Bush Poems by Graeme Philipson
For a few years in the 1990s I wrote some bush poetry for my father John Philipson. Dad was an acclaimed reciter of bush poetry, though not a great writer of it. I've always liked the genre, and I figured that because I wrote for a living I should be able to write this stuff. At its worst it is doggerel, but well done it is a very attractive art form. I certainly found it fun to write.
Dad died on 4 July 1997. He was far too young, a month short of his 70th birthday. After he had gone I lost interest in writing any more stuff. But some of it is still performed, most notably by my mate Peter "Stinger" Nettleton in Perth. Some day I may write more. The first poem, 'The Spirit of Australia', won a highly commended in the Blackened Billy competition in Winton in 1998, and was published in the competition book. I believe it is occasionally performed around the traps.
The Spirit of Australia
I am the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended
I’m the sunburnt country and the flooded plains
I’m the Barcoo and the Darling, I’m the Yarra and the Swan
I’m the muddy Murrumbidgee after rain.
I’m the sugar cane, the sack of wheat, I’ve made this country rich
From the Golden Fleece that rides upon my back
I’m on the stockroute back of Bourke, on the station way out west
I’m the six lane highway, I’m the desert track.
I’m the Indian Pacific, the Sunlander, the Ghan
I bind with steel the land beneath my rails
I’m the flying kangaroo, my long reach across the land
I’m all that drives and flies and steams and sails.
I’ve carried Banjo’s stockman, and Lawson’s rouseabout
I’m every horse that Gordon ever rode
I’m the colt from old Regret, I’m the packhorse and the dray
I’m the brumby bush horse from the Overflow.
I’m Lalor at the Stockade, I’m the Breaker on the veldt
I’m Simpson with his donkey at Lone Pine
I’m Tobruk, I’m Crete, I’m Long Tan, I’m the Sydney’s blazing guns
I’m the slave upon the railway on the Kwai.
I’m Dad and Dave, and - strike me lucky - I’m the Sentimental Bloke
I’m the man from where the Snowy River flows
I’m the slicker from the city, I’m the bastard from the bush
I’m Matilda waltzing down a country road.
I’m Brabham and I’m Bradman, I’m a girl called Goolagong
I’m the big red horse they killed in foreign lands
I’m Darcy in the ring and I’m Dally on the wing
And I’m Dougie lofting at the Members Stand.
I am Albert Namitjira, I am his canvas painted bright
I see this land through ageless open eyes
I’m the dreamtime, I’m the dawning, I’m older than the night
I am Uluru beneath the southern skies.
You can find me where the mountains tumble down against the sea
Where the wide brown land turns rich from flooding rain
Where the rivers of the inland flow proud beneath the sky
Where the west wind ripples through the golden grain.
From the mighty Southern Ocean to the jungles of the Gulf
From Byron to where Hartog nailed his plate
From Kosciuscko to the Cooper, from Sydney to the bush
I am everything that made this country great.
I’m the Spirit of Australia, I’m the soul of this great land
I’m what rides within and makes us what we are
I am you and me and all of us, I am tomorrow and today
I am the Spirit of the land. I am Australia.
Graeme Philipson, Gosford, 11 January 1995
Banjo wrote a poem about the Snowy River man
He made the mountains known across the land
But that wild and rugged country grew more famous after that
When they tamed the Snowy Mountains with their dams.
They caught the mighty waters and they sent them roaring back
Through tunnels bored in solid savage rock
To the rivers of the inland, where the cold unceasing flow
Brought life to dusty plains and ravaged crops.
The black man knew the place, but he shunned the higher peaks
His dreams still tell of ghosts who walk the night
But he never made a home up there, he stayed below the line
Where the winter winds would dust the world with white.
When Strzelecki found the mountain he named it for the man
Who led his people’s struggle to be free
Kosciusko it remains today, a symbol of the time
When man broke clear from chains and tyranny.
When the war was won they came away from Europe’s wasted wreck
From their bloodied and their battered broken lands
Call them Balts or bloody reffos, wogs or whinging Poms
They built the mighty Snowy with their hands.
“We’ll reverse the rivers’ run, we’ll turn the bastards back
We’ll stop the waters wasting to the sea
We’ll irrigate the inland, we’ll make the deserts bloom
This wide brown land’s a bit too brown for me.
“We’ll make the waters turn the turbines that power half the land
They’ll run the foundries and the factories and mills
With the water where it’s wanted, and with energy to spare
A New Australia will be born up in those hills.”
They blasted out the mountains as they broke through solid rock
“Where the river runs those giant hills between”
They built the dams and tunnels and they turned the waters back
And made the inland glow with gold and green.
Now the skiers come in fancy cars and fancy overcoats
They know little of the history of the place
They fall about and fornicate and fill themselves with food
Never caring for the mountains’ silent grace.
And in the riverland the waters run, the Murray’s always fed
From the mighty Murrumbidgee’s steady flow.
The vineyards and the ricefields and the orchards hung with fruit
Are all fed from frosty pools of melted snow.
But nothing comes uncosted, now the Snowy’s just a creek|
A string of muddy puddles in the bed
And the Snowy River’s roar is just a whisper in the night
That’s Banjo’s ghost still riding on ahead.
Graeme Philipson, 1997-2000
The Never Never
Have you ever ever been
To the Never Never Land
Where the grass grows high as houses
And the silent shadows stand
It brings a silence to the senses
That stillness ‘cross the land
When the birds they gather in the sky
In the Never Never Land
If you’ve never never been
To the Never Never Land
Then you’ll never know the reason why
And you’ll never understand
The land is never yours
Though it’s gathered in your hand
It belongs to all eternity
Does the Never Never Land
Graeme Philipson, September 1999
Drought in New South Wales, 1994
It’s hard when the wind blows hot from the west
And your will to survive is put to the test
When it’s just not enough to be doing your best
God it’s hard.
It’s hard when the dams dry up in the mud
And your hopes and your dreams hit the ground with a thud
When you’re losing the land that’s a part of your blood.
God it’s hard.
It’s hard when the drought lasts three seasons or four
And you’re knocked down and just can’t get up from the floor
When you can’t tell what tommorrow has waiting in store
God it’s hard.
It’s hard when the paddocks turn brown from the heat
And the dead cattle’s bones are as white as a sheet
When the sheep all drop dead with a pitiful bleat
God it’s hard.
It’s hard when the wind blows the soil from the ground
And the dusts swirls in clouds around and around
When you’re looking for hope and it cannot be found
God it’s hard.
It’s hard when the bank wants its money and more
And the government just takes more from the poor
What do they know about keeping the wolf from the door?
God it’s hard.
There are times when all you can do is refuse
To lay down and die or say “what’s the use?”
But sometimes there’s not much more you can do
God it’s hard.
Graeme Philipson, Sydney, 25 January 1995
The Last Bushranger
Just below Uralla stands New England's southern gate
A mighty granite boulder that tells of one man's fate.
Of the bushranger called Thunderbolt, the last of that rare breed
Of desperate men without the law joined in a common creed.
Thunderbolt was Frederick Ward. The story of his life
Begins they say in Windsor town, in eighteen thirty-five.
His early life was tough and cruel, the times back then were hard
His school was on the horse's back, and in the breaker's yard.
He didn't learn to read or write, but he sure knew how to ride
Jimmy Garbutt showed him how to steal, he took it in his stride.
They took sixty head from Tocal Run, but the Troopers caught them cold
Frederick Ward was twenty-one, with ten years to rot in gaol.
They put him on to Cockatoo, an island made in hell
He set to work to work to get away, he nearly did as well.
But they caught him and they put him in a hole without the sun
Alone he waited for the day when he could make his run.
He swam one night, he got away, he went back to the bush
Across the range, to back of Bourke, he joined the westward push.
He took to the road, he learned the life of a bushranger at large
He robbed the coaches, stole the mail, while riding at the charge.
But life was hard in the sunburnt scrub, he moved back to the range
To relieve the squatter of his horse, the traveller of his change.
Thunderbolt lived outside the law, but he was honest in his way
There's a famous tale of a famous deed at Tenterfield one day.
He went boldly to the races, and looked folk up and down
He saw who won and he saw who lost, and he waited out of town.
He robbed three German bandsmen, but to show his kind concern
He left them some to get to town, and he promised he'd return.
They’d get it back if he could find the man that won the most
And by his word the very next day he lived true to his boast.
Nick Hart was the man, he was travelling north, a hundred pounds he'd won
Ward bailed him up on the border line and relieved him of the sum.
The Germans got their money back, they'd not believed their ears
Ward’s word became a legend, passed down through the years.
When a hawker came by the Rock one day the outlaw bailed him up
But he got to Uralla and raised the alarm, the constables saddled up.
Trooper Walker caught him there that day, outside of Blanche's Inn
And shot at him in the valley where Kentucky Creek begins.
Our man was on a borrowed horse, he could not outrun the law
So he left the saddle and climbed the bank, with Walker firing more.
He was cornered fair and square, but he was brave until the last
Walker cried: “surrender, man!” The outlaw saw his chance
He charged the mounted trooper, he was firing as he came
But his pistol jammed, and the trooper's final bullet found its aim.
He fell into the creek but rose again to fight his foe
He died when Walker struck him with a god-almighty blow.
That afternoon outside of town, more died than just a man
He was the last to live that outlaw’s life upon this lonely land.
All had gone before him: Morgan, Gilbert and Ben Hall
Frederick Ward, called Thunderbolt, was the last one of them all.
When he died they all died with him, it was the ending of an age
A curtain dark was drawn across that now far distant stage.
When Thunderbolt still rode the range, from Mudgee to the Downs
When Thunderbolt his name still rang, in country and in town
When Thunderbolt outrode the law, from Bourke clear to the sea
This land was very different then, from what it came to be.
Now life, they say, is civilised, there's none can do again
What Thunderbolt did years ago, when he strode across the land.
They say that life is better now the bushrangers are dead
But they like to recollect the days the squatters lived in dread.
He's buried in Uralla, where his name is famous yet
The Rock still stands, the creek still runs, where he met his death
You can have a beer and toast him in the pub that bears his name
You can stop awhile and ponder on the reasons for his fame.
And though he’s dead these hundred years, his memory still remains
Of how he rode the mountains, and how he strode the plains.
His name will live for ever more beneath those cold dark skies
The last bushranger may have gone, but the legend never dies.
Graeme Philipson, Gosford, 5 June 1993
The Last Bushranger was written for John Philipson by his son Graeme to mark the old man's 66th birthday (1 August 1993). Every effort has been made to ensure that all events referred to in the poem are historically correct, though of course some poetic license has been employed. Most events refered to in in the poem are taken from R.B Walker’s “Captain Thunderbolt, Bushranger” in the Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, vol 43, (1957).
Most historians agree that Frederick Ward, alias Captain Thunderbolt, was indeed the last bushranger in Australia. Ned Kelly came later but he was a not a bushranger in the normally accepted sense of the term: he was not an escaped convict and he did not live off the land.
Thunderbolt's death, on 25 May 1870, thus marked the end of an important and colourful era in the history of colonial Australia.
He outlasted all the others that made their name during the gold rushes of the 1860s: men like Ben Hall, Johnny Gilbert, Mad Dog Morgan and Frank Gardiner. His bushranging career of five years was also longer than theirs, mainly because he rarely confronted the police, and because of the support he received from the local populace. He was protected by the common people because he never used violence, because he was renowned for his horsemanship, and because he was by all accounts a witty, charming and generous man.
Frederick “Captain Thunderbolt” Ward is a worthy bearer of the title “the last bushranger”.