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Thumbnail Dipped in Tar

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  • The term “a thumbnail dipped in tar” is taken from one of the best known poems by Andrew Barton (“Banjo”) Patterson (1864 – 1941), who is famous as one of Australia’s early “bush poets”.

    The poem “Clancy of the Overflow” is about the life of an itinerant Australian sheep shearer, and begins “I had written him a letter …”.

    Further on, it continues…

    “And an answer came directed in a writing unexpected,
    (And I think the same was written in a thumbnail dipped in tar)
    ‘Twas his shearing mate who wrote it, and …. ”

    The point is that the reply was written in a shearing shed, where there was always a pot of tar to brush onto any nicks or cuts on the sheep as a result of the shearing. One can (or, at least I can) just imagine an outback shearer dipping his thumbnail into the tar and scratching out “Clancy’s gone to Queensland droving, and we don’t know where he are”.

    If you have a moment to spare, the poem “Clancy of the Overflow” is readily available on the internet, and well worth a few minutes – it compares the life of Clancy, the shearer, to that of the author, a city dweller.

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