reverend profile

A Touch of the Tarbrush

I apparently strayed beyond the bounds of Political Correctness recently. It was Sorry Day and I was chatting to an audience about my Cultural Heritage.

“As for me, “I boasted of my noble lineage, “like a lot of Australians I’m a typical mix of basic Bog-Irish with a touch of the tarbrush. Yes, It’s blackfellas and bastards on one side of the family tree, and bushrangers and horse-thieves on the other.”

I was surprised to hear some people gasp and later one of my Advisors came up to me.

“You’ve got to stop using that expression about the tar-brush,” he told me, “people were wincing and squirming”.

“Touch of the tar-brush?” I said, taken aback, “Why? what’s wrong with it? It’s a fine piece of descriptive, nay, colourful language – it could be considered folk poetry even – a genuine piece of Australiana and one that aptly describes my condition..

Imagine, if you will, “I continued, warming to me theme, “a newly opened tin of white paint. Now get a stick or an old wire brush that’s been standing in the tar-pot and start stirring.

At first there’ll be a few dark swirls as the tar is added to the mix, but each time the tar-brush goes round the tin another generation goes by and the swirls get fainter and fainter.

A few more times around the tin and there are few visible reminders left – a broader nose here, a darker skin tone there. Eventually you get to my blue-eyed, blond haired 1/16th daughter and if it weren’t for the Family Memories (and precious few of those) she’d never know.

And as the Elders would tell you, it’s not about skin-colour, its about Culture. Like most tribal cultures the Aborigines had a protocol for grafting new blood-lines into their society.

So yeah it’s Culture not Genetics ultimately that defines us and while I lay claim to having a touch of the tar-brush I would never claim to ‘identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait islander’; as the forms & questionnaires put it, I don’t feel it would be honest”, I concluded my justification with a flourish.

“I’ll give you that”, my Advisor conceded, “you’ve never tried to cash in on your, er, ‘aboriginality‘ politically. Nonetheless the phrase remains a bit iffy“.

“Nonsense”, I retorted, “there are many respectable literary precedents for its usage; “‘Harp in the South‘, ‘Power without Glory‘ and ‘Pushed from the Wings‘ all use that phrase, and not always in a derogatory context either. Ruth Park’s working class character Hughie certainly used it in a non-derogatory sense, more typical of the Australian larrikin humour, like calling a red-head “Bluey” for example”.

“And Frank Hardy (Power without Glory author) was a Commo for godsake! The Commos’ were the only ones who backed the Aboriginal struggle for recognition right from its beginnings. In fact, in many ways the Coms can be said to have started the whole Indigenous Rights movement in Australia in the Sixties. Acting on instructions from Moscow naturally, which just goes to prove Stalin wasn’t all bad.

In conclusion therefore, and leaving Stalin’s character out of the matter for the moment, I stand upon my right to use said phrase. It is knee-jerk Political-Correctness run amok (see Department of Silly Walks) to censor my use of this colloquial turn of phrase,” I declaimed with due pomposity.


“Actually,” my friend mused, “I was sitting next to an elderly Murri woman at the time and she asked me to explain it to her! She’d never even heard the expression before. Maybe you should give her a copy of ‘Power without Glory‘”.

“She’d probably prefer the ‘Harp in the South‘ with its’ amusing portrayal of those drunken-but-lovable Irish-Australians, the Tap-root, as it were, of my Family Tree. And I note that no-one complained about my characterisation of the “Bog Irish” as horse thieves and bushrangers, which  in my case is actually pretty accurate, considering at least one of my ancestors was hung in Victoria for cattle-duffing or horse-bothering or some-such thing.”

“But on second thoughts”, I continued thoughtfully”, maybe she should read ‘Power Without Glory’. Old Frank records a number of other such colourful expressions from the old days, relics of the Language, as it were, and the attitudes they betrayed.

A personal favourite is the chapter where a couple of Political Power-brokers are bemoaning the impossibility of dislodging a certain Labour Party politician in a coming election, largely because of the fierce party loyalty of his Working-Class electorate.

“They’d vote for ‘Billy-the-Blackfella‘ if he stood for Labour“, whines one, using the expression to emphasize just how deeply committed the local voters were to their political tribalism.

Billy the Blackfella of course being a stock figure of fun back then. You know, funny old Billy, eager to please but lazy, good humoured but drank too much. Probably got a couple of “lubra” wives back in his lean-to and some half breed-dingos hanging round the camp. (The dogs another indicator of his “mongrel” status”) I seem to recall the Womens Weekly, (or was it the Australian Post), used to run just such a cartoon figure in a strip called “Witchety’s Tribe” that was published right into the Seventies would you believe? So it was a strong statement to make of the electorate’s political commitment that, yes, they’d even vote for Billy“.

“The disturbing thing”, said my friend”, is that I’ve heard you use that expression yourself before the last election”.

“No mate”, I explained”, “the disturbing thing about using that expression today, the really offensive thing about it..is that it’s still a revelant comment to make as an indicator of political commitment in this country. When I made that sardonic comment, you knew exactly what I meant. I didn’t have to explain it to you because as you’re aware those racist attitudes are still prevalent. Behind the PC facade, many, if not most, Australians think of Aboriginals as being first and foremost drunken bums”.

“Neville Bonner aside, (an aberration that proves the rule) the only “Blackfellas” who get into parliament are the ones that look as much like “Whitefellas” as possible. Smooth, well-fed Fat-cats, groomed & neutered by the Parties, wearing expensive tailored suits, they are a class and breed unto themselves”.

Meanwhile, down in the parks though, and out at the out-stations, “Billy the Blackfella” still has no chance of ever getting elected or having his voice heard.

Unless, of course, one of the Major Parties finds it convenient for their own purposes to parachute a token blackfellah into an electorate somewhere. You know.. a safe electorate..one that’s always been loyal to the Party. Somewhere say, where they’d even vote for Billy,

the Blackfella.



Possibly todays sermon may offend some readers. If you have any comments/thoughts re., language and culture, they will be read with interest by the Reverend.


A Touch of the Tarbrush petulants jpig reduced



The Reverend Hellfire is a Practising Performance Poet, President of the Kurilpa Institute of Creativity Inc., and an Ordained Minister of the Church of Spiritual Humanists AND the Church of the Universe.

Means well.



~ by reverendhellfire on November 3, 2013.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: