Les Murray’s poetry books fill a long shelf, and his Collected Poems (Black Inc 2018) runs to more than 700 pages.
So it was a challenge for actor Peter Carroll and theatre polymath John Senczuk to choose a group of poems for a coherent performance piece, titled Burning Want. I was peripherally involved as literary adviser. Plans for 2020 were cut short when theatres went dark.
This week the project came to life at the SBW Foundation’s Seaborn library in Neutral Bay, with Peter Carroll’s moving performance of Burning Want, supported by James Boyd-Hoare, who composed piano music to set the mood.
The audience responded very warmly to Peter Carroll’s performance, which brought a wide range of poems to life – some tragic, some wry, a couple hilarious.
At each session, the audience included people with special connections to the Murray oeuvre. Graham MacDonald, former editor of honi soit, was the first to put a Murray poem in print, in April 1959 in the Sydney University student paper.
In my secret garden/ I kept three starlings,/ In my secret locket/ three copper farthings.
One zinc-grey evening/ The birds escaped me/ And a crippled man stole/ My shining money.
The starlings wandered/ Till three hawks took them,
And now my agents/ Have caught the cripple.
This poem doesn’t appear in the Collected Poems, so it was exciting to have it rediscovered.
The discovery of new poems continued. After the matinee performance, an audience member produced an occasional poem that Les Murray wrote in recent years to celebrate the 80th birthday of a neighbouring farmer. A jaunty celebratory rhyme, it was full of bouncing tennis balls and references to how much joy the recipient and his wife got from tennis.
The day left me marvelling at the brilliance of Les Murray’s words, and Peter Carroll’s immersion in the very essence of the poems. Composer and pianist James Boyd-Hoare was another exciting discovery, and John Senczuk’s talent and verve always delight me.
Afterwards I was given a bunch of bush greenery to take home. I posed next to a picture of the charismatic Peter Finch. What a day!
The cop jumped out from behind some bushes and frantically waved us down.
We had just rounded a bend on the Maracaibo-Caracas Highway and the cop was signalling for us to pull over on the soft shoulder which was marked by a white line. It was Good Friday and the highway was very busy. First reaction was to wonder why we had been singled out.
The cop claimed that my colleague, Wilton, a New Zealander, had driven across the white line marking the edge of the highway. We did not think this was correct but our denial made the cop aggressive.
The conversation in Spanish, mine transactional and rudimentary, went something like this:
Cop 1: Crossing the white line is a serious offence
Me; I’m sorry. We are business visitors to your country and we do not know all your traffic regulations. We won’t do it again. Tomorrow we are leaving your country.
Cop 1: (Unimpressed) Crossing the white line is a VERY serious offence
Cop 1 then signalled for us to follow him into a clearing behind some bushes. This made us feel very uncomfortable but, as he had his hand on his pistol holder, we decided to follow. Here we found Cop 2 seated at a picnic table.
Cop 2: You have got two options, either pay an instant fine of $US 50 or go before a judge in the nearby town.
Me: (trying the confused foreigner role) I am sorry. I don’t understand. I don’t speak much Spanish..
Cop 1 (to Cop 2). Esto tipo miente ( Trans: This guy is lying). Habla castellano muy bien como un madrileno (Trans: he speaks Spanish like a toff from Madrid).
Cop2: So (turning to us) $US 50 or the judge
Me: The second option sounds better
Cop2: Good. The judge is on his Easter holidays and will not be back till next Tuesday. Meanwhile we are going to have to lock you up. till then
Wilton (pulling a crisp greenback from his wallet): Here is your $US 50.
The two cops salute smartly, accompany us back to the car and even politely open the doors for us before saying they hope we enjoy the rest of our stay in Venezuela.
Postscript 1: Looking back on this incident after so many years I realise these cops were on the lookout for a hire car driven by a couple of Gringos. They must have had a tip off. That is the only explanation as to why they singled us out from all the heavy traffic.
Postscript 2: Later that evening at dinner with friends in Caracas, we tell them about our adventure.
“Idiotas”, they said “The cops would have been satisfied with fifteen dollars!
My mother was fond of saying ‘Waste not, want not’, and these became our ‘words to live by’ when I was growing up in 1950s Sydney.
Around that time, there was radio program called the SAWPAC Show: Save All Waste Paper and Cardboard. It was an afternoon quiz show that aired after one of my mother’s soap operas: ‘When A Girl Marries – dedicated to those in love and all those who can remember…’ (cue sappy music). As well as promoting recycling, with bundled WP and C collected from the kerb regularly, there was a quiz along the lines of ‘Name that tune.’ We once won a ‘mantel-model radio’ for being first to phone in with the right answer. Ironically, we had just bought one, so now we had the unprecedented luxury of two new working radios, one in the loungeroom and one in the bedroom.
As well as recycling newspapers, we kept some for other purposes, such as lining cupboard shelves, wrapping kitchen garbage, or starting fires. On another continent, decades later, I found 1931 Toronto newspapers used as insulation in the walls of our old wooden garage, proof that there were other creative recylers at work in other places, long ago.
Extending the life of a growing child’s clothing was one of my mother’s strengths. She made most of my clothes, but some, like school uniforms, had to be purchased. She bought me a larger size school tunic, hemmed it, and unpicked and resewed the hem as I grew taller. I think she would have made my tunic herself if the regulations about Kambala’s uniforms hadn’t been so strict, but she did knit my winter jumpers, a deviation that the principal kindly overlooked – and she didn’t overlook much! My peers were quick to spot the difference, of course, and not always in a kind way. When my longtime friend Penny left Kambala to go to Frensham, she kindly gave me her school tunic and blazer, both a lot newer than the ones I’d been wearing for many years.
When I became a professor and anticipated attending students’ convocations, I briefly toyed with the idea of making my own academic gown instead of renting one. Paper patterns were available, I discovered. As it turned out, I chose not to join the ‘procession of educated men’ (Virginia Woolf’s term), but sat in the audience wearing non-academic attire when my students graduated.
Readers of a certain age will recall how Sydney shoe shops offered x-ray machines so that mothers could see if shoes had sufficient room for a child’s growing feet. Alarmingly, kids could play on these fascinating (and potentially dangerous) machines until an adult intervened. True to form, my mother bought larger-sized shoes for me, and put cotton wool in the toes until I grew into them.
As a child, I had a Royal Stewart pleated tartan skirt that I loved. Instead of a waist band, it had a cotton bodice, allowing my mother to buy a bigger size, sew a horizontal pleat in the bodice to shorten it, and adjust it as I grew. (Apologies if dressmaking terminology isn’t your strength – Ms. Google will help you.)
Having grown up with a frugal widowed grandmother, my mother learned many household recycling tips. When the middle sections of sheets got worn, she cut them in half lengthwise, removed the worn parts, joined the outside edges using a flat seam, and hemmed the edges. A double bed sheet would then become a single. Leftover pieces went in the rag bag to be used as dusters or floor cloths, with good strips reserved for bandages. Similarly with bath towels: cut out the worn section, hem and use the remaining parts as hand towels or face cloths, or even as towels for my dolls.
There was a similar trick for men’s shirt collars – unpick the collar, turn it over so that the underneath was now on top, and reattach it. A few years ago, my favorite Ken Done shirt needed that treatment – a bit time-consuming but worthwhile, as I’ve extended its life by many years, and that particular vintage is no longer available.
My father had a workshop attached to the garage, and it was here that hepractised his versions of recycling. I don’t think he ever threw out leftover wood. He either saved pieces ‘for a rainy day’, or split them into kindling for the fire. Bent nails were collected in an old jam tin, to be hammered back into shape and reused as needed. He even sharpened his large collections of saws himself, a time-consuming job usually done by a saw doctor. Did you know that if a crosscut saw is set properly, you can make a needle run down the entire length of the teeth? (Again, Google will explain.)
Needless to say, many of my parents’ recycling practices continue to influence me today – and I’m grateful for that.
When I was about 15 years old my father took me for a walk in the country consisting of a two-day bush walk into the Blue Gum Forest in the Blue Mountains. We packed a tent and all the necessary items to be able to survive for that time – things like dehydrated chicken and vegetables, a billy, water, fruit, biscuits, a torch, a two-man tent and sleeping bags, and off we went.
.We drove to Blackheath and parked the car next to the Blue Gum Lookout, put on our rather heavy backpacks and started walking. The first 500 metres were easy because it was a level, well-marked bush track and then we came to the steep track down the cliff-face.
I was not used to the heavy backpack and it kept on throwing me off-balance and on one particular steep location I lost my footing and over the cliff I went. I was grabbing at every small tree or shrub trying to slow my fall and I luckily grabbed a tree branch and clung on with all my strength. The fall below was about 50 metres so it would have been fatal but for that one tree branch. My father was able to somehow scramble down the slope and grab my arm, and gradually, inch by inch, with me pushing with my feet and him pulling with all his might, we slowly edged our way back up to the track.
We were both exhausted and relieved and sat somewhat stunned at the thought of what might have happened.
The rest of the trip was uneventful but most enjoyable. We camped by the river, cooked our meals over a campfire, slept in the tent, went for a swim in the morning, had breakfast, and then made our way back up the steep cliff track. It was a walk in the country which I will never forget.
From late 1978 to mid 1982 I worked at the Anti-Discrimination Board of NSW. It was an exciting place with committed Board members and staff. In those early days the ADB was an autonomous outlier of Premier’s Department. Refugees from South-East Asia and migrants from the Middle East were making New South Wales a more diverse society.
Initially the grounds for complaint under the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 were race, sex and marital status. By 1982, physical impairment and homosexuality had been added.
The tiny community relations team had the task of making five million citizens aware of their rights. We wrote leaflets and radio spots in many languages; we prepared TV infomercials, we started a newsletter and we travelled to many regional towns and cities. We ran conferences. We briefed the media on hearings before the Board. We ran seminars in schools, universities and many places of work. The Senior Sergeants of Police are particularly memorable. The convenor would greet me with, “There are more than 300 years of policing experience in this room.”
Colleagues who were researching discrimination based on age, religion, political conviction, homosexuality and disability had expertise and wide contacts. Our Aboriginal project officer taught me a great deal. We worked with the Ethnic Affairs Commission on tackling racial vilification.
But not every day was a triumph.
Occasionally there was an outright disaster.
One autumn evening, leaving my husband and sons on their own, I drove south to Dapto – I’d been invited to speak at a service club. I reached my motel at dusk and was on time at the venue. The engineer who’d invited me seemed friendly, and so did the club president. The dinner went smoothly enough. Club formalities followed, with various jokes and fines from the Sergeant-at-Arms.
There were no wives at this event. A waitress and I were the only women in sight. There were about 45 men.
I was introduced.
This is the gist of what I said: Your right to a fair go. Discrimination complaints on the grounds of race, sex and marital status. Early cases before the Board. Equal opportunities for all. Increasing numbers of women in fire-fighting, policing and skilled trades.
The President thanked me and called on a man from the far side of the room to move the vote of thanks.
Mercifully I have no memory of what the man looked like. But his words will stay with me forever. “That would be the greatest load of crap I ever heard in my entire life.”
I was wearing a red woollen dress. I could feel my face reddening to match it.
While the engineer and the president were wondering how to make amends, two men dashed up to me.
“Terrific talk!” they said. “We aren’t members here – we’re visiting from the Fairy Meadow club, and we want you to know we never treat our guests like that at Fairy Meadow.”
I was grateful to those two kind men. Ever since, I’ve had a a special fondness for Fairy Meadow.
We were in a restaurant in Paris years ago, enjoying dinner. It was an up-market place with table cloths and waiters wearing bow-ties. Our table was in a booth lined with velvet, the booths forming a circle around a small fountain. We could clearly see the people in the booths on the other side of the fountain and wondered about them.
There was an obviously rich old elegant couple, fawned over by attentive waiters. There was a family of two parents with two teenagers, and there was a beautiful young lady sitting all by herself, looking at her watch.
It was just after 8 o-clock and I commented that someone was running late. As the minutes ticked past, we became concerned for the young woman who was agitated and upset. At about 8.30 p.m. a tear rolled down her reddened cheek. The waiters could see that something was wrong and brought her a glass of water and a menu.
The rest of the restaurant was oblivious to the drama: there were peals of laughter and loud conversation coming from the other booths. The waiters were very busy and no one had time to comfort the now distressed mademoiselle. It was almost 9 o’clock and we were becoming distressed too. What should we do? Should we go over to comfort her, or would that make matters worse?
Suddenly the door opened and in rushed a rather harassed young man who looked around, spotted his date and ran over to her. There were hugs and floods of tears from both. It was such a tender moment that the much-relieved head waiter brought over two glasses of champagne. We continued to watch as the young man explained what had kept him so long. Without them ordering, food and wine started to arrive under the supervision of the headwaiter who had witnessed the drama.
We can remember that particular tender moment as if it was yesterday. It confirms to me that Paris is indeed “the city of love.”
As a slightly tinted chappie (I am partly Indian), it has been a source of amazement to me that in a long life (now 82) I must confess to never having been overtly discriminated against. Most of those years have been spent in largely white societies, now thankfully a thing of the past as we’ve all become much more multi-hued. Indeed, far from feeling left out, my working life has seen me floating nonchalantly through the upper reaches of the corporate world and the bureaucracy. I have even been given the keys to the executive washroom, not literally but that is code for a range of executive privileges.
Getting so far in a discrimination-free zone, and now finding myself in 2021 the victim of discrimination…..well, it all seems decidedly bizarre…. but more of that later.
Sure, I was once on the receiving end of a racial slur, when at the age of eight in south London I was on the way to school. I passed by a house where in the front garden stood an enormous boy, probably about twelve. As I walked past he called me a nasty word, usually reserved for people of Far-Eastern appearance. As he was much bigger than me, I quickly walked b y and next day chose a different route to school. Oh! I forgot to mention! He was an Afro-Caribbean boy, probably son of a couple who had come over to make sure the Brits were adequately provided with transport and health care. Looking back, I bear no ill will to that boy. Probably in that era on the receiving end of the N word, he had at last found someone he could racially abuse, even if he got the races slightly mixed up.
Apart from my encounter with my (probably) Jamaican friend, I had not really experienced racial insensitivity until I arrived in Australia over forty years ago. Soon after joining my company, I joined colleagues for after-work drinks in a local pub. It was a hot day and one of them said his throat was so parched “it was as dry as a Pommy’s bath towel”. As I was the new chum, recently arrived from the old dart, it was a mortifying experience and I felt I had to do something to restore English pride. So next April 23 I organised an office picnic to celebrate St George’s Day. The notice which went up on all office noticeboards invited all staff of English origin to celebrate our national day. This led to a visit from a very embarrassed guy from Personnel to inform me I was guilty of discrimination, probably illegally.. The happy outcome was that all were made welcome and St George’s Day went on to be an annual excuse for everyone to get out of the office for a long wet lunch lasting several hours.
…..and now to 2021. Recently my wife and I decided to celebrate our wedding anniversary with a week on a part of the NSW South Coast which we had not visited before. We duly booked an apartment with the international hotel booking agency we had used many times before. Twenty four hours before we were due to arrive we were asked to provide a photo ID, which I satisfied with my driving licence which of course contains my date of birth. Not long after I received an email from the booking agency saying the reservation had been cancelled on age grounds as this particular accommodation had an age limit of seventy five.
I immediately contacted the villas and spoke by phone to the owner who remained intransigent to all my pleas. I used all the arguments. “We were in Italy last year and stayed in a place in Sicily where we had to climb five flights of stairs to get to our room”. No effect. “We go to the gym three times a week”. No effect. ” I bushwalk up to ten km at a time”. No effect on the unmoved owner. Finally in desperation I pulled out the big gun. “We play croquet”. To my immense surprise this had no impact whatever on the obstinate owner who said the accommodation (ground floor and stair free) would not be suitable for someone my age. I retired to lick my wounds and find alternative accommodation.
A week later we returned to our croquet club where advance word had got around about our treatment. It must be something about the predominant demographic of our club, but several members were so incensed about our treatment that I thought they were in acute danger of spontaneous combustion.
So I decided to go to war, not just for me but for all those lovely angry people.
My battlefield turned out to be Anti-Discrimination NSW who were on to the case with amazing speed. As an ex-member of the NSW public service myself I must say I had never been aware that its bureaucracy could move so fast. I had to conclude that Anti-Discrimination NSW were either grossly overstaffed and were desperate to find something to do or had been trained in rapid-response by the Riot Squad or the NSW Fire Brigade. Within minutes I was told I had been age-discriminated, that this was illegal and that I should put in a formal complaint which they would deal with.
To cut to the quick. Within a week I had received a written apology from the property owner, an assurance that henceforth there would be no age restriction in the house rules, and a reimbursement of the extra cost of booking elsewhere.
You may like to see the letter I sent to the property owner:
” Dear Madam,
Thank you for your apology and for reimbursing the extra costs of alternative accommodation.
I am glad you are amending your house rules and will no longer be at risk of legal action against you.
Most of my friends , who are over the age of seventy five or soon to be so, were incensed when I told them of your last-minute rejection of my booking.
I too was disappointed not only at having to bear the stress of finding alternative accommodation at little notice, but because your villas looked so comfortable and eminently suitable for seniors.
So you will be pleased to know that at every opportunity I will be recommending your villas to my enormous circle of friends throughout Sydney, most of them well over seventy five and some of them a sprightly ninety.
By my desk I have a copy of the Bureau of Meterology’s Weather Calendar. The picture for March features “cloud streets”. I’ve never seen those long parallel lines, but did see one cloud highway from the balcony.
What a lifetime of joy the sky provides. Sunsets, sunrises, the sun, the moon and the stars – and a zillion unanswered questions about the galaxies far out of sight.
At dusk the clouds can form a barrier on the horizon:
Jagged clouds on horizon
Sometimes there’s a balmy rainbow:
Sunsets are so routinely beautiful that we risk taking them for granted:
Balcony plants with sunset
So let’s hear it for the sky – up there, ever changing, infinite in its variety, and always ready to offer a new look at existence.
During my time at Sydney Kindergarten Teachers’ College, Waverley (1961-63), lecturers often mentioned the importance of teaching preschool children about ‘community helpers’, for example, the policeman, fireman, postman, and milkman.. And yes, that really was the terminology of the day. Sesame Street of the 1970s was more inclusive, as captured in the catchy song about ‘the people in your neighbourhood’. Growing up in Vaucluse in the 1940s and 50s, I have fond memories of the people in our neighbourhood, some of whom remained dear family friends for many years.
My childhood home near the junction of New South Head and Old South Head Roads was close to two small rows of shops, and a short walk from a bigger centre at Pipers Loop.. Our shops included a pharmacy, a flower shop, two grocers, a ‘greengrocer’ (fruit and vegetables), a butcher, a ladies’ hairdresser, and a private lending library. All the buildings have been renovated and gentrified to the point of being unrecognizable today.
The first chemist whom I remember from childhood was a rather cranky man. One day, my mother and I overheard him snap at his small son, who had fallen over,‘You can pick yourself up’. Strange that I remember that, and not more important episodes in my childhood. He was succeeded by the wonderful Mr. and Mrs. B, both qualified pharmacists. No request was too difficult for them, even to the point of taking the tram or bus to the nearest after-hours pharmacy to get medication for my mother during her many years of ill health.
On the topic of health, doctors, of course, made house calls in those days – sensible, given that if you were sick enough to need a doctor, you were too sick (and/or too contagious) to travel to their surgery. Our Dr. P at Rose Bay came to our house frequently, especially when my father was in his 90s and had heart problems. Dr. P pronounced that brandy or whisky were good heart stimulants, and then contrived to make his house calls just before dinner, so that he could join my dad for a drink – and a good time was had by all.
A different Mr. and Mrs. B, immigrants from Italy, were our greengrocers. Typical of the times, but inexcusable, most of their customers didn’t bother to learn their full 4-syllable surname, but shortened it to two syllables. I recently found out that Mr. B. was an opera fan, had a lovely singing voice, and used to go to the opera with the other Mr. B, the chemist.
The operator of the small flower shop near the 333 bus stop was Mr. S., who, it was rumoured, ran a side line as a bookie, using a nearby public telephone. Apparently using a public phone for placing bets was legal, or perhaps less illegal than using a private one. The block of flats on Old South Head Road had two other shops: a ladies’ hairdresser and a grocer. A small, dark ground floor flat with windows facing a brick wall was where my (honorary) Auntie Ada lived. As well as being my mother’s friend for many years, she was influential in introducing me to books, as I’ve described in a previous Balcony Fever post (balconyfever.com/2020/10/15/reading-writing-being/) Miss L, the hairdresser, rented a room from Auntie Ada, and my mother was a regular customer for a cut, or a cut-and-set (which was not the same as a ‘permanent wave’). When I decided I wanted my long curly hair cut, at about age 13, Miss L. was not willing to take that on, but recommended a very good (male) hairdresser at David Jones.
The grocer’s shop, in the era before ‘cash & carry’, displayed all the products behind the long wooden counter. If you asked for half a pound of sugar, the grocer filled a brown paper bag, weighed it, grabbed the corners, and twirled it in the air to seal it, a process I found quite riveting but could not replicate at home.
My mother’s friends Mr. and Mrs P lived in the house beside the flats, and Mr. P and his employees built caravans in the large workshop at the back. They were the first and only vegetarians whom I knew as a child (‘food cranks’ was my father’s term), and Mr. P was famous for his invention of a folding caravan.
Both the milkman and the baker did their deliveries by horse-and-cart, and one milkman trained his horse to keep up with him as he went down the street on foot. My father’s morning ritual included checking for manure. If it was within a certain distance of our back gate (not so far that neighbours would see him), he’d collect it with a shovel and apply it to the vegetable garden. In case you were wondering, he didn’t grow leafy vegies, just beans and potatoes. I was instructed to shake the milk bottle before opening so that the cream was evenly distributed (before homogenised milk was a thing) but I often cheated. Same with bread – I was told not to break off bits of warm crust en route from the front door to the kitchen, but I did.
The private lending library is an outdated concept, but one operated for a few years in our neighbourhood. For a small fee, my mother would borrow books from the ‘Romance’ shelf, some of which I read as well as a teenager. They were more explicit than any book in Kambala’s library, but quite mainstream for the 50s.
A memorable shop at Pipers Loop was Doyle’s takeaway fish and chips. I was often sent on a Friday to get three pieces of fish and a shilling’s worth of chips – all delicious, despite my father’s routine grumbling that it was probably shark (it wasn’t). Alice Doyle was a relative of our neighbours, and I recall a visit, when I was about 5, to her mother’s little teashop on the beach at Watson’s Bay, the site that is now the famous Doyle’s flagship restaurant.
Also at Pipers Loop was my mother’s preferred butcher, run by (old) Mr. W. She would make a point of waiting for him, rather than his sons or offsiders, because she thought he’d give her better meat. Typical of the time, the floor was sprinkled with sawdust to catch the drips, the butchers wore blue striped aprons and belts with pouches for their knives, and they tended to call female customers ‘darling’.
Writing this, I’m reminded of an essay I read a long time ago. The author suggested that, to the extent that our memories of childhood are positive, being young in and of itself is responsible for this phenomenon. Having had a mostly happy childhood, mine are mostly good memories. Adolescence, I must admit, was a different story…
Most people have heard of locust plagues, cane toad plagues or rabbit plagues. Rural Australia is sometimes overwhelmed with another sort of plague, little known, and rarely experienced first-hand by city folk.
One Easter time a few years ago we arrived late in the evening at a sheep and wheat property in the Central West of NSW. We were tired after a six-hour drive from Sydney. As soon as we had consumed a welcoming nightcap with our hosts, we went to bed. We placed several chocolate Easter eggs on the shelf behind the bed, intending to distribute them to our cousins the next morning.
Almost as soon as we had turned off the bedside lamp we heard a rustling noise behind us and the sound of multiple egg wrappers being torn simultaneously. On turning on the light we caught sight of several disappearing tails and inspected the damaged, nibbled and now written-off chocolate eggs.
We didn’t get lot of sleep that night.
Our arrival had coincided with the advance guard of a great Australian mouse plague.
Over the next couple of days we came to experience the full dimensions of the plague.
Mouse plagues break out in some of the grain growing areas of Australia every few years, usually after a bumper harvest. At the age of two months, a female mouse can give birth typically to five to seven young and go on doing so every three weeks; so in ideal conditions (for mice) their population grows exponentially.
The next morning mice seemed to be everywhere. Open the door of a room and they would scatter in all directions. I recalled that the previous evening, during the last few kms driving towards the property in the rain, I had noticed in the headlights an unusual number of small frogs jumping around in the puddles. I now realized these “frogs” were mice.
During the daytime the family gathered in the large lounge room where our numbers discouraged all but a few mice from seeking our company. It was a different story in the adjacent kitchen. The teenage boys in the family had set a number of traps out there and raced out every time they heard a click. The unfortunate mice were taken outside and fed directly to the waiting farm dogs.
Eventually the dogs lost interest in eating more mice, generally after consuming thirty or forty.
Dog before and after consuming a banquet of mice.Illustration: Eleni Sen
As to our food, there were only two places safe from the mice – the oven and fridge, fortunately a very large country one.
A couple of older teenage girls in our group had decided to sit on the hearth (it was a warm day and the fire was unlit). Suddenly they leapt up with screams. The boys, no longer able to feed the mice to the dogs, had climbed on the roof with handfuls of mice and dropped them down the chimney. Of course, they had no idea the girls were sitting on the hearth!
Ilustration: Eleni Sen
During the evening I walked up to the machinery shed. This was a large steel building housing tractors, headers, trucks and other machinery. Usually the big concrete floor is pretty clean with just a few bits of grass and the odd pile of waste grain lying about. On turning on the light I was amazed to see that it was carpeted throughout in grey — and that the carpet was moving. There must have been thousands of mice jostling for position and a chance to nibble some wheat grains. Looking at the amazing moving mass, one could almost imagine looking at the surface of the ocean on a dull day.
Having spent my childhood in an old part of south London, I thought I was used to mice……………..but Aussie mice in their batallions were another story.
In fact these plague mice were British immigrants just like bunnies, foxes, cats and people. Native marsupial mice look similar but don’t go rogue.
The first mice would have arrived in 1788 with the First Fleet and then continued to stream in with every ship. Plagues break out somewhere in the grain growing areas on average every four years or so. With up to three thousand mice plaguing a single hectare, they do colossal damage to crops, chew electric cables, wreck farm vehicles, cars and buildings.
While such plagues usually occur in the country, Melbourne is known to have had a mouse plague a few years back.
Eventually mouse plagues seem to work themselves out. Country people claim that the mice quite suddenly disappear. Most plagues end in winter when the weather turns cold with food increasingly scarce. Apparently as food runs short the mice start trying to eat one another, often successfully. This leads to lots of bites and infections, which spread rapidly through the massive populations. I like to imagine that the more successful predator mice grow fatter and fatter on a yummy diet of their fellows, until they die of obesity. More likely the mice die of disease and starvation in their nests under the ground.
Sometimes farmers plough the soil, just to destroy the nests. At other times, normal tilling has the same effect. Now for sound environmental and economic reasons, some farmers are switching to ‘no-till cropping’ , retaining the stubble from a previous crop and planting seeds in the untilled soil. This captures carbon, improves the soil and helps prevent soil loss through wind erosion. Perversely this allows the mice to remain undisturbed in their burrows. Grain growing areas of NSW are once again suffering from a mouse plague brought on by mild weather and an increase in no-till cropping.
According to Wikipedia- so it must be right- Australia and China are the only two places where mouse plagues are known. Maybe by stressing our common mousy heritage we could go some way to repairing the current frosty relations between our two countries. Just so long as we avoid limp jokes about Mao’s plagues.