Monday, July 06, 2015

Song of the day

"Nganshe", by Mbongwana Star.

When I was growing up, on the family dairy farm at Fish Creek, hay-carting season was my favourite time of the year. It generally coincided with the lead-up to Christmas, which was an exciting time anyway, and school was over for another year, but there was more to it than that. Hay-carting time was one of the few times when the farm was crawling with people, not just family and share farmers. As an only child, I think I welcomed the invasion, although I suspect I would also not have wanted it to be like that all of the time. (I get people fatigue.)

Hay time was a rolling sequence of activities, from paddock to paddock and from one activity to another, until it was all done. First, tractors went out onto the paddock to cut the grass, using what were basically giant motorised pruning shears. (Before that, identified paddocks were locked up, free from cattle, to allow the grass to grow tall and go to seed.) The cut hay was left to sit for a few days, during which time it was turned once or twice to help it to dry out. It was then raked up into neat rows. Next, a hay baler would appear, gobbling up the rows of hay and spitting it out, via some kind of alchemy, in the form of tied-up rectangular bales. Following close behind the baler was a team of hay carters manning a truck and trailer, stacking up the bales and taking them to the hay sheds, where they were unloaded, tossed onto what we called an elevator, which was a cross between a conveyer belt and an escalator, and stacked up into the highest corners of the hay sheds.

(Note: the above is a random picture from the internet. Our hay sheds were open at the front. But you get the idea.)

So there was a lot of tractor work, which I loved, and there were also long, punishing days of hard physical labour, which left me with a feeling of pure physical exhaustion, which was kind of nice. The nerd inside of me also enjoyed the challenge of trying to build the neatest stack of hay, both on the back of the truck and in the shed.

(It was also a chance to earn some extra pocket money with which to buy records.)

While all this work was going on, dad and my uncles were also constantly looking at the sky, trying to divine the weather for the next couple of days. Often enough in South Gippsland, rain was not far away, so hay season also tended to be a race against time. Wet cut hay was worse than useless: it made bad hay, but you had to bale it up anyway, the problem being that wet baled hay packed tightly into a shed was also a major fire hazard. The hay would sit, in its wet state, causing it to heat up, possibly to such an extent that it might combust, taking the shed with it. (A common sight around farms in the district was a crow bar or other long metal implement stuffed into a narrow gap between bales, with a farmer sliding it out to check the heat every few hours, to see if the entire stack would have to be dismantled.) Thus, if bad weather was on the cards you had to go until you were finished: into the night, if necessary, through thunderstorms, if necessary (there was no O H and S to worry about in those days), and even, not infrequently, all Christmas morning (but work always stopped on Christmas day in time for lunch; that was the line that could not be crossed).

Another thing that I associate with hay season, a thing that was peculiar to our farm, was the Chuck Wagon. Uncle Jack had built a campervan out of an old Bedford refrigerated truck. The uncles used to travel around with this; it had all the comforts of home. (Well, all the comforts of their home, anyway. They were two batchelors; they didn't much go in for fancy things.) You could back up to a river, fling open the back doors, and drop a fishing line straight into the water. During hay season, uncle Jack (who had worked in the family bakery until the War, and was capable of cooking up an absolute storm) would turn the van into a kind of mobile kitchen unit, which would appear every couple of hours or so where the hay carters were working, and providing us all with an extraordinary spread: pies, pies and more pies (all filled with meat that had, until recently, been walking around in our own paddocks), followed by apple pies, snake cakes (aka Swiss rolls), biscuits, and endless cups of tea. I suspect the local bands of kids who made up the local hay-carting teams liked working at our place because the Chuck Wagon was never far away.

So, what is the point of this story? Are these just the deluded ramblings of a crazy old man? Well, quite possibly. But aside from that, I was put in mind of the old hay-carting days by, of all things, a sound on a recording. Specifically, there is a kind of circular, metallic, scraping sound (I don't know how else to describe it) that permeates "Nganshe", the third song on "From Kinshasa", an album by a hot new Congolese beat combo called Mbongwana Star, that, immediately upon my hearing it, sent me hurtling down a wormhole and landed me in front of the hay shed in front of the old house (the house my parents lived in when I was born) at the end of Eastways Road. It is, as near as can be, the sound that was produced by the hay elevator when it was sending hay up into the shed for stacking. Not being in even the tiniest part of my person remotely mechanically minded, I couldn't tell you what was making the sound. The word "flywheel" comes to mind. I would guess it was a belt that didn't quite sit squarely, and, year after year, managed to produce the exact same noise. It was annoying for a while, but eventually faded into the background. Not so far into the background, though, that I wasn't able to instantly pinpoint it 35 years later.

(For what it's worth, "From Kinshasa" is as good an album as I have heard in a while. How to put it? If someone had flown Jah Wobble, John Lydon and Keith Levene down to Kinshasa hot on the heels of "Metal Box", say, and got them together with these guys to make a record, this is what it might have sounded like. I could go for that.)