As a Baby Boomer I grew up with little exposure to Australian literature.  It was all English boarding school stories,  Enid Blyton and Charles Dickens. My early knowledge of poets was limited to those represented in a primary school textbook, Poems for Pleasure; Blake, Longfellow, Wordsworth, Coleridge etc. I fell in love with their verse and became something of an Anglophile. This explains how my partner and I came to be walking the Thames Path early one morning in rural Wiltshire. The journey led to my book  All Along the River; Tales From the Thames.

Cows by the infant Thaes

Cattle by the infant Thames (Photo Rob Conolly).

Downstream at Cricklade the path took us through a farmyard, where our steamy breath  mingled with that of cows waiting to be milked. I experienced an overwhelming surge of nostalgia, remembering my childhood on a dairy farm in north west Tasmania.

Dairy heard Tasmania 1960s

Our dairy herd near Ulverstone, Tasmania  circa 1960s.

In the poem The Burde of Itys, by Oscar Wilde, a milkmaid leaves her lonely bed to follow the same daily ritual as the herd.

‘……the heavy-lowing cattle wait,

Stretching their huge and dripping mouths across the farmyard gate.’   

It was this poem that came to mind as I watched the  milking cows by the river Thames.

Several years later I discovered the Australian poet Les Murray.

The Australin poet Les MurrayAustralian poet Les Murray.

Les Murray (Photo by Craig Brown, Newspix)

His work was a revelation. For the first time I read poems reflecting my own experience. He wrote of the hardships on the land, especially drought, which our farmers are facing as I write.  In the poem Rainwater Tank he compares the ridged galvanized tank to a ‘banker’s roll’ of  stacked shillings. A croaking frog in a drying  puddle calls ‘Debit…Debit!’

The rainwater tank, like a stack of banker’s ‘shillings’









Murray’s perspective was (and is) as an insider; informed and intimate. He grew up on a small dairy farm at Bunyah  in northern New South Wales.  Oscar Wilde was of course  a city bred outsider, describing  a scene that illustrated  the rigid  social order of 19th century England.  In  20th century  Australia it was not a servant girl who rose at daybreak, but Les Murray’s parents…. and later, my own. Here are the first verses from Murray’s  poem Infant Among  Cattle Oh my word, ‘heel-less skiddy shoes’ . What a perfect image of those patient cows,  negotiating steaming  manure on concrete as they entered the bails.

When I read the following stanza I see my mother carefully cleaning the separator in the dairy  as my father sluiced the yard… in a far too slapdash fashion she always thought.

Even in Tasmania there were stressful periods of prolonged, dry weather. I remember Dad carting 44 gallon drums of water from a  rapidly shrinking dam by draught horses and sled.

Murray also wrote of the final days of the family’s crumbling, deserted farmhouse, and of his cousin removing material to make  cowshed gates;
Les Murray Poem

From Cowshed Gates by Les Murray.


Les Mjurray's father Cecil.

Murray’s father Cecil at the homestead in earlier days.


Les Murray's book On Bunyah

I will be travelling  to the Hunter Valley town of Singleton on September 6, to deliver a talk as part of  NSW History Week. I  know I will be confronted by devastating scenes of drought on the drive.  There has already been much discussion regarding the many dead kangaroos and wombats along the highways. They are hit by cars when hunger forces them  down to feed on the  grass verges.

My talk  In the Footsteps of  Governor Macquarie happens to centre on a much  earlier drought 180 years ago, during a  period that became known as The Hungry Forties.  Banks failed and farmers walked off their properties. The only industry that thrived was the manufacture of tallow,  boiled down from cattle and sheep slaughtered after it became impossible to sustain  them.

What on earth can we do to help in the current crisis?  A drought levy on agricultural products?   More action on global warming for a longer term solution?  I really have no answers, but it is just so sad.

UPDATE – Here is a heart-warming photo of a hay run.

Hay run.

Providing hay, and hope.



1 Comment
  1. Pauline

    Oh my word, thanks for that, Ron. Not pedantic at all. Goodness know where I might have ended up!

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