Read This and Be Smarter

‘Walking in Old Shoes’ and ‘Remembering Artists’

by Paul Collis

Westerly is the premier literary journal of Western Australia, publishing since 1956. Westerly produces poetry, short fiction, and non-fiction from around the world, with a focus on the voice of Western Australian authors. Westerly publishes two print editions a year and digitally year-round.

Paul Collis was the first Aboriginal student to achieve a Creative Communications Honours degree from the University of Canberra. For the course, he wrote a novella based on the identity of an Aboriginal boy in his community.

‘Walking in Old Shoes’ and ‘Remembering Artists’ were first published in Westerly 61.1, November 2006.

Walking in Old Shoes

Ghosts walk all over this town. They’re in every street, shopping centre and beach road. They are all scarred with memories of my life before now. Youth and strength live back there in my past. My sweat probably still stains the old cricket pitches, and memories of lovings haunt the dark places where I first gave them life.

Like all beach cities, Newcastle doesn’t ‘shine’… It ‘sparkles’ in the spring. The harbour reflects the aspirations of an earnest city, bouncing sunlight from the water back onto the foreshore. As if caught in a yester-year day, the city hardly seems to move at all. The minutes slip quietly away with the distant sound of the breakers returning to Nobby’s marking time.

How can a city move so quietly? So slowly? Perhaps it does so because of its endless repetitions. Maybe that’s why I don’t find change in the place? Maybe that’s why every day seems like it’s… Tuesday?

Oh, the city by the sea, with its painted facades and manicured streetscapes, hides the yester-year city. The old places, that are brickyard red and dusty now, stand out-of-place in the functional modern moment. The new replacing the old; the old barely clinging on, refusing to fall. And yet, eventually they will vanish, like yesterday. In their place will stand a dulled plaque and a few lines engraved as any reference to the old times. History loses; giving way to the modern present until the modern present becomes a yesterday of Lego block buildings, which have a shelf life of only twenty-five years.

Scott Street runs beside the railway line all the way to the beach, but is now all too often empty. The Foreshore Road offers the driver a better view of the harbour. Scott Street has become a rather useless secondary that seems to only get used now as a road trip down memory lane.

But, it’s great seeing the beautiful city again.

I drove the beach roads and walked Maitland Road, looking through shop windows and watching hookers and dusty men. I visited the cemetery and played golf at Raymond Terrace with Dave. So many memories of summers past and different cars. Memories of different girls. Those old ghosts don’t scare me anymore. They are now more like familiar things that I’ve put away and only take out now and then to see that they aren’t broken. Even the old songs I once loved can’t slay me.

It was such a quiet day there in the city. Thunderstorms lurked behind clouds and rumbled their disquiet. But the breeze had the better of the clouds and the rain in that moment. It blew too strongly for the pitterpatter of raindrops to leave patterns upon the earth right then, but, by sundown, the afternoon storm would wash the sea-side city wet and clean.


I grew up when there were a lot of old Murri people in Bourke. Many of them were fantastic storytellers. Some carried their Aboriginal traditional ways of storytelling—evoking the spirit world as a major character(s) in their story. Those storytellers placed themselves as the storyteller according to their position within their traditional community in their performance. Some of them were old Elders, others, were neither Elders nor very old, but their storytelling was fantastic. The way they paused; their eyes burning with delight. They held my world, my attention in their hands. Even mum, her brothers and sister and older cousins held their breath when those old people spoke. We all sat in the dust around the fire. The imagined world became my ‘real’ when those storytellers told their stories.

Other storytellers, moved between two worlds—between the Whitefullas world and our world. Those storytellers use Western ways and different languages and shape-forming techniques, making use and sometimes making fun of the Whitefullas as they performed, dancing and speaking their way through their observations. In doing so, they made comments upon those who tried to hold power over us Blackfullas. Sometimes, the storytellers acted out the voice and presence of a policeman, or some other person of authority. Those old storytellers never missed a trick. They’d only act the vagabond in the world whilst collecting their stories… They would ‘put-on’ the voices of the toffs and of the broken-English too when they gave us their gifts in stories. I reckon they were better than Charlie Chaplin… and they copied Chaplin too. Yes, those storytellers, those relatives and friends to us, did much more than merely exist on the fringe of society. They experienced the world from so many different viewpoints and they made their wise comments about the world in their stories and in their performances.

I saw my grandfather’s nephew, Paddy, a renowned rain-maker and dancer, dance for us when I was a small boy. Mum, Aunty Tina, aunty Doodie and aunty Mookie, all begged him to dance for us one sunny morning. I’d been sitting with uncle Paddy near the fire; I was around 4 or 5 years old. . . He looked at me, winked, smiled, stood up, kicked his shoes, and removed his shirt. He then moved away from the fire, into free space so he could really move. His skin was shiny black, like the blackest night. He stood in such contrast to the bright yellow morning. Then he began…

He leaped high in the air, spinning full circle as he went. He clapped hands between each leg before he hit the ground again. Then he’d bounce up again. Uncle Paddy danced for about 10 minutes, moving fast and beautifully. Dust flew all around when he hit the hard ground. In later years I went to watch many dancers, tap, jazz, modern, ballet, ballroom groovers… all beautiful… but no one came near uncle Paddy. Not in my books.

When he finished mum and them all clapped and said how ‘neat he was’… He came back to me and put his shirt on and took up his jam tin cup and finished his tea. He looked at me and smiled.

‘Ya like dat, Unk?’ he asked me.

I nodded. ‘The dust…?’ I queried.

He smiled again, looked into his cup, and said: ‘Dass old mumma earth… She look after us.’

Just before my mum passed away in 2010, I reminded her of the day uncle Paddy danced.

Mum smiled, remembering. It was such a beautiful time for her back then when Paddy came to stay with us. She was young back then. She’d not long before, given birth to her youngest (and last) child, my brother, Glenn. Dad had good paying work and so mum and he were able to buy an expensive blue pram, and dress him in fine cotton gear. The photos of Glenn in aunty Tina’s arm show how loved he was, show how much love and effort went into making him precious to us.

Mum said, ‘They, (the Blackfullas) all used ta climb the trees and watch the pictures (the movies) from over the fence. Those good, old black dancers saw what Whitefullas were doing in America and that, and then they used to copy them. But them Whitefullas got their steps from Blackfullas.’

Art is discovered and shared amongst artists and art lovers throughout the world. Always was, and probably always will be. Yes, those old storytellers, the same people who white governments dismissed as ‘un-knowers’, they had power. Appearing at times to the white world as ‘no-bodys’, they were intelligent, gentle and responsible people. They looked ‘outward’ upon the world and made comment of the world in their art, leaving indelible marks upon my memory. In their voice, they brought to life the imagined and the ‘un-imagined’, making them believable to me and to the others who listened. Those old people taught and entertained me for most of my very young life.

I sometimes imagine them old fullas with me when I see something clever or funny, nudging me in the side and whispering, ‘See that?’

The State Library of Western Australia promotes literacy for all ages. To this end the ‘Read this and be smarter project’ has been developed, providing a short piece of writing from Australian publications every Monday to Friday to read on your commute or lunch break.

Westerly acknowledges all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as First Australians. We celebrate the continuous living cultures of Indigenous people and their vital contributions within Australian society.

Westerly’s office, at the University of Western Australia, is located on Whadjak Noongar land. We recognise the Noongar people as the spiritual and cultural custodians of this land.

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