Steerage to the West [poem by Grant Hervey, 21 December 1902]

[Editor: A poem by Grant Hervey, published in his “Cuts and Carvings” column in The Sunday Times (Perth, WA).]

Steerage to the West.

(With more-or-less of an apology to Henry Lawson.)

Oh, we leave the smellful Yarra and we blunder down the bay,
Herded aft like soulless cattle while the wealthy go saloon ;
It’s good-bye to East Australia and good-bye to friend and fay,
When the engines start a-thumping and the shafting lifts its rune.
Oh, we leave the girl a-crying and we “wet it” with the chum ;
Oh, it’s handshakes at the wharf-side and its kisses on the decks.
There’s s whistle blowing forward — oh, your soul goes strangely numb
When they slack away the gangway and the fond arms leave your neck !
But the dusty fields are calling and the West is crying “Come.”
There are work and wages waiting ; toil and “tin” are saying “Trek !”

So we leave the stinking Yarra and we leave the dear old East ;
Oh, we rake the quids together and we don our shabby best ;
There’s a final kiss and clasping, then the lips are slow released,
And we hook it in the steerage — in the steerage to the West !

It was noon we left the Yarra, and at dusk we felt the breeze
Blowing fresh from south-o’-blazes — feel the sea breeze on our cheeks;
Then we drop the land behind us, with its gum and wattle trees —
O, we part with all we cherish when the God of Labor speaks ;
For it’s graff that takes us westward and its toil that makes us ship —
Yes, it’s toil that takes us tossing out across the surging Bight
There’s a job up in Kalgoorlie, or a cooler coastal “grip,”
Sets us packing bag and bundle — sets us pulling strap holes tight.
Oh, farewell to love and lady, and good-bye to sweetheart’s lip,
For a man must chase the shekels and a man must grasp them tight.

So he packs a sock and razor, and he gets aboard the boat,
And the engines take him thudding on the endless dollar-quest ;
With a heart that won’t keep steady, and a grindstone in his throat,
Ho, a man must hook it steerage — hook it steerage to the West !

To the missus or his mother, or the girl — or all the three —
P’r’aps he sends a wire from Adelaide saying, “So far safe and sound.”
Then sing hey the freshened battle with the wide chaotic sea,
And sing ho the thumping shafting going round and ever round ;
With a deck that slopes sidles and a tossing stem and stern,
Ho, she fights a ten-knot passage to the land of sin and sand ;
With a clatter a batter and her single screw a-churn,
Oh she tumbled through the ocean in a manner quasi-bland ;
With a sneer for all the breezes blowing in their stormy turn,
Ho, she coils away the distance with a disrespectful hand.

While the person going steerage gets him sick and gets him well,
And begins to face his tucker with a freshened interest,
While the girls aboard get broken to the surging ocean swell,
And begin, to make it gayer going steerage to the West.

O, the grating, ’gainst the deck-house — it could tell a merry tale
Of the kissings under blankets and the huggings in the dark ;
It could prate of errant husbands tightly clasping some female,
But there’s not much chance of sinning on the modern “Noah’s Ark” !
Oh the place is too damn crowded — you can only think your sin,
Or take it out in a cuddle in the dark beneath a rug ;
And there’s little satisfaction in the knowledge that one’s “fin”
May not go a half-inch further, than a tight nib-busting hug !
You must “nark it,” going steerage and soon you begin —
Oh a man must “cheese it,” steerage, and insert the passion plug.

Still the grating and the damsels with the warm, close-pressing lips
Make oases in the desert and lend life a chastened zest,
For a man must play with something when he sails the sea in ships,
And he needs a toy or twenty going steerage to the West !

Oh, he needs some toy to fool with while the hours go loping by ;
Oh, he needs a female plaything while he waits for dinner-time,
When the clatter of the “tinware” and the carving gear a-ply
Drown the rumble of the shafting in a fresher, quicker rhyme.
“Pass, the treacle, damn you, pass it !” “Mustard aft here !” hear them yell,
Grasping briskly at their fodder, grasping at the slopping tea.
Oh, they clatter down the stair-way, when the brazen dinner-bell
Echoes out across the surface of the drunk and stagg’ring sea !
Oh, the stewed steak, and potatoes vanish sudden when its knell
Calls the steerage push to table, as it called last week to me !

They’ve a gong and serviettes forward in the ten-quid-fare saloon,
But the afts-man gets no napkin to protect his lap and vest ;
Still they’re happier aft by long-chalks when the noisy bell at noon
Calls all hands below to tucker going steerage to the West.

They are happy, beastly happy, are the people huddled aft,
They are gladder than the person with the swell fore-cabin berth ;
They are happy and contented, for the Gospel of Grim Graft
Keeps the steerage “reptiles” cheerful on the tossing track to Perth.
They are cheerful on the grating with an arm around a neck,
And they’re cheerful, blasted cheerful, playing euchre down below ;
They make merry, extra-merry, in their concerts on the deck,
Singing common songs and dancing with the stewardess — What Ho !
They are glad and gay and noisy on their graft-pursuiug “trek”—
They are beastly common people, but their blood is in full flow!

They are common — blanky common ; they are blasted proletaire ;
Oh, they wear no buckram collars and they are not masher drest ;
And the women folk are grafters — yea, they do their toiling share ;
For the loafers travel forward, not per steerage to the West !

It is steerage where the hearts are, if the polish goes saloon.
They say “Blanky” in the steerage (it’s “Excuse me” forward, first).
They are somewhat rude and awkward and they seem half-roughly hewn,
As if Sculptor God had left” them and had gone out to soak His thirst.
Oh, they wear their hats, at dinner and are somewhat loud and rough,
Saying “Thank you” with an effort, smoking pipes and not cigars ;
Oh, the steerage crowd is gnarly; they are more than slightly tough —
But they keep creation moving! though they drink in threepe’ny bars.
Oh, the steerge mob is common ; it is graceless, grim, and gruff,
But their hearts are red and royal and their veins are full of stars !

I have said that they are common — theyare sinful and profane,
The crowd who travel aft-wise on the endless dollar quest ;
I have said that they say “Blanky !” and — I say it once again !
Who have landed, freshly landed, coming steerage to the West !

The Sunday Times (Perth, WA), Sunday 21 December 1902, page 12

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