To-ing and fro-ing, John O’Leary

Henry Lawson in New Zealand
Charles Ferrall (ed)
Steele Roberts, $29.99,
ISBN 9781877577390


Who could be more Australian than Henry Lawson? He was born on a New South Wales goldfield, wandered and worked in the outback, and wrote stories and poems about bush characters whose laconic style and dry humour almost define what it is – or was – to be Australian. He even featured on the old Australian $10 banknote, till replaced by his equally Aussie near-contemporary “Banjo” Paterson.

It comes as something of a surprise, therefore, to learn that Lawson spent quite a lot of time in New Zealand during the 1890s, and that he produced a respectable body of work set in New Zealand and featuring New Zealand characters. Indeed, as Vincent O’Sullivan points out in his foreword to Henry Lawson in New Zealand, it is a curious fact that had Lawson pulled together all the pieces he set in the country, or completed the book he had in mind while teaching in a Maori school near Kaikoura, it would have been the most significant work of New Zealand literature to appear before Katherine Mansfield’s “Prelude”.

Lawson never finished that book but, happily, Charles Ferrall has pulled together Lawson’s scattered New Zealand writings in one volume, embedding these pieces in a helpful explanatory narrative. We see Lawson – an outsider, albeit a friendly one – seeing the country when it was still a raw, bustling little place, both progressive – it had just given women the vote, as Lawson noted approvingly ‒ and materialistic, as he noted less approvingly, describing Wellington as a place “where there is no caste – only a dead level of cliquism – where they hate one another only in a less degree than they hate the stranger who tries to settle amongst them without plenty of money to spend.”

Poor Lawson – though esteemed as a journalist and writer in his homeland of Australia, he never did have “plenty of money to spend”, and his reasons for crossing the Tasman three times were largely economic. New Zealand, unfortunately, provided little in the way of steady work, and Lawson had to travel around in search of employment. Literature was the winner here, as his roving lifestyle meant that he saw a fair bit of the country and met a wide variety of New Zealanders. He spent some time in Pahiatua, for example, and wrote a sketch of the place for the local newspaper that gently mocked its big-town pretensions. Back in Wellington, meanwhile, he met a commercial traveler who provided the model for his confidence trickster Steelman, the protagonist in a series of yarns published in While the Billy Boils (1896) and The Country I Come from (1901). The fact that Steelman is a Kiwi provides a pre-emptive riposte, of a kind, to the image provided by James K Baxter of the Aussie barman “milking the till” in his “Lament for Barney Flanagan”.

The tone of the Pahiatua piece and the Steelman stories is gently humorous, and this comic note is characteristic of Lawson’s New Zealand writings, something which sets them apart, generally speaking, from the grimmer realism of Australian pieces such as “The Drover’s Wife” or “The Union Buries Its Dead”. Lawson does on occasion strike a sadder, deeper note as in “Drift from a Wreck”, a touching elegy for a drowned man, buried in an anonymous grave on the Kaikoura coast. The final paragraph is worth quoting as an example of Lawson’s journalistic humanity:

But the cold, pale winter sunlight is fading from the peaks of the Kaikouras, the valley grows misty, and the bit of V-shaped sea blurs into the darkening cliffs. A stout, darkbearded man, with string round his legs, has taken down the moleskins aforesaid and examined them with satisfied approval and taken them in, and a woman comes out and gathers the stockings – not forgetting the one that fell in the grass. And we must leave Unknown and his quiet company to their long rest, and go our way towards our own.

Lawson wrote poems as well as prose, and Ferrall includes several examples. “To Tom Bracken” congratulates the writer of New Zealand’s national anthem on the fact that he has a kinder audience than his fellow poets across the Tasman (he hasn’t had to hang himself, like Barcroft Boake, or shoot himself, like Adam Lindsay Gordon). “Beautiful Maoriland, or Love and the Union” describes the ethical struggle a young shearer faces one morning as he has to choose between his loyalty to his union mates (currently on strike) and his desire to earn money so that he can return to New Zealand and his lover. (The ghost of the young woman in question, who has died that very day, prompts him to make the right decision.) The piece is of interest because it combines a fairly standard late 19th-century use of the uncanny with a strongly socialist imperative, a reminder that Lawson came from a radical background (his mother, Louisa, was an early feminist, and Lawson worked for a time as a sub-editor on the Queensland socialist newspaper the Worker, as Ferrall notes).

Two of Lawson’s poems have Maori themes. “Ake! Ake! Ake!” is a spirited account of Rewi Maniapoto’s famous last stand at Orakau in 1864; “Rewi to Grey” is a farewell piece that emphasises the nobility of the old chief and the mutual respect he and Governor Grey, his former enemy, enjoy. This kind of idealisation of Maori was typical of the era’s literature; being a fantasy, it could not, of course, survive contact with reality, which in Lawson’s case came in the form of the six months in 1897 which he spent running a school for young Maori at Mangamaunu near Kaikoura. Lawson’s disappointment focused particularly on a young Maori woman who was a pupil at his school, and whom he and his wife Bertha took into their house. It was a strange situation: while there was undoubtedly genuine kindness in the Lawsons’ hospitality, Lawson also had professional reasons for offering the maiden a home – he wanted to “get a romance” out of her life to help his own literary career. However, Sarah Moses proved to be a sulky, awkward teenager rather than a tragic heroine with a tale of lost love. The result was “A Daughter of Maoriland”, a rather unpleasant piece of prose which pokes fun at the notion of the noble savage and at literary gents who are foolish enough to be taken in by it. Such an oscillation between flights of romanticism and bitter disillusionment was typical of Lawson, as Ferrall notes; and to be fair to the poet – who was by all accounts a humane and decent man – Ferrall appends an unpublished reminiscence of the time at Mangamaunu which Lawson wrote a decade or more later, and which presents tangata whenua in a kinder, more sympathetic light. Still, “A Daughter of Maoriland” reminds us that Lawson, though a talented writer, was in many respects a man of his time, as subject to its fashions and prejudices as any other.

Settled as the Lawsons were in Mangamaunu – which had the advantage, given Henry’s penchant for alcohol, of not having a pub – the Lawsons left Mangamaunu in late 1897 and repaired to Wellington. The play Lawson wrote there – an absurd melodrama about a drunken journalist deciding to confess to a bank robbery he never committed in order to protect the honour of his beloved – is not published here (perhaps fortunately). Happily, however, his unpublished account of his time in the Wellington theatre scene (“Graveside & Gayside Memories”) is included. Gently humorous, it will raise a smile in anyone who has worked on the stage with its description of harried scriptwriters, anxious actors and disasters with the sets.

The first piece in this collection (“For Auld Lang Syne”) describes the adieux of Australians taking ship for New Zealand. It is only proper, therefore, that the last one (“A Frozen Saloon”) describes a group of New Zealand passengers on their way to Australia. To-ing and fro-ing across the Tasman, these sketches remind us, is by no means a phenomenon of the jet age; it has been going on for a long time. In Lawson’s case, it produced a fine body of writing, which is well showcased in Ferrall’s book. Henry Lawson in New Zealand concludes with textual notes, a bibliography, an index, and a useful glossary of the curious late 19th-century antipodean slang with which Lawson peppered his writing: “alor-frongsy” (à la française), for example, “bow-yang” (strap worn over trousers below the knee) and “chyacked” (laughed at).


John O’Leary’s Savage Songs & Wild Romances: Settler Poetry and the Indigene, 1830-1880 has recently been published by Rodopi. 

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