Henry Lawson: Some reminiscences [25 February 1923]

Henry Lawson

Some reminiscences

— By “Crosscut” —

Henry Lawson is dead — good luck to his soul wherever it may be — and it will doubtlessly be thought by many that any tribute to his memory at this belated hour will serve no purpose that has not already been accomplished by other less dilatory pens. The few notices that have so far met my eye, however, living as I do in the bush, seemed to me but the usual stereotyped allusions to the passing of a noted writer; the cut and dried journalese of the obituary recorder who allots so many lines to his task, and void of any sign of the personal touch which reveals to the people not only the poet and the story-teller, but the man.

Perhaps that is just about what Lawson would have it to be. Fame as a writer meant little to him and Society was a thing upon which he ever looked with a repellant eye; he was a poor “boomster” for his trade, and never appreciated the value of a fashionable drawing-room as an influence upon the sale of his work. He preferred — and rightly so — to stand upon its merit — and, if that had failed him, would probably have gone on painting houses and fences quite undisturbed by any lesser consideration. Because he was a friend of mine more than a quarter of a century ago — and that was when he was at his best — I am recalling the few reminiscences herein set down.

I forgot how long ago it was since I first met him, but I know it was just about the time that the public were beginning to look for his verses in the “Bulletin,” and the place was Mount Victoria, upon the Blue Mountains of New South Wales. Appropriately enough, too, it was in a pub! I was a casual “paying guest,” and he was painting, or rather white-washing the ceiling of one of the bar-parlors, and I asked him to have a drink. To be exact, I merely, said “good-day” to him, and with the fatuousness of an idle man wishing to start a conversation, asked him if he “was doing a bit of painting?” Lawson was deaf to a certain degree, even in those early days, and he replied from the scaffolding upon which he was standing that he didn’t mind if he did. And so the first few words that we ever had together were over a glass of beer in that most picturesque of all the many beauty spots in the most beautiful portion of New South Wales.

During the few weeks that I remained there I met him daily; our stray acquaintance ripening into a mutual liking for each other, and it was the barman who told me his name, and its connection with the Sydney Bulletin — a piece of information that did not carry a deal of weight with me at the time, as, up to then, he was merely trying his ’prentice hand upon the alluring game of literature. But from that period we met frequently in different places, sometimes very far apart, and it had not taken me long to recognise the genius and the lovable qualities of the man; his earnestness and the purpose — too often, alas rendered null and void for reasons far beyond his control — and the careless freedom of spirit which made him the boon companion of other good but reckless souls with whom it was his delight to foregather.

It is difficult to write of Lawson without dwelling for an instant, albeit with a kindly pen, upon the failing which he shared in common with so many who have trodden the inky way with distinction. He himself would be the last to cavil at the reference, for did he not, when recording his feeling at the last resting place of Victor J. Daley, a man for whom he had an intense admiration and affection, write: “A Drunkard at a Drunkard’s Grave, A Brilliant Drunkard Dead!”

His real name was Larsen, and his father, if I remember rightly, was a Dane. When the infant Henry was due for christening, his father insisted that he must bear at least one name suggestive of the stock from which he sprung, and “Hertzberg” (and Harry told us this with great enjoyment) was the middle name decided upon. But man proposes and the parson disposes. The officiating minister, being young and nervous, forgot the name at the critical moment and asked in a whisper to have it repeated. The proud parents complied, but it must have sounded different to the cleric, for he duly substituted “Archibald” for “Hertsberg,” and the future poet went forth to the world with the all-British name of Henry Archibald Lawson!

It has been suggested, since his death that but for the patient sub-editing his prose received (at the capable hands of Archibald and Edmonds particularly) very little of his writings would have seen print but this, I think is but a belated sneer, which it would have better become the critic to have left unexpressed — or to have given it voice when the author was still alive! Boiled down to its final residue the truth is that he wrote what was in him to write, as a son of the people to the people without worrying to cast about for polished sentences and sounding periods. There is more philosophy jammed into “When Your Pants Begin To Go” than there is in a whole volume of David M’Kee Wright’s harsh machine-made metallics, or in a ream of Morton’s polysyllabic metaphysics. Lawson was read because the man in the bush, and the man in the street could understand him and whereof he wrote, and could discriminate between the quiet truths of the earnest writer, and the frothy verbiage of the average showy ink slinger.

“Harry,” we used to call him in the good old days. Grave, and always with a hint of tragedy about him somehow, he was then good company, and fond of a practical joke. There was a place of refreshment much frequented by literary gents, would-be-actors (some really “had-beens,” too, amongst them, and some who later on “arrived”) in Wynyard Lane, known colloquially as “The Hole in the Wall,” and there we often met. It was a cellar of a place with big arches and round, marble tables and chairs, and newspapers, and beer served up in big earthenware mugs. A bounteous country lunch, which always included a special potato salad and unlimited cheese was served from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and the place was very conveniently situated within a stone’s throw of George-street, and yet sufficiently removed from the way of the madding crowd to be pleasantly quiet and private. I remember one day that Lawson proposed a trip to Manly Beach when we all happened to be silverfish — bar one, and he was a down-at-heels actor who never had the price, but was always on the spot to take one. And he was the victim. He listened greedily to Harry’s joyous programme of a dinner at the Clarendon, with billiards afterwards and a theatre to follow; and Lawson “shanghaied” him mercilessly upon the old “Brighton,” and returned with his fellow-conspirators to the Hole in the Wall to put everyone wise to the joke. The victim was back within two hours, the whole six-feet-two of him bristling with wrath, but he could not stand up against the “roasting” he received at every hand and got pleasantly drunk with us — or at least as drunk as a gentleman of his professional standing could get — “just to show there was no animosity, don’t yon know!” This just by the way as evidence that poor old Harry was not the eternal killjoy that some would have him.

When he was preparing his first serious collection of verses “In the Days When the World was Wide” for publication (he had previously published a book, but it was ill-printed and, the proofs having been read by himself, full of typographical and other errors) be discovered that “Banjo” Paterson was upon the eve of launching a volume of verse. Evidently it would not do for the two works to be issued simultaneously, and both authors recognised the fact. They met and talked the matter over. Banjo had what Lawson had not — he had money and large social influence, as well as merit, let it be said. But it was the poorer man who voluntarily stood down.

“Bring out your book,” he and, “and I’ll follow on later and catch you up!” And some few months later I asked him how the pursuit was going.

“Pretty good,” he replied, “I’m within a hundred or two of him already, and the sales are going steadily.”

There is truth in the saying that what is bred in the bone will come out in the flesh. Lawson had poetry — although sometimes it found inadequate expression — in his very finger tips. He may have been a successful painter and decorator, for that was his trade; he may have risen high in the scholastic profession — he was teacher in a Maori school-house in New Zealand, and, Lord, how I would have loved to have seen Henry, deaf as he was, amidst his little mob of niggers chanting “twity-one are two, twity-two are fo’!”; or he might have risen to eminence in the Cosmos Colony in South America, to which place he paid a tentative visit when John Lane [editor: William Lane*] was blooming like Solomon in all his glory, but none of these things were for him. The call of the pen was too insistent for him to deny, and with all his faults the world is the better for his work.

How many of us can say as much?

The last I saw of Lawson was in Perth in ‘96, and he was then back at the old game of painting. His brother Bert, by-the-bye, was about that time occupying chambers next to mine in the Fremantle Town Hall buildings, in which he had installed a piano, and was following up music as a profession and a means to an end. He was a handsome and romantic looking young fellow — as much like Harry as a split pea is to a broad-bean — and was known as the composer of rather fine music and of fashionable waltzes in particular. Henry fought shy of society, which, as the “Bulletin” remarked, was “a damn bad thing for sassiety, but a damn good thing for Henry!”

He lived for a while in a bell tent near the Causeway with certain boon companions, and the last particularly distinct memory I have of him was when one morning he invited me down to the office of the “West Australian” to assist him in spending certain money he was about to draw for some accepted contributions. They were not yet in print, but, as we were thirsty, that was a secondary consideration. He appeared in ten minutes with an even bigger blaze in his sombre eyes than was usually there, and I let him simmer down before I asked the reason of his agitation. I got it in a few words — the “West” had proposed to pay him ten shillings a column for his copy! He held a bundle of rumpled proof-slips in his hand — and I think that is one of the reasons that he took on the first job of house-painting that came along.

I am rather glad that I did not have the opportunity of knowing him during the later years of his life. And I am very glad indeed that I knew him at his best!

The Sunday Times (Perth, WA), Sunday 25 February 1923, page 1s (page 1 of the “Second Section” of The Sunday Times)

Editor’s notes:
1) The author gives two spellings of Lawson’s middle name, Hertzberg and Hertsberg.

2) * The reference to John Lane should be to William Lane, who set up the “New Australia” settlement in Paraguay, then one called “Cosme” in the same area. It is possible that the error in mis-naming him “John” occurred because William Lane had used the name “John Miller” as a pseudonym.

[Editor: Corrected fo’!”) to fo’!”; – i.e. replaced the closing bracket with a semi-colon, as there is no opening bracket to match and the use of a semi-colon fits the usage already applied in that sentence.]

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