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The Bunyip and the Whistling Kettle

by J. S. Manifold

I knew a most superior camper
Whose methods were absurdly wrong;
He did not live on tea and damper
But took a little stove along.


And every place he came to settle
He spread with gadgets saving toil;
He even had a whistling kettle
To warn him it was on the boil.


Beneath the waratahs and wattles,
Boronia and coolibah,
He scattered paper, cans, and bottles,
And parked his nasty little car.


He camped, this sacrilegious stranger
(The moon was at the full that week),
Once in a spot that teemed with danger
Beside a bunyip-haunted creek.


He spread his junk but did not plunder,
Hoping to stay the week-end long;
He watched the bloodshot sun go under
Across the silent billabong.


He ate canned food without demurring,
He put the kettle on for tea.
He did not see the water stirring
Far out beside a sunken tree.


Then, for the day had made him swelter
And night was hot and tense to spring,
He donned a bathing suit in shelter
And left the firelight's friendly ring.


He felt the water kiss and tingle,
He heard the silence - none too soon!
A ripple broke against the shingle,
And dark with blood it met the moon.


Abandoned in the hush, the kettle
Screamed as it guessed its master's plight,
And loud it screamed, the lifeless metal,
Far into the malicious night.

Why I Like This Poem

It was in a school anthology and I have memories of the enjoyment we had as a class reading it. It was meant to be funny and it was. Although we were probably all guilty of some degree of littering, we were dead against this self-important little man and delighted, in a grisly sort of way, at his fate. I've always remembered that he “parked his nasty little car,” and that's how I found it through Google. I didn't know the name of the poem or the author.

I'm afraid that my positive reactions are all about the story. Beauty of language and that sort of thing don't come into it. I can see, though, that he's used longer or prettier words for things we're meant to like and short hard ones for things he wants to jar us. I also thinks he gives us a bit of foreboding when he talks about the bloodshot sun and the silent billabong. You just don't describe the sun as being bloodshot when you're normally talking about a sunset, so you know then, even if you hadn't already guessed from the title, that something's going to go badly wrong.

Another thing that gets to me is the screaming kettle. I know it's the kettle screaming. He said that it's the kettle screaming—but I don't believe that, and I don't think he wants me to.



I have a theory about bunyips. I think that once, long ago, a particularly wise mother realised that when she said, “Stay away from the water or you might fall in and be drowned,” little Son or Daughter interpreted it as meaning, “Stay away from the water while I'm looking”.

However, if she said, "In every water-hole there lives a creature that waits just under the surface, right near the water's edge, and it eats little girls and boys as soon as they step near enough," she could probably get on with her work without worry.

About the Author

I knew nothing about J. S. Manifold and all my Googling would turn up were bits that said information about him was stored in this or that university archive and that he'd compiled the Penguin Australian Song Book. My daughter eventually tracked down some biographical notes by searching for unusual words in Australian songs. The word that worked was “Jindyworobak”.

It seems that he came from a pastoral family and had a very good education. He helped fight the fascists in Spain and served in the Second War. When he came home he went to live outside Brisbane and be part of an artistic community. He took a great interest in bush songs and ballads and was a willing mentor to song-writers and poets. He and his wife hosted weekly get togethers of bush musicians. I couldn't find a complete list of his works, but there was at least one book, “Bandicoot Ballads”.

In the preface article mentioned below, he said that he felt publication wasn't always a good thing; that it froze a work in time, whereas singing and recitation kept it alive.

The best article about John Manifold was at Old Poetry, which is on a site (American, I think) for and about poets and their work. The preface written by Manifold to the Penguin Australian Song Book, in which he talks about early Australia and the importance and persistence of folk songs, is reproduced at Convict Creations. There's a lot about the life of convicts, stockmen and other ordinary people and their use of folk song It's good stuff and worth reading, but beware of the music! There's also a comprehensive article about him at the NSW Literary Awards page, but be warned: there's a huge picture at the top of the page. Just search for “Manifold” straight away. You'll be all night if you wait for the wretched picture to load!

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