A tale they won’t believe

Another bit from the Earl of Halsbury's 1944 (London: Thornton Butterworth, 1926), this time from p. 217. It's a couple of weeks after a massive Russo-German air strike on London, Paris, and in fact most of the bigger cities of western Europe. Two members of a group making its way to the southern coast of Cornwall wonder just how much further British society has to sink after the enormous dislocation caused by the knock-out blow:

"How long will it be before brutes, like our late lamented friend whom the Russian killed behind there, begin to talk of killing some that the rest may survive? It is a euphemism for plain cannibalism invented by Pierce, the Tasmanian bushranger."

"You don't think that would ever happen in England? I doubt it myself."

"I am sure it will. Did you ever read the life of Pierce? He took to it in four days. Four were killed to keep the other two alive. Probably Pierce killed the fifth, for he was never seen again. I'm afraid that you'll always get a breaking point, and when you do anything may happen. Human nature has not changed much."

This is a well-known story in Australian history (popularised by Robert Hughes in The Fatal Shore), though his name is usually spelled Pearce nowadays. I first encountered it not in a book or a class but in a song, in a mosh pit, probably at the Punter's Club or the Evelyn Hotel on Brunswick Street. The song: "A Tale They Won't Believe" (from the 1989 album The Big Don't Argue). The band: the late, lamented Weddings Parties Anything -- one of the greatest Aussie pub bands of the 1990s.

We left Macquarie Harbour, it was in the pouring rain
None of us quite sure if we would see England again
And some fool muttered 'death or liberty!'
There was six of us together, a jolly hungry crew
And as the days went by, you know, our hunger quickly grew
And some fool muttered 'death or liberty!'

So that night we made fires out of twigs and out of bark
And our stomachs they were rumbling all through the night so dark
We were only trying to keep ourselves alive
But when the sun came up next morning? Well the six had turned to five!

And I said, right there's another one, don't you frown,
Chew the meat and hold it down
It's a tale they won't believe,
When I get down to Hobart town

All five of us were nervous and I'll tell you that's a fact
But you should have seen the bastard who was carrying the axe
He was a sick man he had murder in his heart
And then we reached the Franklin River, it took two days to cross
We were wet and almost starving and for food were at a loss
We were hungry men with murder on our minds.

So that night we made a fire out of twigs and out of bark
And our stomachs they were rumbling all through the night so dark,
They were making noises the dead could not ignore
And when the sun came up next morning, well the five had turned to four!

And I said, right there's another one, don't you frown,
Chew the meat and hold it down
It's a tale they won't believe,
When I get down to Hobart town

Well the four of us kept marching to a place called Western Tiers
A country full of tasty game but for us it held no cheer
We had no guns, we were traveling without hope.
But the axe it loomed so ominous and God's hand was at play
A sick man is a type of game which can not run away
So stay easy, my poor man, your time's at hand.

So that night we made fires out of twigs and out of bark
and our stomachs they were grumbling all through the night so dark
I can't say I feel guilty, after all it wasn't me
but when the sun came up next morning the four had turned to three!

And I said, right there's another one, don't you frown,
Chew the meat and hold it down
It's a tale they won't believe,
When I get down to Hobart town

Well the three of us kept moving but one was fading fast
He had been bitten by a snake and you could see he would not last
Stay easy, my good man, your time's at hand
And when he could last no longer his days were fading fast
We were far too weak to carry him, subsistence it comes first
Stay easy, my good man, your time is at hand.

So that night we made fires out of twigs and out of bark
and our stomachs they were grumbling all through the night so dark
It was a messy job but it was one we had to do
but when the sun came up next morning the three had turned to two!

And I said, right there's another one, don't you frown,
Chew the meat and hold it down
It's a tale they won't believe,
When I get down to Hobart town

Now he had been looking at me funny, sort of eyeing me for days,
And you would not need to be too bright to know that bastard's ways:
He was a sick man, he had murder in his heart.
But even bastards have to rest, and even bastards have to sleep,
And when he was in the land of Nod straight over to him I creep,
And the axe that he had wielded now was mine!

So that night, I made the fire, out of twigs and out of bark,
and my stomach it kept rumbling all through the night so dark.
I can't say that I enjoyed it, and it wasn't exactly fun,
but when the sun came up next morning, the two had turned to one!

And I said, right there's another one, don't you frown,
Chew the meat and hold it down
It's a tale they won't believe,
When I get down to Hobart town

Well now history is a pack of lies, as any fool can tell
And when I got down to Hobart Town I told my story well,
But do you think they would believe one word I said?
For they thought that I was covering for my mates still at large,
Said they'd be roaming in the bush so wild and free
And back to old Macquarie Harbour they sent me.

But I remember the fires made out of twigs and made of bark
and my stomach it was grumbling all through the night so dark
And this young fool, he just said to me 'It's liberty or death!'
And he looked a rather tasty one, I just could not help it --

Singing, right there's another one, don't you frown,
Chew the meat and hold it down
It's a tale they won't believe
When I get down
When I get down
When I get down to Hobart town

This song totally goes off, especially in a crowded pub on a hot summer night. (Lyrics mostly from here, which also relates the song to the history.)

In Halsbury's book, cannibalism represents the absolute nadir of human depravity. Unsurprisingly, not long after discussing cannibalism in darkest Tasmania, the protagonists encounter it themselves in the wilds of Dartmoor. It's only a fortnight after the first aerial bombardments, and the thin veneer of civilisation is being stripped away at the heart of the British Empire (well, the edges of the heart, anyway ...) and probably throughout Europe, Asia, Australia and North America too, as the war is world-wide. 1944 is the most extreme knock-out blow scenario I've read so far (even if the ending is a bit of a cop-out), and it's a clear precursor of Cold War post-apocalypse novels, 1980s survivalist fiction, and even horror films like the The Hills Have Eyes. It's also one of the better-written and imagined future-war novels, maybe not quite up there with Childers, but far better than the likes of Le Queux.

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6 thoughts on “A tale they won’t believe

  1. Yes, I can see how that would rock drastically in an Australian boozer on a sweaty night with lightning and frozos.

  2. Chris Williams

    Yr defunct pub band seems to have had a very Blyth Power take on the world, which is no bad thing.

    I first read Pearce's story sitting in a house in Strahan, attending a conference on 'Escape', no less. Looking at central Tazzy, I can see his point. Didn't Pearce swing after, on his second escape, they found him eating his mate only about five miles away? I always wondered how stupid you've have to be to join him on the 'escape committee' AKA 'menu'.

  3. Brett Holman

    Post author

    Alex: sounds like you've been to a few yourself!

    Chris: I haven't heard any Blyth Power, but judging from the Wikipedia entry you may not be far wrong! I would say the Weddoes were less alternative, though. Billy Bragg might be another comparison, they are/were mutual fans, though again they were a lot less political.

    Yes, he did try the cannibalism thing again after re-escaping. But really, who among us can judge him, without having tried it for ourselves?

  4. Brittany

    This is about Alexander Pearce and his journeys. Read the story it will make you sick...

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