Saturday, 13 January 2007

Henry Lawson's alternative personae are the subject of The Essay section in today's Spectrum supplement to The Sydney Morning Herald. Pip Wilson, who has self-published a novel about the first decade of last century, focusing on the participation of a coterie of notables in unremembered activities, is its author.

Henry Lawson, of course, is a seminal figure in Australia's cultural history. He is best known for his poetry and short stories about outback squatters and other characters but, says Wilson, that's only half the story. He was a denizen of Sydney for most of his life, and many of the things he got up to were less respectable than we are conventionally led to believe.

Like Revolutionist Lawson and Romeo Lawson, Beggar Lawson and Suicide Lawson have been expunged from the myth and I guess that's why they didn't teach me about him at school. Perhaps we are all more comfortable with it that way.

Our comfort is less important, suggests Wilson, than our awareness. In fact, rehabilitating (in reverse, if you like) the image of Lawson into a type of Romantic, suffering artist would possibly go some way toward making him more palatable to youth, who tend to be fascinated by everything that goes against the grain of social conservatism. The appropriation of Lawson by officials and the canon can only result in fewer people wanting to read him.

If we were told that he was not only a bit of a cad when it came to women, but that he mixed with terrorists, we might find more to celebrate than we currently do. For although he is considered a 'great' of Australian literature, few people actually read him any more.

What caught my interest was his love affair with Dame Mary Gilmore (that strong-faced woman on today's $10 notes) and their link with the anarchist and terrorist bomber Larry Petrie, so I spent the next 18 months pestering librarians and writing a book. What I found staggered me; Lawson has been washed in billy tea and eucalyptus antiseptic, as has the era of his ascendency.

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