More on street theatre: a memoir by Simon Hickey

23 Jul

Another memoir with snappy glimpses of nineteenth-century street life: Simon Hickey’s Travelled Roads (Melbourne: F W Cheshire, 1951).

Simon Hickey is a fellow of the same species as Augustus Peirce, though neither as itinerant nor as quick on the page. In the early 1900s he became a name in the Labor Party, growing (so it’s said) increasingly ‘swarthy and rotund’. As a lithe boy in 1880s Mudgee, however, he started out as an apprentice in a saddler’s shop. Later, he engaged in an endearing motley of occupations before starting his own leather-goods concern: a shearer and a bartender in the dog days of the nineties, an unpaid editor of a paper for the Australian Natives’ Association. He was even, for a time, a performer of live advertisements for a hatter in Oxford Street, Sydney. This involved him cavorting on a verandah, dressed in a succession of animal suits to attract the Saturday-night shopping crowd.

As I said, Hickey’s memoir gives a fast series of insights into street theatre and life. He talks about wrestling competitions with a muzzled bear, and a fake exhibition of Vesuvial lava, and of a Melbourne freakshow exhibiting a ‘Japanese sheep’ and a midget 23 inches high. The capital cities were replete with ‘all manner of sideshows’, he writes. ‘An empty shop or vacant allotment in a front street would serve for a stand’. A spruiker would stand out front, sometimes with a boxing kangaroo or some other arresting creature for company, shouting come-hither extravagances to the passers-by.

In the new century, Hickey says, Federal election campaigns were themselves travelling sideshows. The elections ‘were regarded as great entertainment … They were free and there were no counter-attractions – pictures had yet to come’.

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