Monday, February 17, 2014

Mulga Bill's Bicycle by Banjo Paterson

Today is a special occasion--the 150th birthday of Andrew Barton "Banjo" Paterson.

Australia can be a disappointing place to live for a bibliophile with a taste for medieval and renaissance literature. It's a sad fact that no Australians were writing epic poems or classic plays back in the day when Shakespeare and Spenser were showing the rest of the world how it's done. By the time Australia was founded, in 1788, the French Revolution was around the corner and all that kind of thing was old-fashioned.

There haven't been many great Australian authors. The competition isn't stiff. But for my money, the best of them all is Banjo Paterson.

Paterson was a lot of things in his long life, which demonstrates the truth that good writers are almost never just good writers--they tend to be good, bad, or indifferent other things. The other things that Paterson was included a farmer, a lawyer, a journalist, a jockey, and a soldier. As a journalist, he covered the Boer War in South Africa and the Boxer Rebellion in China. As a soldier in World War I, he served in France and Egypt. Born on a failing sheep-station in New South Wales, he farmed in Victoria on and off for most of his life.

Paterson wrote poetry, novels, short stories and essays--often but not exclusively comical. At the height of his fame as a poet, only Rudyard Kipling was better loved in the English-speaking world. Of course, the literary critics these days prefer Paterson's contemporary, Henry Lawson, who they say is less romantic and more realist. And, if you ask my very unbiased and incorruptibly neutral opinion, a bit of a bore.

Paterson and the Man From Snowy River on our $10 note
Banjo Paterson's poetry has become famous--even if you aren't Australian, you've probably heard of Waltzing Matilda or The Man From Snowy River (the last of which was even made into a rather mediocre movie containing the most thrilling horsemanship yet committed to film). Other poems, like Clancy of the Overflow or The Geebung Polo Club are still famous in Australia, and get recited any time Australians do any reciting. It's Paterson's prose that I enjoy the most, though. It's beautifully clear and elegant, very similar to John Buchan.We spent happy hours in earliest youth laughing over classics such as The Cast-Iron Canvasser, The Merino Sheep, or The Amateur Gardener (collected in Three Elephant Power, which you can get from Project Gutenberg). One day I shall go back and read some of his correspondence from the Boer War, which is full of pungent character sketches, and his commentary on Rudyard Kipling, which introduced me to that marvellous poem The Ballad of East and West. But, because I have not posted a poem in a while, let me find a classic...

Mulga Bill's Bicycle
by Banjo Paterson


'Twas Mulga Bill, from Eaglehawk, that caught the cycling craze;
He turned away the good old horse that served him many days;
He dressed himself in cycling clothes, resplendent to be seen;
He hurried off to town and bought a shining new machine;
And as he wheeled it through the door, with air of lordly pride,
The grinning shop assistant said, 'Excuse me, can you ride?'

 'See, here, young man,' said Mulga Bill, 'from Walgett to the sea,
From Conroy's Gap to Castlereagh, there's none can ride like me.
I'm good all round at everything, as everybody knows,
Although I'm not the one to talk — I hate a man that blows.
But riding is my special gift, my chiefest, sole delight;
Just ask a wild duck can it swim, a wild cat can it fight.
There's nothing clothed in hair or hide, or built of flesh or steel,
There's nothing walks or jumps, or runs, on axle, hoof, or wheel,
But what I'll sit, while hide will hold and girths and straps are tight:
I'll ride this here two-wheeled concern right straight away at sight.'

 'Twas Mulga Bill, from Eaglehawk, that sought his own abode,
That perched above the Dead Man's Creek, beside the mountain road.
He turned the cycle down the hill and mounted for the fray,
But ere he'd gone a dozen yards it bolted clean away.
It left the track, and through the trees, just like a silver streak,
It whistled down the awful slope, towards the Dead Man's Creek.

It shaved a stump by half an inch, it dodged a big white-box:
The very wallaroos in fright went scrambling up the rocks,
The wombats hiding in their caves dug deeper underground,
As Mulga Bill, as white as chalk, sat tight to every bound.
It struck a stone and gave a spring that cleared a fallen tree,
It raced beside a precipice as close as close could be;
And then as Mulga Bill let out one last despairing shriek
It made a leap of twenty feet into the Dead Man's Creek.

 'Twas Mulga Bill, from Eaglehawk, that slowly swam ashore:
He said, 'I've had some narrer shaves and lively rides before;
I've rode a wild bull round a yard to win a five pound bet,
But this was the most awful ride that I've encountered yet.
I'll give that two-wheeled outlaw best; it's shaken all my nerve
 To feel it whistle through the air and plunge and buck and swerve.
A horse's back is good enough henceforth for Mulga Bill.'

1 comment:

Anna said...

Nice post, it was such a great tribute to him!!

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