By Mark Butler*

FARRAGO 9 – Waterman: A Picaresque Tale of Old Sydney

I HAVE always wanted to write something to live up (or down)  to that headline which, throughout my many years as  a newspaper subeditor never lost its place as one of the top five banned hackneyed puns, so i hope this makes the grade.

The book in question is a novel, written by me, entitled Waterman: A Picaresque Tale of Old Sydney, a mock-heroic, comic take on colonial Sydney set 50 years after the first fleet’s arrival. It seen for the most part through the eyes and adventures of a new chum from London sent out by his parents to track down his errant uncle, a former highwayman transported as a convict who has gone bush with bags of stolen Spanish gold and two indigenous offsiders, and has been swallowed up by the Hunter Valley.

Along the way, and often at crucial moments, this ingenue, Jonathan Penn, encounters notorious Sydney street character and also the town’s sole ferryman to the north shore, one Billy Blue, whose mysterious ways assist Penn in his quest and draw him into his orbit.

Waterman is an old-fashioned shaggy-dog tale, as defined by Wikipedia: “an extremely long-winded anecdote characterised by extensive narration of typically irrelevant incidents and terminated by an anticlimax”.

To add to the fun I strive to capture some of the rollicking, bawdy spirit of seminal English novelists Henry Fielding, Daniel Defoe and Laurence Sterne in my telling of the tale. I also play fast and loose with historical chronology and fact, creating my own version of characters such as George Howe, Alexander Berry, Samuel Marsden, Mary Reiby, Lachlan Macquarie, Solomon Wiseman and most notably Alexander Harris, the pseudonym of the “emigrant mechanic” author of Settlers and Convicts, a firsthand account of the colony at this period 1810-1840, one of our historical ur-texts.

The driving force behind the novel was my desire to write about Blue, who is my six-times great-grandfather on my mother’s side, in a direct line from his first-born child Susannah. He was born circa 1745 in Jamaica, New York, to a slave woman of African descent (confirmed by my DNA test, which revealed 4% comes from Mali and the Ivory Coast of Africa).

The details of his life thereafter are somewhat hazy and fraught with conjecture, but suffice to say that the consensus is he was freed in his 30s and fought as a scout for the British in the American War of Independence, and also fought in the battle for Quebec and on the Continent before being decommissioned and washing up in London, where he plied his trade as a waterman and as a petty and not so petty thief, which led to his transportation to Sydney in 1801. 

Then everything changed for him, for soon he was married and had children, and eighteen years later he was operating a fleet of ferries between what is now Blues Point and Dawes Point, and was known affectionately by most as the Old Commodore, a nickname bestowed on him by governor Macquarie, whose wife and sickly son Blue had often been seen rowing about the harbour. He also had been granted Blues Point and the land behind it, where he had built his villa, Northampton Farm, thereby becoming the first non-indigenous resident of the north shore. By any measure, a man to be reckoned with.

But as a black man, a former slave and ex-convict, Blue was automatically suspect in the eyes of many in the colony, and there is no doubt he was a rogue and a criminal.

His inn at Blues Point was notorious as a hang-out for escaped convicts and as a centre for illegal trade in spirits and other contraband.

Blue’s solution was to flip the switch to vaudeville, taking to the streets to sell his oysters and other wares, yelling out such imprecations as “Go well, children”, and “True blue!”. Wearing a sad parody of a naval uniform he boarded ships that had newly entered the harbour, demanding he be treated as the Old Commodore. 

When confronted by outraged colonials, he might tap his nose and say conspiratorially, “Don’t mention the pig”, a phrase that haunts me.

However, these bare facts of his life hardly make a biography, so I sought to incorporate the known, the supposed and some invented facts into a broader narrative that explores the dynamics of life in a penal colony made rich by slave labour and built on the dispossession of the indigenous population. I saw Billy, as an ex-slave, to be a perfect prism through which  to refract such dynamics.

I had been thinking about such a book for forty years, and while I had no narrative handle, I continued researching, reading, thinking. Then in 2019, no doubt spurred by a birthday diagnosis of prostate cancer, Penn appeared to me, and once I had imagined him and his quest, the novel wrote itself, taking over and inventing characters and incidents along the way; indeed, it was the most enjoyable writing experience of my life.

I knew all the key points in Blue’s life; all I had to do was to ensure the narrative touched on each of them, and getting there was a large part of the fun.

Does that mean Waterman is any good? Of course not, but it gives me confidence that it might very well be. And my forty-plus years in print media, which included stints as an ms assessor, editor and publisher, tell me it is as good as anything else on the market. As well, my two close readers, both of whom would see it as their sacred duty to tell me if I had delivered a steaming pile of horseshit, enthusiastically approved. One said, “It’s not about Billy at all!”, which was sweet music to my ears. 

But so what? My experience working in publishing also tells me that the chances of an unsolicited ms getting through to somebody in a regular publishing house who could green-light it are slim. Unless, of course, you have an agent or know someone (or are fucking someone) in publishing, or know someone (or are fucking someone) who knows someone in publishing, who owes you a favour.

As none of these apply to me, and as my mental health is best served by not opening myself up for continuous rejection, I thought to myself, “Hey, I am a publisher. I can publish it myself.” The point being that, having written the book, all I needed to do was make it available to those who may wish to read it. 

I knew there would be a small audience for my book, perhaps a thousand or so, so all I needed to do was find an inexpensive way to publish it myself. So I turned to Kindle Direct Print, part of the Amazon empire, which offered me a free way to publish it as an e-book and rake in 80% of the cover price. As KDP is also a print-on-demand operation, I can also make it available as a paperback. It is that easy. (And no, this is not paid content.)

Even if a regular publisher did take on my book, I reasoned, it would probably be two years or so before it was on shelves, and as I’m 75, maybe I don’t have the time. And while it would probably sell about the same number of copies as an online edition, I receive most of the cover price of the online or POD editions, a much better deal. 

As for the illusory cachet of being published by one of the big houses, any dreams I may have had of literary fame and fortune going down that path died many years ago. I just wanted my book to be out there, available to anyone who searches for “Billy Blue”, and it is.

If readers respond, buy it and like it, even better. The book exists outside all that, as it should.

Here it is (if you have read this far, believe me, you will love it):

* *Mark Butler is a poet and songwriter who made his living for 40 years as a man of letters, a publisher, editor and journalist.
This is the ninth in an occasional series of articles by contributing authors under the general title of FARRAGO.
The first FARRAGO, also written by Mark Butler, was a tribute to the Australian poet John Tranter.
Mark also contributed the several other FARRAGO iterations: Spoiled Sports, a caustic look at the cancer that is sports betting; Smoke Signals, a look at the perils – and pleasures – of tobacco; and Death of a nobody, a sad tale of the passing of Warren, a “benign, permanently shitfaced presence” in his small town and The bloke downstairs, a survival tale of life in a toxic media organisation. This was followed No batteries required, a tale of the life and times of a small town book nook.
Mark’s most recent FARRAGO was his seventh, The Bobster abides a review of sorts of Greil Marcus’ Folk Music: A Bob Dylan Biography In Seven Songs.