© Jim Low

poet and writer Jim Harper

Jim Harper was born in Coonabarabran in May, 1878. As a child, he moved to Angledool in northern New South Wales with his parents James and Lillias Harper. This area was first settled by Europeans in the late 1840’s, after Sir Thomas Mitchell’s  exploration in 1846. Angledool was originally Angledool Station and later became a private township. The site of the town was about thirty kilometres from the Queensland border and approximately one hundred kilometres north of Walgett.

Most of Harper’s life was lived in the Angledool district. He left school at the age of thirteen and went to work as a station hand on Nullawa Station. Later he was to reflect on this, saying: “I was plucked from the Tree of Knowledge before I was ripe.” (Memories, p 30) In 1894 during the Shearers’ Strike he was working at Currawillinghi shearing shed and remembered the amount of unrest in the area. In 1915 he married Edith Pratt at the Angledool Post Office, the ceremony being performed by the local post master. They had three daughters and a son. His wife died in 1930 during a typhoid epidemic which spread through the region.

During his life Jim Harper gained a reputation in the district as a poet and writer. His published works include Splashes From The Narran which was set up and sponsored by The Workers Trustees, St Andrew’s Place, Sydney. Although the copy I now have of this publication is undated, the copy in the National Library of Australia is dated 1924. It contains both poetry and short stories. Another of his works is A Hundredth Man And Other Stories, a small collection of short stories printed by the Collarenebri Gazette Print in 1929. Unfortunately a lot of Harper’s poetry was never published. 

I first heard some of Jim Harper’s poems in 1972 at North Sydney when a family friend, Thomas McCarthy, recited them to me. In November of the same year I made a recording of the 82 year old Mr McCarthy reciting from memory some of the poems. When asked whether he knew who wrote them he replied, “No, I don’t to be honest.” The poems he recited included The Old Bark Pub, The King, Myall Grove and A Strange Dream. These poems were published in Splashes From The Narran. Mr McCarthy later gave me typewritten copies that he had made of The King and another poem which appears in Splashes From The Narran called The Courtship Of Spooney. 

Tom McCarthy

Thomas McCarthy and his twin brother Percival were born in Bairnsdale, Victoria in 1890. They were educated at Barker College in Sydney. Both brothers were medically unfit for service in World War 1. Percival was lame in one foot, the result of a scalding accident as a young child, while Thomas suffered from a heart murmur. After their father’s death in 1924, they went to help manage a family property in the Angledool district. The McCarthy brothers were later to leave the area because of drought and return to Sydney. Neither brother ever married and they were inseparable until Percival’s death in 1969.

In his book Time Means Tucker, ‘Duke’ Tritton makes reference to visiting Angledool during the first decade of this century.

“Like most of the outback towns it was said to be on a river, in this case the Narran. I saw several little depressions in the ground which one of Angledool’s citizens said was the Narran River. In fact, he told me he had seen water in it after heavy rains in Queensland.  I agreed that it was a very nice river, and he shouted me a beer.”1

Up until 1996, I had never heard the name Jim Harper and I wavered between the belief that possibly either Tom McCarthy or his brother Percy had written the poems. However, through a brief mention of the books Splashes From The Narran and Memories Of Angledool on the ABC Radio programme Australia All Over that year, I was able to make contact with Mrs Pat Cross of Mehi, Angledool. Over the telephone, I recited sections of The King and The Old Bark Pub which I had heard Mr McCarthy say nearly twenty five years before. What a thrill it was to hear her response: “They’re Jim Harper poems.”

In the 1940’s Jim Harper wrote weekly articles in the Collarenebri Gazette. Mrs Cross has compiled these into the book Memories of Angledool. There is a photograph of Harper sitting with his arms folded and legs apart, wearing a wide brimmed bushman’s hat, three piece suit and tie. The moustached Harper exudes a confident air and appears very approachable.

During the 1970’s and 1980’s I had spent time adapting into song two of the poems which Tom McCarthy had recited to me. The poems were The Old Bark Pub and The King and they each started with a different tune to the one I now sing. In the 1990’s I continued to perform them. After learning of their authorship, I was also motivated to set another five of Harper’s poems to music. As with the first two poems I adapted, for the most part I kept to Mr McCarthy’s versions of Myall Grove and A Strange Dream, despite having now seen the published texts.

Thomas McCarthy died at North Sydney on 15 February 1978. He was a wonderful old man, a true gentleman whom it was my good fortune to have met. I can still picture him as he, with little apparent effort, recollected words heard first by him nearly 50 years before, as a young man, in the drought ravaged north west of New South Wales. I am still of the opinion that he learnt the poems aurally. Although Harper’s poetry was first published around the same time that the McCarthy twins left for the north west, I do not believe that they ever owned or saw a copy of Splashes From The Narran.

Both brothers were very sentimental, keeping many mementos of their past, for example, the hats they wore at Barker College. I believe that Mr McCarthy was more likely to have heard the poems recited by others during his time in the Angledool district and made copies of them so he could learn them himself. I doubt that he ever met Jim Harper. If he had known the author, I feel sure that he would have acknowledged the fact. And his memory was too good to have forgotten. A close study of some of the variations between Harper’s poems and Tom McCarthy’s versions shows only slight variations. I believe that this most likely happened in their oral transmission amongst those who heard the poems and liked them enough to learn them as accurately as possible.

 

The King (1907)

The song The KIng (1907)  is an adaptation of the poem by the same name. Under the poem’s title is written in brackets – “written in 1907”. Jim Harper knew King Tommy, about whom the poem is written. The Aboriginal shared his memories with Harper about some of the floods in the district before the 1890 flood. He took him to places which the flood waters had covered. 2

When white man made the Narran side
His permanent address
When these boundary ridden paddocks
Were a howling wilderness
When the old bark was hidden
In the mists of the coming years
The blacks they roamed the ridges
With their boomerangs and spears

And there was one among them
Who of worldly cares had none
Only a little piccannie
An Aboriginal mother’s son
At times perhaps she’d dreamed of a future
When her boy a man she’d see
But her dreams gave her no vision
Of what his sad end would be

Chorus:
For the white man crossed the Narran
And he straight way claimed their land
There was blood shed on the Narran
‘Ere they got the upper hand
But the struggle soon was over
And the blacks forced to submit
They were turned straight into beggars
So they made the best of it.

And years rolled by and as they did
The wild tribes drooped and died
Of old age, foul play, starvation
They were not to be denied
Till just a few were left to crawl
Along their idle way
And amongst them, now a grey head,
Tommy of the wild old days

And so today we see him
Poor old God forsaken wreck
Proud of the brass that dangles
From a chain around his neck
With an air of one who’s proud
Of so much matted hair and dirt
He wanders ‘round the township
In a policeman’s cast off shirt.

But I’m sure that very often
When the night is still and black
And he’s dozing near his campfire
That his memory takes him back
And conjures up a picture
That can drive away his pain
Of the old wild life that bred him
And he’s happy once again

His limbs are very feeble now
His eyes are very dim
And of worldly cares and sorrows
Few remain for him
Just a little more of suffering
And then the camp will sing
A sad and mournful melody
The death wail for a king.

When I first listened to Mr McCarthy reciting this poem, the image of King Tommy wandering “about the township in a policeman’s cast off shirt” was hard to forget. The description of this Aboriginal elder wearing the discarded clothes of the representative of the laws of another culture made a real impact. Despite the fact that the breastplate signifies the suppression of his authority by another, in Harper’s mind Tommy is proud of “the brass that dangles from a chain about his neck”.

When he made his “first acquaintance with Aboriginals” at Angledool, Harper claimed to “have no hesitation in stating that they out-numbered the white population by a large majority”. 3

“There was a big camp on the ridge facing the township, and the small white children (of which I was one) were always welcome visitors. Those people young and old, always appeared to take a motherly interest in us, and our own mothers never worried about our safety, so long as they knew we were at the camp.” 4

Harper had been raised having a respect and concern for the Narran Aboriginals. He witnessed the decline in their numbers and the slow destruction of “the old traditions, the pride, the strict moral code, handed down to them by the old warriors”. 5 Harper’s poem provides us with a glimpse of life on the frontier before colonial life brutalized many of the settlers in their attitude and behaviour towards the Aboriginals.

In The King Tommy’s  memories return him to “the old wild bush that bred him” where he finds some solace. In another of his Collarenebri Gazette articles, Harper wrote:

“The sight of an Aboriginal man always takes me back to the old days, and I see Tommy, who, in his declining years, was plated King of the Narran Tribe, and his old wife, Maria.” 6

Harper wrote from his experience of the frontier in Angledool and what he saw happen to the Narran Aboriginals. I have always thought that the first verse of this poem is such a powerful one. It concisely highlights the differences between the two cultures existing on the frontier. European ideas towards the land, characterised by ownership, permanent housing, land clearing and fencing are contrasted with those of the Narran Aboriginals who “roamed the ridges” of this “howling wilderness”. Harper is saying that the lives of these Aboriginals would never be the same again. In the full text of the poem he describes the newcomers as “white invaders” and has Tommy remembering their coming as “that awful first white man scene”.

 

Honest John

The old bark pub – illustration by Jim Low

The song Honest John is an adaptation of Harper’s poem The Old Bark Pub. A photograph of the hotel titled “First Hotel and Store Angledool -1878” appears in Memories Of Angledool. It is described by Harper as “a long, rough building, the walls being of round pine timber, the roof of bark.”  7

The old hotel was built by Henry Hatfield and was run by John Merry. Apparently his daughter was the first white female born in Angledool. When Merry left the old bark pub he only moved a mile or so up the road to New Angledool where he built another hotel. Despite this hotel being soon destroyed by fire, he rebuilt and continued to run a successful business for many years. 

Before the first hotel was bought and demolished by the blacksmith, Harper’s family lived in this old building. It stood opposite the Commercial Hotel, which was also built by Hatfield, and was opened around 1880. Harper’s poem would have been based on the memories of older residents who remembered the building when it operated as a hotel. These memories possibly would have included John Merry’s wife to whom Harper said he had spoken. In 1927 Harper became the licensee of the Commercial Hotel and held it for nearly ten years. Despite his association with hotels at Angledool he remained teetotal all his life.

Out on the dull old Narran side
Out where the runs are wild and wide
Honest John bought the right to rule
The first pub opened in Angledool.

It wasn’t a building of city mark
With its pine slab walls and its roof of bark
It was just a pub, it was plain and rough
It suited the times and was good enough.

And what did the men in those wild days care
If the house was rough, if the grog was fair
Though the bushmen came from near and far
To cash their cheques at the old bark bar.

And those were the cheques that could raise a grin
And those were the fellows that could do them in
They stained their flannels with blood and beer
And never a policeman to interfere.

And Honest John had a game to play
A game not seen in the pubs today
And the boys that spreed in the old bark pub
Were mannered only to suit the scrub.

And to win from them when you got a start
A man had need of a head and a heart
And John had both and a tip or two
From the devil himself so he battled through.

And Time marched by with its giant stride
And changes came to the Narran side
Better houses were built and sold
The old bark pub had the call to go.

It stood at the bottom of the hill for years
A monument to departed beers
And an eyesore too to a thriving town
Till the smithy bought it and pulled it down.

And years have fallen on Honest John
But he’s just as solid as in days agone
Running a business up to date
Coining cash at a princely rate.

But it isn’t strange that when trade is slack
That his memory crowds him and takes him back
To the roaring days on the mulga scrub
And the cheques that he cashed at the old bark pub.

Back in 1972 I asked Mr McCarthy about the bushmen he encountered in the north west and who peopled the poetry he recited to me.

“Oh, they were … just ordinary men but they had their particular individuality. Some of them would say, instead of saying ‘G’day’ they would say ‘What won all the races? G’day’. These were the fellows who used to work for twelve months and then owe the boss something for the cheques they had drawn and put into the local town for betting purposes.”

Jim Harper expressed a fondness for race horses, seeing his first race meeting at Angledool where horse racing was very popular in those days. “I must have been a very small boy at the time,” he reflects, “for that meeting dates back to B.C (before Carbine).”  8

Perhaps the game that ‘Honest’ John Merry played was to use the old bark pub as a betting agency.

 

MYALL GROVE

Not everybody could live in town. By necessity, many settlers lived and worked far away from the townships. They were constantly confronted by the loneliness of their existence. Many of the jobs on the frontier were of a solitary nature too, such as boundary riding, fencing and shepherding. How one coped with the solitude faced in frontier regions is the subject of Harper’s poem Myall Grove.

The narrator has apparently cleared an area for pasture and built a ‘cosy little cottage’ in the bush, well away from the township. But the isolation and tedium of such an existence appears to overwhelm his thoughts and feelings. Despite the company of his old dog Roy, the narrator desires human companionship. This is especially so at night when “Myall Grove is laden with a loneliness complete”. To take his mind off such feelings of loneliness and depression, he “listen(s) to the night”. In so doing he gives proof to the maxim that “great gifts are bestowed in solitude”. 9

By passing the time in this way, he is able to endure another night “at lonely Myall Grove”.   

A cosy little cottage lying lonely in the scrub,
Far from the noise and bustle of the township and the pub;
Where seldom there’s a happening to make the heart rejoice –
The same old story over in the Big Scrub’s mournful voice.

There sometimes comes a swagman, if he’s thirst or tucker pushed;
Few are the other callers and as a rule they all are bushed
The days are long and dreary, and when darkness takes her seat,
Then Myall Grove is laden with a loneliness complete.

The bush birds cease their singing in the branches over head,
They seek their nightly perches and the night birds come instead;
The moon is slowly rising, making all a ghostly white,
And I sit with spirits drooping and I listen to the night.

I hear the horse bells tinkling across the myall flats;
I hear the wagtail’s night song and the flitting of the bats;
I hear the night-owls’ hooting as they from their slumbers wake;
A sad old curlew crying, too, as if his heart would break.

I hear the old ewes bleating to their lambs out on the plain;
A flock of wood ducks winging on their way towards the drain;
I hear the night wind sobbing out its sorrows to the trees,
And sounds I can’t account for come drifting on the breeze.

And then old “Roy” starts barking loud at something he can hear,
For signs of someone coming then I strain an eager ear.
Another disappointment. “Blast the dog; clear out somewhere”,
And old “Roy” seems to wonder why I look at him and swear.

And so the horsebells tinkle and the night birds sound their G’s;
The night wind goes on sobbing out its sorrows in the trees;
The curlew wails his story till the heart cannot but move;
And so the night goes over out at lonely Myall Grove.

 

A STRANGE DREAM

Jim Harper was not averse to chronicling the evils that existed in a frontier town like Angledool. Drunkeness, gambling, the evils that befell the Aboriginal population and the general lawlessness that pervaded – all are acknowledged in his writings.

In the poem A Strange Dream, the narrator dreams he is searching for a deceased friend named Mulga Mick. Believing Mick to be of a similar nature to himself, he heads for the Gates of Hell, only to learn that his friend is too sinful for Hell. According to the Devil, the only fit place for Mulga Mick is Angledool, to which he is quickly directed. 

I dreamed that I was searching for a well beloved mate
I found his tracks and followed him straight to the devil’s gate
I thought he was no better than I am, so it’s clear
Unless old Nick’s been cheated, I’ll find my lost mate here.

So at the gate I rattled, then old Nick appeared
I backed and shivered slightly, he was just what I had feared
He stood there for a moment with his hoof raised for a kick
Then I bowed politely and inquired for Mulga Mick.

“Mulga Mick!” the devil uttered, “Mulga Mick! Why man you’re drunk!
To think that such a trimmer in this place could get a bunk
But if you want to find him and to follow him you’re game
But mind you if you get burnt you’ve only got yourself to blame.”

He pointed to a black smoke on a distant stony ridge
He said, “Steer straight for that and you’ll cross the Yerranbah Bridge
Cut the bend to Angledool and there you’ll find your mate
I’m very sorry for him but his sins were very great.

I got a whiff of brimstone as I crossed the stony ridge
And the sparks were flying ‘round me when I reached the Yerranbah Bridge
An awful yell came ringing through the cinders and the smoke
A big mosquito bellowed in my ear and I awoke.

The poem is similar to poems like Lawson’s The Shearer’s Dream. In Lawson’s poem, the dream is ended by the hot sun, while in Harper’s it is a large mosquito that awakens the dreamer. On the surface, both poems appear superficial. However, in each poem a serious point is being made. For Lawson it is the consideration of proper working conditions in the shearing sheds, while for Harper it is a realisation of the many evils that abound in a settlement like Angledool. The inference being made in the poem is that this town is “worse than Hell”.

Harper uses the same formula for bringing matters to an end in a short prose piece about an attempt on his life. The story is called A Tight Squeeze and also appeared in Splashes From The Narran. At the climax, just when he is about to be killed by a knife-wielding “lunatic”, he concludes the story in the following manner: “I simply did what any other man in the same predicament would have done. I woke up.”

Harper’s poem has no chorus. I made the third verse the chorus. In this verse, Mr McCarthy used the word “trimmer” rather than “sinner”, as used by Harper. (“To think that such a trimmer in this place could get a bunk.”) I have kept the word “trimmer”, which means an opportunist. Apparently it also has a slang usage, meaning a good or impressive person. I like the appropriateness of this facetious play on the word, perhaps something the Devil might have enjoyed doing.

 

The Digger’s Luck

The area around Angledool is popular for opal prospecting. The humorous poem “The Diggers’s Luck” concerns a prospector who dreams one day of “striking it rich” and thereby becoming an opal king. The many shafts and depressions all over this area make ideal breeding places for mosquitoes – big mosquitoes.

Away out on the Narran
Where the whirlwinds rush and rattle
Through the mulga on the ridges,
And the big mosquitoes sing,
There dwells an opal digger,
Who, if pluck may win the battle,
Will some day be referred to
As the Narran Opal King.

The hottest day in summer
Finds him picking, picking, picking,
And shovelling the dirt up,
And his eyes they never tire
Of looking out for colours,
And his tongue is worn with licking
At the different sorts of metal
When in search of specks of fire.

One evening very weary
To his lone camp he was going
When he found a lump of something –
Oh! Those ever watchful eyes –
A dark green, cloudy substance,
Not a sign of colour showing,
But the digger said, “I’ll test it,
As it may contain a prize.”

So on his find the digger
Then a thorough licking started;
He licked it even cleaner
Than a cat would lick a bone.
He licked, and licked, and licked it
Till it in the centre parted,
When he found, not fiery opal
But a little quondong stone.

Then a fit of spitting seized him,
And I guess he really meant it,
When he prayed to all the powers that be
To strike that emu dead.
He threw his well licked find to –
Well a hundred yards he sent it,
And a jackass burst out laughing
In the mulga over head.

 

When Angledool Was Young

In the front of Memories Of Angledool, Mrs Cross includes the words of an unpublished poem of Harper, When Angledool Was Young. For the song I have used only two of the poem’s nine verses. He addresses this poem to an old female resident of the town. Like much of his writing, it laments “the dead old past” when “the world was wide and ways were wild” and “Angledool was young”.  10 
It is therefore an appropriate one with which to end.

Angledool is fading now
Its bloom has gone from view
But nothing can efface the memories
Dear, it holds for you
And summing up the years long gone
And weighing the bad with the good
Would you live through it all again?
I rather think you would.

Where are they now, the pioneers,
Who blazed the Narran trail?
And battled with the wilderness
To either win or fail;
Too little is remembered now
And deeds have gone unsung
Of those brave men and women too
When Angledool was young.

In 1956 while visiting one of his three daughters in Mungindi, Jim Harper died and is buried in the cemetery there. His poetry and stories capture frontier life in “the roaring days on the Mulga scrub” in the north west of New South Wales. Expressed in the language of the day, his writing provides us with a valuable and unique insight into Australia’s past.

The naming of the bridge over the Narran River – The Jim Harper Bridge – keeps his name alive in the district he loved. I hope in some small way that the setting of some of his poems to music helps keep an interest in the work of writers like Harper, who unfortunately are often very easily overlooked. There is a definite feeling of elation in being able to sing the songs and give Jim Harper his due recognition.


Footnotes

  1.  Time Means Tucker, H.P.‘Duke’ Tritton, Shakespeare Head Press, Sydney, 1964 p.111
  2. Memories Of The Angledool, edited and published by P. Cross, Mehi, Angledool. 1996   p.14
  3. Cross, p.57
  4. Cross, p.57
  5. Cross, p.63
  6. Cross, p.61
  7. Cross, p.2
  8. Cross, p.11. Harper is making reference to the New Zealand horse Carbine which won the 1890 Melbourne Cup. It was an epoch-making win since Carbine still holds the record for the heaviest weight ever carried by a winning horse and the field of 39 horses which he defeated remains the biggest field ever run for the event.
  9. Robertson, W.: Out West For Thirty Years, W.C. Penfold,Sydney,1920 p122

    Note: During his travels in Australia, the explorer Leichhardt “often lay awake listening to the noises of the night”. (Roderick, p 251) He demonstrates a remarkable sense of hearing and an ability to identify the many sounds of the night.

  10. These quotes come from Harper’s poem When Angledool  Was Young, printed in the front of  Memories Of The Angledool. They echo sentiments about Australia’s past which are similar to those expressed by Henry Lawson. Like many bushmen of his time, Harper would have been familiar with Lawson’s poetry. Lawson’s influence on Harper is perhaps also seen in Honest John’s nostalgia for “the roaring days on the mulga scrub”.