Friday’s poem, On the Swag, brought a comment from JC which I think deserves a post:
During the 50s and very early 60s, My parents and I were often on the road from Hawkes Bay to Wairarapa and Wellington going to all the A&P shows with my ponies and horses. We often saw Russian Jack on the road, said to be the last of the swaggers.
I remember being quite surprised at how my perception of what a swagger looked like compared to the reality. I could see very little romance in a life that required such an enormous amount of tackle that RJ carried about with him. There’s a picture of him here:
Later, when I joined the Forest Service in 1963, I saw many older men arrive in camp who had something of the same stamp.. men, some of whom would arrive in an old pin striped suit to slash scrub and plant trees. They were good to us young guys and had many homilies to pass on.. until the weekend, and then you saw the reason.. they were monstrous alcoholics who started on Friday and then drank steadily in their huts all weekend. They sometimes became incontinent and were not pleasant to be around.
In a life of working the back country of the North Island, I’ve met many men and the odd woman with the stamp of the swagger/hermit.. people who preferred their own company who were allowed to settle somewhere, even in an old car body, and did enough local work for their beer and baccy. I suppose the most astonishing thing about them is how they were often good company, even if only for a little while.
I’ve never met a swagger, but JC’s story reminds me of Tom the fencer who came to work on Great Mercury Island when I lived there. He’d had an ininerant life, and had worked on many of the bigger farms around the North Island. He was a wonderful story teller and could yarn for hours so was good company if you didn’t mind his casual attitude to personal hygiene – although we know he washed his socks in the weeks he spent on the island because we saw him throw them over the verandah rails when it rained.