Caption: Bush poet John Major is passionate about Australia and absolutely opposed to changing Australia’s flag or becoming a Republic.
By Richard Bruinsma
When bush poet John Major starts to speak, you better be prepared to feel goose bumps. And maybe even shed a tear.
His love and passion for Australia and his loyalty to our flag and the Monarchy is absolutely unquestioned.
It was expressed very clearly and very firmly, with a little water welling up in his eye, when he took the stage at the Palmwoods Hall on Australia Day to recite his memorised verse to the captive audience, including those new citizens who had chosen to make Australia their home.
It’s not uncommon at all, he admits, for him to shed a tear during his presentations.
“I do; I think that is something that should be happening, to get emotion into it, it makes people think more about the actual words,” he said.
“I hear a lot of people doing Man from Snowy River and they’re just rattling it off, but if you put some emphasis and thought into it, it can really mean a lot.”
His love of Australia and the flag are even more significant today as debate again simmers over the republican movement, and even discussions last year about changing the flag.
“We’re doing well; we shouldn’t change anything,” Mr Major said in an interview with the Sunshine Valley Gazette at his Mapleton home.
“I listen to the 5am news every day, and it always makes me think how lucky we are to live in Australia.
“You hear about all these things happening over the years, and I think we’re doing well; the Queen has done a marvellous job if you ask me.
“I’ve never heard her do a bad speech yet.”
Mr Major is now 77 and has been reciting bush verse pretty much all his life.
“I always did a bit of poetry; even at school, 70 years ago, the teachers used to get me up to do a Banjo Patterson poem.”
It became a talent he used informally at family weddings, Christmas events and parties, until a visit to the Tamworth Country Music Festival in 1989 changed things and made it a bigger part of his life.
“I was walking past the Imperial Hotel and a friend asked me to get up and say a poem – there were about 15 people there; three years later, there were 1000 people there,” he explained.
After that, he travelled all around Australia reciting poetry, for many years accompanied by his late wife Joy, who passed away two years ago from cancer.
He has memorised well over 100 poems – some emotional, others humorous, and others a little risqué – but all very meaningful and entertaining.
“I like to do pieces that have a true story – a beginning, a middle and an end – the bush poetry means a lot to me,” he said.
“I like to get to the source of the story and pass that on.”
Along with his poetry, he grew up as a fine athlete.
In 1955, as a junior student at Rockhampton Grammar School, he took on the seniors and won the 100, 220, and 440 yard sprints, the high jump and broad jump, the 120 yard hurdles and shott putt.
He set three records, including a broad jump record that wasn’t broken for 22 years.
One of his good friends, Charles “Chilla” Porter, was selected to compete in high jump at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, and invited him to come to Melbourne, where he toured the Olympic Village.
So, at just 17, he was rubbing shoulders with some of the world’s best athletes.
“I had training runs with John Landy, the hurdler Shirley Strickland and Vladimir Kuts, the Russian distance runner,” he said with a smile.
His friend Chilla subsequently won a silver medal.
Years later, in 1999, Mr Major was visiting Winton for a sports event, where he shared a six pack at the pub with legendary ABC sports announcer Norman May – famous for his swimming call of “gold, gold, gold!”
He and Joy had decided they wouldn’t attend the 2000 Olympics, but Mr May, along with famous Aussie weight lifter Dean Lukin, urged him to change his mind and make the trip.
Lukin explained it would be very rare for anyone to attend two Olympic Games in their own country, an argument Mr Major found impossible to refute.
So, he and Joy and three of their four daughters made the trip. Once there, he also had a chance to recite his poetry.
They also managed great seats to watch Cathy Freeman win her historic 400 metre gold. The family’s farm at Baralaba in central Queensland was only 30km away from Woorabinda, where Ms Freeman was born.
Mr Major’s life has been a journey spent entertaining people with verse, but in the process helping to stir up their pride in Australia.
It’s quite captivating to sit with him and hear him talk of the beauty in Sturt’s Stony Desert, and talk of Big Red – the biggest sand dune in the Simpson Desert – and the magic of seeing the landscape transform from its vibrant ochre red to become a sea of green as a result of flooding rain.
It helps define his views of the important things.
“I’ve been very lucky in my life,” he said.
“I’ve had 40 trips to Lake Ayer as a tour guide, and I’ve seen the Birdsville Hotel surrounded by water, I’ve seen massive dust storms, I’ve been to the Burke and Wills dig tree.
“It’s marvellous to see that country; I just can’t believe it.”