How busy?

‘Busy as a copper at a mongoose conference’.  So said Paddy Crumlin, head of the Maritime Union of Australia, assuring an ABC reporter the other day that his boys were that busy down on the docks, in contrast to the picture of go-slow slackers holding up vital supplies to a locked-down nation as alleged by the bosses at Patrick, who Paddy went on to describe as being so mean they ‘make Donald Trump look like Mother Teresa’.     

You would expect an old wharfie to have a colorful turn of phrase.  But if you’ll forgive me for saying so, Paddy, these efforts fall short of the high standard of humour and inventiveness that marks old-style Aussie slang, of which I’ve been a lifelong student and collector.

Paddy was so pleased with his two witticisms that he used them each twice, in two separate interviews on ABC Radio.  The Donald Trump/Mother Teresa crack was okay, but it’s no stretch.  It’s the kind of easy exaggerated comparison all armchair satirists go in for these days. 

As for being ‘as busy as a copper at a mongoose conference’, my first thought was ‘that’s a new one on me – how did I miss it?’ My second thought was ‘why would a copper be busy at a mongoose convention?’ So I googled to see if there was any reference to it anywhere, and all I could come up with was ‘busier than a cobra at a mongoose convention’ on an American website.   Aha!  Further googling informed me that mongooses prey on snakes, so a mongoose at a cobra convention might indeed be very busy. 

Busy mongooses but only one cobra

Maybe that’s what Paddy meant to say, and mistook ‘cobra’ for ‘copper’.  Or maybe that was me.  But at least one journo friend of mine who heard the interview also heard it as ‘copper’, which you would in Australia, where we don’t have mongooses or cobras. 

And there were so many more suitable sayings that Paddy could have used.  That American website had 65 altogether, including these:  

‘Busy as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs’, ‘busy as a one-armed taxi-driver with crabs’ and ‘busy as a one-armed paperhanger with hives’.

They do exist.

I had thought all of these were native Australianisms.  Perhaps they are; perhaps the yanks have culturally appropriated them.  But even if not, some could easily be modified to sound Australian.  So, turn ‘mosquito’ into ‘mozzie’, and ‘butt’ into ‘arse’ and you’ve got:   

‘Busy as a one-legged man in an arse-kicking contest’ and ‘busy as a mozzie on a nudist beach’.

Note that the best of them have that touch of naughtiness.  Like this one, of which I hadn’t previously heard but I like the sound of: ‘Busier than a blind man at a striptease’.  I confess I don’t fully understand it – is it to do with the use of Braille perhaps?  Feel free to destroy my innocence in the comments section below. 

The gold standard of course is the certifiably home-grown zinger.  Older readers will remember the name Robert Trimbole – the Australian drug baron who spent his last years zapping about the globe staying one step ahead of the law.  Before the Grim Reaper carried him off you might hear ‘Busy? I’m as busy as Trimbole’s travel agent’.

That was nicely topical at the time, but probably hasn’t got much life left in it. That’s always going to be the problem with new coinages that arise from current events. So lately I’ve heard ‘busy as a coronavirus on a cruise ship’ (and ditto ‘in a nursing-home’) which is pungently timely but may not outlast the pandemic.

It might also fall afoul of the ‘too soon’ rule. How soon are you allowed to make even mildly humorous jokes about an event that for many people is no laughing matter?

It was Mark Twain who observed that comedy is tragedy plus time. Perhaps to that equation we should add ‘distance’. During the Lebanese civil war of the 1980s you often heard ‘busy as a one-armed brickie in Beirut’. It faded from use with the passage of time, and a new variant arose in the 1990s and early 2000s when Baghdad replaced Beirut as the archetypal bombed-out city reduced to rubble, and as the locus of employment for our proverbially busy one-armed bricklayer.

Beirut after the blast

The ‘too soon’ rule didn’t seem to apply then, but it does now, I think. And social media has shrunk distances. Beirut is back in public consciousness since that devastating explosion on the docks, but I doubt we’ll be hearing about our one-armed brickie for a while yet. It’s both too soon and too close.