8th February 2020

I have stumbled upon a delightful, humorous and long-winded article from The Sydney Morning Herald , 24th December, 1898. The vocabulary is wonderful, the sentences are never ending!


By L.C.

” I am suffering from an obsession of buttons. Buttons haunt me and annoy. Not the humble but faithful diminutives of bone and iron that so speak to federalise our everyday garniture  (Ed: a set of decorative accessories) by joining the scattered members together, and making them one complete responsible and serviceable protection. No, these are useful allies, whose value too often we do not sufficiently apprise till at some critical moment – in a ballroom or out at a picnic – we lose one. The offending discs are those glaring, staring, impertinent buttons of brass that stiffly stand sentry at measured distances on the parade ground of cloth popularly called a coat, worn by certain unoffending men in the community. The ire against these inanimate bits of brightness is not without reason when we think of the havoc they play.

‘Good day, Sir,’ I heard some one say as I walked along the street, and turning round I saw a rather shabbily dressed man whom I did not at first recognise. Gradually it dawned on me that this was Jim, whom I had been accustomed to see resplendent in uniform with great brass buttons marching with lofty stride up and down the pavement in front of one of the great city warehouses: It started a train of thought. Uniforms – buttons – the truth of masks – the instability of dignity, on what externals it rests, the trappings of authority, the seductive finery of a coquette. Buttons, mere knobs of gaudy tinsel, yet capable of arousing what folly, of exciting what delirium in susceptible feminine hearts, potent to raise poor human kind to what heights of petty importance!

At his post in the city Jim paced up and down the footpath in front of his warehouse with steady stride and conspicuous importance. His chest was expanded in bold exuberant style, his carriage was easy, and his whole bearing proclaimed that he was someone; that he was filling a mission in the world. He would allow his preambulations to be interrupted occasionally, when he would graciously exchange a word or two with some bewildered stranger who sought guidance in the city, would pass a few words with some friend, or with an air of favour assist a lady into a cab or carriage.

This incident with the accompanying lofty reflections suggested other scenes, and I found my thoughts wandering off to the deck of a steamer that was ploughing her way through the warm air and tranquil waters of the South seas. We had left Noumea, with its fine harbour and its haunting convict associations, not without some knowledge of the peculiarities of social and hotel life in a French colony. The sight of the hordes of dapper Frenchmen in white ducks, (ED: white trousers) grasping white cotton umbrellas, made enough sport for the most exacting, and the rich scenery, tropical vegetation, French cookery, and French customs supplied novelty and interest. When we got fairly to sea once more, life settled down to hours and days of profitable indolence. The warm, moist Trade Wind fanned us as we lounged comfortably in great deck chairs and drank in the sunshine, our thoughts flitting erratically from the page of the favourite volume in our lap to the lazy, heaving sea in front that stretched away to the horizon in shimmering expanse. It was tremendously restful, and lying in your soft, comfortable flannels, you thought, as of a sort of nightmare, of the stiffness of conventional life – of starched shirt fronts, collars, and cuffs, of fixed costume, of the appalling uniform of society functions, of official dress, of the insignia of authority – of buttons. The thought of such things was stupidly incongruous in your then surroundings, but that, I have found, is just the kind of mental impulse that by some perverse law comes to us at such moments, In our fine Australian Christmas days of blazing light and rioting sun people always find their thoughts rushing to scenes in England, where ice and snow and cold crisp weather prevail. Often we never have so strong an inclination to laugh as at some intensely solemn moment, and I suppose that it was the working of the same law that as children made it possible for us when in church to let our thoughts and attention dwell intently on anything else in the world except the sermon and the preacher before us. Thus in accordance with the law of the inopportune, the world of frill and ceremonial thrust itself into unpleasant mental prominence in the midst of situation of delightful abandon. Perhaps it was the atmosphere of Noumea, steeped as it is in officialdom, that was clinging to me. On every hand you met gendarme and officer, and the impression you carried away was that of everlasting uniform, with its aggressive fronting of buttons.

At any other time, or in any other place, you might have dismissed such an unpalatable mental dish, but on shipboard you are at the mercy to some extent of your fellow passengers. At this psychological moment one of them sauntered over to me, and drawing up a chair and filling his pipe opened fire on me with some of his experiences.

My meditations when he arrived on the scene had got to the stage of pious bewailing of the weakness of human nature in allowing buttons (in brass) to exercise on it such a baleful sway, crushing out all that was free, easy, gentle, and natural, converting a man of manners and pliant intelligence into a stiff, stupid official with humorous ideas of the altitude of his station and very abbreviated notions of his duties to others.

My companion seemed to take up the thread of my musings where I had dropped it, for he started to tell me of his recent experience on board a man-o’-war. he has been taken against his will from the island on which he carried on his living as a trader to act as a witness in a case of a European charged with murdering a native. the case was to be tried in Suva, but a direct passage was not made, and his stay in naval quarters was unduly prolonged. I give in outline what he told.

The trader was nearly eight weeks on board the man-o’-war. he never had such a time in his life. he smiles grimly at the recollection. Could not go to bed till 10 p.m. on account of waiting for “Rounds” to be finished. Was compelled to be up at 4:30. Then when on deck it was impossible to get any rest or quiet. First there was the fiend with the hose and the holystone (ED: a block of soft sandstone used for scrubbing decks). In desperation the trader took up a position on one side of the deck. Presently along came a lieutenant, With a gruff, short “By your leave” he was shunted to the opposite side of the deck, very soon another 4ft. 2 in. importance in gilt buttons came along, and, “By your leave” he was once more turned adrift on the deck in the midst of a hundred fussing blue jackets, busily engaged rubbing away invisible dirt from a spotless deck or from shining handrails. refuge was sought between two guns, and here a slight respite was obtained until the fertile brain of someone in command would issue the order “Clean guns.” Then, “By your leave,” the hapless one had to get out.

Occasionally diversion would be given to things by sending the ship at full speed under forced draught. With a fair sea running she would duck into the water at a speed of about 16 knots, bringing copious waves over amidships, and this deluge cheerfully streamed along the deck aft. Past midnight a torpedo attack and defence would be undertaken. The bugle would sound, and all in the ship would rush to quarters. Pandemonium let loose would mildly represent the state of things that occurred for some time. The noble defenders stood to their stations, just in the clothing they were sleeping in, and as some had turned in hastily wearing only a shirt, so to the affrighted stars was given the weird spectacle of the hurrying bare shanks of those dainty exquisites who are wont to add so much colour and dash to the many fashionable balls in the colonial capitals. How dreadful to think of! – How unpoetic to look at!

Powder was brought up from below and served out; the guns loaded and swung clear. The ship kept darting about in a small space. The blinding electric searchlights are set flashing round on the waters, and at length discover the poor canvas dummy that had previously been set adrift to represent the attacking torpedo boat. Blaze, blaze, crack, crack, go the guns, large and small. When his canvas nothingness has been annihilated, and a few thousand pounds worth of powder, shot, and shell consumed,  the order to cease the attack is given. Then about a couple of hours sleep can be got before you are turned out.

After this style did he discourse, as a man with a grievance will. But the narrative produced a change in my previous thoughts. I had lost some of my choler against the men in buttons. I now thought of them as capital aids to diversion, and stalling-off further disclosures from my garrulous and, I fear, some what imaginative friend, sank into slumber to the accompaniment of the muffled boom of distant cannon and the hazy vision of uncased nether limbs shivering at their posts.”

As a reward for ploughing through that, some new finds:

Rex: Not labelled as made in Australia. I’m not sure if this company was a manufacturer or just distributor.

Walker: probably 1960s.

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