Hear ye, Hear ye!: In conversation with Graham Keating

What exactly does a town crier do in 2021?

Art by Angela Xu

If I asked you to imagine a town crier, you would conjure a Medieval-esque image. A British man proclaiming feudal titles and taxation schemes, his face covered with a long scroll of parchment, his audience a host of disgruntled, illiterate citizens. Town crying was a radio in an ancient world where print media was light-years away and education a privilege only afforded to the nobility. 

Considering the extent of technological developments since then, it appears the need for a town crier has dissolved just like the structures of feudalism itself. Unbeknownst to many, a dedicated guild on Australian soil keeps the town crier memory alive and aims to revolutionise its role to cater to modern audiences.

I spoke to Graham Keating, the town crier currently employed by the City of Sydney to perform civic duties. Keating, a lover of his craft and a five-time Town Crier World Champion, discussed the crucial modernisation of his role, his approach to political sensitivity and his desire to garner public interest in the venerable art consigned to Medieval caricatures. 

Ariana Haghighi: Could you tell our audience about your career path that led to the unique role of town crying?

Graham Keating: I got into theatre and the ABC. Then, I got involved with a theme park called Old Sydney Town (which no longer operates) and became the entertainment producer. When their resident town crier went away, I fell into the role. I became the official town crier for the City of Sydney in 1976, and have travelled overseas and participated in competitions since. I am really thrilled at being a town crier because you are engaging with the people so strongly.

AH: What does modern town crying entail, and how is it different from the Medieval form?

GK: In feudal times, the town crier was employed by the Lord of the manor. As most people could not read, the town crier’s role was to impart messages and be the government’s voice. I was instead appointed by the Council as indeed are all town criers. The main reason for the town crier’s existence [now] is to promote tourism and encourage people to come to the village or town. Each town crier extols the virtues of their particular community. All town criers’ uniforms or costumes actually reflect the village they represent in terms of colour or symbolic references. Now, town crying is also more theatrical and a form of entertainment. You perform at certain ceremonies such as the Olympics, and it has to be dynamic — almost epic. You’re not just talking to the audience in front of you, your town crying echoes the annals of time. 

AH: How do you think town crying has changed during your work?

GK: I began town crying in 1975. There is a growing awareness of our multiculturalism and harmony. The purpose of town crying is to further the bonds of friendship and understanding between nations and people. A town crier needs to be aware of the nature of the audience to whom they are performing. I find this pertinent when I perform at citizenship ceremonies. A town crier nowadays has to rise above their original colonial image. In Australia, many recognise colonisation as a form of invasion, so one has to be quite sensitive about how they appear. I perform a lot with Aboriginal people and they call me ‘brother.’ Also, I have cried in Japanese and in Polish so there is an international dimension now. You have to be a sympathetic citizen of the world.

AH: Some may believe your role is a vestige of British colonialism. How would you respond?

GK: I can understand that, believe you me I’ve encountered that. In Malaysia, I have to play an Australian stockman role as they do not want the image of British imperialism. The way I am able to cope with controversy and to transform it is by emphasising the fact that criers are aware of the needs of modern Australians. We acknowledge a multicultural society. We cry with phrases from different languages. I am also associated with Aboriginal dance troupes and perform at smoking ceremonies to present Aboriginal elders. What is key is acknowledging the Indigenous land on which we stand, and elders past, present and emerging. So you behave in a way that is contrary to how the colonists would have to the Aboriginal populace and counteract their attitudes by being genuinely harmonious. 

AH: Why do you think town crying is becoming more popular in Australia?

GK: Town criers are theatrical people and it is a functional role. Whenever there is a festival, the town crier will lead the parade. It is also very dignified as it is very ceremonial. It is also entertaining- one of your greatest joys as a performer is to see the instantaneous joy in the audience. It is a very rewarding profession as you get the instant satisfaction of knowing you are making people happy. 

AH: What is one thing you would like the general public to know about your role?

GK: That we are here to serve. It is an honourable and ancient occupation. Town criers date back to the Grecian wars. I would like people to realise that the town crier is the servant to the community, even with their theatrical presence. Their duty is to serve, promote and extol. With an office of duty comes a certain kind of responsibility. There is a responsibility to do a lot of work for charity, and being involved with the homeless and those less fortunate than you. You have a duty of care for society, and I mean that very sincerely. 

The Honourable Australian Guild of Town Criers formed in 1989 boasts crying aficionados from countless Councils. They are always keen for apprentices. Like Keating, you may encounter the chance to represent soccer star Pele or Bill Gates! You can contact the Guild at bugle.corp@bigpond.com.