Years ago, not long after I started my first full-time job as a journalist, my boss dropped an expression into the conversation that I’d never heard before: “Snowy on the tram”.
He used it in the sense of “even Snowy on the tram” has heard that, or knows that. I imagined Snowy as a not particularly well informed individual, spending most of his time, as he did, in transit. He’s kind of an average fella, and not especially bright or curious.
In this sense he’s a bit like Blind Freddy, Fred Nerk, Joe Blow, Joe Bloggs, Joe Average, or John Citizen. He doesn’t ask many questions. So for Snowy on the Tram to know something, it must be pretty damn obvious, or have been widely promulgated.
Recently I asked the Macquarie Dictionary whether there was any reference to Snowy in their records.
The answer was affirmative: researcher Susan Butler found some evidence that Snowy on the Tram is (or was) a Melbourne term for “the average bloke”.
There was this reference from the Sporting Globe (Melbourne, Vic. : 1922–1954) Wednesday May 4, 1949 p.12 article:
“Those who won the distance events at Stawell this year, also had to survive the fight. Everyone, except ‘Snowy’ on the Ballarat tram, saw one runner deliberately punch another man and effectively ruin the victim’s chances of winning a Stawell mile. The crudity of the act must have blinded officials. There was a time when scientific elbowing in packed distance fields was an accepted fact. It was cleverly done and …”
And this from the Sporting Globe (Melbourne, Vic. : 1922–1954) Saturday, January 6, 1951 p.10 article:
“But when the Austral comes around even ‘Snowy’ on the trams knows there’s something big going on. Public interest responds to that magical name – Austral. There’s a wealth of tradition behind the race. Inaugurated in 1886 as an amateur event it become a professional event in 1890.”
In 1984 there was a horse called Snowy on the Tram that enjoyed a measure of success.
But since then, nothing.
On this most Australian of days I’m calling on my fellow Melburnians to bring back into use this charming expression. Next time the conversation takes a turn where you feel the need to reference Blind Freddy or Joe Blow, name-check old Snowy on the tram instead.
Thanks to Macquarie Dictionary for the generous help in researching the term, and to Andrew Johnstone for introducing me to it in 1994.