Title: Henry Lawson Among Maoris

Author: William H. Pearson

Publication details: Reed Publishing (NZ) Ltd, 1968, Wellington

Digital publication kindly authorised by: Paul Millar

Part of: New Zealand Texts Collection

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Henry Lawson Among Maoris



The bushman's code* in terms of which Lawson judged nonAustralians took time to develop; the attitudes and assumptions underlying it were determined by events and pressures over many years.1 Much of the code Lawson would have absorbed during his childhood and adolescence at New Pipeclay (later renamed Eurunderee) near Mudgee in New South Wales. His most dramatic exposure to it was his brief spell on the Darling in 1892-3, when J. F. Archibald, editor of the Bulletin, gave him £5 and a railway ticket to Bourke.2 It was a season of severe drought and of depression and smouldering industrial dispute between shearers and sheep-owners. Lawson spent some time in Bourke where he found a job painting, then joined a mate Jim Gordon and headed west to a shearing shed at Toorale where they found a job picking up. From Toorale they walked to Queensland, through Goombalie to Hungerford. After a few months' casual work and tramping they returned to Bourke where they got a drovers' pass and took sheep by rail either to Homebush or Flemington on the western outskirts of Sydney.3 The jobs he took were always those of lower status in the outback scale of values: he was never a shearer but with his mates worked as wool-picker, wool-roller, wool-scourer, and rouseabout; sheep-droving, Russel Ward says, was much less esteemed than bullock-droving.4

page 17

Lawson was always, as H. M. Green says, pedestrian, not equestrian.5 He had spent four to five months on the shearing boards of the Darling and the time of a train journey returning with the sheep to Sydney. A. J. Coombes has said, 'This brief sojourn formed practically the whole of Lawson's Australian bush experience between the time that he left Eurunderie [sic] and his death.'6 Arthur Jose wrote of Lawson's later 'knowledge that he could subsist indefinitely on the product of his one year's [sic] backblocks experience between Bourke and Hungerford'.7 But this ignores Lawson's sixteen years of less dramatic hardship at Eurunderee and Gulgong and his briefer spells at Lahey's Creek, Wallerawang, and Mount Victoria. The old and, one hopes, superannuated argument that at various times has involved Banjo Paterson (however genuinely), A. G. Stephens, Jose, H. M. Green, and more recently Cecil Mann, whether Lawson's representation of the outback was pessimistic, whether he 'understood' the bush, is not only irrelevant to his quality as an artist, it overlooks the intensity of his exposure to the physical and economic privations of the Darling country in 1892. If Paterson conceded that where he himself prospected on horseback and had his meals prepared for him, Lawson walked and had to cook for himself, he did not appreciate that Lawson was prospecting for employment and at times had no food to cook. Lawson's letters to Aunt Emma show what he suffered:

I am now camped on the Queensland side of the bordera beaten man…. No work and very little to eat; we lived mostly on johnny cakes and cadged a bit of meat here and there at the miserable stations. Have been three days without sugar. Once in Bourke I'll find means of getting back to Sydney-never to face the bush again…. You can have no idea of the horrors of the country out here. Men tramp and beg like dogs. It is two months since I slept in what you can call a bed. We walk as far as we can-according to the water-and then lay down and roll ourselves in our blankets. The flies start at daylight and we fight them all day till darkthen mosquitos start. I'm writing on an old tin and my legs ache too much to let me sit any longer. I've always tried to write cheerful letters so you'll excuse this one….8

After tramping the 140 miles to Bourke he wrote: 'My boots were worn out and I was in rags when I arrived here…. I find page 18that I've tramped more than 300 miles since I left here last. That's all I ever intend to do with a swag. It's too hot to write any more'.9

The situation in which Lawson found himself that summer was one in which nomadic workers were entirely dependent on the controlling forces-the sheep-owners and the climate; and those forces were malign. It was a situation in which the individual could not survive except in combination and mutual aid. The need was answered in political terms by the new unionism; in personal terms by the code of mateship, of which Lawson became the most articulate exponent. It was a partnership of two, or of three, men in unquestioning mutual loyalty for mutual protection and interest, and it carried a deep reserve of emotion, mutually recognised and respected, but seldom revealed or referred to. In Lawson's work indeed there are features of the same universe that one finds in a line of literature in English that includes Arnold and Hardy and Sargeson and Beckett, in which with variety of emphasis the universe is desolate or hostile or indifferent and the only consolation of the lonely or struggling human soul is the affection of others. In Lawson, the desolation is implied, and seldom stated except in terms of landscape or climate, and the emphasis is on the consolations and the comedy of comradeship. At a time when the code survives mainly in the outback or in such specialised male communities as the armed services, one of Lawson's several descriptions might be needed as illustration:

The Australian Bushman is born with a mate who sticks to him through life-like a mole. They may be hundreds of miles apart sometimes, and separated for years, yet they are mates for life. A Bushman may have many mates in his roving, but there is always one his mate, 'my mate'; and it is common to hear a Bushman, who is, in every way, a true mate to the man he happens to be travelling with, speak of his mate's mate—'Jack's mate'—who might be in Klondyke or South Africa. A Bushman has always a mate to comfort him and argue with him and work and tramp and drink with him, and lend him quids when he's hard up, and call him a b—fool, and fight him sometimes; to abuse him to his face and defend his name behind his back; to bear false witness and perjure his soul for his sake; to lie to the girl for him if he's single, and to his wife if he's married; to secure a 'pen' for him at a shed where he isn't on the spot, or, if page 19the mate is away in New Zealand or South Africa, to write and tell him if it's any good coming over this way. And each would take the word of the other against all the world, and each believes that the other is the straightest chap that ever lived-'a white man!' And next best to your old mate is the man you're tramping, riding, working or drinking with.10

Mateship had an unspoken protocol of which Lawson was a passionate champion. Jim Gordon tells this of their tramping on the Darling:

After leaving Gumbalie, we made across to the Hungerford road, which in a few miles brought us to a Government tank…. The day was warm, the water-bag empty, and we were tired and thirsty, so we stopped some distance back at the tank that was filled by an oil-engine pump, to keep the troughs supplied. Our other mate was in the lead, and he clambered up and filled a billy and handed it down to us. We both had a long pull. Then he said: 'Come up and have a look.' There was a carpet-snake about six feet long floating, dead and swollen! Henry's eyes flashed as he said: 'He's a blanker of a mate. Come on, we'll leave him.' As we lifted our drums to move on the man said, 'Where yer goin'? Ain't we goin' to camp here?' Lawson dropped his swag hurriedly and made a step or two towards him, and answered: 'We are going on, but you are staying here.' He stayed and I never saw him after. Thinking over the incident now I do not fancy that he saw the snake till after we drank the water, and on the spur of the moment invited us to look. Still it may have been his idea of humor.11

For reasons that will appear later in this study I want to concentrate on the recurring motif in Lawson of two symbolic bushmen Bill and Jim. They show up in a good number of poems and stories; Bill as Boozing Bill and Corny Bill, a mate and a rover, Boko Bill who stole some cases from a cart; and Jim as Jimmy Nowlett the bullock-drover, Jimmy Noland 'the stranger's friend', Jim Duggan and Jim Barnes, shearer and jealous mate, and Tambaroora Jim, the soft-hearted publican.12 He appears as Flash Jim, the breaker, and Jim the Ringer.13 Jim is likely in the heat of a quarrel to say things he does not mean, as when he quarrels with Bill and says he 'hoped the coloured races would in time wipe out the white'.14 As Jim Duggan he hates greed and injustice; he fights the boss-over-page 20the-board and is beaten, but when the boss-over-the-board does not sack him, Jim raises three cheers for him.15 When Bill-o'-th'-Bush dies, Jim and his mates bury him and Jim 'blubbers and is unashamed', then takes round the hat for Bill's widow and children.16

Bill and Jim quarrel, but they can count on each other's help in danger: 'with faces grim' they ride out to meet a bush fire.17 They are comrades in fights in peace and war: in a war Jim recalls the time when he was held by the police for assaulting a Chinese and Bill rescued him by laying out three policemen. Bill is hit by a piece of shell and dies, and Jim sticks to 'what's left of Bill'. Bill says, as Jim reminisces,

You needn't mag, for I knowed, old chum, I knowed, old pal, you'd stick.18

Lawson elevates them into type figures, if not symbols, of the Australian bushman. Jimmy Noland, the stranger's friend is likened to the Good Samaritan and seen as a model of Christ, and Bill is raised to an eternal figure:

He shall live to the end of this mad old world, he has lived since the world began,
He has never done any good for himself, but was good to every man.
He has never done any good for himself, and I'm sure that he never will,
He drinks and he swears and he fights at times, and his name is mostly Bill.19

According to the Bulletin, Lawson named (or more accurately nicknamed) his son Jim 'in memory of the many unknown heroes of that name who have been buried under the mulga trees in the Never Never'.20 He planned, if Bertha bore twins, to call them Bill and Jim.21

But it was characteristic of Lawson to attack the very convention he was to develop: 'Half the bushmen are not called "Bill", nor the other half "Jim". We knew a shearer whose name was Reginald! Jim doesn't tell pathetic yarns in bad doggerel in a shearer's hut-if he did, the men would tap their heads and wink'.22

He later claimed to differentiate between them as characters: Bill was steady and easy-going, hard-working but liked an occasional spree; Jim had good intentions but was undepend-page 21able and broke out when drunk but in the last resort he could be depended upon to enlist in a war, and to be loyal to his mate.23 He once conflated them into a joint figure Biljim, and then protested against the conflation. 'In the first place, there isn't, and never was any "Biljim". He's a monster that was invented by some alleged writer who never knew either Bill or Jim, and is equally unknown to them. Their natures are as far apart as poles are.'24 But if the invention was not his own he had used it in the previous year, when 'a certain man from anywhere, call him Biljim, journeying out to Hungerford, leaves a sick mate at the Half-way Pub'.25 In this story Biljim, who is likened to the Good Samaritan, gives the publican a couple of quid to look after his mate and promises to pay anything extra after shearing. And in 1917 Lawson again used 'Biljim' as a type-name for a bushman.26

Bill, Jim, and Biljim were seen as types of what Russel Ward has called the Noble Bushman; though there is some awareness that they are figures of the past. As early as 1905 Lawson is nostalgic:

Where are Bill and Jim and Mary and the Songs They used to Sing.27

The Bulletin's competition for an epitaph for Biljim in 1918 may be seen as the burial of a literary figure who had long ceased to exist in reality.28 But to Lawson, Bill and Jim typify his experience for a total of seventeen or eighteen years of two or three areas of New South Wales at a time in the country's history that he came to see as its most significant and by which he came to judge all other ways of living. The further he grew from that experience the more sentimental his exposition of the bushmen's code becomes. In the main, and in his verse, Bill and Jim typify the Darling experience rather than Eurunderee. It is 'the Bourke of Ninety-one and two' that Lawson sees as a lost Eden; the 'west' is 'the land of Bills and Jims'.29 It is the men of the West, of the Dry Countree, of the Never Never, who are the Men who made Australia, who were the first to enlist in the country's wars, real and imaginary, who will save Australia in the Storm that is to Come. The noble bushman is also white supremacist:

He has 'stood 'em off' while others escaped, when the niggers rushed from the hill.30

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In contrast the rising generation of urban Australians were contemptible:
  • And who will hold the invader back when the shells tear up the ground—
  • The weeds that yelp by the cycling track while a nigger scorches round?31

His antipathy to urban behaviour appears in an undated clipping from the Worker: 'Put aside the bosh about Australia and what remains? The remnant of a dying race of men who were men, though somewhat small-minded, and a rising race of "dudes" and larrikins. What a land for swindlers!'32 And in the Worker in 1893 he said: 'The average Australian youth is a weedy individual with a weak, dirty and contemptible vocabulary, and a cramped mind devoted to sport; his god is a two-legged brute with unnaturally developed muscles and no brains'.33 In an undated typescript on the 'Sydney street crowd' he sardonically proposes mass extermination: 'In view of the utter failure of a Universal Decentralization policy, I am in favour of the establishment of commodious lethal chambers, with large crematoriams attached on all City and Suburban centres, and judicious Selection'.34

Lawson judged his society in terms of the bushman's code and increasingly he found himself out of sympathy with it. Australia discarded the values of the outback and Lawson in his latter years in Sydney disdained the new values of a commercial and partly industrial metropolis. In his later writing he looks backwards, and he hankered for the time when his writing had been in key with the national consciousness, or at least of the Bills and Jims whom he thought of as his readers. 'And so we go, with the motor car dust in our faces and the giggle and laugh in our ears; but the day shall come when the Sydney people shall remember Faces in the Street, as I remember the boy who wrote it.'35

* In this book I use bush in its Australian sense of 'rural hinterland', not in the New Zealand sense of 'rain-forest', and bushman to mean a rural dweller or worker and not an axeman or timber worker.