Back when the barstuds boiled their bloody billies
Published in 1943 and given to every American serviceman heading Down Under to help with the war effort, the US War Department’s A Pocket Guide To Australia can be now be read in a different light.
Almost 70 years on, the Pocket Guide appears to be a pretty accurate description of who we were. It may be quaint, but it’s a time capsule that says much about how we have changed as a people in outlook, ethnic composition, custom and language.
It tells of a mad gambling, umpire-hating people, who have strange ways of speaking, putting an ‘i’ where the ‘a’ should be. The booklet’s glossary of Australian slang contains words that have long since passed from our everyday usage.
It tells of a people who considered loyalty everything, shunned hard liquor and lived lean lives.
But there was, of course, a war going on. Darwin had already been repeatedly bombed. Everyone feared invasion. Everyone was living under rations. And well-fed American soldiers were all over our eastern and northern cities and towns.
The Pocket Guide was designed to encourage US servicemen to view Australians as good people and good friends - even though we had unusual habits, such as preferring not to salute officers and endlessly drinking tea.
“There isn’t any need for a lot of do’s and don’ts for Americans in Australia,” the booklet states.
“As a matter of fact, the Australians, especially the girls, are a bit amazed at the politeness of American soldiers. And they say when an American gets on a friendly footing with an Australian family he’s usually found in the kitchen, teaching the Mrs how to make coffee, or washing the dishes.”
Was he doing the dishes? Or feeling her up?
There is every chance the Pocket Guide was issued in response to the Battle of Brisbane, where Diggers and GIs raged in short-lived but very violent street wars in late 1942.
The brawling supposedly began with Diggers objecting to heavy handed American MPs policing Australian streets, but there was already resentment among the Diggers who were seeing the local girls succumb to the charms of the better-paid, better-dressed GIs, who in a time of severe rationing had easy access to supplies of chocolates, cigarettes, liquor and silk stockings.
Back then, the two countries knew almost nothing about each other. The Pocket Guide appears to have been a light-handed effort to encourage American servicemen to think of their new Australian allies as a proud and independent people, not mere footnotes in the enormous US war machine.
It is unequivocal on this, stating of the Digger: “There’s no finer soldier in the world.”
The booklet notes that Australian newspapers were using scarce newsprint to provide the US sports scores in their pages. The American dollar had legal tender status in Australia and the Star-Spangled Banner was played, as a courtesy, in cinemas.
But the Australians could not be viewed as sycophants.
“There is one thing to get straight, right off the bat,” states the booklet. “You aren’t in Australia to save a helpless people from the savage Jap. Maybe there are fewer people in Australia than there are in New York City, but their soldiers, in this war and the last, have built up a great fighting record.”
The subject of Australia’s first people is deftly skirted, without even mention of a boomerang or a didgeridoo.
One hundred and fifty years earlier, says the Pocket Guide, Australia was “an empty land about the size of the United States, inhabited by only a few hundred thousand natives - the Australians call them ‘Abos’ (for Aborigines) – living about the same way they did in the Stone Age”.
Those numbers were now down to about 70,000 “Abos”, who roamed the central wastelands.
The majority seven million Australians were almost 100 per cent Anglo-Saxon, coming from English, Irish, Scotch and Welsh stock.
They had built great cities and a progressive democracy. They were proud of their British heritage but they liked to do things their own way.
“You’ll find the Australians an outdoors kind of people, breezy and very democratic,” the booklet states. “They haven’t much respect for stuffed shirts, their own or anyone else’s.
“The worst thing an Australian can say about anyone is: ‘He let his cobbers (pals) down.’”
Ned Kelly is explained as a national hero but “not a very good citizen”. He could be looked in the same way the Americans thought of Jesse James or Billy the Kid.
“Of course, the best thing any Australian can say about you is that is that you’re a ‘bloody fine barstud’,” says the Pocket Guide.
“You’ll find the Digger is a rapid, sharp and unsparing kidder, able to hold his own with Americans or anyone else. He doesn’t miss the chance to spar back and forth and he enjoys it all the more if the competition is tough.
“Another thing, the Digger is instantaneously sociable.”
The booklet warns that the Digger, when running into a Yank soldier, will poke and pry into his equipment, asking questions and looking to see “if there’s any liquor to be had”.
The Digger considers too many pleases and thankyous “a bit sissified”. But he’ll go out of his way to set a lost stranger back on course.
And beware, warns the Pocket Guide, of “blue laws” which see the bars and dance halls of Australia shut down on Sundays. “There’s no use beefing about it – it’s their country.”
The Australians spoke the same language – but differently.
“Probably the only difficulty you’ll run into here is the habit of pronouncing an ‘a’ as an ‘i’ – for instance, ‘the trine is lite todi’.
“Also, the Australian has few equals in the world at swearing except maybe the famous American mule skinner of World War I. The commonest swear words are ‘bastard’ (pronounced ‘barstud’), ‘bugger’ and ‘bloody’, and the Australians have a genius for using the latter nearly every other word.”
The booklet also claimed Australians were a lot like Russians for their love of group singing.
“Australian soldiers and girls know every American popular song from Stephen Foster’s ‘My Old Kentucky Home’ to the latest tune of a year or so ago. The very latest jive stuff may confuse them a bit, but they’re catching on after listening to American regimental swing bands.”
But the favourite song was their own “Waltzing Matilda”. The Aussies sung it on their assault on the Libyan seaport of Bardia and in the heat and fever of the Malayan jungles. The song might seem innocuous but it had militant overtones.
“The swagman (hobo) of the song represents the common man struggling against the oppressive exploiter,” the booklet says.
The average Australian was strictly a “meat and potatoes guy” and “they don’t go in for green vegetables and salads and fruit as much as Americans”.
It warned of “libellous stories” that Australian housewives made coffee with a pinch of salt and a dash of mustard, but said such tales were probably enemy propaganda.
“The other one is that ‘outback’, as the Australians call their dry country, when you order your dinner of beef or lamb and two vegetables, the vegetables you get are fried potatoes and roasted potatoes. That probably isn’t true either.”
Meat pies were the Australian version of hot dog, although in Melbourne “the substitute for a hamburger is a ‘dim sin’, chopped meat rolled in cabbage leaves which you order ‘to take out’ in Chinese restaurants”.
The bars closed at 6pm and the people much preferred beer to hard liquor, which was expensive. The national drink was tea. Motorists pulled over at roadside stops where hot water signs were displayed, and brewed their own tea out of “billies”.
The local sports required some getting used to. “Cricket is not a very lively game to watch, but it’s difficult to play well. Not much cricket is being played nowadays.
“The Australians have another national game called Australian Rules Football which is rough, tough and exciting. There are a lot of rules – the referee carries a rule book the size of an ordinary Webster’s Dictionary.” They often needed to make a run for it when the game ended.
“The crowd is apt to yell, ‘Wake up melon head’ or some such pleasantry at the umpire, but they don’t think it good sportsmanship to heckle the teams.”
Being good at sport was a sure way to be popular and a national hero, Don Bradman, rated “more lines in the Australian Who’s Who than the Prime Minister”.
Municipal authorities provided many tennis courts and golf courses, which were inexpensive to use but nothing captivated an Australian like a horse race. They were the No. 1 racing fans in the world. Their big event was the Melbourne Cup, established 14 years before the Kentucky Derby.
And if two flies were crawling up a bar, the Aussie would lay odds on which would get to the top first. And if an American was nearby, he’d want to start a book.
Australia’s fighting men were “greatly honoured” by their people. “All Americans who’ve had anything to do with them say they’re among the friendliest guys in the world – and fine physical specimens of fighting men.”
The Aussies had been in all the war’s hot spots and had a reputation for staying put and pitching in even when they had nothing left.
“The Aussies don’t fight out of the text book,” says the booklet. The British and the Americans sometimes got the idea they were an undisciplined bunch because they didn’t go much on saluting or parading, and even called their commanding officers by their first names.
“But when the fighting begins, there isn’t any lack of discipline.”
Australia was a British dominion, but the Australians governed themselves. The country had three political parties, the Labor Party, the most powerful political group, the United Australia Party and the Country Party.
“In many respects Australia is the most democratic government in the world,” the booklet says. “Certainly in the short space of 150 years, it has made many notable contributions to social legislation in which it has pioneered.”
It had set up one of the first central banks in the world, the Commonwealth (founded by a Californian immigrant, King O’Malley), and pioneered worker’s compensation laws and industrial arbitration courts. The Australian ballet was world-renowned.
Expect to see signs all across Australia which said: “Fight, work or perish.”
The country had begun to build warplanes and was especially proud of the Bristol Beaufort torpedo bomber.
“And they’re even prouder of the new Owen tommy-gun which they consider is cheaper and simpler to make than any other submachine gun in the world (it was invented by a 27-year-old mortar mixer from Wollongong, New South Wales).”
Taxis were hard to find; street lights turned off the save power; wages, prices and profits frozen, and rationing had hit hard. “You won’t have any trouble finding out that everyone in Australia is in the war all down the line.”
The American may not feel at home, but he would be well-received.
“American troops have been welcomed in Australia with a good deal of warmth and a feeling of close kinship. The feeling that we and the Australians are ‘cobbers’ means a fast finish for Mr Jap.”
From the glossary:
sheila – a babe
sninny – a babe
shivoo – a party
shikkered – drunk
stonkered – knocked out
bonzer – great, super
beano – a gala affair
chivvy – back talk
joes – the blues
dinkum oil – gospel truth
sarvo – this afternoon
grafter – good worker
fair cow – louse or heel
burgoo – stew
push – a mob or gang
John – a cop
God stone the crows – my, my
* Thanks to Jim Gandy, archivist with the New York State Military Museum of Saratoga Springs, for providing the booklet
Paul Toohey’s column ‘American Story’ features in News Ltd’s iPad apps every Saturday.
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