A Waltz For Matilda

'Once a jolly swagman camped by a Billabong Under the shade of a Coolibah tree And he sang as he watched and waited till his Billy boiled You'll come a‐waltzing Matilda with me...' In 1894, twelve-year-old Matilda flees the city slums to find her unknown father and his farm.

But drought grips the land, and the shearers are on strike. Her father has turned swaggie and he's wanted by the troopers. In front of his terrified daughter, he makes a stand against them, defiant to the last. 'You'll never catch me alive, said he...'

Set against a backdrop of bushfire, flood, war and jubilation, this is the story of one girl's journey towards independence. It is also the story of others who had no vote and very little but their dreams. Drawing on the well-known poem by A.B. Paterson and from events rooted in actual history, this is the untold story behind Australia's early years as an emerging nation. 

       This is, perhaps, the best book I have written. It wasn’t quite the book I thought I was going to write, either. Other voices kept intruding, more whispers from the past. Finally the book was twice as long as I had expected, more saga than story.

       With the help of Aboriginal elder Auntie Love, the ladies of the Women’s Temperance and Suffrage League and many others, Matilda confronts the unrelenting harshness of life on the land and the long-standing hostility of local squatter, Mr. Drinkwater. She also discovers that enduring friendship can be the strongest kind of love.

Set against a backdrop of bushfire, flood, war and jubilation, this is the story of one girl’s journey towards independence. It is also the story of others who had no vote and very little but their dreams. Drawing on the well-known poem by A.B. Paterson and from events rooted in actual history, this saga tells the story of how Australia became a nation. It is also a love story – about a girl, and about the land.

 

Like most of us, I learned the words to ‘Waltzing Matilda as a child. When I took a closer look as an adult, though, suddenly the song seemed to have meanings I’d never looked at before.

 

 ‘Down came a jumbuck to drink at the billabong, up jumped the swagman and grabbed him with glee. And he sang as he stuffed that jumbuck in his tucker-bag …’

 

A jumbuck is a fully grown sheep- you can’t stuff one into a tucker-bag single-handed. It’s more likely to be the other way round: I remember vividly being dragged 100 metres along a road by a stroppy ram. Unless the jumbuck was a ‘poddy’, or orphaned sheep brought up by humans, hoping for a scratch and a handout, you’d never get near it.

 

Banjo Patterson knew this- he’d grown up on a sheep farm. And back in the 1890’s he’d have known his listeners would have known it too.

 

Or take this line: ‘Down came the squatter, mounted on his thoroughbred, up rode the troopers, one, two, three…’ In the 1890s troopers were pretty thin on the ground in a vast country. How could three of them just happen to be on the scene when the swaggie caught the jumbuck?

  

I suddenly realised that Waltzing Matilda is really about  about a setup. The poddy sheep was used as bait for the swaggie- and then the troopers pounced.  Banjo Patterson’s song is almost certainly based on a true event: in 1895 a swagman- shearer, ‘Frenchy’ Hoffmeister, was suspected of burning down a shearing shed in a shearer's strike. But there was no proof, so he was set up for another crime, and ‘died trying to escape’.

 

 I began to write A Waltz for Matilda as a story of the swagman. Instead it became a love song to Australia.

           

Without the 1885 - 1903 drought we might still be a collection of independent states. The drought led to the shearers’ wages being docked, causing them to go on strike, which was a catalyst for the formation of the Labor party. It was the drought that made men like Parkes so passionately convinced of the need for economic survival as a single country, with unified immigration, and no tariffs between the states.

         

It wasn’t a romantic basis for a new nation, and many of the ideals of the fathers of our constitution probably aren’t ones we’d agree with today.  The passion to limit immigration to white settlers, and the narrow definition of religious freedom intended for Roman Catholics only, seems far moved from the diversity of religious and political thoughts citizens have today.

           

Even the more extraordinary events in A Waltz for Matilda are based on people and events I’ve known.  Auntie Love showing Matilda how to become invisible among the trees; the wall of water sweeping across a land baked hard by drought; rounding up sheep in the flames of a bushfire, with burning sheep droppings raining from above … all of these their roots in real history.

           

A Waltz for Matilda was supposed to be a short book. Instead, it became a saga.  It’s an adventure, a tale of rags to riches. A story of indomitable women and extraordinary men, set against a sweeping background that ranges from factories where children sweated for almost no wages and rarely saw the sun, to the farms of the western plains, the Boer War, Federation, ending as the first letters trickle home from Gallipoli. It is the story of how – and why – we became a nation. And – more than any other book – it’s a story from my heart.  

Inspiration for 

A Waltz For Matilda

Dear Reader,

I’ve loved Waltzing Matilda since I was a child, and known it was based on a true event,  but when I became a sheep farmer, and began to really think about the words, suddenly parts of the song  didn’t make sense.

        

What really happened at that billabong, more than 100 years ago?

        

‘Down came a jumbuck, to drink at the billabong, up jumped the swagman and grabbed it with glee. And he sang as he stuffed that jumbuck in his tucker bag…’

        

You can’t stuff a jumbuck into a tucker-bag. I was once dragged 100 metres along a road by a stroppy ram. There is no way a swaggie could capture a jumbuck without a dog or fences…unless that jumbuck was a ‘poddy’- an orphaned sheep brought up by humans who’d seek out people, hoping for a scratch and a handout.

‘Down came the squatter, mounted on his thoroughbred, up rode the troopers, one, two, three...’

        

In the 1890’s there were a handful of troopers in tens of thousands of empty square miles. The only way troopers could catch the swaggie in the act was if the whole thing was a set up. The poddy sheep was taken to the billabong; the squatter and the troopers waited among the trees till it was butting the swaggie for a share of tucker.

And then they pounced.

        

Back in 1895 a swagman- shearer, ‘Frenchy’ Hoffmeister, was suspected of burning down a shearing shed. But there was no proof, so he was set up for another crime. He died trying to escape. In the depression of the 1880-1890’s Waltzing Matilda was just one of many songs protesting the injustices of the world.

        

I began to write A Waltz for Matilda as a story of the swagman. But as I wrote the book changed. It became a love song, to a land and to a nation.

        

The stories I had listened to from seven generations of women escaped onto the pages, from my great great Aunt Nin and her doomed Boer war soldier to an elderly indigenous woman, desperate to pass on the things that had meanin, before she died, or my grandmother, Presbyterian to her core, fighting for the vote for Indigenous Australians - and spotless kitchens.

        

Even the more extraordinary incidents in this book - Auntie Love showing Matilda how to become invisible among the trees, or defying a bushfire to round up the sheep, the burning sheep droppings falling from the sky, the wall of water sweeping across a baked hard land, the Chinese market gardener with no English but infinite compassion- are based on people and events I’ve known.  

        

A Waltz for Matilda became the tale of how we became a nation, told from the point of view of those who had no vote and little power: Matilda, the swaggie’s daughter, who saw it all; Auntie Love and Mr. Sampson, indigenous Australians who’s names were taken as well as their land, the Chinese market gardener who became the town’s most wealthy man, the Afghan trader with his draper’s wagon.

        

More than anything else, A Waltz for Matilda is a love song to the land.

        

Without the 1885-1903 drought we might still be a collection of states. It was the drought that led to cutting the share’s wages, which led to the shearer’s strike, which led to the labor party. It was the drought that made men like Parkes so passionate that if we were to survive economically it had to be as one country, with unified immigration and tariff laws, and no tariffs between the states.

        

It wasn’t a romantic basis for a new nation. Most of the ideals of the fathers of our constitution probably aren’t ones we’d agree with today - the passion to keep Australia white, the religious freedom that was only meant for Roman Catholics, with no conception that once White Australia vanished our citizens might have a range of differing religions.

        

This land has shaped us far more than we can ever realise.

        

A Waltz for Matilda was supposed to be a short book. Instead it became a saga.  It’s an adventure, a tale of rags to riches, indomitable women and extraordinary men, from the factories of the 1890’s where children sweated for almost no wages, and sometimes never saw the sun, to the farms of western plains, the Boer war, Federation, ending as the first letters trickle home from Gallipoli. It is the story of how – and why- we became a nation. It is - more than any other book- a story from my heart. 

        

It is a love story, but not just about a girl and boy, and old man and a woman. It is a love song to Australia.

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