As a baby-boomer, I grew up knowing that Australia “rode on the sheep’s back”, that our economy, in other words, was based on the wool trade. It’s not quite so now – though wool is still an important product – but I was reminded of the saying last weekend as we were introducing a young American to a little bit of country Australia. We were, in fact, focused on one of our wine regions, but it was the sheep that she particularly noticed.
This made me think about sheep in Australian literature/culture. How do (did) they feature, given the role that they’ve played in our “wealth for toil”. Rather negatively, in fact. Horses and cattle-droving are romantic, and often feature in Australian outback novels and ballads, with a sense of heroism (as in “The man from Snowy River”). Sheep and shearing don’t quite cut it in the same way. They too can be romanticised, but more in the “rough diamond” category rather than the “heroic” one.
One of the best known Australian songs/ballads to feature sheep is “Click go the shears” which describes the hard work of the shearer, the various roles played in the shearing shed (the “boss”, the “tar-boy”, the “old shearer”, the inexperienced “snagger”) and the drinking at the pub when it’s all done. The other, more famous song featuring sheep is of course “Waltzing Matilda” about the swagman who steals a sheep (the “jolly jumbuck”) to eat. The song, written by Banjo Paterson, was probably inspired by the hardships endured by shearers during and after the Great Shearers’ Strike of 1891. It depicts the class division in Australian society between the “battler” (or working-class man) and the “squatter” (or, landowner).
And this reminds me of a novel I reviewed early in this blog’s history, William Lane’s The workingman’s paradise, a social realist novel which explored both urban poverty (Sydney) and rural hardship (Queensland shearers). The novel is set in Sydney, but the plight of the shearers is a major theme. Another, much later novel, Jeremy Chambers’ The vintage and the gleaning, is set in the vineyards of northeast Victoria (where this post’s photo was taken) but is narrated by Smithy, who had been a shearer for 47 years before becoming a vineyard worker. Smithy rues his years of hard-drinking (see “Click go the shears” above!) and its impact on his health. A third Australian work to focus on the rough, hard side of the shearer’s lot (alongside its mateship aspects) is the movie Sunday Too Far Away. Hard drinking features here too, in a story about shearers fighting to retain their bonuses against the threat of non-union shearers.
There are other “takes” on sheep, however. One is the film Babe, that was filmed in Australia but based on English writer Dick King-Smith‘s children’s novel, The sheep-dog. It’s a romanticised pastoral story about a pig that herds sheep like a sheep-dog. King-Smith’s (English) sheep are intelligent and manipulative, quite different from the typical description of sheep in Australian literature. Another, more interesting depiction, though, comes from Jeanine Leane’s Purple threads which I reviewed earlier this month. In that review I commented on Leane’s use of sheep symbolism. Her book is set in a sheep farming area. The narrator sees her indigenous family’s practice of adopting the black sheep that are spurned by the farmers as reflecting Jesus’ teachings about charity and inclusiveness. It’s pretty obvious, I suppose, but I liked the way she makes her point by mixing Christian symbolism with something symbolising anglo-Australia’s encroachment on her people’s country.
But I can’t resist returning to Banjo Paterson, my favourite bush poet, to close today’s post. He wrote a piece called “The merino sheep”, which you can read online. He describes the sheep as a “dangerous monomaniac” whose “one idea is to ruin the man who owns him” and concludes with:
The hard, resentful look on the faces of all bushmen comes from a long course of dealing with merino sheep. The merino dominates the bush, and gives to Australian literature its melancholy tinge, its despairing pathos. The poems about dying boundary-riders, and lonely graves under mournful she-oaks, are the direct outcome of the poet’s too close association with that soul-destroying animal. A man who could write anything cheerful after a day in the drafting-yards would be a freak of nature.
Oh dear … and I thought it was caused by heat, aridity and remoteness!
Anyhow, if you are Australian, I’d love to hear of other references to sheep in our literary (or cultural) life that have struck you (as my discussion here is brief and limited). And, if you are not Australian, does this post inspire any thoughts about ongoing motifs in your own national literature?