What do you think this is—bush week?

by Julia Robinson

From The Farmer and Settler, 13 February 1920. Image: Trove

From The Farmer and Settler, 13 February 1920. Image: Trove

The Bush Week project … is now nearing fruition. … There is to be a living display of the activities and products of every district of the State. Ample space will be provided in Centennial Park. Admission will be free, so that every city child, as well as its parents, will be able to get a glimpse of the wealth-producing industries of that wonderful interior of which all have heard, but which few, probably, have seen. (Queanbeyan Age, 4 July 1919)

The complete programme for ‘Bush Week’, which opens on February 9, is announced. It comprises an industrial street pageant through the city streets on the opening day, a four days’ exhibition in the Sydney Town Hall, displays in the shop windows, and in Martin Place and Moore-street, and a dramatic spectacle of bush life to be held for three days on the Sydney Sports Ground. (Sydney Morning Herald, 3 January 1920)

Souvenir of Bush Week. Image: National Library of Australia

Souvenir of Bush Week. Image: National Library of Australia

The original Bush Week was held in Sydney, February 1920. It was the culmination of a movement that began in the small New South Wales town of Grenfell two years earlier, and had as an ideal ‘to forward the interests of the country districts and the Primary Industries of New South Wales, and to give the city dweller a better knowledge of the man on the land, his difficulties and trials’. (Grenfell Record, 12 February 1918) A kind of educational carnival was envisaged, where exhibitions and displays would both entertain and inform. It proved a success. The window displays and decoration of Farmer’s store especially drew comment:

The George Street corner of this well-known firm was in itself a ‘Bush Week’ exhibition on a scale of magnificence, and the panoramic effects, running the whole length of the corner from George Street, half way up to Market Street, presented a spectacle of brilliancy never before presented to the residents of the city. (Byron Bay Record, 28 February 1920)

Panoramic display above the windows of Farmer's, Bush Week 1920. Image: courtesy of Jim C

Panoramic display above the windows of Farmer’s, Bush Week 1920. Image from the Farmer’s booklet  A Souvenir of ‘Bush Week’, courtesy of Jim Campbell.

Not all bushies were impressed, however, as evidenced by the following: ‘A Gundagai man goes to ‘Bush Week’ in Sydney: “… the whole damn thing is an insult to the bush. The show is evidently managed by ‘bushmen’ who catch rabbits at Victoria Markets and shear sheep in the Domain.” (Gundagai Independent, 16 February 1920)

Bush week was a time when a large number of country people came to the city, and from this developed a figurative use of the term from mid-century onwards. Implicit in the new sense of bush week are the stereotypes of country and city dwellers: the gullible country bumpkin, wide-eyed in the big smoke, and the shrewd city slicker out to take advantage of him. In the following evidence, the farmer is not about to be conned:

imgres-2A Penrith farmer who shared a £75,000 prize in a Tasmanian lottery has been plagued with requests for money. ‘Yesterday, a bloke arrived from Sydney in a taxi. … When I asked him what he wanted, he just said, “A loan of 9,000 quid”. He must have thought it was bush week.’ (Hobart Mercury, 11 September 1954)

The figurative sense is found especially in the idiom ‘what do you think this is, bush week?’, an indignant response to a request, implying that the speaker is being unfairly imposed upon or taken for a (rustic) fool: ‘I get smart alecks like you trying to put one over on me every minute of the day. What do you think this is? Bush Week?’ (L. Glassop, Lucky Palmer,1949)

Another sense of bush week derives from this. An annual bush week is held at some universities in Australia, recorded from the 1960s. It is a period of student festivity, often marked by public pranks:

Someone, or something, has been going around my suburb painting impromptu, unsanctioned pedestrian crossings. … Theories abound as to the reason behind the strange markings. Is it … the work of wily students engaging in a ‘bush week’ prank? (Melbourne Age, Culture Section, 19 February 2003)

The original meaning of bush week has evolved since 1920, but in the town of Moss Vale it may be staging a nostalgic comeback:

Moss Vale’s main street will come alive to the sounds of music as council sets to host all things country as part of March’s upcoming Bush Week Parade. … ‘Residents have told us they enjoyed seeing the parade back after a 40 year hiatus’, Mr Pepping said. (Southern Highland News, 9 March 2015)

Moss Vale Community Garden float in the Bush Week parade, 2015. Image: mossvalecommunitygarden.org.au

Moss Vale Community Garden float in the Bush Week parade, 2015. Image: mossvalecommunitygarden.org.au

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