Search This Blog

Thursday, 26 December 2013

On tinned meat and dense brains

I have been thinking much about tinned meat of late, because in the 1950s, we children in Waratah Street would rise at 4 am to wake our parents and open some parcels before we met in the street and play with our new toys. The childless Mr and Mrs Lane would keep an eye on us and then haul all the kids they could find off to the beach for a swim, while our bleary-eyed parents snatched a couple of hours of light sleep before we returned.

Then the parents would all pile into the Lanes' flat down the street and consume much fluid while we continued to run quiet riot in the street. Christmas dinner arrived at about 3 pm, and by then, my father was nicely pie-eyed, and ALWAYS cut his hand opening the tinned ham.  It was part of Christmas.  That was how I first recall seeing tinned meat.

Last night, Christmas night, I heard Stephen Fry on QI refer to the Franklin expedition consuming very early tinned meat, circa 1845.  Franklin, by the way, had earlier been the Governor of Van Diemen's Land before sailing off to seek the North-West Passage from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean.

The context of Fry's comment was that in the earliest days of putting meat in cans, the solder was too high in lead.  The expedition suffered lead poisoning, but it wasn't an early mistake, because canning meat was old technology by then.

I knew it was old, because I recalled right away that on Christmas  day, 1813, exactly 200 years earlier, just across the Blue Mountains, George Evans wrote (my emphasis added):
"Being Christmas day we remained for a day's rest; yet we walked about as much as a day's journey looking around us, and ascending Hills to see the Country, which is excellent pasture, the soil is light, but exceeds the Forest Lands in general on the East side of the Mountains. The day is so hott the Fish will not bite; it is the only time they have missed; therefore I opened my tin case of Roasted Beef."
That reminded me of Donkin's Hill, which I have yet to visit. It is at 14:58 S, 125:30 E, near enough, and it is named after Bryan Donkin who, with John Hall, made tinned meats in England. The hill commemorates a tin of Donkin's meat eaten there in 1820. The leader of the eaters was Lt Phillip Parker King, much later an Admiral and leader of Sydney's scientific community.  Here is what he wrote in September 1820:
"A steep peaked hill near our landing-place was named Donkin’s Hill after the inventor of the preserved meats; upon a canister of which our party dined. This invention is now so generally known that its merits do not require to be recorded here; we had lately used a case that was preserved in 1814 which was equally good with some that had been packed up in 1818. This was the first time it had been employed upon our boat excursions and the result fully answered every expectation, as it prevented that excessive and distressing thirst from which, in all other previous expeditions, we had suffered very much.
At the end of the 19th century, David Carnegie was rather more scathing of tinned meat:
"Tinned meat is good, sometimes excellent; but when you find that a cunning storekeeper has palmed off all his minced mutton on you, you are apt to fancy tinned fare monotonous! Such was our case; and no matter what the label, the contents were always the same—though we tried to differentiate in imagination, as we used to call it venison, beef, veal, or salmon, for variety’s sake! ‘Well, old chap, what shall we have for tea— Calf’s head? Grouse? Pheasant?’ ‘Hum! what about a little er—minced mutton—we’ve not had any for some time, I think.’ In this way we added relish to our meal."
These chaps have all been in my mind, because they are all potentially players in one of the Not Your Usual series, Not Your Usual Explorers, which will look at some of the unexpected people who went exploring in Australia.  Teenagers (even teenage girls), foreigners, convicts, Aborigines and women were all involved, as were a number of complete fools who also need to appear in any true history.

Speaking of fools, Christopher Pyne, has the notion that as Minister for Education, it is his anointed role to determine what shall be taught as Australian history, and I will warrant none of the above characters or events would appear in his tight-sphinctered list of dead white males.

George Evans is a typical example of the competent human who was attacked by feral oafs for extraneous reasons.  Like James Cook and Joseph Banks, among others of that era, George could not spell.  That was enough to set the third-rate pedant wannabes rolling in the aisles.

The public schoolboys sniggered and nudged each other because George thought a rivulet was a river lett. Superciliously, they added that to the map as a joke on old George, and he was barred from leading further expeditions.  Lucky John Oxley took George along as a 2-i-c, and safely away from the pen-pushers, had George running long-range independent forays.  Oxley understood competence.

That line of thought made me recall where I met Pyne's type before.  Now a bit of background: I have always been a debater, and like most debaters, I relished the role of third speaker, but as something of a demolition expert, I always got the gig.  I was articulate, I could think on my feet, and I knew where the jugular was.

When I went to university, slightly over 50 years ago, I found that most people treated each other as equals, taking people as they found them. That said, a certain type of wet-behind-the-ears public schoolboy would enquire as to the school I attended, and when I said I had attended Manly Boys' High, they would withdraw a little, as from a leper, saying in tones of shocked surprise, "Ooooh, you don't speak like a state school boy!"

Come into my parlour, said the third speaker to the fly...

I am small and harmless-looking. I would smile gently, and explain that while some people had to go to a special school to learn how to speak well, others of us acquired it through breeding.  Suddenly, they would realise that they were ankle-deep in acid.

Soon after, they became aware that ankle-deep is not good, not if you are head-downwards.

Before long, the word apparently went around about me, and as I approached, you could see this type scattering. They would cross, in order, themselves, their fingers, their legs, their eyes and the road as they fled from my gaze.

That is exactly the phenotype I see when I look at Christopher Pyne: ignorant, arrogant, stupid and quintessentially uninformed, sadly lacking in education, empathy or awareness. Pigeons ripe for the plucking.

Here is my challenge to this buffoon: meet me anywhere in public to debate what Australian history should be. I undertake to cross-examine you and demonstrate your woeful ignorance of facts, figures (both numerical and personal), motives, motivations, techniques and technologies, societies, societal standards, traditions, ideas and ideals, language and a great deal more.

In the improbable even that you win, I will have won in any case, because you will have been forced to take a crash course in Australian history. I recommend the book on the right as a starting place. The pictures are already coloured-in.

My bet is that he will end up resembling Carnegie's minced mutton.  I am growing old, but I am still up to slam-dunking a pip-squeak, and showing a pipsqueak up for what he is would be one of the best services I could do the next generation.

Please, Chris, come into my parlour.

For my last dunking of Christopher Pyne in hot psittacoid waste material, see The Foolish Minister.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Words of wisdom from 1949

I spend a small part of each day correcting OCR records in the National Library's 'Historic Newspapers Collection', and today, I was digging in 1949. There is a method to my digging, but it is hard to spot: at one point, I went through and corrected every story published on the day I was born, though you would be hard put to find it now, because so many newspapers have come on line since then.

No matter: for those who know something of my affairs, I am solidly into the Cornish Boy series again, and that is eating my thinking time. More of the Cornish Boy and his adventures some other time, here is a fascinating series of excerpts taken from a lecture in 1949: the source and a link to it appear at the end.

One thing: I have picked two elements from this to use in Cornish Boy, so I am off to amend the ms as soon as this goes.  See if you can guess which ones they are.

* * * * *

HENRY TONKS, a surgeon and one of the greatest art teachers England has produced… diagnosed one of the principal complaints of modern civilisation. I think it was Max Beerbohm who said that he was tired of the expression, 'the age of the common man.' What he wanted to hear about was the age of the uncommon man. The aim of civilisation is surely not to produce a uniform and dull level of shared mediocrity. Still less is it to produce a society, such as we see in certain parts of the world, where the voice of the uncommon man is effectively silenced. We must be on guard, therefore, against the dangerous cult of mediocrity which is steadily spreading throughout the world. One of the symptoms of this growth is the hostility that is increasingly shown to personal distinction in manner, in speech, in dress, and, not least, in intellect. No great nation seems to be exempt.

* * * * *

In the United States and Great Britain second-rate film actors, writers, and even crooners are mobbed as if they were national heroes; whilst in Soviet Russia painters who perpetuate the worst academic traditions of the nineteenth century are hailed as masters of the modern movement. I have already referred to the tendency for members of mass formations to impose their collective opinions and values on other members of the community. Scarcely less deplorable is the way in which the taste of the people is regulated and controlled by commercially standardised changes of fashion. It is a question, not of choice among many new looks, but of the one and only new look, which the public is allowed to take but not, alas I to leave. 

* * * * *

Respect for the past has ceased to be, for many sections of the com- munity, an important factor in regulating and guiding political decisions; for these sections the past is merely something to be swept away as quickly and thoroughly as possible. During the period of rebuilding that followed World War One a member of the Georgian Society remarked that the highest praise to be given any beautiful house in London was to say: 'It is almost good enough to deserve demolition.'  The remark is equally applicable to the lovely early Colonial architecture of Sydney. This architecture should be as inviolable as the parks. Like the parks, It serves no industrial or commercial purpose. Like the parks, it is a reminder of values other than those of industry and commerce. But in an age without respect for the past, and with little heed for beauty, these gracious memorials of Australia's past seem doomed to disappear.

* * * * *

THIS careless and ungrateful destruction is more than a symptom; it is a symbol. An age of mediocrity not only dislikes the past: it fears it. Fortunately ours is still a free society, and it is possible to draw attention to the dangers both of historical neglect and of false history. History teaches us that those societies which have turned to the past for inspiration have also best adapted themselves to changing circumstances.

* * * * *

A student of the Eighteenth Century may be forgiven if he draws attention to certain peculiar merits of that century. I should like to argue, if there were time, that it produced the last civilised society the modern world has produced. The century had a rational approach to life, an approach which is summed up in Its splendid title, the 'Age of Reason.' The basis of this rational attitude was not only good logic, which is rare, but good manners, which are rarer still. It was an age of tolerance, but not of undiscriminating tolerance. Its governing principle may be summed up in the sentence: 'Let us tolerate all but the intolerant.' 

This spirit of tolerance made it possible for an atheist, the historian Gibbon, and a Christian Bishop, Watson, to exchange sincere compliments in the midst of the most heated controversy of the age. It also made it possible for the far-reaching reforms of the nineteenth century to be initiated, if not without bitterness, at least in accordance with the peaceful machinery of a democratic constitution. In other words, the 'Age of Reason' is a reminder of those values of reasonable conduct, tolerance, free enquiry, and humane sentiment. which the world needs so badly to-day.

* * * * *

BUT there must be one reservation in our praise. The great qualities of the eighteenth century, its merits and its benefits, were, confined to a very small class. Very few members of this class seem to have worried, because this was the case. This was a grave fault, and I think we can claim an improvement in our own times. To-day, there are much fewer people who enjoy some peculiar privilege or benefit and do not look forward to the day when the same privilege or benefit can be enjoyed by every member of the community. 

Most of us, I suppose, have some idealistic friend who talks of the classless society. I must confess that I do not fully understand this phrase, for even if we eliminate the classes made by man, there will still remain the classes instituted by nature. But there is a sense in which the ideal of a classless society was realised even within the limitations of the eighteenth century. Let me venture upon a somewhat heretical definition.

* * * * *

A classless society is one in which the members address one another, not as 'comrade,' but as 'sir.' It is a society based not on universal familiarity, which is a low ideal, but universal respect, which is a high one. Such was the society of the famous Literary Club, of which Dr. Johnson, Reynolds, Goldsmith, Burke, and others were members. If we are to set before ourselves an ideal community, as we should, let it be one in which all members, however moderate their gifts or humble their occupation, show respect to others, and deserve it themselves. If man cannot only master his machines, but return also to the standards of the 'Age of Reason,' the future of democracy will be safe, and the common man will recognise and respect, both in himself and in his neighbour, un common potentialities.

* * * * *

The author is Joseph Burke who was then the Herald Professor of Fine Arts in the University of Melbourne, in the Syme Oration delivered in Brisbane to the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons the previous night 

Thursday, 12 December 2013

When pumice comes to visit

In July 2012, a seamount in the area of the Kermadec Islands, between New Zealand and Fiji, began to erupt. The result was a huge raft of floating rock. We call that rock pumice.

We have been picking up a bit of pumice recently, just odd lumps here and there, but in the past few weeks. the coast of eastern Australia has been getting quite a share of it.

What's more, the pumice has been carrying passengers, so over the last couple of days, I have collected a few of these to share with you.

In the first shot, there is an Australian $2 coin, which is there as a scale: it is 2 cm (8/10 of an inch) across.

I didn't use a scale on the others, but the life forms will let you jump from one to another.

The passengers included gooseneck barnacles, but only on a few of them, and sadly, the barnacles came adrift as I was carrying the pieces home.

The main other passengers were bryozoans , also call polyzoans, as seen on the left. To get a scale, look at the tubeworms (probably Galeolaria) in that shot and below.

The last shot is just a closer look at the bryozoan.

I am busy right now, working on a project called Cornish Boy, but sooner of later, I will get around to Not Your Usual Rocks, when I will talk about pumice, the only rock that floats.

 And why does it float?  Wait for the book!


Thursday, 5 December 2013

The last of the bushrangers

I have been exceedingly busy, getting the first seven Not Your Usual... books ready for publication. There are now five of the seven "in the bag", the sixth only needs some navigation links inserted, while number seven needs some serious revision.

That was the position when I came across a reference to a bushranger called Tom Hughes. In Not Your Usual Bushrangers, I had declared that the bushranging era was dead and over in 1880, following the executions of Captain Moonlite and Ned Kelly.  Annoying my sense of the neatness of things, Hughes came on the scene in 1887.  Here is a new end portion that I have just crafted for Not Your Usual Bushrangers.



Declaring somebody to be "the last of the bushrangers" can be a dangerous business. I was doing the last revision on this book when I chanced on a reference to a policeman whose father had once captured "Hughes the bushranger".

Luckily for my reputation, curiosity got the better of me, mainly because I had never heard of Tom Hughes. I saw a bit about him, and then saw that, after being acquitted of a robbery in 1887, the police were sure he was responsible for a number of burglaries in Perth and Fremantle, so they began watching him closely.

By 1944, The Daily News saw fit
to illustrate O'Connell's killing.
One night, two constables, Franklin and O'Connell, saw him near Fremantle, followed him, and when he ran, they gave chase. They got him by the legs as he went through a fence, but he drew a pistol and shot Constable O'Connell, who later died.

Hughes took off into the bush, but from my point of view, he was not worth looking into, just a burglar who killed a policeman. Assuming that he would have gone to the gallows for that, I almost dismissed him, then and there, as not much of a bushranger, and far from interesting.

I glanced at the next article in my search, and it was headed "Cowboy and Bushranger". I wondered if this might explain why Hughes was such a late entrant into the bushranging game. Could he have got romantic notions of bushranging, while he was in America, and moved to Australia?

I read on—and discovered pure dross. Take this introduction and note the overall smell of baloney, tinged with malarkey and topped with a liberal dose of Yellow Press sauce: it had apparently been published first in the New York Sun.
Colonel Tom Ochiltree sat in the barroom of the Hoffman yesterday drinking champagne with a friend, when a reporter came in. 
"Say, Tom Hughes has been bagged,' he remarked to the reporter. He was much surprised to learn that the reporter was not acquainted with Mr. Hughes. 
"Why, he was at one time one of the first citizens of Denison and at another time of Lareda. Why, everybody in Texas and every other State must have known Tom Hughes. But let me tell you, his capture was accomplished only because of his hard luck, and hard luck was an infrequent incident in the picturesque life of one of the old-time-spirits that fifteen or twenty years ago gave a zest to life in this country."
The Daily News (Perth), Monday 9 January 1888, 3,
 A Texas colonel, swilling champagne in a New York bar? Pull the other one, it's got bells on it!

Still, I did some checking, and found that there was a famous Texan Ochiltree who was a colonel, but he died in 1867, so that made this colonel sound fictitious. I saw, though that he was William of that ilk, so I looked for Tom, and uncovered an original character of that name who had been a Texas Ranger, a Confederate Colonel, a US Marshall, and a Congressman from 1883 to 1885, after which he retired to play the stock market in New York.

So  Ochiltree was genuine, but what of the facts? Hughes would have been dead at the end of 1887: nobody likes cop killers, so there was probably no story for me there! I felt somehow that there was a distinctly fishy odour to Ochiltree's yarn, but I was busy, so I set it aside to get on with some real work.

And so it came to pass, the following night, that my newspaper search filter was set to pull up records from the 1940s. The Tom Hughes itch started, and I ran a search on <Tom Hughes bushranger>, mainly planning to see when he went to the gallows. It would have been neat, I thought, if he was hanged before January 26, 1888, the centenary of the first white settlers landing in Australia.

What I found was a report with the heading "WA's Most Desperate Bushranger Dies". Its date was December 16, 1944. Now without wanting to underline my senior citizen status too strongly, he died after I was born, meaning that in a technical sense, I was born in the era of the bushrangers. Now there was a definite story for me, and it is largely summed up in the first three paragraphs:
WA's Most Desperate Bushranger Dies 
Tom Hughes, only bushranger worthy of renown in that dubious trade Western Australia has known, was buried in Karrakatta cemetery on Tuesday. Many years ago he hurried over that now consecrated ground when hotly pursued by mounted troopers who wanted him for the killing of a policeman at Fremantle. For weeks Hughes had been sought around Fremantle and Perth. It was not long after he ran over the scrub lands that are now Karrakatta cemetery that he was captured and he spent the greater part of his remaining life in gaol.
It is a remarkable fact that when West Australian bushrangers are spoken of the name of Moondyne Joe is first mentioned. Moondyne never engaged in gun play. He was an expert gaol escapee and he robbed settlers' huts; but he never fought pursuing police nor fired a shot at anyone as Hughes did on many occasions. Tom Hughes was born and brought up in and about a humpy where there is now the well populated riverside suburb of Bicton. As a lad he worked as a coachman for a Roman Catholic prelate, but he quickly became a burglar. He robbed the licensee of the Freemasons' Tavern which is now the Palace Hotel in Perth. After three trials, at the end of each of which juries disagreed, he was freed. 
Robberies At Fremantle There followed robberies of tools and explosives from quarries near the traffic bridge at Fremantle and a watch set by police culminated in the chasing of Hughes one Sunday evening as he sneaked away from the quarry with goods he had stolen. Lying in wait for him were two policemen named O'Connell and Franklin. That was in April, 1887, when Hughes was 21. When they challenged him Hughes dropped his bundle of stolen goods and scaled a wall into the street along which buses run into Fremantle centre today after crossing the bridge. The two policemen were so fast after him that they were able to grab his legs as he scrambled through a paling fence on the opposite side. People who had been at church were returning home when they saw the chase.
The Daily News (Perth), Saturday 16 December 1944, 23.
Further digging revealed that the Ochiltree story had some true bits about it, but it was a case of mistaken identity. Our Tom Hughes had a younger brother in Perth who had also tried his hand at burglary, but the boy was only 11, and Ochiltree's Tom Hughes would have been in his forties.
The American Tom had a cool head, if the following story of his being bailed up near Fort Scott in Kansas is true. When I read it, I almost wanted this to be the same Tom Hughes as the bushranger, given the way he tricked his would-be robbers.
Hughes, with his knees knocking together and lower jaw drooping, kept his hands up, but they wore flopping about in a way that made the man with the pistol laugh. He couldn't help turning his head a minute to remark to one of the men with him that he 'never see sich a idjit,' but he never said anything else after that. The moment his eye got around to his companion, Hughes' shaking right hand dropped down on the butt of a revolver somewhere about his clothing, and even before the robber saw the motion, Hughes sent a bullet through his heart. He shot one of the others with the next pull of the trigger, and then told the third to hold up his hands and make tracks toward Fort Scott, which was done instanter.
The Australian Tom Hughes was a superb bushman, who eluded the police for a large slice of 1887, but in the end they got him, after he was shot in the thigh. According to reports at the time, he told the police he expected to pay for his crimes (meaning with his life), and wished they had killed him outright.

He knew he was guilty, everybody did. So why didn't the bushranger Hughes swing? Well, it seems popular sympathy went his way, and all he got was a verdict of manslaughter for killing O'Connell. He was given a long sentence and closely watched, but it wasn't enough.

With the help of another prisoner, Jarvis, they overpowered two guards, seized a gun and forced other prisoners to put up a plank that they used to scale the 18-foot (5.5 metre) wall. Warders gave chase, but they lost the escapees' tracks and Hughes and Jarvis stayed at large for some time, but in the end they were caught.

Reading between the lines, he suffered for his brutal attack on the warder, but after that, he behaved himself and waited for his sentence to end.

One thing is certain: having served his time and been released, Hughes died at the ripe old age (in those days) of 79. He was a late entrant into the bushranging game, and he was young when he did so.

I think I am fairly safe if I now dub him "the last of the bushrangers".

But you never know...


And the series?  I am looking at a January release of seven e-books. Stay posted.

And just an afterthought, here is a link to an earlier piece I did on another unusual bushranger.