wave, then ride up over the top of the wave, land clear on the other side, and then turn the wave back the way it came.

The idea was just to go steam-rollering back and forth with this wave of rabbits, flattening any drop bears that were on the ground, and being cannibalistic, the surviving bears would come to the bait, as soon as you got one or two of them, so it was all a bit like priming a pump.

Well the first day worked a treat, and being a Sunday, nobody paid much attention to what the dogs were up to, and it was only later that Gertie happened to mention that she had seen a bunch of them working the rabbit wave, all on their own.

The next Sunday, though, was a different matter.  The dogs must've rounded up every rabbit in the Speewah back paddock, because the wave was running at ten foot high, piling up to twelve or thirteen in the shallows, and it was close to unstable all of the time, according to Truthful Lewis, who saw the thing from the top of a Speewah ironbark, where he'd been chased by a bush alligator, which was sitting at the bottom of his tree and leering hungrily at him.  The rabbits got the alligator as well, on their second pass, so Truthful was happy to just sit and watch what was going on.

As I said, the wave was close to unstable, because there was just too much mass in it, and the disaster came on the fourth pass.  What happened was the dogs got this really big wave going, a bit like when you keep pushing a kid on a swing, but the fourth pass was just too much, and too rushed, and the bunnies on the bottom were getting trampled by the ones on top, and that slowed the base down.

So when the dogs rode up onto the crest of a wave, ready to drop down and turn the wave back the other way, the unthinkable happened, and the wave turned into a dumper.  Well the dogs went over the top, down the front, and got dragged under and rolled over by the rabbit wave, they had their faces pushed into the sand, and generally got treated in a demeaning way.

So when they surfaced, snorting and sputtering behind the wave which was now beginning to falter, they were good and mad.  And when Speewah dogs get mad, they roar.  And when any sensible animal hears a Speewah dog roar, it gets going, which is why the rabbit wave re-formed and took off across the plain, with the dogs still roaring behind them.  They might have been as silly as rabbits, but that roaring soon got them sensible.

All the warning the people of Bandywallop got was a low rumbling noise as the rabbits came pouring over the plain, with the dogs roaring behind them.  Of course, they thought it was a stampede of scrub bulls, and that was enough to persuade them all to scramble up onto a large rock behind Mulligan's pub, carrying whatever they could.  So they were well placed to see how high the tide came.

Except, that is, for a bloke called Long Harry, whose legs were so short that he couldn't make it to the top in time, and just as people were reaching out for him, the wave hit, and he was carried away.  Luckily for him, old Mulligan used to keep some planks up on top of the rocks, and the people up there were holding one of the planks out to him.

Now Long Harry had been down the Big Smoke once or twice, and knew a bit about waves.  So when he realised he couldn't make it to safety, he yelled out to Mulligan to let go the plank, and he rode that wave of rabbits, always slanting out to the left, until the wave died away.

Then he stepped off, and brought the board back with him, walking for two days and two nights to get back to where Bandywallop ought to have been.  When he got there, there wasn't a bit of the town left that was as big as his board, and there hasn't been to this day.  All the people just packed up, and moved to Yandackworroby, where life in the bush is slow and uninteresting, the way it ought to be.

But none of it would've happened if Mick hadn't made a bad mistake of judgement.  And even then, there would've been no problems if the dog hadn't been lazy and strong-willed, and even more lacking in judgement than Crooked Mick.  But it was the laziness that made Mick's dog forget to stop and think.  No doubt about that at all.

At least it kept the drop bears under control for a few years.

* * * * *

Note: there is a whole book of these stories, which I am currently pitching to publishers, but they will probably appear in an e-book.

There will be quite a number of these on the blog, all with the tags Speewah and Crooked Mick.

Monday, 11 August 2014

The bush alligators of the Speewah

Yes, well, I suppose I can tell you about the Speewah dogs, since you keep draggin' them into the conversation.  Just don't keep distracting me, all right?  Now, talking of dogs and dragons, did you know them Chinese temple dogs are really supposed to be dragons?

It's a funny thing, you know, but there're only two places in the world where they have legends about dragons.  China and Wales, half a world apart, and they both have the same idea of flying reptiles.  And you won't find this in any books, but it was Crooked Mick that worked out that the idea began with the bush alligators, out on the Speewah.

Keep in mind that Mick had gathered himself quite a good education during that rainy spell that stopped the shearing for a couple of years, a while back, so it really isn't all that surprising, because probably nobody knows more about the bush alligators than Crooked Mick.  You just needed that good education and experience with the bush alligators of the Speewah, and it all becomes obvious.

Now don't get me wrong: these things aren't alligators at all, but a kind of monitor, or goanna as they're usually called.  Their teeth are nothing like a crocodile's or an alligator's teeth, and they mainly eat insects which they catch in mid-air, and they also chew up wattle seeds sometimes, which the plant scientists say are related to beans.  Apparently they have these big bags off their stomach, and the seeds ferment to make methane, which is lighter than air, and helps them to float.

It's funny, but over the vast history of our planet, almost every group of animals has evolved the power of flight: birds, bats, gliding frogs, even spiders — remind me to tell you about them sometime.  Yet even when people know about those pterodactyls of ancient times, they have never heard of the Australian bush alligator, a flying lizard which is still with us today.  Well, it doesn't really fly, but it glides really well, and that's how it catches its food.

What the bush alligator does is to climb up a tree as far as it can, and then it hurls itself out into space, where it glides along, using the skin stretched out between its front and hind legs, sort of like a gliding possum.  It can steer from side to side with its tail, but insects can escape from its path by suddenly flying up or down.

Or they could, if the bush alligator didn't have a great big tongue that it uses, just like a frog, to catch the insects.  The tongue's a great big orange sticky thing that it waves around, side to side and up and down, hauling the insects in, and swallowing them.  In the end, the bush alligator lands on a tree, and climbs up, and starts all over again.

Well that's probably how they used to do it on the Speewah, too, before the big flood, when all the Speewah Ironbarks were just about all cut down.  Now you find them still, out on the Speewah Plain, but they have learned to use the thermal currents, and Mick wondered if maybe they had always done this.

Now with a bit of education, and a bit of imagination, maybe you can see where the dragon story came from, but if you can't, don't worry about it.  I mean, I didn't see it till I heard of Mick's idea, so don't take it too much to heart.  We can't all be like Mick.

You see, a flying reptile with an orange tongue: that's just got to be part of the origins of the dragon legend, and they're only found in Australia.  But how did the idea get to China and to Wales, and not to any other place?  Well, you can see dragon figures in Indonesia, Mick says, and the Chinese traded with them from really early days.

And guess who else was down that way when Julius Caesar was still a pup?  The Phoenicians, that's who, and when I went to school, they taught us about how the Phoenicians went to Wales and Cornwall after tin.  And guess what they talked about when they weren't buying up all the tin in the area?  Wonderful things seen in distant places, that's what.  At least, that's what Mick reckoned.

I used to think of that, every time I saw one of them Speewah bush alligators circling lazily in the sky, but the Speewah ones are a bit more horrible.  You see, given the size of the Speewah insects, the Speewah bush alligators have a different feeding pattern.  The tongue is rough and rasping, so they come in from below, rip a leg or a feeler off a mosquito, and then dive for the ground, often with the mosquito in hot and anguished pursuit.

The advantage for the bush alligator is that it can close up its flaps, drop fast, then open its flaps again, and stop close to the ground: the mosquitoes can't match this, and they usually crash into the ground and die.  When that happens, the bush alligator flies off, fast as it can, to collect its mate and its young ones, and they all feast on the mosquito.  Then the other ones see it as they circle, and they fly in as well, until sometimes there're forty or fifty of them, all gorging themselves on the dead mosquito.

I've often wondered if the bush alligators do it deliberately, but there's no way you could really tell.  They're game, though: I once saw one rip a wheel off a light plane that was flying out that way.  If another one hadn't come along and taken off the other wheel, I reckon the pilot might've been in trouble.  As it was, he was able to do a belly-landing then, so maybe the bush alligators are more intelligent than people give them credit for.

If dogs could fly, I wonder if they could be as clever as that?  Ah yes, I was going to tell you about the dogs, wasn't I?  Well, maybe next time then.

* * * * *

Note: there is a whole book of these stories, which I am currently pitching to publishers, but they will probably appear in an e-book.

There will be quite a number of these on the blog, all with the tags Speewah and Crooked Mick.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

The not-so-gentlemanly art of naming things

There is a powerful human urge to name things. In the first chapter of Genesis, God names things like night and day, but when it comes to animals in Genesis 2:19, God "… brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof."

Depending on your point of view, either the power of giving names was a divine devolution, or naming things was so human that the writers of the creation myth most of us follow felt it appropriate to represent it as such. Sadly, there have been those who have misused that power, and then communicated their actions.

This post ends up dealing with a sad piece of work called John Silba, but I will come to him, his ineptitude, and the even bigger clumsiness of some Keystone Cops who believed him, further down. First, some background.

There used to be just two codes of biological nomenclature: one for plants and one for animals. Now viruses and bacteria have their own codes, and the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature (ICBN) has been replaced by a broader code for algae, fungi and plants.

The codes are complicated documents, and you probably don't want to read them. Two provisions matter here: a name is not necessarily invalid if it is offensive, but you may not name any plant after yourself.

This is a fairly general rule, even outside biology: it is a sign of absolute crassness to name something after yourself. If somebody called Smith discovers a law, he or she does not refer to it as Smith's Law. If, as an explorer, Smith finds a river, he or she does not call it the Smith River. There was an idiot who named a measure after himself and celebrated it with papers of most issues of Psychometrika in the early 1980s. but all he ever earned was giggles at his own expense.

You don't call things after yourself.  Not ever.  It isn't done.  Got that?  If you want something named after you, give it to somebody else to tack your name onto it.  If you do it yourself, the name isn't valid.

Now before we come to a prize example of self-celebrating crassness, here are a few rather more amusing cases of naming. They weren't offensive, but some of them sailed close to the wind.

* * * * *

There is a legend that deserves to be true, that the police force in Australia's national capital, Canberra, needed a vessel to patrol Lake Burley Griffin, and the name came from a public competition, where the name Platypus was proposed.

The winner dressed this up with details such as the animal's tenacious pursuit of possibilities and its ability to defend itself. After the name was announced, the winner pointed out that a literal translation of platypus is "flat foot". Whatever the truth of that story, the Australian Federal Police use a platypus as their emblem today—and they know now what it means.

Biologists have one basic rule for naming: if a name is validly given, and has not been used before, it is to be recognised, and can only be changed for scientific reasons (such as the previous name was invalid). When a genus name is changed for valid scientific reasons, the rest of the name remains, so the clam that was once Abra cadabra is now Theora cadabra.

Fossils are typically found in hot dry places. They occur everywhere, but the best exposures are in places that are undeveloped, not covered by concrete or pastures. So people who go looking for fossils often find themselves in places where the local flies regard them as a Heaven-sent source of liquids. That can make the pursuit of fossils a wearing experience, especially when coupled with the heat, the thirst, the hard work and all of the other travails.

On the other hand, being happy humans, bent on discovery, palaeontologists are not given to bouts of depression and misery. They are, however, given to a degree of warped humour which tends to emerge in the names of the fossils. This is why we find fossils with names like Montypythonoides and Thingodonta.  It probably beats having dried-elephant dung fights, which is what one group of palaeo-anthropologists were doing when they found the Laetoli footprints.

There is less excuse for laboratory-bound biologists to go off the rails with their naming, but if you can get a name like Humbrella hydra ("in honour of Professor Humm") accepted for a parasol-shaped alga, why not? Lou Eldredge named Didemnum ginantonicum after his preferred tipple, and two gentle souls called Miller and Wheeler named five fungus beetles Gelae baen, Gelae belae, Gelae donut, Gelae fish and Gelae rol. We will come back to them in a moment.

Think of the problems you might have explaining to people that your expertise is to be found in identifying and distinguishing dipteran species. The eyes glaze over, even before you can explain that the Diptera, the flies, include the mosquitoes, and that the difference between a malaria-spreading mosquito and a harmless one may only be determined by examining the hairs on their legs.

For that reason, if no other, I would willingly forgive Neal Evenhuis names like Phthiria relativitae, Pieza deresistans, Piza kake and Pieze rhea. Evenhuis also named a fossil fly family the Serendipidae, and a fossil fly left his lab with the name Carmenelectra schechisme.

In 2005, two former Cornell University entomologists described 65 new species of slime-mould beetles. In the process, they named three new species in the genus Agathidium after politicians, and so the world gained A. bushi Miller and Wheeler, A. cheneyi Miller and Wheeler and A. rumsfeldi Miller and Wheeler.

They named other new species from their geographic locations, such as California, Georgia and a few states in Mexico or from their appearance. Others took their names from their wives and a former wife. Yet more were named for Pocahontas, Hernan Cortez, the Aztecs and the fictional "Star Wars" villain Darth Vader ("who shares with A. vaderi a broad, shiny, helmetlike head").

Naming three slime-mould beetles after Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld had nothing to do with physical features, Quentin Wheeler claimed in a Cornell press release that crossed my desk. In other words, they sought merely pay homage to the U.S. leaders.

They said: "We admire these leaders as fellow citizens who have the courage of their convictions and are willing to do the very difficult and unpopular work of living up to principles of freedom and democracy rather than accepting the expedient or popular," he said with, at least in print, the appearance of a straight face.

Yes, these are the same two who named the Gelae beetles. If I were the ex-wife who had been so commemorated, or a politician ditto, I think I would be making a careful study of the species description to see if there were any grounds for legal action!

If you doubt this advice, consider the German scientist, Wilhelm Blandowski, whose naming naughtiness is described in an earlier post, found here. Incidentally, the pompous, puffed-up outraged bourgeois Melbournites were wrong to suppress Blandowski's names and descriptions as they did, but they were amateurs. The people at New Zealand's Ministry of Primary Industries are alleged to be professionals.  My other leg is the one with bells on it, and you will see why I have introduced an acerbic note in a moment.

On another tack, it only takes a backward mind to spot that Dylan Thomas' location for Under Milk Wood had a slightly different connotation if you know that the letter y is pronounce more like a u in Welsh. The BBC, however, entirely missed the import Llaregub, just as the censors at Australia's ABC missed a character called Seaman Staines in the 1950s — though when Terry Pratchett paid homage to Thomas with a place called Llamedos (in Soul Music), I doubt that his publishers missed it.

For my part, I have twice foisted a hairyoddity on an innocent public, and escaped detection because the intersection of Joycean scholars and my work is blessedly small. Luckily, any broken link in the communication chain is enough to protect the malefactor.

* * * * *

Now about the crassness, and an alleged malefactor who appears beset by fools of the first water:

In New Zealand in 2012, Graeme Platt was the subject of raids mounted by Ministry of Primary Industries staff who suspected him of harbouring a "new species, Agathis silbae", described as an exotic kauri, found on several Pacific islands. They say this tree cannot be brought into New Zealand, because it was not in the country in 1997, when a new law banned such imports.

The matter was coming close to trial last month,  but appears to have gone into some sort of limbo. I hope this means that some official, somewhere, has looked at the prosecution case and realised that the vase is fatally flawed.

The first thing is, Agathis silbae did not exist in 1997, but Agathis macrophylla did, and it has been in New Zealand for about 150 years.  This, say Platt and others, is what they have in their possession.

The second thing, the thing that had changed was that an alleged "New York botanist John Silba" thought he had discovered a new species and named it after himself.

Now, dear reader, if you have been paying attention, you may be inclined to question the professional skills of John Silba, who named a species after himself. He can hardly be rated as either a scholar or a gentleman. And as a botanist, he is no better than a palimpsest. An unkind spirit might be moved to denounce him as a fraud.

I ran a check to see where Silba trained, and what he has achieved. I came up short on evidence of his professional standing, but he appears to have two books with his name on the cover as author. Now, as an old fraud detector, I know that one needs to check these things, and I did. Here is what I found in the product description on Amazon:

Now if that means what I think it means, either Silba is incredibly old,  or that statement offers further evidence that he is neither a scholar nor a gentleman, because he did not write either book.

That being so, anybody who mounts expensive goon raids on civilians at dawn, on the basis of Silba's reputation needs to be put in charge of guarding the southernmost pit toilet in Stewart Island, and it ought to be an inside job at the lowest level. The MPI were either out to "get" Platt for some perceived incivility, or they are sadly deficient in their judgement.  Or both.

I also found some information on Silba's work in another newspaper article.  That one is worth reading, because it reveals that he is a former high school teacher, now "...studying toward a doctorate".  He is not researching toward a doctorate, nor, it seems from the article, did he ever do any original research on Agathis silbae!

By the way, I am also a former high school teacher, and some of us are nice people, but for the most part, we are not trained researchers. I do, however, talk to researchers, and I know what the rules are.  And some former high school teachers have no problem cutting through drivel.

One of the New Zealand Herald journos that I most like reading when I am in New Zealand is a drivel-cutter named Brian Rudman, who declared the raids to be Monty Pythonesque. I have to wonder if the delectable Rudman, in this case, was too prone to engage in understatement.

For my part, I question the brain power of the raiding officers who were seeking a "new species" which cannot exist, given that the idiot describing it had named it after himself. These fools even called their raids "Operation Silbae".  People, it is manifestly an invalid name!

I hope that when (or if)  this case eventually limps into court, the judge will have the wisdom (or the advice) to see that this is a ridiculous case, brought on by buffoons. The law that the judge needs to apply here is the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature (ICBN).

There are some things you can get away with in plant taxonomy, and there are some things you can't. Silba's attempt at grabbing immortality by naming a species after himself fell at the first hurdle, but he scored high on the infamy scale thanks to the twits at MPI.

Monday, 4 August 2014

Crooked Mick rides the bulls

Sometimes Crooked Mick would decide to make a bit of easy money.  Take the time we were hanging around Bandywallop, waiting for the train, and the local show was on.  This was before the town got wiped out when the rabbits came through, though. I'll tell you about that some other time.

Anyhow, there were these two really smart types from Sydney there, with four bulls, and they were challenging all-comers to ride these four bulls.  It was fifty pounds to enter, and you got twenty five, fifty, a hundred or a thousand pounds, depending on how many of the bulls you rode.

Well when Mick heard about this, he was all for having a go, but I tried to talk him out of it.  I knew these blokes — well, I didn't know them, but I'd seen them before, and they were a slippery pair.  I reckoned they'd have a few tricks up their sleeves to make sure the bulls couldn't get ridden.  I'd seen the bulls, too: they were mean scrub bulls from the Speewah backblocks, but Mick wouldn't be persuaded.  He had a plan.

He lined up Flash Jack and Lazy Harry and me to go in with him: I had no choice, I was Mick's mate, but Flash Jack and Lazy Harry knew they were on a good thing if they were to share their winnings with Mick.  You see, they knew Mick, and they didn't know these other two blokes at all.

So up we bowled, and Mick, Jack and Harry all coughed up the cash, and then Flash Jack went first.  Like we expected, the first bull was easy, no real trouble at all for anybody used to the Speewah.  That was the bait to get the punters in, and the pair started to take a few bets on the side, as Jack got onto the second one.  They lost a bit there, because Jack stayed on that one as well for the required ten seconds, but I could see the third bull was a different kettle of fish altogether.

You see, what they'd done was to get two bulls that would toss any townie, but that a bushman could ride, so the bushmen who entered the challenge managed to break even on their entry money and prize money.  The townies, on the other hand, lost out straight away, and the smart pair were cleaning up on the side bets.

You see, the two city boys managed to lose just a little bit of money in their betting, so that by now everybody thought they were on a sure thing, and even though the two shortened the odds considerably, everybody was laying down money to bet on Jack.  Except us, which is just as well, because Flash Jack was off the bull, even faster than a flash.

Lazy Harry was up next.  The first bull, he just sidled up to, slow and lazy, and sat on him so gentle, the bull never knew he was carrying a rider till too late.  The second bull saw Harry coming, but keep in mind that Lazy Harry moves so slow it'd make a snail scream with frustration, so again he slipped aboard, sat out the ten seconds, and slipped off again, with the bull none the wiser.

The two city blokes held a small confab at the side of the paddock, then came back to offer really low odds, so the money poured in from the mugs, and we put some into the pot as well, because we'd seen Flash Jack ride before, and we'd seen Lazy Harry ride before, too.

Well I don't know what they did, but it was all Harry could do to stay on that third bull, but however he did it, Mick was pleased.  "That there bull's been broken, now, so I'll have an easy ride, and we can build up a really big pile for the last one."

"How do you mean?" I asked.  He explained that he was going to make a show of it, to really string it out, so the odds would improve.  That way we would clean up on the second and third bulls, and have a good show with the fourth one.

"Just keep back enough money," he said, "to cover everything."  And that's how we would've done it, but just then we hear the train whistle in the distance, so that wrecked everything.

Crooked Mick walked over to the two city blokes and said, a bit hesitant-like, "Do yerz mind if I ride them bulls two at a time, one hand and one foot on each?"

They looked at him, and the smaller one said, "You can ride all four at once if you like!".  He was so short, he had to stand on his head to get his foot in the stirrup, but I knew he was also the more dangerous one of the two, so I got a bit worried right then, because this bloke was just too confident.

"Righto!" says Mick, and he hopped up on the rail and grabbed two of the bulls by the scruff of the neck, one in each hand, then he kicked off his boots, and wrapped his toes round the necks of the other two and nodded to the bigger city bloke.

"Don't forget, yer've gotta stay on all four bulls or yer lose!" said the city bloke, slipping the gates.

"No worries," yelled Mick, "just make it quick: me train's coming!" and then he's off out into the paddock.  Well those bulls tried it on, once or twice, but Mick just rode along, like he was doing press-ups, and then when the fourth bull got a bit frisky, Mick just picked it up with his left foot and plonked it down, knocking the wind out of it.  When the bell went, he turned around, and plodded his way back into the yards, so the four bulls could be locked up, and only then did he let go of their necks.

Well we knew what to expect, of course, so Flash Jack, Lazy Harry and I kept the two city blokes under close watch.  They tried to bolt for it, but we were there at the hole in the fence first, and when Mick caught up with us, they took one look at him, and paid up, gentle as them bulls were, now Mick'd finished with them.

Silly really, because Mick'd never get in a fight unless it was an even match, and there was only one fight I ever saw him in, and that time, the bloke even knocked him down.  I'll tell you all about that some time.

That delay while we collected our winnings gave the rest of the locals time to catch up, so we dashed off to our train, leaving the two city blokes trying to remember what you did to get rid of tar and feathers, I expect.  We were happy, but two weeks later, we'd spent the lot or given it away or something, but we did still have a motor car at the end of the two weeks.  We kept that for years.

Now I can see what you're thinking: bulls don't have necks, so how could Mick grab them by the scruff of something they didn't have?  I would've thought so too, but if Crooked Mick grabs you by the scruff of something you don't have, the only way out is to grow one of them things, real quick.

And that's what them bulls did.  Matter of fact, they were taken back to the Speewah, and you can see their descendants there today, because those four bulls were the first of the Speewah long-necked roans, the gentlest beef cattle ever bred.  When Crooked Mick domesticates you, it stays in the blood for a long while.

* * * * *

Note: there is a whole book of these stories, which I am currently pitching to publishers, but they will probably appear in an e-book.

There will be quite a number of these on the blog, all with the tags Speewah and Crooked Mick.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

The first shot in the Great War

I have written military history in the past, but I don't particularly enjoy it. Basically, I am not a military person, and some of the contemporary enthusiasms I encounter for past wars horrify me. I also find some of the bizarre antics of "patriotic" civilians rather appalling.

When I wrote a history of the Kokoda Track campaign, it won awards and plaudits, and I was asked to do another one, but I declined because I might have to touch again on the life of that nasty, cowardly, lying, thieving bully and drunkard Thomas Blamey.

That man was the embodiment of all that is inglorious in war, and I have chapter and verse on his one and only "experience of combat".  Like Douglas Macarthur, known to his troops as "dugout Doug", Blamey stayed well away from fighting of any sort.

I interviewed a former member of Blamey's WW II staff, and he summed up Blamey with a squatting motion, a thumbs-down and the phrase "brilliant but a bastard!".  Of course if you say that sort of thing in a book, the trolls will issue forth from their cowards' castle, screaming abuse, so I write about other things.

So I have no intention of Mentioning the War again.  That means I won't be mentioning the many brave and gallant women who gave their lives, as they saw it, for their fellow humans. Nor will I write about the brilliant and valiant leaders who did the right thing, and normally got stabbed in the back by scum like Macarthur and Blamey, who both led from the rear, so as to have more backs in their sights.

Still, I would like to throw in one example of the sort of thing that happens when a writer is given a commission, as I was for The Big Book of Australian History.  The commission came with a long list of things that were wanted: I had about 60% well in hand, about 30% I knew enough about to get started, 8% I had heard of.  I also added a couple that I knew about and they didn't. That left 2% that were unknown, and those needed research.

The Pfalz case was one of the 2%. What follows is based on what I wrote after I dug into it.  If you want to dig for yourself, I created a list of relevant newspaper articles that is online.

The first thing to note is that Australia never declared war on Germany in 1914. When Britain declared war on Germany, our nation was automatically at war with Germany as well, because we were part of the British Empire.  The same thing happened in 1939, and to the best of my knowledge, Australia has never declared war on any other nation: we just tag along.

Australia's Great War began when the Governor-General received a telegram from London. He then summoned the Prime Minister (Joseph Cook), and telegrams were sent to the State premiers telling them that a state of war existed between England and Germany. That was all that was needed.

With no radio or television broadcasts and no internet in 1914, the news spread more slowly than it does today, and there was more room for confusion.

Still, everybody knew war was coming, and the Royal Australian Navy had been founded in 1913 to take part in the coming war, and Captain Kuhlken of the Norddeutscher Lloyd ship SS Pfalz could see what was coming.

He made a decision that put Australia in the record books as the place where the first shot was fired in the Great War.

On the morning of August 5, 1914, Kuhlken dropped the rest of his cargo that he was due to take to Sydney, cast off from the wharf at Williamstown near Melbourne and sailed across Port Phillip Bay towards the Heads. He was on his way back to Germany to save his ship and to avoid internment.

All was well and the pilot saw nothing wrong, until he heard a shot, and saw a splash, 50 yards astern. He took this as a slightly inaccurate "shot across the bows", and looking across to the signal station on the Queenscliff fort, he saw a signal ordering the ship to turn around.

I have to say that if a shot across the bows  went 50 yards astern of my ship, I would be tempted to wonder what chance they had of hitting me before I got out of range, but the pilot was Australian, and he took the ship around, and back to port.

If you read the newspapers of that day, the reports are mostly fictional, so there are various versions of what happened after that, but with or without argument from the captain, the pilot (Captain Robinson) turned the ship around and steamed back to the wharf.

Australia was in the record books, and Pfalz was in the Australian merchant marine, and saw wartime service as a troop carrier under the name HMT Boorara. She was torpedoed twice in British waters, but survived until 1937, when she was wrecked under the name SS Nereus.

A couple of notes: the captain was widely reported as Kuhiken at the time, but he was actually Kuhlken. He was interned in Berrima during the war, but returned as master of the Grandon in 1930, and visited his old haunts at Berrima. The newspapers in 1930 all got his name right.

So, Australia never declared war on Germany, but an Australian gun fired the first shot, though not with the accuracy one might have hoped for.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Lest we forget...the other victims of war

I am old enough to recall a time when bus stops had a sign to say that those with TPI (Totally and Permanently Incapacitated) badges could go to the head of the queue.  These were the veterans, mainly of the Great War, who had been able to survive, in broken form. Those who died were victims, but so were those who were allowed to live, and this weekend, we are remembering some of that madness.

Back when I was young, there were lots of ladies who were "getting on" but still active, who were all "Miss". It took me many years to realise that these were the girls who became women in a man-drought caused by the Great War.

They were victims as well, but it didn't do to talk about them. In fact, I was hissed at once by my mother when I asked, as a four-year-old, why the two ladies in the room (both middle-aged teachers ) were both called "Miss Davies".

There were other war victims as well, like the civilians caught in the manoeuvring of great armies, the women raped, the elderly and children heedlessly slaughtered. And in Australia, aside from the single women left behind, the kids whose fathers returned, broken, were also victims.

I escaped the worst of that when my own father returned from the next stoush, more or less normal, but I know some horror stories of fathers who had gone — and remained — "troppo" in one of the World Wars, and I have seen what has happened to a few Vietnam returnees and their families.
The gate at Auschwitz, stating that
"Work makes you free".

Coming out of Auschwitz in 2003, I thought that well, maybe there was such a thing as a just war. A few days later, leaving Dresden, I wondered how I could have got it so wrong.

Basically, there were no winners, and few victims ever get anything for their troubles. This need not be the case for some other lesser casualties, who merely suffered nomenclatural injustice. There, at least, we can right a small and petty wrong.

By training, I am a botanist, and I tend to write a lot of history. Combining these, a recent book of mine dealt with the naturalists who came to Australia, their adventures, squabbles, scandals and discoveries. Every so often, I return to some aspects of it, because there is some unfinished business going on there.

This past week, my relaxation has been digging into the records for Ferdinand Bauer, an Austrian painter and passable botanist who visited Australia with Matthew Flinders in the early 1800s. Near Streaky Bay, Flinders put Ferdinand on the map when he added Cape Bauer to the chart.

By 1916, the pain of war was apparent to all, and beefy men of a certain age and choler, but with no disposition to risk their own pelts in conflict, were casting around to show the bally Hun what was what. The average vile Hun being far off, they turned to the Australian map, and thought, perhaps, of how the Saxe-Coburg-Gothas had become Windsors.
Holbrook'w sub, HMAS Otway.

So began a movement that saw Germanton in NSW named after Holbrook VC, a submarine commander (NOW you know why there's a sub on the Hume Highway between Gundagai and Albury!) The other states all piled in, but SA had the highest proportion of place names "of enemy origin" and Something Had To Be Done.

So it was that in November 1916, the South Australian government brought down the report of the committee appointed by the Government to make recommendations for the substitution of British or Australian aboriginal names for places in South Australia.

It is here: but the relevant paragraph reads "BAUER, CAPE, near Streaky Bay. - Named in 1802 by Matthew Flinders after Ferdinand Bauer, Austrian painter of natural history, who was on the Investigator. To be CAPE WONDOMA, the native name applied to a well in the locality."

Note that this wasn't the Aboriginal name given to the cape, just a local place name plucked at random and bestowed on a different location. There is no justice entailed in applying that Aboriginal name.

So I wondered if the change to Wondoma happened, and if it did, whether it lasted. Bauer was an Austrian, serving on a Royal Navy ship, so the change seemed a little discourteous. I knew that some other names in SA had reverted, so I went burrowing.

In October 1935, the SA government was preparing for a centenary, and reviewing the prospect of restoring some of the original names. I found this: (The Advertiser, Thursday 3 October 1935, p. 8.)
"Wondoma Or Cape Bauer? In the Assembly yesterday, Mr. Morphett (L.C.L.) asked whether the Government would consider changing the name of Wondoma, on the West Coast, to Cape Bauer, which it originally had been called. Cape Bauer, he said, had been named by Captain Matthew Flinders on February 5, 1802. as related in his journal, in honor of Ferdinand Bauer, who was a painter of natural history on the technical staff aboard the Investigator. Cape Bauer had also been associated with South Australia in connection with Eyre's first expedition.

"The Premier (Mr. Butler) said that the Government, in restoring German place names, desired that certain pages of the State's history should not be lost. The Government had reached a definite decision in regard to Klemzig. Hahndorf, Lobethal, and Hergott. Whether or not the system was to be extended was a matter for the Government to decide."
The following day, the same paper published this letter of outrage:
"RESTORATION OF GERMAN PLACE NAMES FLINDERS'S HONOR TO FERDINAND BAUER To The Editor Sir—Referring to your article, In Wednesday's issue of 'The Advertiser,' on the restoration of German place names, I regret to note that no request has been made in connection with Cape Bauer, now known as Cape Wondoma, and I submit that the S-A. branch of the Royal Geographical Society might very well take the matter up before the special legislation has been prepared. The name Bauer was given by Captain Matthew Flinders during the Voyage of the Investigator in 1802, the man thus honored being Ferdinand Bauer, an Austrian, not a German be it noted, who joined the Investigator as botanical draftsman to the celebrated botanist Brown.

"Flinders considered it a point of honor never to disturb a name bestowed by an original discoverer, and his naming: of Cape Leeuwin, Mounts Zeehan and Heemskirk, and Cape Keerweer, are eloquent of his desire to recognise in full the exploits of his predecessors on the Australian coast. He gave to the geographical features of the shores discovered by himself the names of people who had befriended him. the names of the gallant band who voyaged with him, and the names of places in his native county, Lincolnshire; but never was a place named after himself. He left to posterity the recognition of his performance, and it should devolve on posterity to see that his names are not disturbed.

"If the change back to Hahndorf, Hergott, Klemzig, and Lobethal is justified, as a Centenary gesture, how much more so is the restoration of a name given by the State's original discoverer—the man who gave to the continent around which he was the first to sail, the name Australia. I am Sir, &c., NORMAN FORD 70 Currie street, Adelaide." 

The outrage achieved nothing. If you enter "Cape Bauer" in Google Maps, the database is good enough to trigger "Do you mean Cape Wondoma, 5680?", but that is the only name it likes. Agree to Wondoma, or it shows you nothing.

To this day, Cape Bauer remains doggedly, chauvinistically Cape Wondoma, a monument to pettiness of people who have yet to notice that the war is over. There is one bit of good news: the road from Streaky Bay that goes around much of the coast is called Cape Bauer Road.

The centenary of this spiteful act is close. Will we do justice to a painter who never butchered a Belgian baby or did any of the other nasties attributed to the opposition in World War I. I plan to start jumping up and down.

How good was Ferdinand Bauer? See this: The Sunday Herald (Sydney), Sunday 27 August 1950, p. 2

Start campaigning now!

Friday, 1 August 2014

Crooked Mick and the foot race.

Another one from the bottom drawer, resurrected in honour of the Commonwealth Games and the City to Surf race, coming soon.

* * * * *

The trouble with Mick was that he was good at most sports, but he couldn't really get any joy out of trying to win, and that sometimes confused other people, because even though they could see he was good, he didn't bother going into things.

I mean, take the time the world champion marathon runners all came to Australia to run a race that started at the Sydney GPO, and ended up somewhere out past Parramatta.

Just before the start of the race, the very best marathon runner in the world asked Mick to mail a letter for him, and told him what address to put on the envelope.  It was an entry for a special world champions' race in Paris, and this bloke wanted to make sure it went off as soon as possible, seeing as he was the world champion.

Well Mick was quite old by then, and sometimes he used to get just a bit forgetful, so after the runners had been gone a bit, he realised he'd forgotten the address.  Well no worries, he ran after the bloke to get it again.  It was only a ten-minute start they had, so he caught up with the world champion at the five-mile mark, got the address, and ran back to the GPO, where the post office bloke wanted to know if it was to go air mail or surface mail.

Air mail was just a new thing then, and so people weren't used to thinking about it, and they didn't use it much, but it could've been important, Mick thought, so he had to run after them again to find out how the letter was to go.  He caught up with the runners at the fifteen-mile mark, got an answer, and ran back again, to a post office that was just a few miles back, because he didn't want to wear himself out.

Well the post office bloke at this suburban post office was even more difficult.  Couldn't post it, he said, not without a return address on the envelope, so Mick took off after the runners again, but he was a bit tired by now, and the sweat was getting in his eyes, so he missed the world champion bloke he was looking for as he ran through the field.  So in the end, he ran right through all of the runners, and across the line, still without seeing him.

When the world champion arrived at the line, the tape was down, and Mick was waiting there for him with the letter, but the world champion just snatched the letter out of Mick's hand, and tore it up into small pieces, saying there was no point in posting it after all, that he'd just decided to retire from running.  And you know, he never even thanked Mick for all the trouble he'd been to.  Didn't even ask about the sick horse Mick was carrying.

Yeah, sorry, I forgot to mention the horse.  One of the other blokes had asked Mick to look after this sick horse, and when Mick started chasing around, he didn't like to leave it behind, and it was only little, so he slung it around his neck and took it with him.  It made getting in and out of the post offices a bit hard, but it seemed to do the trick for the horse, and Mick often used to cure two or three sick horses at a time after that, but this runner bloke didn't even care enough to ask how the horse was.

Mick tried a few other sports from time to time, but most of the time he was just too strong.  I remember the time he played tennis, and kept smashing holes in all the racquets till he restrung one with wire.  Mind you, the first time he did that, he used barbed wire, and so he kept puncturing the tennis balls till somebody complained, and so he bit off all the barbs.

Then they complained about him spitting the sharp barbs out on the court, so he spat the rest of them into the soles of his shoes, and so invented the first spiked tennis shoe.  Actually, they weren't really shoes, but canvas and wood moccasin things that he got a canoe maker to run up for him as the result of another complaint — this time it was about him wearing bare feet on the court.  Then once he had a strong enough racquet, he kept bashing holes in the net, and that caused more complaints, so Mick gave the tennis scene the miss.

Truthful Lewis reckons the story about Mick drop-kicking bags of wheat over the Murrumbidgee River in flood time was just a story.  "I'm a good kicker," he told me, "and I'd be hard put to punt half a bag of wheat across."  Anyhow, Truthful reckons it was almost a drought when it happened, and that it was probably a punt in any case, not a drop-kick, but it was a full bag, and Mick was seen by an Aussie Rules talent scout, and signed to play Aussie Rules football in Melbourne.

The club let him go after the second game, because having Mick in the team was just too expensive.  He could score from anywhere on the field, but unless the ball went close enough to a post to leave a scorch mark, nobody knew where it had gone, and they never got the ball back, either, after Mick had kicked it.  So somebody had the bright idea of putting a net across to save the balls, even though there was a bloke there who knew all about the tennis business, and advised them against doing it.  They got it all set up in time for Mick's second game.

The result was that Mick blasted four holes through the net in his first four kicks, and then put the rest of the balls in that quarter through the holes he had made, because people behind the goals were copping serious cuts and lacerations from the bits of string that flew around like shrapnel.  But at least, says Truthful Lewis, you could tell which hole the ball had gone through by looking for the wisps of smoke.  They replaced the net with a reinforced one when they went to move it to the far end at quarter time, but that just meant Mick's first kick carried the posts clean over the grandstand, and into the river beyond.  Luckily, nobody was hurt, but Mick gave it away after that.

And according to Truthful Lewis, that was the last time Mick got involved in competitive sports.  After that, he stuck to duck hunting, just him and his dog.  According to Truthful, who has never told a lie, Mick would chuck his dog up in the air with a fishing line noose on each paw, and the dog would check the birds out, select the ones that were in season, and snare four birds, one on each paw-noose, then float down to earth with them, carefully regulating the tightness of the nooses so the birds could fly just enough to slow the rate of fall.

Of course, the dog was lazy, and that meant it often got a bit careless about judging size, so Mick'd usually have to let a couple of them go as they were too small, and the dog took exception to being sent aloft when there were guns around, but aside from that, they were pretty good at filling their bag limit every day,Mick and his dog.

Remind me to tell you about the dog some time.

* * * * *

Note: there is a whole book of these stories, which I am currently pitching to publishers, but they will probably appear in an e-book.

There will be quite a number of these on the blog, all with the tags Speewah and Crooked Mick.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Smiling Annie's snake circus

There weren't that many women on the Speewah, but the ones that were there made up for it by the great ideas they used to have.  Take the time Smiling Annie's Alice and Greasy Smith's second youngest, Gertie decided to take some Speewah snakes down to the big smoke and put on a circus.

They'd thought about doing some acts themselves, but they reckoned party tricks like riding a bicycle with three rolls of barbed wire and six loose melons was too ordinary.  They tried to get Mick to do a strongman act for them, but he reckoned they'd be better off with snakes, because city folk are both scared of and fascinated by snakes.

The first thing Alice and Gertie did was to sit down and plan the acts they could use.  First up they had some adding adders, where you would ask an easy sum, and the snakes would stick up enough heads over the side of the container to give you the answer.

It was a fake, of course, because adders are deaf, and couldn't hear the question, but they had a pup, the runt of one of the litters sired by Mick's dog, and it could hear all right.  So it'd listen to the question, then nose enough of the adders, which would stick their heads up, rather than get nipped on the tail by the pup if they didn't do it right.  But even if it was a fake, the customers wouldn't know it was just a dog doing the sums, and so they'd be impressed.

The next thing they decided on was a snaky equivalent of a lion-taming act, and for this, they decided to use a young python they found eating scrub bulls in the back paddock.  What happened was they were looking for a horse that had gone missing, and they thought this python might know something about it, so they reckon Alice ripped its jaws open, and Gertie stepped inside, but all there she could see was a scrub bull that was bellowing and roaring for all it was worth.

As it happens, Smiling Annie was there as well, and she held the snake's tail, and the next bit was her idea.  "Let's see," she says.  "The tent's only got four 'roo hides in it, so you can fit about four hundred people, but you'll never get all of that snake into the ring.  It'd be best if you train it to open its jaws, then you can bring the front end in, just after you've fed it a bull, because snakes don't roar, but your customers won't know that the roar they hear is coming from the bull, not the snake."

Gertie being the small one, she got the job of being the tamer of what they now called "Grendel, the world's biggest worm", which was a bit of a fake, seeing as how it was really a python, and people sort of knew that worms didn't have two-metre teeth, but it still looked real impressive.  Mind you, they could see a problem if they had to do matinees, because it took Grendel a full day to digest a bull, but in the end that wasn't a problem.

Next up, they decided, was a high-wire act.  That was easy, because the got some of the plaiting snakes.  These are the only little snakes that can withstand the big snakes in the back paddock, and that's because they plait themselves together into a whip, and lash any big snake that comes near them, and they're highly intelligent, so Annie rounded some up and explained what was on offer: a chance to see a bit of the country, free milk, plenty of frogs, and a chance to give Grendel a free lashing at any matinee performance.  Of course, they'd need fancy uniforms, but the rest of the plaiting snakes had a whip-around, and in no time at all, they had lashings of cash.

Mind you, Grendel wasn't too happy about the idea, as he'd had a few encounters with plaiting snakes, even in his young life, but that was no problem.  The girls just got Smiling Annie to come around and smile at him, and he decided that the whole idea has a lot of merit, and it was only for matinees.

Anyhow, the plaiting snakes were ideal for the high wire, but they worked themselves into a bigger routine, where they started out as a trapeze act, and swung back and forth, adding more snakes to the plait, then whipping up to tie off on the other post.  It was a mistake for the girls to agree to this, because the plaiting snakes used this as an excuse to get more of their family into the show, and that was the first step towards the disaster that was to come.

There was another step when they tried to get some drop bears to ride tiptail snakes.  These tiptails are completely harmless snakes, which only eat wild grapes and spinifex seeds, but when the wind gets up, the seeds blow around pretty fast, so they need to be even faster, and they rear up and race along on just the tip of their tail, cutting down on friction.  Well the drop bears would ride the tiptail snakes all right, but the first time the snakes reared up on their tails, two of the bears went feral, and bit the snakes on the neck.  And even though Mrs Greasy Smith had filed down the bears' teeth for them, it still hurt the tiptails.

Now I know I said the tiptails are harmless, but they also have a very mean streak and a nasty sense of humour, especially when something annoys them.  I've seen more than one horse rider chased by tiptails after taking a horse over a tiptail nursery, and there's nothing more upsetting that galloping full speed, and having four hissing snakes either side of you, four more behind you, and a couple of small ones jumping over you, even when you know they're dead-set vegetarians.

But while you can bluff a horse rider, drop bears have no imagination at all, so what the tiptails did was to race around the practice ring, faster and faster, and then lean out and bash the drop bears against the poles.

So given the time it took to catch a drop bear alive and file its teeth, it just wasn't worth it, so the tiptails were reduced to doing gymnastics and precision high diving, but people had seen all that before.  Flash Jack reckoned they ought to get the tiptails riding the drop bears, saying they could call it bear-back riding, but the girls wouldn't be in it.

Anyhow, Flash Jack had been telling the girls about hoop snakes for years, and they were never sure whether he was having a lend of them or not.  So now they put the word on him to put up or shut up, and he had to admit that there weren't any such animals.

That was no problem to Gertie.  She had gone out and collected four young taipans — had to kill the mother, of course, but she got the young ones before they knew they were snakes, and brought them up with another litter of pups, fairly bright little pups they were, too, second cousins of Mick's dog, and the snakes grew up thinking they were dogs.

But as cattle workers, the taipans were a dead loss, because every time they nipped a bull in the heels, it'd die.  No worries, though, Gertie took them and trained them to hold their tails carefully in their mouths, with the poison fangs either side of the tail.  Then she helped them get upright, and tried to get them to hoop along, but they just couldn't manage it, so all they could do in the end was run them down a ramp and across the ring, or wheel them around the ring.

The juggling snakes were pretty good as well, and the strong snake act was Grendel's tail, coming in through a flap in the roof — brought the house down once or twice until they got the cross-bracing right, and the snakes on unicycles were brilliant.

The snake charming wasn't much good though, as they had some of the adding snakes playing a tuba between them, two on the mouthpiece, and one on each key with Gertie coming out of the basket, but they forgot that all the adders were deaf, so nobody enjoyed that much, except the snakes.

But in the end, the whole show went broke.  You see, you can't really have a circus without clowns, and there was just no way you can keep a red nose on a snake, because the elastic kept slipping off.  So after all that effort, Alice and Gertie had to let the snakes go back into the bush again, where all of the snakes, including the adders, multiplied.

Still, circus training dies hard, and even today, you can find cooperative groups of plaiting snakes driving scrub bulls into the mouths of a large old python in the Speewah back paddock, assisted by a couple of taipans which sometimes seem to let out just the hint of a yelp.

You'll know the python straight off, as he's only got one tooth left.  And you'll find these adders that pop their heads up over a log to look at you if you shout out a sum, but you have to shout real loud.  So I suppose the snakes got something out of it, even if the girls didn't.

Crooked Mick was able to use the tent, though.  He turned it over, put loops around the base, and used it as a dilly-bag to carry his spare shears and a bit of a snack when he was heading off somewhere, and Gertie and Alice took Greasy's second bullock team out on the road for a spell till they got over their disappointment.

It was hard on the bullocks though, because Greasy just said to take them out on the road, and they assumed he meant them to carry the bullocks and they got embarrassed, but that's another story.

* * * * *

Note: there is a whole book of these stories, which I am currently pitching to publishers, but they will probably appear in an e-book.

There will be quite a number of these on the blog, all with the tags Speewah and Crooked Mick.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

The Great Speewah Flood

Now let's see, I was going to tell you about working dogs on the Speewah, wasn't I? As I recall, I was going to explain how the dogs out there really need to be as versatile as a shearers' cook when the food runs out.

Which reminds me: Crooked Mick demonstrated that sort of versatility more than once, during the Great Speewah Flood, the one that lasted two years without a single break in the rain.

I think I've already told you about that: if I did, I would have explained how the flood was so bad that all the fish drowned, and afterwards they had to import new fish to stock all the waterways. Well whatever I said before, that's the way it really happened.

Anyhow, the rain got on everybody's nerves, especially the shearers. So being a rough bunch, they took it out on the cook, who was sensitive, as cooks go. In the end, what with the shearers not being able to shear, and the hard time they gave the cook, the cook went, all the way to one of the outer sheds, where there was a large barrel of dust, kept for emergencies like long floods.

Climbing up on a high beam, he weighted himself down with scrap iron, jumped into the barrel of dust, and drowned. The boss was so sorry he stopped keeping a dust barrel after that. He said it might give the place a bad name, even if it was a long-standing tradition.

Well as you know, Mick was a marvellous cook, so after the barrel of dust had been dumped into the water, the station boss came down to the shearers' quarters, and put the hard word on Mick to take over as cook. There was no way they could get a new cook in, he said, not while the flood was on, and Mick was the only man up to the task.

Mick agreed that he was the best choice, but he mentioned that he was getting quite a good classical education from The Professor while the rain was coming down, and he'd miss all that if he had to cook for the whole shed. He was happy just to sit there, soak up an education, and wait for the rain to end.

I should explain that Mick had left school early, but he could see that a bit of education could be really useful when you were digging post holes, and didn't have anybody else to consult about dangling participles and things. You never know when one of them will dangle into the hole you've just dug, if you don't know what to look for.

So in the end, the boss agreed to pay The Professor a bonus to sit in the cook house and talk to Mick while he was cooking, as well as pay whatever the boss had offered Mick, and we all ate very well for the next eighteen months. Well, within reason we ate very well, but there were a few worrying moments when the food ran short, once or twice.

As you might realise, with the rain keeping on and on, the water levels got higher, and Mick and The Professor had to climb up a gum tree and build a new cook house, in a low fork of the tree. Then, as the water level kept rising, they kept moving the cook house up the tree, higher and higher.

Now that would have been all right, except that the two of them used to go up, right to the top of the tree to collect firewood. If you think about it, they were moving the cook house up the tree, while the top of the tree was slowly being lowered, and in the end they had to build a combined boat and cook house, and sail off to a tree that still had its top branches, all the while keeping up a supply of tucker for everybody.

At the same time, the rest of us had built a whole range of barges and pontoons to hold the stock, most of the local wildlife, the sheds, and other farm gear. That was how the great Speewah Ironbark Forest became the Speewah Plain that you can find in the atlas today. And if you look in the middle of the Speewah back paddock, you may even see a small rise that's forever labelled "Mount Ararat".

We couldn't have done it, though, if Mick hadn't put in an hour a day felling the trees for us, because he was the only one able to dive to the base of a Speewah Ironbark and cut through it on one lungful of air. It was hard on the forest, but we saved the stock and the wildlife.

Then there was the problem of the food. Until the fish drowned, they were able to get some of those, and the dogs kept the sheep herded in the upper branches of the taller trees until the floats were made. Remind me to tell you about the dogs some time.

Luckily we managed to save two of the Speewah rabbits, and we were able to live on their progeny for about twelve months. We ate two a night, one for Mick and one for the rest of us, and those parent rabbits just kept on breeding at the same old rate, the whole of the flood time.

Anyhow, the real problem came when we ran out of salt. We tried to work out how to get some brought in, but we were completely cut off. Even Mick wouldn't have been able to paddle or swim back against the raging torrents that were running off the Speewah in all directions.

So Mick ended up getting into a hollow gum tree, finding his way down to ground level, and sinking a hole down to the sub-artesian water, deep under the ground. Then he collected this water by the bucket, and carried it back up to the surface, where we evaporated it over a small fire, so we could have salt with our food again.

Later, when the whales came, it was Crooked Mick who fitted special stabilisers to the cook house, in case a whale bumped into it during the night, and he caught the two smaller whales with a hand line.

Not that we ate the whales, of course, but he used the oil to power his stove when we ran out of firewood, as the last of the remaining trees disappeared below the surface, just before the rain stopped. It was touch and go, there, whether we'd have to start burning some of the boats and rafts, and people were beginning to look meaningfully at Greasy Smith, wondering how much oil they could get off of him.

Yes, well I know I was going to tell you about the dogs, but I have to go now, so maybe next time, if nobody interrupts me, I can tell you all about them. Make sure you remind me . . .

* * * * *

Note: there is a whole book of these stories, which I am currently pitching to publishers, but they will probably appear in an e-book.

There will be quite a number of these on the blog, all with the tags Speewah and Crooked Mick.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Crooked Mick Builds a Railway

This came out of the bottom drawer.

* * * * *

I reckon the hardest work Mick ever did was when he laid the last ten miles of the track on the Speewah Hills spur line. It wasn't just the lay of the land that was against him, though, it was the geology itself. It was all jumbled up, with sandstone and shale all mixed in together, and outcrops of quartz sticking up in all the worst places.

So Mick had the problem of digging through really hard rock in the cuttings, but even though there was soft rock in places, it was almost useless for fill. That didn't help any.

Mick was left to do it all on his own, on account of a ghost that had turned up. It wasn't the ghost as such that made all the other workers pack up and leave. They didn't mind ghosts: it was the way it kept whining and grizzling about what a rough after-life it was having. It was  a real whinger, and just wouldn't shut up, no matter what, and so Mick was there on his own, and that didn't help any.

But there was worse: there was Royalty coming out to open up the line, and there were still ten miles left to do, with just nine days to do it in. That's what governments are like: slow to react and then demanding everything in a rush, and that put Mick under a lot of pressure, which didn't help any, either.

Of course, Mick couldn't have done it without his dog, but the dog was in one of its scatter-brained and lazy moods that it sometimes got into, and that didn't help any, which is why it turned into the hardest piece of work that Crooked Mick ever did.

Anyhow, the dog went out and surveyed the rest of the route and pegged it, but being lazy, it didn't drive the pegs in too far, so a few got knocked out by passing kangaroos, and some passing galahs took a couple more for dessert, which meant Mick actually went the wrong way a couple of times, and that didn't help any.

So after that, Mick gave the dog a good talking-to and sends it out with a team of horses, a team of bullocks, and two scrapers, so they can do the rough work on grading the route. Seeing the dog was being a bit absent-minded, Mick didn't want to overload its intellect. Personally, I reckon the dog knew exactly what it was doing, and it played stupid to get an easy life. Whatever it was, Mick had to do more of the work, and that didn't help any at all.

Still, with the dog supervising the horses and the bullocks, as well as acting as billy-boy, they could've made it, easy as pie. As it was, they got the whole of the way cleared and graded in five days, and that was when Mick found there were no sleepers. So he had to give half a day and all that night to cutting the hardwood sleepers to go under ten miles of track, and here he was lucky. See, there was a full moon, and that helped a bit.

He tried tossing the sleepers up ahead as he cut them, but any that he threw further than a mile just splintered when they landed, and the dog couldn't carry more than four at a time, so Mick got the dog to round up a couple of hundred Speewah bull ants. He tied two sleepers on each ant, one each side, and the dog marched them off, biting through the strings from time to time, to release the sleepers.

After a while, the dog got the idea of undoing the knot, and it learned from that about how the knot was tied. The next morning, it took over the job of tying the loads on, as well as dropping them, and it increased the work force to four hundred ants and had them marching four abreast. That helped a bit.

The only thing is, the sleeper-cutting hadn't been allowed for in Mick's timetable, and he was now behind schedule, so he worked his way along, a hammer in each hand, driving the spikes into the sleepers, which went faster when the dog was there to hold the spikes on the left-hand side, but it was mostly still at work transporting the sleepers.

That was when Mick made a bad mistake: he overworked, and broke both his hammers, with two miles of line still to be laid. That didn't help any, but he still had his fists, and he kept going and got it down to just half a mile to go, when he ran out of spikes. Now that definitely didn't help any at all.

So he sent the dog out, early the next morning, to bite the tips off as many mosquito stingers as possible, getting only the youngest ones, so the tips hadn't hardened yet. When the mosquitoes first leave the water, their stingers are no harder than half-seasoned ironbark, but half an hour later, they get really tough, so the dog had to get in quickly. That didn't help any, because the dog had to pick and choose among the mosquitoes, dodging the ones that were too old.

But in the end, the dog collected enough of them. As a matter of fact, if you go out there today, the rails have rusted away, and the sleepers have all fallen to the termites, but you can still see those mosquito stingers, marching away across the landscape in two parallel rows.

I suppose you're wondering how Mick transported the rails. He didn't have to do much, because they were loaded on railroad trucks when he took over the work, so he just hooked them up, and pulled them along behind him. That helped quite a lot, having them all loaded up like that.

And I suppose you want to know how he fixed the ghost: well, that was the easiest part of all. He collected the sap that oozes out of the gum trees, the gum that gives them their name, and he heated it up in an old billy. Then, when the ghost came round, he grabbed it by the throat, and poured the hot gum down its throat, and shut it up for good.

And I know what you're thinking now: how could the hot sap stick to a ghost? Well that was where Mick used his brains. He collected all the sap from ghost gums. That helped a lot.

But apart from that, it was the hardest bit of work that Crooked Mick ever did. It would've been easier if the dog hadn't been so lazy.

* * * * *

Note: there is a whole book of these stories, which I am currently pitching to publishers, but they will probably appear in an e-book.

There will be quite a number of these on the blog, all with the tags Speewah and Crooked Mick.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Ant lions rule!

This is another retread from a nursery news letter, but I have added more information at the end about catching, keeping and managing these cute little carnivores. Ant lion has a different meaning in other parts of the world, but I gather that there are strong similarities.

Aged seven, I was given a book called Beetles Ahoy! and read about ant lions there and fell in love with them. Family Myrmeleontidae (Neuroptera) to entomologists, these are the larval stage of lacewings. They dig neat holes.

The name is a misnomer: they aren't lions, as anybody can see. More importantly, they don't always eat ants—I have seen one catch and presumably eat, a small weevil.

Any loose material like sand has a natural angle of rest. This is the steepest angle it can hold without tumbling down. Sand dunes, sand heaps and sand banks are all limited by this angle. So are wells dug in creek beds.

This angle shows up in sandstone cliffs which contain fossilised sand banks, and you can see these all over North Head. The best view is from the lookout off the Fairfax Track.

So sand has a position of maximum stability. Ant lions rely on this. They dig conical pits in the sand by burrowing into the sand, and flicking sand up and away with their heads so the sides settle at the angle of rest. Then the predator sits hidden at the bottom, waiting for something to fall in.

Anything going over the edge dislodges sand and tumbles down. As it tries to scramble out the ant lion flicks the fallen sand out. This undermines the side which start to slide down, while some of the flicked sand knocks them down. The prey slides down as well.

Once the unlucky animal reaches the bottom of the slope, the ant lion seizes it in its pincers and starts sucking it dry. In the end, it flicks the empty husk of the prey out of the pit.

They are all over North Head, but you have to know to look for a small conical pit, 1–3 cm across in dry sandy soil. The soil may be close to one of the gum trees that kill grass, inside a hollow tree, along the edge of a building or under a rocky overhang. Sometimes, you can even see ant lion pits, right out in the open.

At times, and for assorted reasons, I keep some as pets. Here is all you need: just add ants—or weevils.

Catching ant lions: if you chase them they can burrow fast.  I use and old cup and scoop up the pit and everything for about 3 cm below the base, and I tip this sand into a jar.

Once i have several of the animals, I transfer the jar's contents to a tray containing about 3 cm of dry, clean sand, sprinkling the sand from the jar over the surface. The ant lions lie very still for a while, so you may not see them. Then they move backwards across the sand before backing down into it. You can see a trail going from left to right in the photo above, half-way up.

They often wait for a day or so before making a pit, so be patient.

Catching ants: Do not use a pooter! Ants release formuc acid when they are handled, and this burns the throat. Depending on the species, put a sheet of paper with a spot of Vegemite 
 or a scrap of meat (for meat ants) or honey (other ants). When enough ants are on the sheet, pick the paper up and shake the ants into a jar.

The rig on the right shows a neat way to stop the food ants escaping.  There is water in the larger tub. In use, the handle on the inner tub is upright, so there is no escape for the ants.

Water: Ant lions live in sandy soil that is somewhat shaded and also protected from direct rain, so they probably don't like full sunlight or damp conditions. I imagine they get all the fluid they need from their prey, but I usually keep one corner of the tray clear of sand, and add small amounts of water in that corner, enough to saturate the lowest millimetre or two of the sand.

When you have finished with your ant lions, release them back where you caught them, or keep feeding them until they mature, change into lacewings and fly away. If you have a covered tray, you may be able to see the adults when they emerge, but check it every day, and don't open it inside.

The photos are all mine, the drawings are from my 1985 book, Exploring the Environment.

Incidentally, it struck me that maybe I was repeating myself, and indeed I am: there are even some pictures in common, but the approaches are a bit different.  Now I wonder: am I getting better or worse?  You decide: the first version is here.