I was first exposed to the mysterious and silent language of “Tin Badgery” at the tender age of not much, and well before I had any wits about me. Maybe 7 or 8 years old. When my parents were away for a long weekend or if they were completely sick of me asking too many questions or getting my hands caught in the Sunbeam mix master (both hands, so I couldn’t reach the off switch), or dismantling my bedside lamp whilst it was still plugged in (that idea sent me across the room, flying without a permit), they would simply ship me off to the Dales, to stay with my aunt Maire, uncle Kevin, and 8 cousins of descending ages, of whom most were a lot older than myself. I was a big fish in our own pond of 5 kids, but at the Dales, I was, along with youngest cousin Johanna (“Boe”), by far the smallest fish in their very large pond. Some of my elder cousins held me up and out by the legs and l remember trying, upside down, to take a swing at their knees. Whilst some of my cousins were studying for their secondary school final year exams, I was not long out of finger-painting. The kids in our family (there were only 4 of us then) were generally separated and sent to various cousin households, to spread the burden, and I don’t say that lightly, as sending all of us to one location was like sanctioning Vikings to invade a small country. As a collective we were marauders and looters. Pilferers and pillagers. Just a little bit excited and out of control. And not to be dismissed just because we were short. I remember pulling rows of books out of bookcases as we ransacked rooms at will. On the other hand, as individual assailants, we were just tolerable and tactically in the minority, and that is why I stayed at the Dales on my own on this occasion. I was looking forward to climbing up into the tree-house my cousins had built high up in a tree in the front yard (from which my brother had once fallen out of and broken his arm) and perhaps a barefoot billy-cart derby down the street. The Dales had a very sophisticated series of homemade carts that traveled only inches off the pavement and were linked by rope, and when the carts took a steep footpath corner at speed, the rear carriage invariably “whipped” and spilled out onto the grass nature strip, and sometimes into the gutter, which was great fun but requiring antiseptic cream and the odd bandage. Hands, elbows, knees, toes – if you hadn’t lost skin on all of these then you were missing out on all the fun.
As it turned out on this occasion, being in this enormous house with lots of enormous people, I transformed from a noisy little warmonger into a young boy possessing very little visibility. The Dale household was an ever-morphing organism with an open front door and people constantly appearing and vanishing, and there seemed to be an extra few people living there that I had never met (and perhaps no-one else had either). There must have been times when the question was asked if anyone actually knew the person sitting opposite them, as they looked familiar and but it was unclear what their connection to the family was. I remember my cousin Peter bumping into me in the hallway outside the TV room and saying “I keep spotting you, it looks like you might be actually staying here!” But it was only after you turned up for 2-3 consecutive meals in a row that anyone could really be certain.
And this brings us to the dining room, where the “Tin Badgery” code was implemented whenever necessary.
The dining room was the nucleus of the household. It was a large space separated from the lounge by double glass-pane doors, and a perpetually swinging door to the kitchen, from which large pots of stews and endless bubbling soups continually appeared out of. Everything seemed to have diced carrots in it. And you could count on cakes and pastries – you never had to check on what was on the stove or in the oven, you just knew lots of food was coming. It was food for the masses, and prepared by a cook who spoke mostly in a foreign tongue – French from memory – which was too much for me as I was still grappling with English. The dining room table was the biggest I have ever seen, could easy seat 12 people, and was a tapestry of spread out newspapers and tomes of knowledge. There was always a full pot of hot fresh coffee in the middle of the table and its relaxing aroma greeted you warmly and invited you open up your mind. The table casually populated itself, as there were no set times to eat or congregate. People filtered in and out, reading whatever newspaper article that happened to be open in front of them, and more importantly, discussing at length all important world issues of the day. Issues were raised, dissected, debated with humor, only ever partially solved, and then parked for later analysis. Every story espoused seemed to have little additional side stories attached to them, and in a roomful of story hijackers, the conversation meandered like the Mississippi. I didn’t understand any of it, being a very young person and unconditionally illiterate, but I was skilled enough to listen intently, laugh with them all at the right moments, and repeat punchlines in delight to feign some level of understanding.
But as the invisible boy, and only recently verified as a “stayer”, I felt a need to make an impression and when I finally had a chance to speak at the table, I just rambled on with whatever came into my head. I do not remember what the topic was and but I do remember vividly what happened next.
What I had said probably made no sense at all and had very little factual standing. Those listening around the table held their composure, but began lightly touching and twisting the lapels on their shirts and jackets. I had no idea what was going on. Everyone at the table joined in. Just a gentle tug at the lapel, not too obvious on its own, but very obvious when in unison with everyone else. No winking, or smirking, no chortling or coughing, just some very tidy lapel handiwork. I felt the dynamic of the room alter, but I had no idea what had just happened.
It was quite some time later that I found out that I had been “Tin Badgered”.
Now way back in the late 1940’s or early 1950’s, Flinders street station, located in the very centre of Melbourne, was possibly the busiest place in town. The train platforms were jammed with folk in overcoats and hats, and there were plenty of vendors selling tobacco, food, newspapers and sweets. There were even vending machines back then, that dispensed cigarettes, chewing gum, and novelty items, and this is where “Tin Badgery” came to life.
My uncle Kevin and his mate Dan Cullen, both city lawyers, found themselves on one of the station platforms with a bit of spare time on their hands one night after work, having missed their train, which train travelers often do. They took to examining the contents of the vending machines. As I understand it, there was a machine that dispensed tin badges, and you could impress your own wordage on it by rotating a dial to each desired letter and then pulling a lever, which would punch and indent each letter onto a thin metal strip, which presumably you could then adhere to the tin badge.
Kevin and Dan thought this was a terrific technological advancement, and one with countless applications. After considering some of these applications, they settled on minting a tin badge suitably inscribed with the word “Bullshit” on it. Their plan was to place the badge neatly behind the lapel of their overcoats, hidden from view, but cocked and loaded, just waiting for an unsuspecting bullshit artist.
Just a twist of the lapel, message sent. No need for a verbal reply, simply flash the badge.
And so the vending machine was put to work. Dials and levers were dialed and levered, with letters painstakingly punched into thin metal, formulating their chosen word. All was going well until the machine suddenly stopped indenting. The metal strip had reached the end of its roll and only the word “Bull” dropped out into the dispensing tray. This half completed offering was quite correctly interpreted by Kevin and Dan as an irrefutable act of state censorship, the likes of which they had never seen before! They were not aware of any other censored mechanical machines on the planet. And they weren’t sure if they liked the idea of having the “Bull” without the “shit”. The “shit” was the main part. Without the “shit”, the tin badge was a missile without the pointy bit, a pop-gun without any pop, and it just wasn’t going to be the same.
As a result, I don’t know if the censored and greatly subdued “Bull” tin badge was ever actually pinned behind a lapel and successful deployed, but the story became family folklore, and was often retold at the dining room table, but of course never embellished, as this would, in itself, have drawn a lot of silent lapel twisting from those listening.
I cannot remember the content of my story told at the Dales dining room table in between the soup and stews and amongst the spread out newspapers, but if you have read any of my other blog posts, you will know that whatever I was talking about was inflated, extruded, Edward Scissor-handed, plastic surgeon-ed, and re-fashioned beyond recognition, so the tin badgering I received on that day was totally fair.
The old tin badge machine is now long gone, its dials, levers and rolls of aluminum strip dutifully consigned to station platform vending machine history. Kevin and Maire have both passed away as well, they were unforgettable and highly entertaining characters, and the memories of staying at Carson Street with cousins (in order) Dominie, Mike, Christopher, Rebecca, Peter, Greg, Leo, and Johanna are still vivid and treasured. They have a lot of family stories (with little side stories attached to them) and it is great to re-live these whenever we catch up at family gatherings. And sorry about the emptied bookcases and trashed rooms, I could say that it was my other siblings that did all the ransacking, but it was exactly that kind of talk that exposed me to Tin Badgery in the first place.