Henry and Banjo | James Knight

This book sounds like must read Australian literary biography, so intriguing and such an awesome idea to tell the tale of the two men who became literary legends the world over who clearly represented and wrote with the most Australian of voices. News reporter, documentary maker and biographic author James Knight chronicles these two greats, Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson, in one book; HENRY AND BANJO. It released last month from the folks at Hachette Australia and is available from all good bookstores. The stepdad might end up with a copy in his stocking after reading Kernel Kates revew below. Enjoy……..all the best……..JK.

 

henry and banjo book cover image
Henry and Banjo | Salty Popcorn Book Review | Book Cover Image

 

BY KATE DAWES

Henry Lawson and AB ‘Banjo’ Paterson made their marks in Australian culture and literature with their classic bush poetry painting the face of a young nation but behind the stories, poems and legends lie two men who despite having many similarities in early life took very different paths in life as explored by James Knight in HENRY & BANJO.

As one might expect HENRY & BANJO brings us the parallel biographies of Lawson and Paterson, presented side by side and showing their development as men and writers and their very different journeys through life and the emerging Australian literary scene in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Both born in the 1860’s in Australia to immigrant parents the two boys both grew up in the New South Wales country sharing both the romanticism and desperation the Australian bush (in the gold rush era) could provide. Both received real life experience in the bush, a country school education and a life long disability, for Paterson a repeatedly broken and subsequently deformed arm and for Lawson a loss of hearing following a childhood illness, but once they reached their teen years their paths started to diverge. Paterson was educated at one of the best schools in the colony and made a career in law while Lawson left school early to go to work with his father in his carpentry and construction business.

None the less both men shared a passion for the written word and published numerous ballads and short stories, both starting out at Sydney paper ‘The Bulletin” and often writing under various pen names. Despite having a passing acquaintance the two men were often at odds with Paterson’s romanticism of bush life offsetting Lawson’s more cynical tone and at one stage even publishing dueling verses with one lamenting the despair of bush life and the other idealising it’s freedom and simplicity. Sadly by their 30’s the two poets lives had taken markedly different turns and while Paterson passed up his successful career in law to write, edit and serve as a war correspondent, Lawson slid in to alcoholism and depression.

 

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Henry and Banjo | Salty Popcorn Book Review | Author, James Knight, Image

 

Both men have left an enduring impression on Australian culture and literature with, as Knight asserts in his introduction, many of us who were educated in Australia able to recite a line or two from one of our great poets from memory or even create an entire ballad in the style of THE MAN FROM SNOWY RIVER for a friend’s farewell (hi mum) but the question of how much is known about their real lives is an interesting one. Knight tells us “it is well known that both writers applied ‘licence’ to some of their factual works” making it hard to piece together the reality from the picture they painted of their lives, however Knight has given us a well researched and thought out work filling in the unknown thoughts and feelings of some family members and indeed Lawson and Paterson themselves with ‘in character’ sentiments. The result is that while there may be questions about the veracity of some of the sentiments and thought presented, Knight’s prose paints a picture of the time worthy of the imagery Lawson and Paterson themselves. The opening page giving us “The stalks of harvested wheat fields blew back and forth on the breeze, creating the illusion of a gigantic blanket settling not the ground after being tossed in the air”.

While the two poets had their differences one similarity they had was their social conscience which is a theme Knight highlights at various points, mainly in their earlier lives. With Paterson making an ill fated run for parliament and Lawson penning anthems for the working men it is interesting from a historical point of view to see some of the thoughts and opinions which remain relevant in Australia today. Sydney-siders might also notice several mentions of landmarks, buildings and in Lawson’s case pubs which are still running today. This makes an interesting contrast to some of the themes and ideologies of the poets’ work with bush life as they knew it making way for modern farming and industry while the brick and mortar structures of Sydney, often their surrounds despite being far removed from their subject matter, are still standing.

The point where HENRY AND BANJO lost me a little was in the more sensational parts of their lives, particularly that of Lawson, where the feeling and empathy was lost a little. After the stirring, scene setting prose showcased in the beginning of the book the narrative becomes a little dry when talking about Lawson’s decline and suicide attempt, relying on witness accounts and quotes rather than using the strength of the prose to help readers feel involved in the scene. The start of Lawson’s alcoholism is well characterised, however this potential emotional crescendo for me fell a little flat. This does, however, keep the two poets on an even playing field, Paterson having been a more stable and steadfast character and perhaps, for some, the flat feeling conveyed at this point will have more truth to it than if it were highlighted emotively.

While their writing may live on in memory long after they both passed the lesser known stories of Australia’s great bush poets is just as complex, engaging and tumultuous a story as Clancy or The Man From Snowy River ever were and one which is well worth reading.

 

3 and a Half Pops

 

 

Having always loved stories one of Kernel Kate’s most frequent childhood memories was her parents telling her in the early hours that it was way too late to still be reading and to go to sleep, but she would always sneak in the end of the chapter. Her love of stories led to a career in movies as well as remaining an avid reader of everything from novels to academic papers and junk mail. She makes a perfect reading machine fit to the Salty Cob.