Faces in the Street

a novel by Pip Wilson

 

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ISBN 978-0-9803487-0-5

 

 

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Contents  Glossary & Biographies (from the book)

 

The trouble with Henry Lawson

I gave a talk on Henry Lawson on ABC Radio National's Perspective program on February 6, 2007. This was three weeks after the Saturday Sydney Morning Herald 'Spectrum' liftout featured my essay on the Lawsons and their associates, which has raised considerable interest in the novel.

An hour before I recorded the five-minute talk in the ABC studio in Coffs Harbour, I ate a chili sandwich which burnt my throat and, when I tried to clear my throat in the studio, it sent me into a coughing fit and I nearly lost my voice. I coughed all through the show and I admit that I was also belching a bit. I love my chili. The producer did a good edit job, but I sounded terrible considering it was aired nationwide in prime time, and also overseas on Radio Australia. Embarrassed as I am, I've made the mp3 (2.8 megs) available online. Here is the transcript:

G’day. Do you have a $10 note handy? If so, you’re looking at a picture of Dame Mary Gilmore, the socialist poet. Have a look at her strong face. Mary lived from 1865 to 1962 and for most of the 20th Century she was this country’s best-known female writer. Henry Lawson proposed marriage to her … I’ll get back to this in a minute, but let’s look at that ten bucks again.

Flip the note over and you’ll see the portrait of Banjo Paterson, who wrote ‘Waltzing Matilda’. He was a mate of Henry Lawson’s, and his copyright lawyer.

Until quite recently, Henry Lawson was on the $10 note. Sometimes I meet Australians who don’t even know who he was. So here we have Henry and Mary, two people honoured in a very special way, yet do we really have a clue who they were?

In 1890, when Sydney was already a world city, almost twice as populous as San Francisco, Henry was living with his mother, brother and sister at 138 Phillip Street – his other brother, Charles, was in prison. (The Lawsons spent a lot of time in jail and psychiatric hospitals.) The Lawson cottage site is now a high-rise, and there is not even a plaque to commemorate that paupers’ home in which occurred some of the most remarkable phenomena in Australian history. At 138 Phillip St, impoverished single-mother Louisa Lawson – called by fellow suffragettes “The Mother of Women’s Suffrage” – began a two-decades campaign to win Australian women the vote and other rights.

And at 138 Phillip Street, teenaged Henry Lawson commenced a writing career that made him the most celebrated writer in Australian history – in his day perhaps the most famous Australian – a superstar in his 20s. At the next house they moved into that year, Mary Gilmore (Mary Cameron as she was then), was a lodger. Louisa would tolerate no ‘funny business’ in her house and sent Henry to Western Australia; Henry proposed to Mary the day before he steamed out of Sydney Harbour.

While he was over in WA, Louisa intercepted Henry’s letters to Mary and it turned out Mary later married somebody else – a shearer named Will Gilmore, who she hitched up with in Paraguay, in a commune called ‘New Australia’, lived in by some 600 people all told. It was started by Henry Lawson’s boss, William Lane. Before she married Gilmore, Mary wrote back to Henry trying to rekindle the old flame. But he’d got hitched by then, unbeknown to her.

You see, the trouble with Henry Lawson is that he has been washed in billy tea and drowned in eucalyptus antiseptic. He’s a swagman poet, right? A lone, Outback bushwhacking character, right? Wrong. Henry lived virtually his entire adult life in Sydney and London, mixing with radicals, anarchists, bohemians and the odd terrorist. In 1892 Jules Archibald, editor of The Bulletin – donor of Sydney’s Archibald Fountain and the Archibald Prize – gave Henry Lawson a one-way ticket to Bourke, and five pounds (ten bucks) to get some bush stories from the young writer, but Henry was a city bloke and he based most of his stories on just nine drought-stricken months Back o’ Bourke.

Even before Mary’s love letter was on the steamship bound from South America, Henry Lawson had married Bertha Bredt, whose parents ran McNamara’s radical bookshop in Castlereagh Street, Sydney. Bertha’s sister married Jack Lang, a young fella illegally printing Arthur Desmond’s anarchist journal Hard Cash … Henry’ brother-in-law Jack later became Premier of NSW. Others working for Desmond’s leftist papers included William Holman, later Premier of NSW, and William Morris Hughes, later 7th prime minister of Australia. Arthur Desmond’s anarchist Active Service Brigade barracks and McNamara’s Book Depot were side by side, and the rent on both was paid by … John Haynes – founder of The Bulletin and a NSW parliamentarian for 30 years.

Before she left for Paraguay, Mary watched out for the police at Circular Quay while Artie Rae and Chris Watson removed a bomb placed there by their comrade Larry Petrie, who the following year bombed a passenger steamship near Brisbane, one of a wave of many such terrorist incidents in 1893. Artie Rae? He was General-Secretary of Australia’s largest union, the AWU, and an Australian Senator for donkey’s years. Chris Watson? Australia’s third prime minister.

I did mention Henry and Bertha’s two years in London. Bertha was hospitalized for insanity after throwing herself in the River Thames. While she was in Bedlam Hospital, Henry Lawson was cohabiting with Lizzie Humphrey but pining for his lover in Melbourne, Hannah Thornburn.

So, let’s have no more of this hermit swagman Henry Lawson, shall we?
 


 

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ISBN 978-0-9803487-0-5

 

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