A Country To Be Reckoned With
2017: Wagga Wagga, New South Wales
I am standing inside an auction house at a cattle saleyards in the country town of Wagga Wagga, New South Wales. With me is my brother Tony, who lives here, and a friend called Chris McCarthy, who has spent his life farming sheep and cattle. I am here to get a taste of the life of my great great grandfather GM Pitt, farmer, auctioneer, entrepreneur and stock and station agent in 19th century Australia.
To say this is far from my comfort zone is an understatement. I am a townie, a Pom. I’ve lived in London virtually my whole life. I barely know a ram from a goat, yet I’ve undertaken to write the story of my great great grandfather. That is why I am here: to try to experience something of the world of country people in Australia who make their living from the land.
The auctioneer stands on a podium, surrounded by a team of ‘spotters’, gabbling incomprehensibly into his mike and now and again banging his gavel to conclude a sale. The buyers, all men and all wearing identical hats, sit motionless and expressionless behind desks, from time to time lifting part of a forefinger to indicate a bid. The objects of the bidding are shoved into the pen and out again before they’ve had a moment to look around and figure out what the hell is going on. Whips are cracked but don’t, I am told, connect.
Outside the auctioneer walks along a gantry above the cattle pens, again with his team, all of them in uniform indicating the company they represent, only this time he has no mike and his assistant makes notes on a pad of paper. My fear that by taking photos on my phone I might find myself leaving with a herd of Herefords is unfounded. There is no one here among the buyers who is not known to someone apparently.
Beyond the auction house pens stretch as far as the eye can see, some containing small huddles of cows or calves – many of them disturbingly young and still looking for their mothers – and here and there a single cow, or a mother and calf. The bewildered-looking animals are fed from one pen to another through clanging gates, mostly by girls, as the selling proceeds. Young men and women ride on horseback up and down between the pens, leaning back in their saddles eating apples and herding the cattle from hither to hence. Everyone wears a hat. It’s like something out of a Western, both exotic and industrial, a countryside Las Vegas, a vast, complicated and well-oiled machine that is spanking new and as old as the hills.
The smell of cowshit is overwhelming and still lingers, weeks afterwards, on the soles of my shoes. It is a reminder of this extraordinary world, so utterly different to everything I have ever known: the world of my great great grandfather.
It has taken a leap of faith, and a good deal of nerve, to think I can understand enough of the world of 19th century rural Australia to be able to write about one of its self-made – and well-known – legends.
I am not a total stranger to Australia. I was born and bred in London to an Australian mother and British father. I even emigrated there as a ten pound Pom in my youth, and while I eventually returned to live in England I have been visiting Australia regularly over the past twenty years or so, researching and writing about my family history. I know about the country’s beginnings as a penal colony and its fight for survival in the early years; how it was initially regarded by the colonists – or invaders, as some view them in the 21st century – as the worst country in the world; a phrase that became the title of the first book in my family story about my four times great grandmother Mary Pitt. Exactly why Mary, a widow with five children, decided to migrate to New South Wales at that time is a matter for speculation. Suffice to say on her arrival in 1801 she was one of fewer than 40 free settlers who’d dared to chance their arm in what was still a penal colony, and an experiment like no other in history.
What a story that was! And now here we are again, with Mary’s grandson, born and bred in New South Wales, at a time when the newly-named Australia was just beginning to be thought of as a land of promise for new migrants from the old country. In they came, these interlopers, mostly young men who’d heard of fortunes to be made on the land which – since the country had been officially declared terra nullius, or ‘no-man’s land’ by the powers that be in Britain – they had been led to believe was up for grabs. For the most part they were, like me, totally ignorant of farming. (One of them, Edward Bell, arriving in the colony in 1839, admitted his researches were confined to reading books on the journey out. Otherwise, he cheerfully acknowledged, ‘my general information regarding live stock was limited to a confused knowledge of sheep by their distinctive titles of rams, wethers, and ewes, and a vague idea of cattle as heifers, cows, bulls, and oxen, and as beasts that had horns, and made a great bellowing’.) But they had money, most of them, and what skills they lacked they assumed they could pick up on the way. They became known as ‘new chums’, and the locals, born in the colony, took great pleasure in taking the mickey out of them. (They still do.)
When I first heard about the new chums I was both surprised and reassured. Surprised at the chutzpah: to imagine they could travel across the globe, these young hopefuls, to make their fortunes in a strange country doing something they knew nothing about – not to mention the kind of welcome, or lack of, they could expect at the hands of the indigenous population whose land they were intending to take possession of; reassured because I recognised myself in many ways as one of them.
If the new chums could make a go of it, I thought (and many of them did), so can I. Once again, as I delved into the life and times of my great great grandfather I uncovered a story of such diversity and fascination I could not bear not to write about it. I could not sit back and let someone else tell the tale not just of a man, but of a country that during that man’s lifetime transformed itself from a makeshift penal colony to a thriving entity with its own parliament, legal system, sophisticated infrastructure and, above all, its own distinct personality.
So here it is: the story of an entrepreneur who made his living from the land; of convicts and Aborigines, squatters, drovers and bushrangers; of appropriation and dispossession; fortunes, litigation and bankruptcies; births, marriages, illegitimacy and abscondence; of governors, parliamentarians and legislators racing to keep up with the rapidly-changing reality of people’s lives. Most of it is gleaned from newspapers of the day, and there’s plenty of information to be had about GM – in particular concerning his larger than life personality, his astonishing powers of rhetoric and his fondness for quoting from poets; none of which his biographer would have thought to invent.
But as with any history there are gaps, which once again I have filled with my imagination, as I did with my first book: dramatising scenes and inventing the odd fictional character in order to bring GM to life, setting him within the context of the developing nation of Australia, and including my own observations on the country I have been visiting regularly over the years. Again the chapter notes make it clear what is true and what I have invented. As with Mary, so I have tried to take the reader with me as I embark on yet another extraordinary adventure into my family history.
Copyright August 2018