Dust and cooksmoke, clatter and din

23 Jul

It’s always hard to say where it starts. For me, history is about what whets the imaginative appetite, and in the case of this project what’s got the juices flowing are the sounds and smells of the goldfields streets, the dust and the cooksmoke, the peddlars shouting, the clop of horse-hooves, general clatter and din.

Of a Saturday night in 1860s Bendigo, for example, the miners rolled into town dressed as ostentatiously as a sailor from a novel by Patrick O’Brian. They wore ‘white moleskin trousers with red sashes in which were stuch their pistols’ (so Augustus Peirce says, anyway). They hung about golloping oysters at Jim Clegg’s oyster-house, heading to the hotels, or clustering in the street drawing attention from passers-by.

When the inimitable Peirce breezed into Bendigo, he took up a job as an attendant in John Ely’s bowling alley and shooting gallery. All day there a cockatoo advertised the establishment, his foot tied (I imagine) to a fruit stand in the street, at which newspapers were for sale. On a Saturday night he would delight the brash knots of miners by screeching ‘Bendigo Advertiser!’, and then accepting a penny for the item in an upturned claw.

Was it a sulfur-crested cockatoo, I wonder? Were his white feathers dusty and picked out about the head, the old thing ill-used and looking it? Something about the familiarity of that bird makes Peirce’s description of the streetscape tantalisingly vivid and close – there he is, his talon reaching out for the coin – and that’s what the reading is all about for me just now.

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