The new year is a good time for reflections and my reflections this year turn to my ancestry. Because they seem to live in an eternal present, I would be surprised if many Leftists were proud of their ancestors but I am proud of mine -- mainly because I know a fair bit about them.
Most people start taking an interest in their genealogy in their '60s. I started in my early '40s. And because a lot of Australians survive into their '90s, a lot of my older relatives were still there, plugging on -- which meant that they could tell me about their lives and times. And the people they remembered lived long lives too. So living memory was able to take me back a long way -- to my great-great grandmother, who arrived in Australia in the hold of a wooden convict ship in the 1840s and who lived into her '90s.
And from what I heard, my father and his father were typical of the breed: Quiet, hard-working, uncomplaining men who never made a splash but did hard things for the benefit of their families.
My father was a timber contractor ("lumberjack") and his father and grandfather were bullockies. ("teamsters"). As a kid, I watched my father cut down big forest trees with just an axe and a crosscut saw. There were no chainsaws then.
And if you want to know what bullockies were like, Henry Lawson's poem "The Teams" is both graphic and accurate. It is my favourite poem. My grandfather, "Jack", never went to school as he was working a bullock team by the time he was 10. He was however taught at home how to read and write.
My grandfather's team
Jack Ray's father was Frank Ray. His obit in The Cairns Post of 28 February 1910 describes him as the first carrier (bullocky) on the Palmer [river goldfield] up Cooktown way. The was no road to the Palmer in those days so it is an abiding mystery how he got his bullocks up there.
A couple of small, illustrative details: I remember my grandfather, "Jack", well. He got a small splinter of steel in his eye in an accident. He didn't trust doctors so he just squinted for the rest of his life. In his time, distrusting doctors was probably wise. And my father's cousin, old Alex Fletcher, tended to get skin cancers, as I do. But he was a farmer living a long way from town so he just put his hot soldering iron onto the cancers to cure them. I blanch when I think about it. But he had it all thought out and explained to me how he did it. If you admire hardiness, how could you not be proud of such men? Once upon a time men were men and were in no doubt about how to do it.
The Australian pioneers worked hard to wrench a modern and highly civilized society out of a harsh natural environment -- and I am proud that my ancestors were among them. My only sadness is that I am not worthy of them. I am a degenerate compared to them.
An amusing coda: My father was far from dumb but the only way he knew to put bread on the table was by hard manual work. He was born in 1915 and that was how it was for most people in that era. So because I spent so much time reading books and not doing outdoor things, my father thought I would never amount to much. He had a vivid way of putting that which I won't relate. But when he heard how much money I was making from teaching at a major Australian university, he sat bolt upright with surprise and immediately reversed his opinion of his eldest son!
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