Breaking Bread: Bob Skelton, bush poet

POET PORTRAIT: Bob Skelton turns life experiences and bush yarns into verse. Picture: Simone De PeakWhen you have lunch with Bob Skelton, you not only get to eat but entertainment is provided. While Iexercise mymouth by chewing, the well-known“bush orator”exercises his by reciting poetry.

No matter the topic of conversation, Skelton can respondin rhyming verse. He figures he’s written about 1000 poems, and dozens of them remain fixed in his memory. He gives me a list ofmore than 50 titlesand urges, “throw one at me”.

With all the talk of mosquitoes lately, I say, “Hexham Greys”. And off he goes:

“…be ready to clear out smartly/If you hear their dreaded drone/They’ll suck the blood right out of your veins/And the marrow from your bone.”

So I dineon Skelton’swords, along with salt and pepper squid.

We’re eating at the historic Minmi Hotel, which is in the old mining town that has been Bob Skelton’s home and muse for almost half a century. From the beer garden, he can see his house just up the hill.

Skeltonfinds poetry in the pub, or, at least, inspiration inthe yarns he hears. Even the pub itself has been shaped into verse.

“If the walls could only speak now/What stories you would hear/Of when the thirsty miners/Washed the coal dust down with beer.”

A copy of “The Good Old Minmi Pub” hangs above the fireplace in the main bar.

He is called a bush poet, but Skelton’s verse frequently wanders out of the trees, down memory lane and along the streets of Minmi. In the process,Skelton has rhymed and recited his way into renown as “The Minmi Magster”.

“Everywhere I go, they know me,” he says. “They don’t know ‘Bob Skelton’, but they know my voice.”

TELLING YARNS: Bush orator Bob Skelton, aka “The Minmi Magster”, at lunch with Scott Bevan. Pictures: Simone De Peak

GROWING upin Waratah, Bob Skelton was not exactly born in the bush. But his home was like a farm, with horses and cows.

“So that was a country life in Waratah,” he says, in abroad n accent, a voice pitch-perfect for a bush poet.

Skelton was born in 1939, about two minutes after his twin brother, Dave –“he’s the quieter one”. Bob isstill very close to his brother, who is a blacksmith, and they perform a show togethercalled Bushies’Smoko.

Dave was nicknamed“Damper” by their father because“he was always needing dough”, and Bob was called“Magster”.

“I got Magster, because Dad would say Damper was better on the tools and I was better at magging (talking),” he chuckles, adding that he believes “magging” is derived from “magniloquent”, which meansusing grand orbombasticlanguage.

Skelton’s father, also Robert, was a blacksmith. The shop was beside the family home. His main client was the BHP steelworks, as he forged and carveddisplayletters and numerals.

“He was always behind with his orders, because he’d knock off to fix a pram for someone, something like that,” he recalls. “He wasn’t a businessman, the old fella.”

Skelton’s father enjoyed reading poetry, especially the work of Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson. He encouraged his boys to read the poems. Whenever customers would come into pay the bills, Mr Skelton would say to his sons, “Righto, give these people a poem”, and Bob and Dave would burst into verse.

Young Bob liked those poems. They transported him to other places.

“That was your escape,” he explains. When you did “The Man from Snowy River”, you were out there. That took you out there. You visualised it. Now, of course, you’ve got DVDs.”

He had a crack at writing his own poetry. Fired up by a copy of Frank Clune’s book about bushrangers,Wild Colonial Boys, which his father had givenhim, Skelton penned a poem about Ben Hall, but “that’s been lost in the woodwork”.

Asked if he can still see in his mind’s eye his father’s blacksmith’s shop, Bob Skelton smiles and recites a poem he created from his boyhood memories.

“…I see the hand-hewn hardwood posts/The old bellows that made the fire roar/And the rusty roof that leaked and dripped/Shallow pools on the rough flagstone floor…”

Robert Skelton didn’t just instila love of the bush through words. He had a hut out the back of Clarencetown then later bought a property on the banks of the Karuah River. He would take his boys out in the bush, whichBob loved, having the chance to “boil the billy with Dad”.

Bob Skelton at the recent Best in the West Classic Car and Bike Show in West Wallsend. Picture: Simone De Peak

When he was still at school, Bob had a weekend job on the Karuah River punt, ferrying people across the water:“I met a lot of locals and got a lot of yarns on the old punt in those days.”

Skelton says he was average at school –“I was looking out the window all the bloody time, wanting to get out there” –and managed to leave just before he turned 15, when he was offered an apprenticeship as a plasterer.

After a time, he began his own plastering business, often restoring the region’s historic buildings. Heremained “on the trowel” for 50 years, until he retired.

From the time he left school, poetry drifted away. Bob was too busy for verse, with his joband then his home life, once hemet his future wife, Kay.

In 1965, he was doing a job at the Steggles chicken factory and was looking at the women on the production line. They were wearing aprons with numbers on them.

“The only one who would smile at me was Kay,” he recalls.

“What number was she wearing?”

“Oh, gee, I forget! Seven, I think it was. So I went back and had a look at their names on the card. So I was able to say, ‘How are you going today, Kay?’.”

They were married in 1966. I ask if he has ever written a love poem for Kay.

“Oh, yeah, I did put one together one time,” Bobreplies, then he launches into it.

“… the greatest love, the love of loves, even greater than that of a mother/Is the tender, passionate, infinite love of the Magster and Kay for each other.”

BUSH SETTING: Bob Skelton and Scott Bevan in the beer garden of the Minmi Hotel, just down the hill from the poet’s house. Picture: Simone De Peak

He and Kay (“we call her ‘Mrs Magster’ these days”) have four adult children, includingtwin daughters. It was the imminent arrival of the twins in 1969 that tookBob to Minmi. He was driving throughthe town, on theway to Tarro from his home atBoolaroo.

“At the time, you couldn’t breathe the bloody air out there at Boolaroo. If you took a deep breath, it’d cut you. I said, ‘I’m not bringing the girls back here’.”

As fate would have it, he saw a “For Sale” sign on the old Minmi school. He bought the property, moved his young family into the schoolmaster’s house, and was quickly seduced by the rustic, and rusting,charm of Minmi, whose boom days had long moved on.

“It wasall rusty roofs and old shacks falling down,” Skelton says. “It was a ghost town”.

But it was perfect for nurturing a bush poet. The town was still home to characters, especially retired miners who swappedyarns in the pub.After years of listening to theirstories, Bob eventually picked up his pen and began scribbling. He was particularly taken by a story about a calf being fed stale beer to fatten it up. Butit was given too much. Inspired, Bob wrote “The Tale of the Drunken Cow”.

“You get the bug, and you can’t help yourself,” he says. “Then you’re walking aroundand instead of concentrating on your job, you’re thinking, ‘What rhymes with this?’.”

Yet he realised it wasn’t enough to write poetry. He had to recite it. And that scared him: “I was good around the campfire, and all that, but in front of an audience? I wasn’t a public speaker.”

Portrait of Bob Skelton, taken by Simone De Peak in 2013

Skelton joined a Poetry in the Pub group at Maitland, gained his confidence, and entered a major bush poetry competition, the Mallee Root, and won a prize. Then “Macca” called, inviting him onto his “ All Over” radio show. After that, the phone kept ringing with invitations to perform.

The Minmi Magsterhad found his rhythm and voice:“I enjoy performing the poetry. I always say, especially with bush poetry, if you show it to people, they’ll look at it and say, ‘Yeah, that’s alright’ and give it back to you. But youramit down their throat when you start reciting it, don’t you? You get their attention!”

Skeltonhas released eight books of poetry, recorded CDs, and now does a spot with a country music tribute band. The poetsays he’s slowed down with his writing –“One time, I was doing one every bloody week” – but when an ideagrabs him, he jotsit downstraight away. He’s recently written a slightly bawdy poem about Barnaby Joyce, which he recites over the table.

“I can write poems as good as ever I could, if I put my mind to it,” he says. “But remembering them is harder. One time I could write them down, read them a couple of times, and I’d know them. Now I’ve got to work on it.”

Bob Skelton intends to keep writing and performing. Poetry has taken him around , even to the United States, and his words have introduced him to so many people and made him many friends. More than providing entertainment, he relishestelling the stories about us as a nation.

“It’s trying to hold onto na and our culture,” Skelton explains. “It’s all part of our culture and tradition.”

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