In Lawson’s tracks
From Griffith REVIEW Edition 19: Re-imagining Australia
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Bruce Elder
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About ten kilometres south of Hungerford, I get out of the car and start walking. Hungerford sits on the New South Wales-Queensland border more than two hundred kilometres northwest of Bourke. It's a one-pub town divided by a gate in a rabbit fence which must be opened and closed to cross the border. This is the true outback – a land far removed from the narrow coastal strip and the big eastern cities where most Australians live.
It is so easy to forget what the land beyond the Great Dividing Range – that ‘great grey plain' as Henry Lawson called it – is really like. If you spend your life with a view of tall buildings, surrounded by urgent people who talk and drive too fast on sealed roads, even if you once experienced the unforgiving reality of the bush, chances are you will have forgotten.
Walk along the dead-straight dirt road between Hungerford and Bourke, and within ten minutes sweat will dampen your skin. Every few seconds you'll involuntarily offer the great Aussie salute as you try to flick the tenacious little bush flies away from your mouth and eyes. Your back will turn black as the flies settle in silent hordes. Your shoes will be covered in a layer of red bulldust. Even before the summer sun fills the sky, you will be enervated and always, on the horizon will be that shimmering lake of illusion, the blue oceanic mirage that has driven countless travellers mad with its thirst-quenching unreality.
When Henry Lawson walked this road in 1892, the most important trek in Australian literary history, he would have experienced all this and more. He took three weeks to travel from Bourke to Hungerford, and it confirmed all his prejudices about the Australian bush. Lawson had no romantic illusions about a ‘rural idyll'.
In his amusing story ‘Hungerford', Lawson described the town, and the bush in general, with raw honesty:
The country looks as though a great ash-heap had been spread out there, and mulga scrub and firewood planted – and neglected. The country looks just as bad for a hundred miles round Hungerford, and beyond that it gets worse – a blasted, barren wilderness that doesn't even howl. If it howled it would be a relief.
I believe that Bourke and Wills found Hungerford, and it's a pity they did; but, if I ever stand by the graves of the men who first travelled through this country, when there were neither roads nor stations, nor tanks, nor bores, nor pubs, I'll – I'll take my hat off. There were brave men in the land in those days.
Lawson's journey west began as a well-orchestrated literary challenge. In the early 1890s, J.F. Archibald, the editor of The Bulletin, was eager to stir up controversy. He nurtured a debate in the pages of his magazine. What was the true Australia? Was rural Australia the romantic idyll of brave horsemen and beautiful scenery depicted in the poetry of ‘The Banjo' [Paterson] and his ilk? Or was it the unforgiving and harsh reality of Lawson's grim vision?
With a level of venom that deserves a place beside the rage in Bob Dylan's Masters of War, Lawson hit out at Paterson in a 122-line tirade sarcastically titled, ‘The City Bushman'. I'd like to quote it all, but a few stanzas will give you a sense of the intensity of his rage:
Yes, I heard the shearers singing ‘William Riley', out of tune,
Saw ‘em fighting round a shanty on a Sunday afternoon,
But the bushman isn't always ‘trapping brumbies in the night',
Nor is he forever riding when ‘the morn is fresh and bright'.
And he isn't always singing in the humpies on the run -
And the camp-fire's ‘cheery blazes' are a trifle overdone;
We have grumbled with the bushmen round the fire on rainy days,
When the smoke would blind a bullock and there wasn't any blaze,
Save the blazes of our language, for we cursed the fire in turn
Till the atmosphere was heated and the wood began to burn.
Then we had to wring our blueys which were rotting in the swags,
And we saw the sugar leaking through the bottoms of the bags,
And we couldn't raise a chorus, for the toothache and the cramp,
While we spent the hours of darkness draining puddles round the camp.
Would you like to change with Clancy – go a-droving? tell us true,
For we rather think that Clancy would be glad to change with you,
And be something in the city; but 'twould give your muse a shock
To be losing time and money through the foot-rot in the flock,
And you wouldn't mind the beauties underneath the starry dome
If you had a wife and children and a lot of bills at home.
Did you ever guard the cattle when the night was inky-black,
And it rained, and icy water trickled gently down your back
Till your saddle-weary backbone fell a-aching to the roots
And you almost felt the croaking of the bull-frog in your boots -
Sit and shiver in the saddle, curse the restless stock and cough
Till a squatter's irate dummy cantering up to warn you off?
Did you fight the drought and pleuro when the ‘seasons' were asleep,
Felling sheoaks all the morning for a flock of starving sheep,
Drinking mud instead of water – climbing trees and lopping boughs
For the broken-hearted bullocks and the dry and dusty cows?