Today is the birthday (1867) of Henry Archibald Hertzberg Lawson, Australian writer and poet. Along with his contemporary Banjo Paterson, Lawson is among the best-known Australian poets and fiction writers of the colonial period and is often called Australia’s “greatest short story writer”. He was the son of the poet, publisher and political activist, Louisa Lawson, subject of one of my very earliest posts here: https://www.bookofdaystales.com/louisa-lawson-and-the-dawn-club/
Henry Lawson was born on the Grenfell goldfields of New South Wales. His father was Niels Hertzberg Larsen, a Norwegian-born miner from Tromøya near Arendal. Niels Larsen went to sea at 21 and arrived in Melbourne in 1855 to join the gold rush, along with partner William Henry John Slee. Lawson’s parents met at the goldfields of Pipeclay (now Eurunderee New South Wales). Niels and Louisa Albury (1848–1920) married on 7 July 1866 when he was 32 and she 18. On Henry’s birth, the family surname was Anglicized and Niels became Peter Lawson. The newly married couple were to have an unhappy marriage. Louisa took a significant part in women’s movements, and edited a women’s paper called The Dawn (published May 1888 to July 1905). She also published her son’s first volume, and around 1904 brought out a volume of her own, Dert and Do, a simple story of 18,000 words. In 1905 she collected and published her own verses, The Lonely Crossing and other Poems. Louisa likely had a strong influence on her son’s literary work in its earliest days
Lawson attended school at Eurunderee from 2 October 1876 but suffered an ear infection at around this time. It left him with partial deafness and by the age of fourteen he had lost his hearing entirely. However, his master John Tierney was a kindly man and did all he could for Lawson, who was quite shy. Lawson later attended a Catholic school at Mudgee, around 8 km away. The master there, Mr Kevan, taught Lawson about poetry and literature. Lawson was a keen reader, and reading became a major source of his education because, due to his deafness, he had trouble learning in the classroom.
In 1883, after working on building jobs with his father in the Blue Mountains, Lawson joined his mother in Sydney at her request. Louisa was then living with Henry’s sister and brother. At this time, Lawson was working during the day and studying at night for his matriculation in the hopes of receiving a university education. However, he failed his exams. At around 20 years of age Lawson went to the eye and ear hospital in Melbourne but nothing could be done for his deafness.
In 1896, Lawson married Bertha Bredt, daughter of Bertha Bredt, the prominent socialist. The marriage was unhappy due to Lawson’s alcoholism. They had two children, son Jim (Joseph) and daughter Bertha. However, the marriage ended badly and with poor relations between them ever after.
Lawson’s first published poem was ‘A Song of the Republic’ which appeared in The Bulletin, 1 October 1887. His mother’s republican friends were an obvious influence. This was followed by ‘The Wreck of the Derry Castle’ and then ‘Golden Gully.’ Prefixed to the former poem was an editorial ‘note:
In publishing the subjoined verses we take pleasure in stating that the writer is a boy of 17 years, a young Australian, who has as yet had an imperfect education and is earning his living under some difficulties as a housepainter, a youth whose poetic genius here speaks eloquently for itself.
Lawson was 20 years old, not 17.
From 1890-1891 Lawson worked in Albany. He then received an offer to write for the Brisbane Boomerang in 1891, but he lasted only around 7–8 months as the Boomerang was soon in trouble. While in Brisbane he contributed to William Lane’s Worker; he later angled for an editorial position with the similarly-named Worker of Sydney, but was unsuccessful. He returned to Sydney and continued to write for the Bulletin which, in 1892, paid for an inland trip where he experienced the harsh realities of drought-affected New South Wales. He also worked as a roustabout (general hand) in the woolshed at Toorale Station. This resulted in his contributions to the Bulletin Debate and became a source for many of his stories in subsequent years. One critic describes the trek Lawson took between Hungerford and Bourke as “the most important trek in Australian literary history” and says that “it confirmed all his prejudices about the Australian bush. Lawson had no romantic illusions about a ‘rural idyll’ such as projected by Banjo Paterson.
Lawson’s most successful prose collection is While the Billy Boils, published in 1896. Lawson created his own style and defined Australians in a new way: laconic, egalitarian, and humane. Most of his work focuses on the Australian bush, such as the desolate “Past Carin’ ” a starkly realistic portrait of Australian life as it was at the time, or “The Drover’s Wife” a bleak description of loneliness. It is regularly studied in schools and has often been adapted for film and theater. Lawson was a firm believer in the merits of the sketch story, commonly known simply as ‘the sketch,’ claiming that “the sketch story is best of all.” Lawson’s “On The Edge Of A Plain,” is often cited as one of the most accomplished examples of the sketch.
Like the majority of Australians, Lawson was a city dweller, but he had had plenty of knowledge of outback life, and, in fact, many of his stories reflect his experiences of Australian urban life. In Sydney in 1898 he was a prominent member of the Dawn and Dusk Club, a bohemian club of writer friends who met for drinks and conversation.
In 1903 he took a room at Mrs Isabel Byers’ Coffee Palace in North Sydney. This marked the beginning of a 20-year friendship between Byers and Lawson. Despite his position as the most celebrated Australian writer of the time, Lawson was deeply depressed and perpetually poor. He lacked money due to unfortunate royalty deals with publishers. His ex-wife repeatedly reported him for non-payment of child maintenance, resulting in jail terms. He was jailed at Darlinghurst Gaol for drunkenness and non-payment of child support, and recorded his experience in the haunting poem “One Hundred and Three” – his prison number – which was published in 1908. He refers to the prison as “Starvinghurst Gaol” because of the meager rations given to the inmates. At this time, Lawson became withdrawn, alcoholic, and unable to carry on the usual routine of life.
Byers was an excellent poet herself and although of modest education, had been writing vivid poetry since her teens in a similar style to Lawson’s. She was long separated from her husband and elderly, and was, at the time she met Lawson, a woman of independent means looking forward to retirement. Byers regarded Lawson as Australia’s greatest living poet, and hoped to sustain him well enough to keep him writing. She negotiated on his behalf with publishers, helped to arrange contact with his children, wrote to friends and supporters to help him financially, and assisted and nursed him through his mental and alcohol problems. She wrote countless letters on his behalf and knocked on any doors that could provide Lawson with financial assistance or a publishing deal.
Lawson died, of cerebral hemorrhage, in Abbotsford, Sydney in 1922. He was given a state funeral. His funeral was attended by the Prime Minister Billy Hughes and the Premier of New South Wales, Jack Lang (who was the husband of Lawson’s sister-in-law Hilda Bredt), as well as thousands of citizens. He is interred at Waverley Cemetery. Lawson was the first person to be granted a New South Wales state funeral (traditionally reserved for Governors, Chief Justices, etc.) on the grounds of having been a ‘distinguished citizen’.
I knew almost nothing about Lawson when I was a schoolboy in South Australia in the 1950s and ‘60s. We studied poetry and short stories in English classes but very little of it was bred in Australia. Most of our poetry diet was the classics of the 19th century, such as Kipling and Newbolt; our set books were Wind in the Willows, Gulliver’s Travels, and Treasure Island. When we did read Australians it was Banjo Paterson, not Lawson – too honest for the education department of the era, I suppose. The only reason I even knew his name was that I was an avid stamp collector and there was a nice sepia image of him on a 1949 stamp. I hope things are different now. In hindsight it seems to me that Australia was ashamed of its homegrown life back then. When television arrived it was all shows from the U.S. and England; history classes favored the English Tudors and Stuarts over Australian explorers. I know more about Australian history, poetry, and art now than when I was 14. Lawson wrote, “We shall never be understood or respected by the English until we carry our individuality to extremes, and by asserting our independence, become of sufficient consequence in their eyes to merit a closer study than they have hitherto accorded us.”
Here’s an epitaph in his own words: “Beer makes you feel the way you ought to feel without beer.”
The lack of much in the way of Australian indigenous cuisine is also, I believe, a reflection of the Australian heritage of European immigration which fostered a sentimental look back at “the old country.” My mainstay for dinner was my mum’s English cooking. Sundays we always had a Sunday roast, and it was always lamb. Lamb was sometimes called “365” because it was cheap enough to eat every day. Mum put a shoulder of lamb on to cook before we went to church, and it was ready to serve when we got home. There might be leftovers for Monday. Despite it being just about all I ate on Sundays I’m still a huge fan. But you have to do it right. First and foremost, roast lamb should be pink inside. Too many people think it should be uniformly grey inside – why not roast some cardboard instead? And you should serve it with roast potatoes. Mine, I humbly state, were legendary – I had to make bucketloads to satisfy my guests.
A shoulder of lamb can be boned and rolled (makes for easy carving), but I think it is more flavorful on the bone. Bring it to room temperature several hours before cooking, slice several cloves of garlic rather thickly, and insert them under the skin. With the point of a sharp paring knife puncture shallow slits all over the skin of the lamb and push the garlic in as deeply as you can. Don’t be a slacker – make it look like a hedgehog. Roast at 450°-500°F for about 90 minutes, depending on weight. The skin should be crisply golden and the inside pink, not bloody.
You’re on your own with the roasties. I’ve instructed dozens of cooks and they cannot replicate mine. I peel them, cut them in chunks, and put them in a separate baking pan from the joint with a couple of tablespoons of drippings and put them in with the roast on the top shelf. Every 15 minutes or so I shake the pan and flip them around so that they brown evenly. The result is a very crisp outside and a soft floury inside.
I’ve never liked the classic mint sauce with lamb, although you can serve it if you want. I cook a gravy by making a dark roux with pan drippings and flour (equal amounts), then add stock, mashed garlic, and fresh rosemary, and simmer until medium thick (pints of it usually).
I tend to prefer a green vegetable, usually spinach or Brussels sprouts, as an accompaniment.
Always, always, always make shepherd’s pie with the leftovers and Scotch broth with the bone —