< return to index of papers
Professor Brian Matthews
Thank you to the convenors and in particular Chief Justice John Harber
Phillips for inviting me to contribute to the Cultural Day of this wondrous
conference. I must say as a veteran of many academic conferences, where
disputation and disagreement can occasionally result in damage to one's
personality, reputation, future prospects and even, on rare occasions,
physical well being, it's a great comfort to have such a wealth of legal
and medical resources to call upon if such an emergency should occur.
Normally, I find myself among literary critics where the cry,
'Is there a doctor in the house?' would turn up hundreds of doctors
of philosophy with arcane advice not helpfully geared to the work-a-day
or among writers, who avoid medical consultation until most of
their vital organs are on the verge of total collapse, and who regard
lawyers as, among other things, the generators of unfathomable prose.
So I rejoice in the unaccustomed sense of security which this conference,
excellent in so many other ways, endows as an added bonus.
That possible large majority of you who do now know or have not ever
heard of me may have been puzzled by the official brochure. Each speaker,
you might remember, had his or her photograph alongside a brief biographical
description. In my case, the photo was of a dark, gloomy looking, heavily
moustachioed fellow, clearly not of this or even the previous century.
It might have been the Australian writer, Henry Lawson, though it could
have been the outlaw, Ned Kelly. From a certain angle it was not too
outlandish to see the head of some famous and all-conquering race horse
Gunsynd, perhaps: the grey from Goondawindi. Regrettable, there
was little or no resemblance to Don Bradman.
I was not at all put out by my ambiguous photograph (there were very
good reasons for the substitution and in any case, I am, in my opinion,
rarely well served by the camera). On the contrary, the various possible
resemblances fortuitously raised an interesting point about Australian
What the writer, Henry Lawson, who is the subject of my talk today,
Ned Kelly, the bushranger, Gunsynd, the racehorse, and Don Bradman,
the cricketer, all have in common is that they came not only from humble
and unlikely origins but also from the depths of the bush, from the
anonymity of the country far from cities. Though the species, for various
reasons, is dying out, Australians love this idea of the unsophisticated,
naturally gifted country boy or girl (or occasionally, the raw-boned
hitherto unheard of and unlikely looking racehorse) who comes unannounced
to the city from the bush and makes an immediate mark by virtue of prodigious
if untutored or unorthodox talent; or, in the case of Ned Kelly, who
shunned the city, the flashy lawless upstart who makes a fool of authority
and stands up for the battlers. Australian popular, sporting and even
literary culture abounds with such figures though in diminishing numbers
as the culture becomes more commercialised and commodified.
Henry Lawson was and was not such a figure. He was born on the Grenfell
Goldfields in New South Wales in June 1867 and had a tough, nomadic
childhood as the eldest son of a father, Peter, who was obsessed with
gold and devoted much of his time to chasing the big strike that would
change everything, and of a mother, Louisa, who was uneducated by brilliantly
talented in many ways and increasingly discontented with life in the
backblocks of New South Wales. The Lawson family, growing quickly to
three sons and twin daughters (one of whom died in infancy), battled
through a grim, hand-to-mouth, impermanent existence on various gold
fields and then on a hopeless piece of land at Eurunderee near Mudgee
in New South Wales. In Lawson's words later in life, 'It was miserable,
wretched, hopeless farming, like a great deal of the scratching called
farming in the dusty stumpy patches amongst the scrubby ridges down
there.' Thought their agricultural prospects were not helped by Peter's
preference for choosing abandoned diggings to farm. In 1883- the third
successive year of the then worst drought in living memory Louisa,
defeated by hardship and want and long since having realised the marriage
was a terrible mistake, gave up and went to Sydney with the younger
children. Henry, then sixteen and working with his father as a bush
carpenter and painter, followed shortly after.
Several events in those years when he was growing up on the goldfields
and in bush settlements contributed to Lawson's sense of gloom and pessimism,
even at a young age. One of these was the death of his sister Annette
one of the twins and the favourite according to family lore.
Lawson wrote that 'Ever after, there hung a cloud over our family.'
That cloud was more a matter of Lawson's temperament than a reality
of the Lawson family life, though as far as Lawson was concerned, 'Home
life was unspeakably wretchedmiserable little hell.' Nevertheless, his
mother, Louisa, had many more and better reasons for pessimism, gloom
and surrender than he did, but she remained indomitable, achieving,
and full of plans and ideas until her final illness in 1920.
When Lawson was nice, however, there occurred an event, which really
did change his life for the worse and would haunt him forever.
I remember we children were playing in the dust one evening (he writes
in Fragment) and all that night I had an excruciating earache
and was unspeakably sick on my stomach. Father kept giving me butter
and sugar, "to bring it up", which eventually it did. It was
the first and last time I had the earache. Next day I was noticeably
deaf, and remained slightly so till I was fourteen, when I became as
deaf as I am now
Lawson's deafness was certainly a significant handicap for the rest
of his life though it's precise impact in now difficult to establish
and he himself may have overstated it at times. But it turned him inwards,
made him debilitatingly self conscious, probably contributed to his
resorting to alcohol (because alcohol helped socially) and was also
one of the forces that move him to write, to find the voices he could
not fully hear in real life. But it was not the only of the main force.
Though his relationship with his mother was always tendentious and worsened
when he grew to young manhood. There is one way in which she was incontrovertibly
influential, even crucial.
One night in Sydney, the young Henry attended a rally protesting against
celebrations to mark Queen Victoria's Jubilee. A clash between republicans
and monarchists became violent and shots were fired. Henry ran home
in a highly emotional and excited state, to tell his mother the police
had fired 'on our people'. He was desperate to act, to find a way of
redress. Louisa said. 'Write my son, your pen is your best weapon!'
In may other and less dramatic ways she encouraged him to read and write
and her own example as journalist, founder and publisher of a
Woman's Journal, The Dawn, and a poet and story writer
was a powerful one. As well as that, though, Louisa was a gifted raconteuse,
full of anecdotes, and the young Henry heard and remembered not only
the substance of these but also their rhythms and timing. And to this
source he added the many male bush voices similarly engaged in recounting
anecdotes ranging from unadorned grim truth through to outlandish and
shameless hyperbole. Lawson felt he owed little to his mother and that
he carried burdens from her that blighted his life but he always acknowledged
her example and her encouragement for him as a writer.
So, to a certain extent, Lawson was the stereotypical Australian phenomenon,
the young man of talent arriving from bush obscurity to take the city
by storm. The difference between Lawson and, say, Bradman, or Gunsynd
or many another example of the process, was that he did not take anything
by storm. He worked in menial jobs, made an unsuccessful attempt to
further his extremely meagre formal education and, in his spare time,
wrote verse in the manner of the times that is, rhymed, sometimes
rather tub-thumping ballads.
Slowly, unspectacularly, Lawson made for himself a growing reputation
as one of Sydney's balladists, publishing his work in the famous Bulletin,
known as the busman's Bible. The uncomplicated poems came easily to
Lawson. None of them amounted to much, but just a few showed the capacity
for unerring observation and an ear for tone and voice that would later
be among his creative strengths. For example, here are some of the verses
from a poem call 'Middleton's Rouseabout':
Tall and freckled and sandy
Face of a country lout;
This was the picture of Andy,
Type of a coming nation,
In the land of cattle and sheep,
Worked on Middleton's station,
'Pound a week and his keep'.
On Middleton's wide dominions,
Plied the stockwhip and shears;
Hadn't any opinions,
Hadn't any "idears".
The years go by, Middleton, defeated by drought and alcohol, goes bush,
the cattle station fails and is bought by the Rouseabout who
has some good luck and prospers where his former boss had failed. And
so the poem ends:
Flourishing beard and sandy,
Tall and robust and stout;
This is the picture of Andy,
Now on his own dominions
Works with his overseers;
Hasn't any opinion,
Hasn't any "idears"
This is simple enough, but the satire is sharp and the laconic voice
and note of irony are impeccably caught.
Lawson benefited from the wise nurturing and mentoring of the Bulletin's
innovative and brilliant editor, J.F. Archibald. But it was Archibald
who perceived that, after an initial flush of inventiveness and success,
Lawson was marking time with his ballads. As well, entering his twenties,
he was succumbing to the bohemian temptations of Sydney in the late
80's the endless carousings, gatherings, parties and celebrations
and especially the endless drinking.
Lawson was going nowhere when, at the suggestion of Archibald and others,
he decided to have a shot at stories instead of verse, though convinced
that he would not be up to the task of writing relatively long, coherent
pieces of prose. His first piece, based firmly on his remembered childhood
on the goldfields, was called 'An Old Mate of Your father's'. It was
published in the Bulletin in 1888 and was modes enough. The opening
lines clearly attest to the story's heavy and unashamed autobiographical
You remember when we hurried home from the old bush school how
we were sometimes startled by a bearded apparition, who smiled kindly
down on us, and whom our mother introduced, as we raked off our hats,
as 'An old mate of your father's on the diggings.'
This unpretentious yarn started Lawson on a new creative path. Drawing
on memories of his childhood spent, as I've said, not in the
outback but in the bush hinterland round Mudgee and Gulgong where nowadays
innumerable vineyards flourish Lawson produced tow or three of
the greatest stories in our literature, among them and pre-eminently,
the famous 'The Drover's Wife', the central incident in which can be
shown to draw heavily on his mother's experiences as recounted to him
in his childhood.
These early stories revealed in Lawson an uncanny capacity to portray,
by implication, psychological unease and slow, subtle personal disintegration
especially in women. But just as important in these stories Lawson
in an untheorised, intuitive way - was significantly altering and reorganising
the nature of the short story itself. This was happening in two ways.
The first way was that, because he was relying heavily on recalled
experiences both his own and those of others he tended
to abandon plot as we understand it, because in general our life events
don't have much plot to them. His stories were sketched-in moments and
recollections and characters, having just enough structure to keep them
standing up so to speak. They flew violently in the face of the contemporary
short story, with its constructed plot and, most often, surprise ending
or twist in the tail.
The second way Lawson's stories were a departure from the average was
that they were written unerringly in the voice of Australians of his
time and not in the Anglophone manner of most of his contemporaries.
In the same way that the painters were finding the colours and the light
and the shapes that would render the Australian landscape reality as
it was and not as a Europeanised version, so Lawson found the words,
the vernacular and the to produce a truly Australian prose. Only his
great contemporary novelist Joseph Furphy was his equal
At about this point in Lawson's still fragile but interesting literary
career, Archibald, with inspired timing and equally inspired insight,
gave him £5 and a rail ticket to Bourke with the broad brief to
report on what he saw there. Lawson arrived in the middle of the great
drought of the early 90s when the depression that had followed the wool
boom was already wiping out station owners and pastoralists. He was
absolutely appalled by what he saw. 'This God-forgotten town,' he wrote
of Bourke in a letter to his aunt, 'You can have no idea of the horrors
of the country out here. Men tramp and beg and live like dogs.' He vowed
that once he was able to, he would return to Sydney 'never to face the
bush again.' The contemporary critic, A.G. Stephens, put it more explicitly:
Here was this unfortunate towney, deaf and shy and brooding. Sent
with a railway ticket and a few spare shillings to carry his swag
through an unknown land where he knew nobodyhe endured all kinds of
variegated misery, till he set his broken boots on Sydney pavement
with 'Never again!' But he could feel and he could see and he could
write what he saw and he wrote the truth.
He did indeed. Lawson's experience of Bourke and environs in the drought
of 1892 and 93 became the cornerstone of most of his great work thereafter.
Under the intense creative pressure of the Bourke experience, he perfected
his cryptic, modernist-sounding style and the fifty odd stories collected
into the two series entitled While the Billy Boils rank among
the greatest works in our literature and have been justly and properly
compared to the stories of Chekhov sharing with them a deceptively
simple surface beneath which was great allusiveness and human complexity
Lawson was disappointed more or less continuously with his reception
as a writer and, though he was much give to complaining, there was some
justice in his objection. Certainly in his own time and more or less
until half way through the twentieth century, Lawson was seen more as
a poet than as a writer of prose, though it was in the latter form that
he did all his great work; and even when his stories were seriously
considered by contemporaries, he was praised as a great observer
someone who revealed our landscape to us more strikingly than ever before.
This observation was true, but it neglected the profound human subtlety
of his art and his understanding of the Australian psyche and the evolving
version of English that would become the Australian narrative vernacular.
He was a great artist, but only readers and critics in the mid-20th
Century were prepared to accord him this serious literary status rather
than keep him safely categorised as a kind of superior version of Australiana.
If you haven't read Lawson recently or at all, here are some glimpses
of how he worked and wrote. In 'The Drover's wife' a woman alone with
her children because he husband is away droving and hasn't been heard
of for months is terrorised by a snake. She sits up all night watching
over the children and waiting for the snake to make its run. During
her vigil, she recalls other similar trials of her lonely bush life
which Lawson evokes with a stunning, before his time cinematic flashback
technique, until just on dawn, the snake reappears and after a frightening
battle, she kills it with the help of the dog. The story ends like this:
She lifts the mangled reptile on the point of her stick, carries
it to the fire, and throws it in; the piles on the wood and watches
the snake burn. The boy and the dog watch, too. She lays her hand
on the dog's head and all the fierce angry light dies out of his yellow
eyes. The younger children are quieted and presently go to sleep.
The dirty-legged boy stands for a moment in his shirt, watching the
fire. He looks up at her, sees the tears in her eyes, and, throwing
his arms round her neck, exclaims:
'Mother, I won't never go drovin': blast me if I do!'
And she hugs him to her worn out breast and kisses him; and they
sit thus together while the sickly daylight breaks over the bush.
With the barest of emphases, Lawson allows the symbolic quality of
the snake, its Biblical significance, to emerge as it is cast with such
deliberation into the flames. Likewise, despite the boy's assurance,
provoked by the emotion of the moment, we know he will go droving
and that this victory over the snake is only one in a succession of
trials which eventually will overwhelm her. The plight of the drover's
wife, we realise, is hopeless but her dogged humanity is ennobling
the one consolation in a pitiless, spiritually debilitating environment.
The romantic flourish of the last sentence seems fine to me, but it
is interesting to compare it with what we might call Lawson's finished
style following his experiences in the real outback, in Bourke. Here
are the opening lines of his description of the rail journey to Bourke:
Draw a wire fence and a few ragged gums, and add some scattered
sheep running away from the train. Then you'll have the bush all along
the New South Wales western line from Bathurst on.
This is brilliant, graphic economy detail and the saturnine tone is
absolutely right for the narrator who has no interest whatsoever in
romanticising the bush.
Remembering the end of 'The Drover's wife', here is the end of a much
later story (1901) called 'Telling Mrs Baker'. In this story, two bushmen
come to the city house of Mrs Baker to tell her how her husband, who
had been their boss, had died upcountry. In fact, he'd died in a drunken
squalid fit, was hated by his men and had been on the booze for months
leaving hem to oversee the drovers and the cattle. But they tell her
a different story, to make him look responsible, heroic and above all
devoting his last thoughts to her and the children. The widow's sister
listens in also to this tale and it is obvious she realises that they
whole thing is totally fabricated. She follows them our the front door
when they leave and the story ends like this:
she stood for a minute before us, breathing quickly, her hands
behind her back, her eyes shining in the moonlight. She looked splendid.
'I want to thank your for her sake', she said quickly. 'you are
good menI'll probably never see either of you again, so it doesn't
matter,' and she put her white hand on Andy's shoulder and kissed
him fair and square on the mouth. 'And you too,' she said to me. I
was taller than Andy and had to stoop. 'Goodbye,' she said, and ran
to the gate, waving her hand to us. We lifted our hats and turned
down the road.
I don't think it did either of us any harm.
In that languid, off handed ironic last sentence, which so marvellously
offsets the romance of the moonlit scene, Lawson gives the story its
philosophical orientation. In a tough existence, small gestures of love
and kindness are essential but, sadly, ephemeral in the end.
When what we might call Lawson's Bourke inspiration began to wane
only so much of what Lawson called 'copy' could be milked from the experience
turned to something that was preoccupying him more and more at
the turn of the century and during his more or less disastrous sojourn
in London, what he called 'that wild run to London that wrecked and
ruined me.' This new subject was his marriage. His very greatest work
the four linked long stories known as the Joe Wilson series
traces the fortunes of Joe Wilson and his wife Mary. Lawson returns
to the scenes of his childhood for the setting, but draws on his experiences
in Bourke to give a documentary sharpness to his portrayal of lives
on the edge of disaster. Above all, he reflected upon his own intricately,
slowly failing marriage. Joe Wilson is his masterpiece.
Like Ernest Hemingway, Lawson was not especially god at imaginative
invention. He needed the spur of actuality to work on. He was not a
great reader, he was not self critical and he showed little intellectual
interest in, or grasp o, the creative process, the work of the imagination.
He tended to resent criticism and rarely seemed to learn from it. The
result was that when the great inspiration of his life lost its immediacy
and drama and when he had completed his work based on his marriage,
he was bereft. He did not have the resources for creative renewal. In
the same plight, Hemingway began to parody himself and eventually, depressed
by the decline of his art, took his own life. As for Lawson, he attempted
suicide, then began, in a sort of uncreative panic, recycling old themes
and places (in particular, our course, his time in Bourke): his ever
present weakness for a sort of never-darken-my-doorstep-again melodrama
overwhelmed his prose as the pressure of immediacy, of genuine excited
inspiration, disappeared. He recognised this himself, remarking in later
life, 'I have lost the hammer blow of authenticity.'
Lawson wrote a lot of bad stuff form about 1904 onwards, his creative
problems being exacerbated by the disintegration of his personal life
amidst an acrimonious marital separation, gaol terms for drunkenness
and non-payment of maintenance, and the loss of friends who despaired
of him or who became tired of his behaviour towards them. He went on
writing but the spark was gone. He became a familiar, haunted figure
on the streets of Sydney. As one friend described him: 'His face was
haggard and ashen, and in his restless deep set eyes, was a look which
seemed to me then to be the most tragic I had ever seen.' Lawson had
fallen upon hard times but what most hurt him was the failure of his
art, which was central to his life and always had been. Lawson and perfection
were strangers to each other in almost every conceivable way
yet he glimpsed the possibility of perfection, or something like
it, in his best work, and longer for it ever after. He died in poverty
in September 1922 but, as if in a gesture of guilt that such an artist
should have been so neglected, he was given a state funeral an
honour that almost certainly would have provoked from him a deeply sardonic
The famous and controversial Australian historian, Manning Clark, said
that 'Australia was Lawson writ large.' Well, of course, this is a wildly
extravagant, even in a way meaningless claim. Yet we can perhaps understand
Clark's need to set Lawson in some bigger Australian picture. If there
is such a thing as national character, Lawson caught and evoked Australia's.
He recognised the Australian habit of irony; he realised that traditional
English narrative would never portray the life and landscape he grew
up in and that a new mode would need to be invented. Like the painters
of the Heidelberg School, who worked out the light and colours and shapes
of the new land, Lawson helped forge an Australian narrative style and
in doing so he became our first great writer and remains in the pantheon
of our finest artists to this day. Thousands watched his state funeral;
few could have said exactly what it was that made him deserve such an
honour. People simply knew intuitively that his voice had captured some
essence for them, had arrived at truths about their existence in Australia
that no one else had managed to glimpse or embody.
Lawson's writing life was truly great but his story overall is a sad
one. Not to end on a gloomy not, I want to devote my final minute to
two anecdotes which grow out of the occasional references I have made
in this talk to irony and, by implication, Australian humour.
The first concerns Lawson himself. One day during his last years, he
was standing in Pitt Street, Sydney, talking to George Robertson, of
Angus and Robertson. During their conversation, a man approached and
greeted Robertson warmly, then, peering at Lawson, said, 'Are you Henry
Lawson?' 'Yes', Lawson said. 'I'd give my right arm to shake hands with
you,' said the man. 'No need to be so extravagant,' said Lawson cheerfully,
'make it a quid!'
The second anecdote records my own encounter with an anonymous but
truly great Australian ironist:
Sometime in the winter of 1962 I was driving home in the sleety Melbourne
dusk in my old FX Holder. I was young, a part time teacher at a Melbourne
suburban High School, and a postgraduate student at Melbourne University.
I didn't have too much on my mind apart from the usual affairs of the
heart, but I did have one immediate problem as I navigated the rainy
suburban streets and that was that I was out of petrol. Not just low
but within instants of running out. Adept as I was at milking
the dregs many of my mates swore that the top half of the petrol
tank on my Holden was rusted from the lack of use I knew that
any minute the engine would die. I also knew, however, that there was
a service station only a few corners away. When its lights at last shone
through the gloom, my triumph was diminished by the sudden realisation
that all the money I had on me was two shillings tow bob as we
said then, back in the early sixties: what would become 20 cents in
1966. This was embarrassing, but two shillings did actually buy a measurable
amount of petrol in 1962 and, more importantly, I knew it would be enough
for me to limp home. I was too tired for excuses so when I'd pulled
up at the bowser and a bloke emerged from behind the fogged up windows
of his small office, I decided against being apologetic.
'Yeah, what'll it be?' he said.
'Two bobs worth of super,' I said, without a flicker.
There was the barest pause, then he said, 'Whaddya tryin' to do mate,
wean the bastard?'
Lawson would have approved of that bloke.
< return to index of papers