When I discovered this Australian fairy tale it brought back memories of my own childhood Christmases in the 60s and how accurately he had described my family Christmas afternoons. Game playing for those who hadn't eaten too much, usually Rounders for we were a family of girls, my dad creeping off for an afternoon nap, and the heat of the day. We were always given a book for Christmas and I would find somewhere to curl up and read or perhaps we would watch a Christmas movie.
Though celebrating the 'bush ethos' in the description of Harry Smith who has abandoned city life to become a farmer this narrative also recognises that his 'hard working wife' works equally hard and along side him contributing an equal share as they struggle to build a farm from the surrounding bush. His wife is not named but the acknowledgement of her contribution recognises that the Bush not only shaped the traits of the men who settled but expected the women who joined them to be tough, hardworking and capable (Penn, 2007).
The Australian animals are not rolled out list-like in this tale to claim it as Australian but are plucked from every day life, behaving as did my Aunt's cocky, my grandfather's magpie with individual characteristics that are endearing. Their descriptions had resonance for this city girl who as a child visited relatives in Daylesford and on properties around Monbulk and met their tame and wild animals. This is a tale worth exploring further.
An excerpt from AN AUSTRALIAN FAIRY STORY. BY DONALD CAMERON.
DEAR CHILDREN, I can see you all out this pleasant Christmas afternoon. The elders are playing cricket on the parched open, the younger are romping under the shade of the gum trees, or slumbering on the grass, fearless of the slimy snake that may be coiled not far off. And the gluttons of the flock, who have partaken too much of the tempting tart or the dyspeptic plum-pudding, recline in idleness, like young boa-constrictors, who must hibernate a bit before they are able to frisk about. Well, dear, boys and girls, it is too warm to exert oneself on such a day, and, therefore, come and gather around me, your innocent faces all wonderment, and listen to a pleasant fairy tale, all about Australia, and with none of those terrible ghosts and phantoms with which your cousins in England are now being regaled, while seated round the roaring fire listening to Grannie's tales,
" Afraid to whisper for the fear
Of something terrible and near."
It wasn't many years ago when Harry Smith gave up city life and took up a selection in a wild part of the country where the soil was good, the water plentiful, and the forest deep. A great brawny man was Harry, huge of limb, kind of heart, strong of muscle, just the kind of man we want in this new land. And he had a loving, hard-working wife, who made the journey of life pleasant to him, and two handsome children, Willie and Bessie, who were ten and eight years of age. Their parents loved them, and of an evening, when the work of grubbing and ploughing was over, and the clearing acres burned brilliantly, husband and wife back in their hut and taught their children whatever they knew themselves in the knowledge of this world, and reverently interpreted to them the teachings of that sacred book which should be a guide and a lamp to our feet, And a bright, peaceful life these good people led.
Willie and Bessie never tired of roaming in tho forests, searching for flowers and ferns, soaking in vain to catch a glimpse of the melodious bell-bird, whose glorious song, heard in the recesses of the wood, of ta-ta-ta-toye-wattee, was like a siren voice to them, now having a vision of the strange lyrebird, then catching a sight of the swift kangaroo, as it bounded by, or looking for the nests of the rosellas and cockatoos. In their wanderings they had dropped across many windfalls and picked up several pets. There was Mag, the magpie, whose existence was spent in a cycle of curiosity, alternately plucking up young plants by the roots to see how they grew, and hiding everything that she thought valuable, from a pin to a big spoon. lt was the children's opinion that no creature in the world could cock an eye and turn a head so shrewdly as Mag. They found her a featherless, disreputable-looking nestling, just fallen out of the nest one rainy day, and brought her back, she becoming their first pet. Mag had been taught some naughty words by the man Harry employed occasionally to help him, but several douses of cold water had cured her of the failing, and she was careful never to indulge in the prohibited lingo except when at a safe distance, and when engaged in encounters with predatory crows, whose thefts Mag cordially hated, though herself the biggest thief that over walked upon two legs. But Mag, no doubt, resembled some servants, who scruple not to rob their master, hut who fly into a terrible rage if others poach upon their preserves. Next to Mag was Cocky, the cockatoo, and between the two no love was lost, though each united in common warfare against poor Tibby, the tortoiseshell cat. These two would watch puss until they saw her stretch herself on the doorstep, in the sun, to have a nap, and then both would peck at her, and fly off to the palings and shriek with delight. Cocky was the drollest of all birds, and went about imploring everyone to scratch his poll. Occasionally he would wander away, and, after an absence of a day or two, return considerably damaged. He would be very silent and sad for a while, and would mope on his perch, occasionally ejaculating, with much fervour, "Poor Cocky." In addition to these pets there were fowls, dogs, parrots, from the plain but intelligent rosella to the gorgeous but dumb king-parrot ; a native bear, who slept all day, and two unique creatures, Joey the kangaroo, and Pipit the kangaroo rat. Joey was a dear, quiet thing, with great, mild eyes, who followed the children everywhere.