SYDNEY - One of my favourite Australian novels is David Ireland’s ‘The Glass Canoe’. It is set in a mythical suburban West Sydney pub, The Mead, during the 1960s.
It featured the usual cast of misfits, characters and odd balls that seemed to frequent suburban hotels in that era.
The term ‘glass canoe’ referred to a schooner of beer. The regulars would escape the dismal reality of the outside world for the warmth and companionship of the public bar and, once inside, they would slip into a glass canoe and drift off into oblivion.
Naturally the novel contains a lot of swearing and frequent use of Australian slang. Most of the latter I could understand but there was one phrase that completely baffled me.
My quest to find its meaning puzzled me for a long time until the mystery ended in the convivial surroundings of the Boroko Sports Club in Port Moresby many years later.
The phrase in question was used in the novel to describe a well-clothed stranger who walked into The Mead as being “all dressed up like a pox doctor’s clerk.”
The first time I heard the expression, my interest was immediately aroused. What or who was a pox doctor’s clerk, why would he be elegantly adorned and how had this become a very Australian idiom.
The answer, or at least part thereof, came that sunny afternoon at Boroko Sports Club; a haven for those who wanted to have a quiet beer away from prying eyes during working hours.
It was also a hangout for sporting types, being home to the Port Moresby Australian Rules Club, the Magani Rugby League and the Colts cricket team.
The manager of the club, former kiap and politician John Stuntz, drew my attention one day to a gentleman sitting in a corner quietly sipping a beer and asked if I knew him. I didn’t.
John went on to explain that this guy was a genuine pox doctor’s clerk. My interest was piqued. Was my long search over? Could this be the end of my quest?
According to Stuntzi (let’s be informal), this guy was the superintendent of the sexually transmitted diseases clinic at the Port Moresby General Hospital at Taurama.
He was not a doctor but a senior clerk who looked after the interests of the medicos specialising in gonorrhoea, syphilis and other venereal conditions – in other words, a pox doctor’s clerk.
Stuntzi added that the fellow didn’t often come to the club as the enthusiastic nature of Port Moresby’s social scene seemed to keep him very busy catering to what would be a pox doctor’s clerk’s clients.
I must add that my quest was not quite fulfilled as there was nothing special I could discern in the way he was clothed to suggest he was “all dressed up like a pox doctor’s clerk.”
Just the usual short sleeved shirt, shorts and long socks. Perhaps it was accompanied by a tie.
Anyway, it’s been very many years, but my search for meaning continues.
According to Word Wizard, it’s an Australian expression used since around 1870 with a derivation that remains unclear. The best guess is that doctors’ assistants (clerks) dressed flashily but in bad taste and the expression caught on as a disparaging remark. There's further interesting discussion on the idiom here http://www.wordwizard.com/phpbb3/viewtopic.php?t=3669. But it seems Allyn’s quest has some way to go yet - KJ