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‘Epitome of the free spirit’: ‘Clancy descendant’ dies in Paris from COVID-19

The grief spread through the continents he called home since leaving Melbourne in the 1950s – Asia, Europe and South America, where he eked an existence “off the smell of an oily rag” through revolutions, beatings from police and cultural upheavals.

If old Tom Clancy was Banjo Paterson’s symbol of freedom in his 1889 poem, then the drover’s grandson was the family’s worldly 20th century successor.

Thomas Clancy with his daughter Annie, who was Gerald Taylor's mother. According to family lore, Thomas was the inspiration behind Banjo Paterson's Clancy of The Overflow.

Thomas Clancy with his daughter Annie, who was Gerald Taylor’s mother. According to family lore, Thomas was the inspiration behind Banjo Paterson’s Clancy of The Overflow.

“He was the epitome of the free spirit,” says Mr Taylor’s nephew, author and artist Antoni Jach.

“He was a good role model in that way, in terms of you don’t just have to get a steady job and do that forever. You can just follow your whims.”

Born in Melbourne in 1933, Mr Taylor found refuge from his austere Anzac father and the rigid expectations of schools (plural because he was regularly expelled) in the world of words.

His bedside table as a teenager, his family says, was a mess of language guides, the contents of which he practised on the street by bailing up migrant workers.

Examiners at Xavier College, more tolerant of his caprices, were so astounded at his grasp of local colloquialisms they believed he must have lived in the countries of study. In reality, he had been slipping underage into the Young and Jacksons pub in Melbourne’s CBD.

For all his love of language and formidable intellect, Mr Taylor failed high school English, a fact that mystified him into old age. The blip meant he could not sign the matriculation roll into Melbourne University so, instead, he took his first leap outside a then-sleepy city.

“Gerald said to me on a number of occasions, ‘You couldn’t believe how boring Melbourne was in the 50s’. And he just longed to escape,” another nephew, Andrew Taylor, tells The Sunday Age.

“I don’t think Melbourne, even today, could give him what the rest of the world could give him; what Asia could give him, what Europe could give him, what South America could give him. He inhabited all those continents and made so many connections.”

A young Gerald Taylor on the road.

A young Gerald Taylor on the road.

Mr Taylor eventually turned his passions into income by teaching at the famous and ancient Sorbonne in Paris. By his death on April 1, he could speak as many as 40 languages, friends would say, and was a world-renowned philologist and linguist with books and breakthroughs still to publish.

“He was curious about people. He loved people. And the way to get to know people was to converse in their language,” Mr Jach says.

Andrew Taylor, the nephew, would often stay in Paris with his uncle and remembers him sitting late into the night watching old movies in Hindi, Mandarin, Bengali and Tamil.

Those days entailed talking to people on the streets and parties with academics vying to outdo each another with tales of globetrotting derring-do.

Mr Taylor last visited Melbourne over Christmas, when he became gravely ill with gallstones.

At the Frankston Hospital he spoke Malayalam with nurses from the Kerala region of southern India, the nephews say.

One night he spoke Mandarin to a Chinese doctor. It turned out she was from southern China, so he switched to Cantonese.

His last conversations in the Paris hospital were in the native Turkish of his nurses.

He was, naturally, proud of his putative Clancy of The Overflow ancestry, the family says.

Banjo Paterson maintained the character was a composite, but the family holds it was, at least in part, inspired by Mr Taylor’s grandfather, Thomas Clancy.

The family story goes that Paterson came upon the name in a small newspaper brief recording that a “Clancy” was about to drive a record number of cattle from a station called “The Overflow”.

As recorded in Grantlee Kieza’s 2018 history Banjo, Tom Clancy claimed to have once driven a “tremendous herd” from The Overflow, near Nymagee in central NSW.

Kieza also cites Clancy’s diary entry from September 29, 1882 which places him with a mob of sheep at the Lachlan River, where the narrator of the poem said he met Clancy “years ago”.

Thomas Clancy's will signed by Banjo Paterson.

Thomas Clancy’s will signed by Banjo Paterson.

Other families have made claims over the years, including descendants of Tom’s brother, John Clancy, who did for a time actually work at a station called The Overflow.

Mr Jach says the connections are tantalising but, ultimately, the specifics are “not so important”. The mystery is part of the fun. Part of the legend.

“Banjo Paterson was quoted as saying that he wanted a particular type. Clancy stands as that particular type – reckless, independent, strong, courageous,” Mr Jach says.

Kieza comes to the same conclusion, adding some of the literary Clancy may have been from Paterson’s own late father.

Whatever the case, Thomas Clancy struck up a correspondence with the famous balladeer and the family still has his will signed by the Sydney solicitor, A.B Paterson.

Clancy also wrote his own poem, a counter to the romantic drover’s life depicted by Paterson. Clancy’s riposte talks of “drought-scourged plains extended” and “stock in hundreds dying, along the road are lying”.

Mr Taylor could recite his grandfather’s verses by heart. One of them reads:

Then a roving fancy took me,

Which has never since forsook me,

And decided me to travel,

And leave the Overflow.

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