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Aussie characters; #1 The swagman

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Two stories this week about Australians who dare to be different.

1. Campbell the Swaggie

Sometimes it is the unanticipated moments in life that prove to be the most memorable.

Let me set the scene.

Campbell the Swaggie is one of only two remaining swagmen that I know of in Australia.  (Thanks Snowy)
For the purpose of this story I am conveniently ignoring the minor detail that Campbell was born in New Zealand.

(During the great depression of the 1930’s, men were forced to walk country roads carrying a swag….a few possessions wrapped in canvas bedding……in search of employment.)

Campbell is a uniquely talented busker and actor in his one-man travelling show which specialises in Australian traditional bush poetry and storytelling.
For 25 years he has been wandering around Australia following the “show” and “festival” circuits, and each October he arrives at the local market where Mrs GOF and I sell our plants.

His “stage” is a vacant area of lawn just in front of our stall.
He plonks the swag on the ground to support his fire-blackened billycan which serves as a donation tin.

When Campbell is in full theatrical mode, his performances are quite capable of scaring the pants off people who have never seen him before.

In the middle of one such dramatic shouting and writhing production, after all the grown-ups had hurriedly retreated to hide behind trees or distant stall banners convinced that Campbell should be committed to some sort of Institution for the Dysfunctional, a little boy, maybe 3 years of age, confidently made the lonely trek across the lawn, peered inside the billycan, then removed a dollar coin for himself.

The very young mother then rushed over, apologised to Campbell and replaced the coin, with added interest, then set about explaining to her son how money needed to be earned.
(Note to self;  never be tempted to collectively criticise our new generation of young parents)

The little fellow remained enchanted by Campbells fearsome appearance, so the old-timer knelt down, and eye to eye, man to man, quietly imparted the following information directly to the wide-eyed three-year-old;    (Overheard only by his Mum and big-ears GOF.)

“Young man, when we get older we all have to work to earn money.
Like me. This is what I do for a living.

Some people however choose instead to make up some imaginary illness or disability, then they tell their story at the nearest hospital, after which the Government gives them lots of money for doing nothing for the rest of their lives.”

Campbell the Swaggie is a living Antipodean treasure.

About GOF

"Life is like a sewer. What you get out of it, depends upon what you put into it." (Tom Lehrer)

20 responses »

  1. What a character! And hooray for the innocence and curiosity of youth. Good for Campbell for working for his living!

    • It’s a breath of fresh air whenever he moseys into town……although it must often be a tough life for him…..few bucks here and there, and no fixed abode.

      • I seem to always think of people who live the way he does as “brave”. And I look at myself and think that the reason I have a set job, and live so supposedly “responsibly” is because I am scared to live a lifestyle like that.

        But, really, I think that he is what he is and I am what I am. (Now I sound like Popeye!)

        • I know how you feel….I could not choose to live life without a place to call home, and just cast my entire future to fate. I need security and a plan for the future. He is also quite happy to rely on the hospitality of others for food and accommodation when it is offered…..that’s something which would not come easily to me either.

  2. Wow, what a story! He earns enough to live on doing this? I love the picture. He looks like he has so much character!

  3. I remain convinced that I was a swaggie in another life… I have often thought that had I lived in another time I would have been out on the roads.

    Imagine the places he’s seen and the stories he has to tell. Trudging the roads, working when he needs to make the scant little needed to survive, and making do for the rest of the time, learning to live with nature, making friends, making people laugh, perhaps even imparting a little wisdom before taking off and roaming free once again… living life as he was meant to, not as others see fit. Yes, it would be a hard lifestyle for sure… and I’m sure that he wouldn’t give it up for quids.

    But what a brilliant lifestyle, and what a wonderfully brave (or lucky) individual.

    • I think you are right Tina….he probably has a lot of wisdom to impart to us as individuals, and to society as a whole. Even just from a health perspective ….he is no longer a young man but I doubt whether he spends much time in doctor’s waiting rooms or being worried about dwindling supplies of medications for the ailments normally associated with aging.

      I hope you bravely retain the “swaggie” in you…..but me….I think I always yearned for more permanence and a place to call home.

  4. Wow. Too bad the three-year-old is a mite young to understand. But his mum heard.

  5. Although I like to think I am full of wanderlust I know that I would not really last very long out there in the true wanderer’s life. Nice story.

  6. I would love to see one of Campbell’s “performances.” Those sort of stories are in many ways an endangered culture that, if not recorded or passed down to the next generation, will die out.

    I also think it’s funny that people scatter when he starts telling his tales. I’ve met the most interesting people after I’ve gotten over my fear of their appearance or behavior.

    • You would never forget one of his “performances” HG. People scatter because they are initially uncertain whether he is “performing” or suffering from some sort of physical or mental deficiency.

      The most interesting people in the world are probably those who don’t have a “conventional” appearance.

      When he comes back next time I’ll see if we can video a short piece of his work.

  7. I have a question that you may be able to answer GOF. However, I may not want to hear the answer. Do you know if ‘Tarzan’ is still kicking around?
    I met Tarzan (he never liked his real name) twice in Cedar Bay and saw him once near Mossman. We hope to catch him (if he decides to chat) when we get up your way.
    He is pretty amazing. If he chose to befriend you, and thus speak with you, he’d grab you by the arm or shoulder and then speak…but always walking. He only stopped to sleep or eat I think. He was also clever. He kept stashes of pumpkin and potatoes in vermin proofed logs in the forest.
    He also speaks fast. You have to listen to keep up with him…but then that was nearly 30 years ago.
    It would be nice to know how he is fairing. He would be well into his 80’s by now.

    • Snowy and I had a discussion about “Tarzan” a couple of years ago on my blog, but I can’t for the life of me track it down……I’ve forgotten his real name, but Snowy, who knows most things that need to be known in this world would remember.

      I have observed him for twenty odd years as he “fast-walked” the 20 or more km from Gordonvale along the side of the road into Cairns to fill his sugar bag up with supplies.

      We last saw him about 2 months ago, and he was only travelling at a very “slow shuffle”.
      I don’t know if he chooses to talk to anybody these days…….as you say he is apparently highly educated and intelligent. Sadly he has chosen not to impart his wisdom to those who will follow.

      I feel sorry if he is not receiving some care and comfort in his final years, but he has chosen this simple but difficult lifestyle.

  8. I remember you writing about swagmen before but can’t recall this particular story. The great thing about a poor memory is the ability to enjoy things over and over (if this was already told, if not–shouldn’t have admitted to such a poor memory but oh, well!).

    There were lots of itinerants/ hobos for the first half of the 20th century. My great-grandmother (mum’s side) rented out her front porch (just raised off the ground, not covered or walled) to them to lay out their bed rolls. She’s also feed them in the morning. I think she charged .25 (quarter of a dollar) per week. It was something they could pay. I think she did it more as charity — even in those days, who would “rent” a porch? Well, it was better than the ground with bugs or mud!

    • There’s nothing wrong with your memory MT……I did write about Campbell a long time ago, but it was more a biographical story about him.

      That’s a really fascinating story you tell about your hospitable great-grandmother.

      Maybe we should never forget the tough times people suffered in the past……there is no guarantee that it won’t happen again in the future.

  9. Another unique story, GOF. It takes bravery not only to live as he does, but to stand up in front of a crowd and perform. Especially alone. Too bad he can’t make a better living, but there’s no money in such jobs most of the time anyway. I hope there’s at least a church or community center where he can live during inclement weather.

    I’m glad that the next generation is hearing about the realities of life as well.

    • I think over the years he has built up a circle of friends all around Australia who are happy to accommodate him whenever he turns up……he certainly doesn’t appear to be suffering from malnutrition. 🙂


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