Sunday, December 23, 2012

How Banjo Paterson wrote Waltzing Matilda

WHO knows what note hits the right chord, what combination of uninspiring words and simple music turn the key to a nation’s heart even 100 years after their composition?
Not me, and certainly not the great Banjo Paterson whose throwaway  rhyme,  Waltzing Matilda, would go on to inspire this wonderful country we call Australia.
Back in 1995 when I was a columnist with The Courier-Mail in Brisbane, the boss sent me out to the near birthplace of the song, Winton, where the then prime minister, Paul Keating, was going to unveil a great statue of Paterson in the small western Queensland town’s centre.
Paterson would have been stunned after Waltzing Matilda was first publicly performed in Winton on April 6, 1895, had you told him Australia would have remembered his song into the next decade, let alone the next century.
He would have laughed, scornfully perhaps, had you suggested it would be the focus of a national centenary celebration in 1995, attracting an amazing mix of Australians from  humble bushies right up to governors and prime ministers.
That varied company, immersed in a wide variety of Outback food and drink, traditional trades, entertainment and culture under clear blue skies in a dusty town like Winton would have been inconceivable to Andrew Barton Paterson in his early days.
Whether he thought some of his more serious poems or short stories and newspaper reports from afar might make it into the 20th century as national treasures, we’ll never know.
But if he did have such foresight it is likely Waltzing Matilda would have been on the bottom of his list of self appraisals. He wrote the words purely for the amusement of Dagworth Station owner, Bob Macpherson, and Paterson’s fellow guests holidaying on the station.
His ditty was triggered rather than inspired by several events at Dagworth and Combo Waterhole.
The constant playing of Craigielee, an old Scottish tune (which became the Matilda theme) on her autoharp by the owner’s visiting sister, Miss Christina Macpherson, stories of the bitter shearers’ strike a few months earlier, including the suicide of a striking shearer, and of swagmen waltzing their matildas through the district, killing sheep when they needed a feed of mutton.
Apart from Miss Christina playing the autoharp, can you think of anything less inspiring for a song to touch a young nation’s heart and soul that thieving swaggies and suiciding shearers?
But the tune caught Paterson’s poet imagination and he wrote down words based loosely on local chatter, words that have been altered somewhat over the years.
Perhaps the fact that this nationally published poet had written an original poem and set it to music in
their district spurred local officials to putting on a party to celebrate its first public performance.
Local grazier Herbert Ramsay was rung in to sing the song in Winton’s North Gregory Hotel on April 6, 1895, no doubt doing it more justice than Prime Minister Paul Keating, Premier Wayne Goss and Governor Leneen Forde did 100 years later on the very spot of the first appearance.
It took eight years before Paterson’s words were published, which was probably a record delay for the young man who had been a nationally published poet and writer for a decade at that stage. In those days The Bulletin was snapping up and publishing everything Paterson could write.
Matilda first appeared on the national scene as sheet music in 1903 and was bought as a jingle for Billy Tea, that great Aussie icon with the swaggie and kangaroo on the packet.
You can get some idea of what scant regard Paterson had for Waltzing Matilda and its future when he told a friend years later that he had sold the song “with some other old junk” for ten shillings and sixpence.
Perhaps unknown to him in the early days, the song had taken off from the North Gregory Hotel performance in the only way possible in those long-gone bush days - by word of mouth. Ringers, shearers and drovers wandered off to all points from Winton 100 years ago, polishing up their versions around  untold campfires which eventually spread around Australia and the world.
Matilda certainly came back to  Paterson, not so much to haunt him for his early neglect but to delight him.  As he watched the Diggers come swinging down the gangplanks singing his song after victory in World War I, Paterson said: “I sold the song for ten and sixpence years ago, but it’s  worth a million quid to hear those soldiers singing Waltzing Matilda coming home.”
Maybe at that stage The Banjo was musing seriously for the first time just what sort of national treasure he had created and how long Matilda  would last.
Well, he would have been very, very proud to have wandered around Winton with the rest of us at his statue launch back in 1995. And I reckon if there are enough true blue, dinky-di Aussies left to prop up a bar or sit around a campfire by 2095, they will be at Winton, or where that town once stood, standing as close as possible to where the North Gregory pub once stood, if it ain’t still standing, and down a beer or a rum while croaking out Waltzing Matilda.
There was an intense feeling across the board in Winton that despite the ratbag forces white-anting away for outrageous social changes in recent years, traditional Australia will survive to celebrate Waltzing Matilda in another 100 years.
The Matilda celebrations back in 1995  convinced me that  tourism is the way to go for many small Outback towns such as Winton. So let’s not wait another 100 years before we have another drink for The Banjo.
I’ll drink to that, mates.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Out the back with Ma Bendall

YOUNG blokes and sheilas surfing today probably wouldn't believe it but when I started surfing in the mid 1960s, when you fell off your board you lost it - straight onto the beach if you were lucky, or straight onto rocks if you weren't.
You see back then the legrope hadn't been invented, although I saw a big fat bloke roped to his board at First Point, Noosa, about a year before the real legropes appeared.
It was a good surf day and I was paddling back out to the point after a pretty good wave when I moved past the fat bloke and noticed a dirty big rope tied around his gut.
The rope was about an inch thick and disappeared under his board.
I found out later he had it tied to his fin. About a year later proper leg ropes hit the market.
They were great days back then, with very few surfers compared to today. I surfed mostly on the Sunshine Coast - the North Coast as it was known then - and you knew most of the surfers out there.
Two of the most popular surfers back then were Ma and Pa Bendall of Caloundra: Marjorie and Ben. They were among the first boardriders up there in the late 1950s. Pa had seen films of people riding boards with fins, able to twist and turn their boards up and down, not just go straight in with the wave like the finless boards of old.
Pa reckoned this new sport was for him so he got a couple of planks of balsa and carved out a board for himself and one for Ma.
As far as I can recall they were the first surfers in Caloundra and their favourite break was Moffat Headland, where Ma dropped Pa's ashes when he died in 1973.
They sure were funny days back then because Ma and Pa used to leave their boards up against the Moffat rocks for days at a time when they weren't using them. I don't think you could do that today.
Pa was a Canadian airman and  performed pretty well during the Second World War. But this is about Ma, a highly intelligent and very brave woman and a bloody good surfer for a woman who didn't start until she was in her fifties.
How brave was she? Well a couple of weeks before her 89th birthday I asked her what she would like for a birthday present. She wanted to jump out of a plane and parachute down to her beloved Moffat Beach. No kidding. I made the booking but a couple of weeks before the birthday Ma had a heart attack and spent a few days in hospital.
When she got out of hospital she begged me not to tell the doctor about the parachute jump.
"No, don't do that," Ma scolded me. "He won't even let me ride a horse when I go to New Zealand for a holiday later this year, so he won't let me go parachuting."
But when I took Ma to meet the parachute instructor he refused to take her because of her age and her recent heart attack.
Ma was dirty but settled for a joyflight up and down the coast in a light plane.
Ma had always been adventurous ever since she was a child born and brought up in the Queensland bush during World War I. As a bush kid she was  mad about flying and her early heroines were those three marvellous women pilots: Amy Johnson, Amelia Earhart and Nancy Bird.
At the age of 23 Ma was the only female among 140  people to enter a newspaper competition offering a flying scholarship as the sole prize. She made the final six.
Several years later Ma posed as an Australian journalist to bluff her way into the BBC's London studios for a private interview with her heroine Nancy Bird, who had just completed one of her historic flights.
In 1935 Ma, aged 25 and single, sailed to England for a six month  trip which turned into almost five years, during which she realised her ambitions to ski the slopes of Europe, hunt with hounds, shoot grouse and fly-fish for trout.
She also saw the rise of Hitler from the inside, working as au pair for a Jewish family in Germany in the late 1930s. Later she took au pair work in Sweden where she skied the frozen wastes near the Lapland border.
Back in England she became engaged to her first husband, Bill, who gave her a good hunting horse, instead of the more traditional engagement ring. Her wedding present was only slightly more unusual: Bill's family gave the happy couple a brace of guns, including  a 10 gauge shotgun for her and a 12 gauge for him.
In 1939, the newlyweds caught a steamer to Sydney where they set up home in Mosman. The marriage ended in divorce and the mother-to-be Ma returned to Queensland  for the birth of her daughter in 1940.
That same year she moved to Caloundra where she bought a block of five flats at Bulcock Beach. In the mid-1950s, along came the irrepressible Canadian Air Force pilot, Ben Bendall.
Like Ma, Ben was an outdoor fanatic and when, later that year, they saw a young bloke riding  a balsa plank across the waves off Moffat Headland, they were hooked. Ben made a rough copy of that surfboard and so began their life of surfing.
Ma told me back  on her 89th birthday: "I was 50 and Ben a couple of years older when we learnt to surf. We started travelling a lot and competing in surfing events around Australia and pretty soon we became rather well known."
They were invited to compete in such prestigious events as Hawaii's Makaha contest. They became media celebrities with frequent TV appearances. Their surfboards, as well as the films and books they created, are held in various surfing museums.
They have a surfing contest named after them: the Ma and Pa Bendall Memorial at Caloundra, the second longest running professional contest in Australia, still going strong after 38 years.
Ma had a some great mottos:
1. You can do anything if you really want to.
2. Never miss an opportunity for the good.
3. They say? What say they? Let them say!
The great Marjorie "Ma" Bendall died in 2001 aged 91 years.
What a wonderful woman and a wonderful life.
(The 2012 Ma and Pa Bendall Memorial contest will be held in Caloundra on April 6-8)