My Henry Lawson, Bertha Lawson

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My Henry Lawson, published in 1943 and never republished as far as I can see, is a memoir of the great short story writer by his wife. I read other works about Lawson during my studies, particularly City Bushman by Christopher Lee and Louisa by Brian Matthews, which I plan to re-read and review in the next few months, but this one makes a nice entry point. Briefly, Lee argues that the mythologising of Australian bush workers was a product of city-based writers, in particular Henry Lawson; while Louisa is an account of the life of one of our great Independent Women, who also happened to be Henry’s mother. Bertha writes of her mother in law:

If there is anything in heredity, Harry’s literary talents undoubtedly came from his mother, who fifty years ago, owned and published the first women’s newspaper in Australia. It was called “the Dawn – a Journal for Australian Women.”

Lawson, then quite young and not yet a published poet, was working elsewhere at the time and “had nothing to do with it, not even as a contributor”. Later in the same chapter Bertha writes:

Louisa was a remarkable character, a very determined woman and she and her poet son could never see eye to eye. Apart they remained friendly; together they were at daggers-drawn. They had many and fierce arguments and eventually Harry left home.

Henry Lawson was born at Grenfell [NSW], in a tent, on June 17, 1867. A “birth in a mining camp … was such a novelty, that every digger visited the home to ask to see the baby and to leave generous presents.” Bertha describes Lawson’s antecedents and upbringing, and it is important in light of Lee’s argument to emphasise just how much time Lawson spent in the bush, both growing up and as a young man.

Lawson spent some time in bush schools, though was often truant or helping his parents with work, and then his deafness, caused by illness, also intervened. Louisa had some poetry published in a local paper and Lawson, aged around 10 or 11, attempted some as well but his father objected to his “vaporisings” and they were thrown in the fire. At 14 he was working full time for his father who was a building contractor in country towns west of the Blue Mountains. His education was only resumed after Louisa left her husband and moved to Granville where Henry, then 16, was able to attend night school 3 nights a week. Within a year he had a poem about a shipwreck then in the papers (The Wreck of the Derry Castle) accepted by Archibald for publication in the Bulletin.

Lawson made a number of attempts to matriculate so he could go on to university, but failed, about which he was always bitter: “I was taught too little? I learnt too much/To use a pedant’s diction” (Lawson, The Uncultured Rhymer to His Cultured Critics). He drifted in and out of employment until at 19 he returned to working for his father, at Mt Victoria. There “he learnt to drink and found that under the influence of liquor he forgot his shyness”. When his father died at the end of 1888, Lawson completed his contracts and returned to Sydney, drifting again, but keeping on writing, and for a while working as a columnist in Brisbane.

Bertha doesn’t say so, but Lawson was becoming well known (see my earlier post Poetry Slam, Lawson v Paterson). In 1892 he borrowed some money from Archibald and took off for Bourke and subsequently Hungerford in far north-west NSW looking for work. His mate Jim Grahame wrote in the Bulletin in 1925 that he and Lawson tramped around the country west of Bourke working as rouseabouts (picking up fleeces, not shearing as was sometimes reported) for six months, before Lawson returned to Sydney by train as a drover with sheep going to the abattoirs at Homebush.

In 1895 Bertha was an 18 yo nurse from Bairnsdale, Vic, in Sydney visiting her mother. A friend introduced her to Lawson who became very persistent in pursuing her and they were soon planning to get married. By this time he had two books of short stories and poetry to his credit and a third, In the Days When the World was Wide, was with the printers. The future was looking rosy. After a couple of hiccups, Bertha’s mother gave her consent and the two were married on April 15, 1896.

In her description of a rowing excursion on Middle Harbour we are given a privileged view into their lives and Lawson’s writing:

Harry took pencil and paper, and while I sat and sewed, or rowed slowly, he wrote verses, chanting them softly to himself, to get the beat and rhythm. This was different from when Harry wrote verse at home, for then he would dictate it to me in that sing-song way of his, and after I had written it down, while he paced to and fro, he would correct it and read it to me.

With money in his pocket, an advance on his book, Lawson was restless and so they sailed for WA where Lawson hoped to become a gold miner, though as it happened they never made it past a camp on the hill near the cemetery in East Perth. When their money was about to run out Bertha engineered a return to Sydney. We get a glimpse of how famous Lawson was becoming:

… in Melbourne, the pressmen came down to interview us; and although we were travelling in the steerage, the captain allowed us to use the saloon, for Harry to entertain the press. It was the grand finale to our tour, and we landed in Sydney with two shillings in the exchequer …

In Sydney Lawson’s drinking mates were a problem, and with an introduction to the Premier, they moved on again, to New Zealand. A job was found for Lawson, as the teacher at an isolated Maori school where Bertha conspired with the locals to make it difficult for Lawson to get to the ‘bright lights’ of Kaikoura 12 miles away on the coast. Here she says, Lawson did some of his best work, all of Joe Wilson and His Mates, a play, and some poetry, including Written Afterwards in which he jokes about the restrictions imposed on him by marriage.

At the beginning of 1898 they returned to Wellington where their son, Jim was born and on to Sydney, where Lawson freelanced for a while till he found work as a clerk with the Government Statistician and gave up the grog. Despite his boss telling him he only had to show up during working hours and he could write what he liked, this lasted just one week!

Another book came out, there was another advance to spend, and another baby, Bertha (b. Feb 1900). Lawson was getting good reviews in Britain, the State Governor offered to pay his passage, and soon the family were on the move again (taking with them of course the ms for My Brilliant Career).

He had become one of the literary lions of London. A dinner had been given to welcome him, at which the leading literary men were guests. The world was at Harry’s feet…

Lawson however made little attempt to take advantage of the opportunities opening up for him. And after two years on the wagon, on arrival in London he started drinking again. Friends had found housing for them, but “with all this appreciation we still had not enough money to buy food”. Mary Gilmour, her husband and child came to stay (after the failure of New Australia). “We were all in deep financial difficulties”. Then Harry got an advance from Blackwoods (publishers) and Bertha “lost no time buying passages for myself and the children for Australia”. Lawson followed soon after.

They met up again in Colombo but by the time they were back in Australia the marriage was very nearly at an end. Bertha stayed in Melbourne for six weeks, while Henry went on to Sydney; they lived together for a while in Manly, but first Henry, then Bertha, was hospitalised for long periods; their furniture was seized for arrears of rent; a third baby died at birth.

Bertha found employment as a travelling saleswoman for Stuart & Co., booksellers while Lawson took lodgings, “it was useless taking up house again as he was quite penniless and the children had to be provided for.”

He had his happy times and I think those periods were usually associated with absolute freedom from responsibility and full expression of his genius. He hated to be tied down.

In this period, immediately before the Great War, Lawson had published a prose volume “The Rising of the Court” and a book of verses “Skyline Riders”. For a while during the War, the government gave him make-work, writing advertising for the Leeton irrigation area.

Bertha goes on to analyse Lawson’s writing, his connections to the working class, where she and he fit into his stories, particularly the Joe Wilson stories, and his links to the Australian ‘Bohemians’. Lawson died in 1922, of cerebral haemorrhage. He was given a State Funeral and according to Bertha, was buried in the grave that had been prepared for Henry Kendall.

This excellent little book ends with a previously unpublished Lawson short story, A Wet Camp.

 

Bertha Lawson, My Henry Lawson, Frank Johnson, Sydney, 1943 (the drawing reproduced on the cover is signed McCormack)

The Nightmarkets, Alan Wearne

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Cover illustration by Noela Hills

In my one school year in Melbourne, fourth form at Blackburn South High, Alan Wearne was a couple of years ahead of me and I was friends with his brother. He went on to Monash and I, via yet another bush high school (thanks Dad), to Melbourne. But I saw him around occasionally, the last time in ’74 or ’75 when I offered to give him a lift in my old truck to a poetry conference in Brisbane. He politely declined, the organisers had given him a return air ticket.

The Nightmarkets (1986) is a longish, 300pp, verse novel. I’ve read it a few times since it came out, not because I like poetry, which I don’t, but because it feels so intensely familiar. Wearne writes, not of Melbourne, but of the suburbs he knows so well – Blackburn, Burwood, Brunswick, Fitzroy, South Melbourne, and these are my suburbs too. Blackburn South was an endless expanse of three and four bedroom boxes with red tile roofs when we were growing up. From our new house we could look across the apple orchards, long gone now, to Channel O on Springvale Rd, while the Wearnes lived in a slightly older part of the suburb near the shops on Canterbury Rd. I earned pocket money at Pentland’s newsagency and some freezing mornings would have to get on my bike to deliver their paper. Just this week Mum has moved to a retirement village only a couple of hundred yards up the road.

The novel covers the period 1965-1982, and centres on the state election campaign of 1982 won by the John Cain-led Labor party, presaging Bob Hawke’s federal election win the following year. The central character, the Alan Wearne figure, is Ian Metcalfe. His older brother Robert, who was jailed for two years at the end of the 60s as a draft resister, is a Labor candidate. We get the story partly from Ian and partly from other principal characters, over the course of 10 sections. For most of the period 1969-75 I was in Melbourne, in the inner suburbs, in the anti-war movement, and this all feels very personal.

Briefly, Ian’s ex-girlfriend Sue becomes the lover of an older, old-money type, federal MP, John McTaggart, with a property out Mt Macedon way, who wants to form a new political party (yes, like Don Chipp’s Democrats, or if you’re a real politics wonk, like Gordon Barton‘s Australia Party). Sue introduces Ian, who’s doing not much, to McTaggart who commissions him to check out a murder which might be political, at a South Melbourne brothel. Ian promptly falls in love with Terri, a prostitute. Meanwhile Robert works stolidly towards getting elected.

Wearne’s poetry is both vernacular and (loosely!) contained within formal structures of rhyme and rhythm. I was a maths/science student with next to no Eng.Lit. education so more than that I cannot say. The opening lines are typical (Ian, 1980):

With your chaotic indecision, visiting mother can be a problem:
‘Hi, Mum.’ ‘Hi Ian.’ If you glower, she’s anxious not to pile up the home truths
(you’re the touchy one). She’s careful and cares, hope you exercise, the job situation improves,
hopes you’re sleeping well, eating well. ‘For dinner, Ian, or just lobbing in?’
She uses your terms, smiling about it, maybe to tease you.

The introductory section sets the scene – Robert’s jailing, Ian discovering sex, the rise and fall of Gough:

I was still with Allison, working in a bookshop.
Its phone rang. My mother screeched, ‘Gough’s got the sack!’
and hung up. Stockbrokers sprawled saturated in bubbly. ‘That big bastard’s off my back,’

Into the Fraser years Ian smokes dope and puts out a poetry magazine, The Hummer. The section ends: “… But this far into my ranting is quite enough,/ Please meet my first lover, still my closest friend, Sue Dobson.”

Back from an ‘over-planned’ trip to England, Sue stays with Ian and Allison – “someone had been having fun – nice to know/ an old boyfriend had settled… Told them this./ She trumped: ‘Great to get along with Ian’s old fucks.’” After an affair with a lead guitarist, she works on The Hummer, then as a freelance, writes a newspaper profile on McTaggart, starts sleeping with him, is surprised as it develops into a relationship, takes him home to meet Dad, in Florizel St (Burwood). Ian and Allison part, Ian “opting for minimal loft living, presumed celibacy.”

Ian learns about Sue and McTaggart from Allison on Christmas eve, goes out to his brother’s for Christmas lunch “back in Blackburn, where everyone lived when we were young”, spends the rest of the day with the old gang from The Hummer at Sue’s. “She cornered me: Well, your turn to be warned. John wants to meet you.” The next morning McTaggart wakes Ian from his hangover, “’I’m shouting lunch at Lulus. Ever been? Expensive, yes, but certainly not stuffy; / you’d hate my club.’” He wants Ian to look into an upmarket brothel, Crystal Palace, where a prostitute has been murdered who might have been gathering dirt on her clientele –“medicine, the judiciary, even certain police, politicians …”

‘It is bizarre, I understand.’ You, I thought, you: want: me: to: but he
proposed a four-figure sum
(of a middling bracket), to get doubled when I returned with facts …

He starts meeting/paying for Terri during the day, tells her he’s a researcher. She calls him professor, or sometimes, darls. Can’t meet her ‘outside’, she has a boyfriend, Ross, who’s sort of a dealer.

We hear from Robert, on a road trip to a Labor conference in Adelaide, from Ian again and then Terri. The plot takes a holiday but the text, the poetry, carries you on, as we get deeper into the characters. Terri and Ross bump into Ian a couple of times in inner suburban pubs, then Ross away in Thailand, Ian persuades Terri to come home with him.

I know: getting involved with a client might give commonsense the shove,
was breaking that first parlour law. But, I thought, Terri, now’s
the time you’ve had enough of rules. Outside your job the only powers
that ought to be are yours. You like him and want him. What’s that prove?

Ross comes home. Crystal Palace is not as exclusive as it used to be. Terri thinks she’ll go with Ross, next time he goes away. Sue’s turn, she meets McTaggart’s ex, is told she has a predecessor, McTaggart’s PA, Veronica Lim. “Really? Another thing that everybody knew, I didn’t know?” She takes a break:

and wouldn’t I crawl the clichéd mile
of broken glass to view the leader and his shy if warm smile
swap for the grin of some sexist smarty:
‘Sue, haven’t I said we’ve affirmative action right through our party?’
Oh, shuddup: ‘That’s just an equal balance of pricks to cunts
for you. Huh? And don’t look so damn hurt.’

We hear from John: “Your photographer having sprained something, you arrived alone: smallish, your hair brushed back and held with a light thin scarf, a broadcast of fading freckles, a mouth that knew it could pout.” And from his mother, the usual landed ‘gentry’/private school back story. Ian wraps up. “It’s ending. Her Ross has returned. ‘My opponent’ goes too far,/ but my rival, anyway has returned.” Still, he sees her again.

In Blackburn, “through gravel-edged Myrtle Grove, Acacia Avenue. How quiet and private/ it seems going on back to my brother’s or mother’s”, the election rolls to its inevitable (happy) conclusion.

The subscript to the title reads ‘This book should become a classic of our literature’. It hasn’t and I don’t suppose it will, but it’s certainly one of my favourites, and I recommend it to all Melburnians (Sydneyites wouldn’t get it).

 

Alan Wearne, The Nightmarkets, Penguin, Melbourne, 1986

see also:
Alan Wearne online (here)
SMH review, Peter Craven, 23 March, 2013 (here)
Pulping our Poetry, The Australian, 7 July, 2007 (here)