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Forged by the burning bush

Published: April 7 2012 - 3:00AM

A young jackeroo's outback experiences in the 1950s make for a memorable memoir, writes Jack Waterford

This is a book of a sort bound to leave a profound impression on a reader, such as myself, who has had experiences very similar to those of the writer. But even those not lost in a romance of youth and honest hard work can enjoy A Youth Not Wasted, if not with the same intimate pleasure, or winces, or, sometimes, ambivalence.

Ian Parkes was 16 when, in 1951, he became a jackeroo on a sheep stud in remoter parts of South Australia. His family was of the land, but at the time he set off they were broke and half a continent away. Later, he worked in even more remote parts of Western Australia. It was a short, if formative, idyll: by 20, he was a city suit, even if one who never forgot. I am sometimes accused myself of exaggerating the impact of an early life on the land on my own character; perhaps the most one can respond, inadequately, is to invite people to compare the impact of five years at war on the personalities of the then 18-year-olds of the present great-grandfather generation.

Parkes, as jackeroo, was put straight to work, and, as he learned by experience the million skills of riding, mustering, fencing, shoeing horses and fixing windmills, he learned also about self-reliance, mateship, taking responsibility and something of the vagaries of an often cruel and implacable environment. But he was also coming to love horses and dogs, to enjoy the camp and a cup of tea, to understand cascades of hard, sparse, glorious country, to love and luxuriate in the noise and silence, the smell and the solitude of the bush.

It was no picnic. It was hot hot, hard and dusty work, often in the sun when temperatures were 45 degrees or more for weeks without breaks. Perversely, it was sometimes freezing cold by night. Canberrans, as denizens of the west of the Great Divide, understand. It was sometimes dangerous, often dirty, frequently with no one to call for help. Food was often limited to mutton and spuds; bed, when not a swag, a shearer's stretcher. Bosses worked their men hard, and made few concessions, even if they were keeping a weather eye out for individual characters. A station was a tiny society, each with its politics, history and tensions: sometimes tempers flared and there were hard physical fights. The pub, picnic races, tennis on a station court, or a swim in a creek - or, sometimes, being stranded by rain, endless games of cards - represented the range of irregular leisure possibilities - apart from the rare trip to aged maiden aunts in Adelaide. If one was eating at the manager's table, as opposed to the station hands' mess, one dressed for dinner, with clean shirt, coat and tie.

Soon Parkes wanted not only more, but bigger, freer, but almost by definition, more challenging and difficult work in the Gascoyne-Murchison parts of Western Australia. He worked on the million-acre Mt Augustus, and, later, with increasing responsibilities, on other stations, mostly with sheep. The cowboy legend, even as it applies in Australia, is often focused on working with cattle, but, though Parkes had his experiences with these, most of his pastoral career was with the merino - tough wiry animals, in paddocks of 10,000 ha or more, usually a sheep to the 10 hectare or so. Many were miles from shearing sheds, so that wool production involved months of mustering and gradually bringing stock up to paddocks closer to the factory. The only permanent water, usually, came from artesian bores with windmills for pumps: maintaining windmills (and for Parkes even knowing how to drill a bore) was a matter of life and death for stock.

It was the 1950s, and, at its beginning, wool prices were at historic highs - perhaps five times, in real terms, what they are today. Economically Australia did ride on the sheep's back: the value of wool production was three or four times grain production. They were good years. There were local droughts, but, over large parts of Australia, there were exceptionally high rainfall averages for about 15 years - the more welcome because the tough years of the Depression and the war had not only seen low wool prices, but, generally, below average rainfalls. By about 1965, bad prices and average seasons were back, but by then Parkes was out of the game.

In 1951, there had been men 10 years older home from the war; many were marrying and forming families, and sometimes getting government help to draw a rural block. I was a child of such a family, if about 15 years younger than Parkes, but I knew all of the routines and technologies he described. Bitumen, electricity, plastic, modern communications and motors, ''efficiency'' and the price of labour now make those times seem terribly remote from today, even, generally, in such places. A few still forswear modern creature comforts, and oddly, hundreds of thousands of others aspire to do so, if only for a few days at a time, in camping holidays. There was work to be had, and workers to do it, even if the sheer remoteness of the areas produced a rich crop of characters, including slackers and drunks. There were station hands, and the more itinerant contract drovers, shearers, rouseabouts and cooks. Aborigines were in the labour force, many as skilled station hands; on the bigger stations there was often an informal understanding by which a number of Aboriginal families, perhaps 30 or 40 people, were provided with food and clothing in exchange for the availability of the men at peak times of the year. If there was ample inequality and not a little legal discrimination, there was also a good deal of mutual respect (including for Aboriginal culture and customs) and plenty of work and dignity for those who wanted it.

Parkes was taking more and more responsibility over the practical organisation and management of very large properties, some of a million acres. He seemed set for a life on the land as station manager and, probably, ultimately a battler cockie. Then he suddenly became very ill from an infectious heart condition and spent months recovering in Perth. It changed his life again, and soon he determined on a career closer to facilities - ultimately in advertising. He was 21 - and thereafter is only a frequent visitor to the bush he loves. But it is still, 57 years later, the richest and most formative part of his life, stamping him forever, in his mind, as one of, and out of, the land.

My identification with it all is not only a matter of shared experience and the pleasure of recollecting a type of event, of chore, a long-forgotten skill, or even, of thinking as Parkes does, that it was the land and the work which made me and formed me as I am today. It also involves some understanding of the fact that rural work is fundamentally different from, and more interesting than, piecework in a factory, and that one framed oneself not only by one's skills but by the responsibilities one accepted, even when alone. Some station workers lacked ambition or the self-discipline to achieve any ambitions they had: they drank their pay in big blowouts, talked resentfully of the squatters and the cockies, and were union-minded. Others, including Parkes, saw themselves (at least for a time) as building a career on the land, were eager for experience, keen for promotion, willing to share in the obvious risks, trying, mostly, to husband their resources. Jackeroos, and overseers, were proto-bosses, even in the democracy of the bush.

It is obvious that Parkes learnt the management skills he applied in a later successful business career from cajoling work out of sometimes reluctant and often exhausted and belligerent stockmen, as well as from his father's advice that one asked rather than ordered.

Like Parkes, I had by 21 made choices that excluded working on a station. It's not a decision I regret - much - but I can no more walk away from the experiences, the nostalgia or the sentiment than forswear my nationality, my family or my religion. It is my outer clothing.

That's not to say that one cannot be realistic, or forget how many scratches, bruises and punctured ego went into experiences I now recall fondly, and joke about.

Parkes is a storyteller, as keen to teach and explain, to draw a fond, if sometimes stark, sketch of a landscape or of the heat, the flies and the mosquitoes, as he is to lay out a personal fragment of a short period in a busy and productive life. Here's a tale one could read as profitably to young kids as to a grandfather, or an aunt. It's not only for those still affecting laughing sides.

Jack Waterford is editor-at-large.

A Youth Not Wasted. By Ian Parkes. Fourth Estate.

341pp. $32.99.

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