Tag Archives: poetry

Banjo Paterson & Mulga Bill’s Bicycle

Light the candles, break out the tinnies. Today is Banjo Paterson’s birthday – born on this date in 1864, at ‘Narrambla’, near Orange, in rural New South Wales. For those of you who are not Australian, or haven’t had the pleasure of living down there, and don’t immediately recognise the name, Andrew Barton ‘Banjo’ Paterson is Australia’s national poet, the man who gave the world Waltzing Matilda, and a rich swag of iconic Australian ballads such as The Man from Snowy River and Clancy of the Overflow, and, for those of us of the cycling persuasion, Mulga Bill’s Bicycle.

That latter tells the tale of Mulga Bill, a proud and haughty outback stockman who, fancying his skill at being able to ride anything that moves, buys himself one of the new-fangled safety bicycles everybody is talking about, and, all dressed up in a natty new cycling suit, sets off down the sloping street, away from the shop and out of town, disdaining all help or advice – only to have the skittish bicycle break away from him like a rodeo colt, giving the unsuspecting wrangler a short, swift, terrifying downhill ride that ends with his being launched off a twenty-foot cliff and splashing (harmlessly) into in a deep pool in Dead Man’s Creek.

Mulga Bill’s Bicycle appeared in the Sydney Mail on 25 July, 1896, at the height of the great cycling craze that was sweeping Australia and much of the rest of the world. The ballad was an immediate hit and has never really been out of print ever since. It has appeared in anthologies, been put to music, illustrated by countless Australian artists – including the great Pro Hart – and caused there to be many a ‘Mulga Bill’s’ bicycle shop dotted around Australia.

It also casts a revealing light on the poet himself, his values and the colourful, fast-changing times in which he found himself living.

Banjo’s romanticised bush was very much a world of the horse, and he guarded it jealously. In real life, for example, camels and their Afghan handlers played a huge role in settling the outback, being the lifelines that supplied the lonely settlements on the waterless plains and hauled the year’s wool clip to market from the outlying stations, but you’d never know it by reading Banjo Paterson’s poetry.

Nor would you guess, by reading Banjo, that the rivers in southeastern Australia, the very heart of the mythical bush that Paterson made his own, had a boisterous Mississippi-style steamboat culture with its brawling river ports and colourful steamboat captains that rivalled anything in Mark Twain. Again, nary a word of it in Banjo’s poetry. It was all the horse.

But the bicycle was something even Banjo couldn’t ignore.

A Sunday ride in Melbourne in 1895

The bicycle transformed the bush – far more than the horse ever did, or could, for it was the vehicle of the common man. Everyone could afford a bicycle. With the invention of the ‘safety’ bicycle in the mid-1880s – the sort of bicycle we know today, as opposed to the pennyfarthing – anyone who needed to travel the vast empty distances in the outback suddenly had access to a cheap, reliable form of transport which could carry them a hundred miles or more in a day, and, unlike the horse, didn’t require grass or water and could be repaired by anyone with a bit of wire and ingenuity. Australians took to cycling like nobody else on earth – shearers, prospectors, miners, land agents, stockmen, bush preachers, commercial travellers, the very people Paterson loved and wrote about and who figured so prominently in his ballads and poetry, were all taking to the bicycle in droves.

Learning to ride in rural Victoria in 1896 - the year Mulga Bill's Bicycle appeared

“It is extraordinary what unlikely places one found those tyre tracks,” wrote the veteran Australian newspaper correspondent Charles Edward Woodrow Bean in his classic turn-of-the-century outback travelogue On The Wool Track. “They straggled across the very centre of Australia. We crossed them in paddocks as lonely and bare as the Sahara. Bicycles were ridden or driven or ploughed or dragged wherever men could go, and not infrequently where men could not go with safety. But the bicycle got through, if the man did.”

Bush prospector heading into the outback on his bicycle - c1896

A sure sign that the shearing season had begun, he wrote, was the number of bicycles heading into the bush. “The shearer set out on these trips exactly as if he was going from Sydney to Parramatta. He asked the way, lit his pipe, put his leg over his bicycle and shoved off…If he was city breed, as were many shearers, the chances were that he started in a black coat and bowler hat, exactly as if he were going to tea at his aunt’s.”

As the nation’s most popular and best-selling bush poet Banjo felt unable to ignore the bicycle, and so he chose to lampoon it instead:

“‘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

And hurried off to town and bought a shining new machine…”

Confident of his ability to master anything, the dude-y Mulga Bill sets off on a meteoric course down the main street and out of town, bouncing, veering and gathering pace until the out-of-control bicycle – a lovely metaphor for all the irreversible new-fangled changes – finally bounds off a twenty-foot ledge and dumps its badly shaken rider smack in the middle of Dead Man’s Creek. Of the bicycle, Paterson concludes:

“…It’s safe at rest in Dead Man’s creek, we’ll leave it lying still

A horse’s back is good enough, henceforth for Mulga Bill.”

So there you have it: game, set and match to the horse. And Banjo made it stick too, in his world anyway, never revisiting the cycling theme in his poetry but, like Mulga Bill, sticking to the good old horse thereafter.

For those who’d like to know more about Banjo Paterson here’s a link to an award-winning feature I wrote about him that appeared in the August 2004 issue of National Geographic. Perhaps not quite as intrepid as those early bushmen, I’ve cycled a fair bit through the bush myself – about 10,000 miles worth in a solo trek around the continent in 1996. Some of that story here. If you are considering cycling through the Australian outback yourself – a wonderful experience and a great thing to do – you might find this post here useful.

Or if you just want to read a rollicking good poem, here Mulga Bill’s Bicycle in its entirety:

‘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 wildcat 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 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.

It’s safe at rest in Dead Man’s Creek, we’ll leave it lying still;

A horse’s back is good enough henceforth for Mulga Bill.”

(For those hyper-critical sorts who notice the dateline on this post reads the 16th of February, and who happen to know that Banjo’s birthday is actually the 17th, bear with me please: while I may be writing my blog from Sussex, putting finger to keyboard here on the afternoon of the 16th, it is already the 17th Down Under and a happy excuse for me to post early since I have been given to understand from our local electricity provider that we will not be having any power all day tomorrow due to ‘essential works’ being carried out on the grid – so it was post today or miss the event completely.)

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Windy Nights

One of my favourite poems when I was a child was Windy Nights by Robert Louis Stevenson, better known for being the author of Treasure Island. In the poem, a little boy – probably Stevenson himself as a child – is laying snug in his bed when he is awakened late on a wild and stormy night by the galloping hooves of a mysterious rider who passes beneath his window bound on some urgent mission or other – a spy, a smuggler, a soldier-of-fortune, we don’t know for sure, but we can imagine him: a dark figure on horseback in dripping oilskins and tri-corner hat, his flintlock pistols kept dry and at the ready beneath his cloak.

All these years later I still know by heart the opening lines, and indeed most of the rest of the poem, which seems to have been written to a rhyme and meter calculated to bring to mind the galloping of a horse:

Whenever the moon and stars are set;

Whenever the wind is high;

All night long in the dark and wet;

A man goes riding by….

I loved to imagine myself ias that mysterious rider, abroad on a wild and windy night, on urgent business of my own, and I longed for the day in the vague ungraspable future when I could be out there having such adventures for real. As the wise old saying goes, be careful what you wish for. Now that I’ve grown to a man’s estate, and go out for thirty-mile rides through the Sussex marshes each morning, I find that I have abundant opportunities to live out my old Windy Nights fantasies – far more often than I’d like, in fact, most recently this morning as I lay in bed at half-past four listening to the gales tossing the tree tops outside and the rain lashing the window.

Alas there was no midnight rider to marvel at. That was left to me to provide. I did so a few minutes later, reluctantly, setting out into the storm and down the street aboard my doughty old black-and-cream tourer, all rugged up in my Goretex waterproofs against the wind-driven rain. I don’t mind rain so much, as I mentioned in a post the other day. In fact, I rather enjoy, and can even look forward to, a long ride in an atmospheric drizzle. But gale force winds are something else again. Those I can do without. However romantic a windy night might have sounded in that old poem, when you are actually out there in the dark and wet being buffeted around by a stiff sea breeze or wrestling a crosswind, all the derring-do and poetry goes right out of it. I’ll always answer the call, I guess, but frankly, in my considered opinion windy nights are nights best spent snug in bed, listening to the wind and lashing rain, imagining some other poor sod out there playing the midnight rider.

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To A Cyclist

O would some power the gift to give us;
to see ourselves as others see us;
It would from many a blunder free us…

So goes an oft-quoted stanza from a Robert Burns poem – addressed to a louse, in point of fact, one that he saw crawling on a fine lady’s bonnet in church one Sunday in 1786. While the comparison with cyclists might be a little invidious, I nevertheless couldn’t help but think of that poem and its final stanza the other night when I was driving home from picking up my wife from the train station over in Battle – and there up ahead in the blustery dark, was an oh-so-feeble glow of a bicycle taillight bobbing along in the gutter, nothing more, just this faint insignificant flicker, easily lost in the glare of oncoming headlights and the steady stream of cars, of which ours was one, whooshing past this rider’s elbow.

I was about to make a cutting remark about the idiocy of anyone who wears dark clothes and expect to survive a rush-hour ride in the wintry dark down Battle Road when I happened to notice, as we sped by, that the guy was actually wearing an ostensibly bright, lemon-lime green windcheater – the sort of thing one might reasonably expect to be visible to a car headlamp, but in fact was not visible at all, on a rainy night and in a rush of oncoming cars.

All there was to telegraph his presence along the roadside was the feeble taillight.

I had little chance to notice anything else about him as we swept by, other than a fleeting impression he was on a decent road bike and wearing a helmet, and that he had a rather more powerful blinker on his handlebars flashing hot white light.

It occurred to me as I watched his blinking front light recede in my rearview mirror that this guy was probably a fairly experienced rider, a regular commuter who more than likely just come off the same train down from Charing Cross my wife had been on, and that he probably considered himself well visible to traffic as he made his way home along busy but familiar Battle Road.

His scary near-invisibility made me think of my own red-and-orange Goretex softshell – and how tempted I am to rely on its bold design and bright colours, which surely anyone can see (Ha!), and forego the detested, garish, plastic-and-nylon Hi-Vis vest I bought to go over it. And in re-thinking too my nip-cheesy way of draining every last bit of charge from a set of double-A batteries before replacing them, so that my theoretically dazzling Cateye 1100 taillight runs down to a dull flicker before I put finally spring for a fresh set of Duracells. And I was grateful for this brief gift of seeing myself as others might see me – or not.

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