At least one too many Henry Lawsons

Wednesday, July 21, 1999

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At least one too many Henry Lawsons

Henry Lawson: A Life
By Colin Roderick
Angus & Robertson, 1999. 447 pp., $35 (pb)

Review by Phil Shannon

Until his great rival, A. B. "Banjo" Paterson, deposed him when it went plastic, Henry Lawson adorned the $10 note. Generations of Australian schoolchildren have been force-fed "The Drover's Wife", "Andy's Gone to Cattle" and other Lawson bush ballads and stories.

But the Henry Lawson that the Mint and departments of education judge safe enough to celebrate is not the Henry Lawson who, in his early years, vowed in verse to wave the flag of "red revolution" and wage armed struggle to establish socialism in Australia.

A new biography of Henry Lawson by Colin Roderick explores the different Henry Lawsons who existed in poetry and prose, and in politics — the militant socialist revolutionary and the racist advocate of Australian nationalism and militarism.

Born in 1867 in outback NSW, Lawson recalled "the terrible dreariness and weariness and loneliness of it all", the "miserable scratching" that was farming in the bush. Fortunately, Charles Dickens and poetry captured Lawson when young and offered a lifeline through literature. Moving to Sydney in 1884, where he worked as a painter, Lawson discovered the world of radicalism through his mother and writer, Louisa Lawson, and her circle of republicans and reformers, feminists and suffragists.

Putting his growing power over words to political effect, Lawson wrote for and produced the Republican newspaper, where he put his new-found political awareness through its pages — pouncing on the detested "landlordism, the title-worship, the class distinctions and privileges, the oppression of the poor, the monarchy, and all the dust-covered customs that England has humped out of the Middle Ages".

He noted with delight the formation of the Australian Socialist League, but, as a sign of things to come and a reflection of the nationalist virus that infected the republican movement, he also approved the "Anti-Chinese League".

In competition with Banjo Paterson, Lawson wrote poems about the hard and unlovely side of Australian bush life. Whilst "The Man from Snowy River", "Clancy of the Overflow" and other drovers, shearers and bushmen strode from Paterson's romanticised pen in masculine splendour, Lawson was asking in verse why "such happy and romantic fellows strike", why they needed unions and how their wives fared under poverty and domestic drudgery.

In the years of economic recession leading up to the big and bitter strikes of the 1890s, Lawson, though still turning out hack doggerel for the Bulletin and "The Truth about Duffer Gully" and other apolitical bush yarns, had his heart and soul in the workers' struggles. He used the pages of William Lane's socialist paper Worker to publish his "red-hot political rhymes", including the angry brilliance of "Faces in the Street" and "Freedom on the Wallaby".

Lawson was committed to revolution and saw that the resistance of the wealthy had to be overcome by insurrection — "Our hands have clutched in vain for bread, and now they clutch for steel!".

Although his biographer patronises Lawson for "believing in revolution with the simplicity of a child's belief in fairy tales", the capitalist class and the state took the outbreak of class warfare seriously and responded to the trade union upsurge and socialist agitation with police and military repression and mass scabbing.

As the huge strikes were beaten, and beaten badly, however, Lawson lapsed into pessimism about the working class. Despite briefly transferring his hopes from the defeated ranks of unionists to their new representatives in parliament — the election of 35 candidates from the Labour Electoral League (which later became the ALP) in the NSW election of 1891 spurred a poem about "the triumph of the people" — Lawson's gloom went deep and was aggravated by rapid disillusion with Labor in parliament.

Becoming divorced from the working class and its organisations of struggle, Lawson drifted into the circles of middle class Bohemianism. The lumpenproletariat of destitute unemployed and the "larrikin pushes" of inner Sydney suburbs stirred the radical embers of his compassion for those in poverty, but he now saw trade unions as a tyranny, the trade union and socialist activist as a "sham democrat who goes to Hyde Park to listen to the inanities of ragged wind-bags" and the Australian worker as "a brute and nothing else".

He deplored the use of "scab" and "blackleg" as lacking in dignity and infringing on "mateship", a concept he extended to selected bosses and squatters — but never to those who fell outside his "White Australia" brotherhood, including "Calico Jimmy, the nigger, the Chow" and other "lesser breeds". Women also fell out of the charmed circle of "mates".

Lawson's personal life degenerated in tandem with the decline of his labour and socialist principles. Manic-depressive mood swings, divorce, alcoholism, arrests for defaulting on maintenance payments and attempted suicide — this was Lawson's world, viewed from the inside of psychiatric hospitals and Darlinghurst Gaol, as he pursued scarce shillings for reams of indifferent verse and pedestrian yarns (recounted with tedious thoroughness by Roderick).

Lawson's depression was punctuated only by war. First it was the Boer War, a trade war between England and South African Dutch settlers for control of the mines but, for Lawson, a chance for Australia to win its independence spurs through military bloodletting — "I'm in favour of the war, and of half-a-dozen more", he rhymed. He later realised his dream in spades with the first world war, which, together with conscription, Lawson supported in verse with a savage spirit.

The anti-capitalist bard of socialist revolution had, by his last decades, mutated into a war-mongering conservative. The nationalism that he had always incubated had worked its inevitable poison. Lawson's bush myth of "mateship" had overtaken class antipathy, and proletarian solidarity had been white-anted by racist sentiments that would find a ready home in One Nation.

Lawson's genuine literary merit (pathos, tragic realism and some roaring couplets of Byronesque vigour) keeps him afloat as a bush balladeer, but he survives as an Australian icon primarily because of his nationalism.

Prime Minister Billy Hughes (a Labor rat and military conscription zealot), at Lawson's funeral in 1922, spoke with cloying nationalist rhetoric of Lawson as symbolically Australian along with "endless plains shimmering beneath the summer sun", "the crack of the stockman's whip", gum trees, boiling billies and every other cliché of bush Australia.

Socialists can only look with regret at the loss of what might have been as Lawson, the ardent socialist, became Lawson, the mouthpiece of racist, militarist, capitalist Australia. Nationalism has a lot to answer for.