Augustus Peirce, raconteur

18 Jul

If his memoir Knocking About (1924) is anything to go by, Augustus Peirce was a raconteur of that instantly recognisable nineteenth-century kind: a jack-of-all-trades switching jobs every few weeks, forever with dust or salt in his hair from travelling the roads or the sea, compulsive spinner of yarns and comedy. ‘From early boyhood’, he says, ‘I had been much given to singing, dancing, hanky panky stunts, and the like’.

After arriving in Australia from America in the early 1860s, jumping ship in Melbourne Bay and washing up on the beach at St Kilda, Peirce zigzagged constantly between Melbourne and the Victorian goldfield towns, with the occasional jaunt to New Zealand or elsewhere, and later ended up on the Murray River. Sometimes he worked as a painter of backdrops or builder of stage-sets for hotels or theatres, sometimes as a funny-man in a minstrel show or a two-bit member of a theatrical company, sometimes as a photographer or the seller of panaceas or meat for the local butcher. And he was handy with words as well as carpentry tools.

As a memoir, Knocking About is a joy to read. Street life in the gold era comes to life on his pages. You can almost feel the grit and the dust and hear the cartwheels turning, the hoarse voices of street-pedlars, the ‘roars of laughter’ in which theatrical crowds were always said to be indulging back then. He also seems irrepressibly optimistic, or at least energetic to me. Given how exhausting I’ve found moving just from one Australian city to the next, how was it possible for him (and the countless raconteurs like him) to lead such peripatetic lives, and to retain a general cheeriness throughout?

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