ABOUT TEN KILOMETRES south of Hungerford, I get out of the car and start walking. Hungerford sits on the New South Wales-Queensland border more than two hundred kilometres northwest of Bourke. It's a one-pub town divided by a gate in a rabbit fence which must be opened and closed to cross the border. This is the true outback – a land far removed from the narrow coastal strip and the big eastern cities where most Australians live.
It is so easy to forget what the land beyond the Great Dividing Range – that 'great grey plain' as Henry Lawson called it – is really like. If you spend your life with a view of tall buildings, surrounded by urgent people who talk and drive too fast on sealed roads, even if you once experienced the unforgiving reality of the bush, chances are you will have forgotten.
Walk along the dead-straight dirt road between Hungerford and Bourke, and within ten minutes sweat will dampen your skin. Every few seconds you'll involuntarily offer the great Aussie salute as you try to flick the tenacious little bush flies away from your mouth and eyes. Your back will turn black as the flies settle in silent hordes. Your shoes will be covered in a layer of red bulldust. Even before the summer sun fills the sky, you will be enervated and always, on the horizon will be that shimmering lake of illusion, the blue oceanic mirage that has driven countless travellers mad with its thirst-quenching unreality.
When Henry Lawson walked this road in 1892, the most important trek in Australian literary history, he would have experienced all this and more. He took three weeks to travel from Bourke to Hungerford, and it confirmed all his prejudices about the Australian bush. Lawson had no romantic illusions about a ‘rural idyll'.
In his amusing story ‘Hungerford', Lawson described the town, and the bush in general, with raw honesty:
The country looks as though a great ash-heap had been spread out there, and mulga scrub and firewood planted – and neglected. The country looks just as bad for a hundred miles round Hungerford, and beyond that it gets worse – a blasted, barren wilderness that doesn't even howl. If it howled it would be a relief.
I believe that Bourke and Wills found Hungerford, and it's a pity they did; but, if I ever stand by the graves of the men who first travelled through this country, when there were neither roads nor stations, nor tanks, nor bores, nor pubs, I'll – I'll take my hat off. There were brave men in the land in those days.
Lawson's journey west began as a well-orchestrated literary challenge. In the early 1890s, J.F. Archibald, the editor of The Bulletin, was eager to stir up controversy. He nurtured a debate in the pages of his magazine. What was the true Australia? Was rural Australia the romantic idyll of brave horsemen and beautiful scenery depicted in the poetry of ‘The Banjo' [Paterson] and his ilk? Or was it the unforgiving and harsh reality of Lawson's grim vision?
With a level of venom that deserves a place beside the rage in Bob Dylan's Masters of War, Lawson hit out at Paterson in a 122-line tirade sarcastically titled, ‘The City Bushman'. I'd like to quote it all, but a few stanzas will give you a sense of the intensity of his rage:
Saw ‘em fighting round a shanty on a Sunday afternoon,
But the bushman isn't always ‘trapping brumbies in the night',
Nor is he forever riding when ‘the morn is fresh and bright'.
And he isn't always singing in the humpies on the run -
And the camp-fire's ‘cheery blazes' are a trifle overdone;
We have grumbled with the bushmen round the fire on rainy days,
When the smoke would blind a bullock and there wasn't any blaze,
Save the blazes of our language, for we cursed the fire in turn
Till the atmosphere was heated and the wood began to burn.
Then we had to wring our blueys which were rotting in the swags,
And we saw the sugar leaking through the bottoms of the bags,
And we couldn't raise a chorus, for the toothache and the cramp,
While we spent the hours of darkness draining puddles round the camp.
For we rather think that Clancy would be glad to change with you,
And be something in the city; but 'twould give your muse a shock
To be losing time and money through the foot-rot in the flock,
And you wouldn't mind the beauties underneath the starry dome
If you had a wife and children and a lot of bills at home.
And it rained, and icy water trickled gently down your back
Till your saddle-weary backbone fell a-aching to the roots
And you almost felt the croaking of the bull-frog in your boots -
Sit and shiver in the saddle, curse the restless stock and cough
Till a squatter's irate dummy cantering up to warn you off?
Did you fight the drought and pleuro when the ‘seasons' were asleep,
Felling sheoaks all the morning for a flock of starving sheep,
Drinking mud instead of water – climbing trees and lopping boughs
For the broken-hearted bullocks and the dry and dusty cows?
AFTER PUBLISHING THE ballad, and with a fine sense of encouraging the young writer, Archibald offered Lawson a rail ticket to Bourke and a five-pound note. No one knows the details of the arrangement, but it is easy to imagine Archibald saying, ‘Get out there, way beyond Grenfell where you were born, and find out what life in the outback is really like'.
Lawson took the challenge, arrived in Bourke, lived for a while in a corrugated-iron shed over the road from The Carrier's Arms (which became The Shearer's Arms in his stories), took a variety of odd jobs, walked the 230 kilometres from Bourke to Hungerford, experienced the full horror of the ‘great grey plain' in drought, and eventually returned to Sydney to write.
In his first collection of short stories While the Billy Boils, Lawson continued his assault on Paterson and the romantics and, in the process, virtually invented Australian realism. He used short, sharp sentences, with language as raw as Ernest Hemingway or Raymond Carver. With sparse adjectives and honed-to-the-bone description, Lawson created a style and defined Australians: dryly laconic, passionately egalitarian and deeply humane.
The harshness finds its finest flowering in stories like ‘The Drover's Wife', which opens with a heart-breaking depiction of bleakness and loneliness:
The two-roomed house is built of round timber, slabs, and stringy-bark, and floored with split slabs. A big bark kitchen standing at one end is larger than the house itself, veranda included.
Bush all round – bush with no horizon, for the country is flat. No ranges in the distance. The bush consists of stunted, rotten native apple-trees. No undergrowth. Nothing to relieve the eye save the darker green of a few she-oaks which are sighing above the narrow, almost waterless creek. Nineteen miles to the nearest sign of civilisation – a shanty on the main road.
The drover, an ex-squatter, is away with sheep. His wife and children are left here alone.
Four ragged, dried-up-looking children are playing about the house. Suddenly one of them yells: ‘Snake! Mother, here's a snake!'
This is Lawson's picture of life in the Australian bush. Harsh and unforgiving, a vision that few today would challenge. The image of the bush as a place of hardship, suffering and loneliness is now widely accepted. Even the ‘tree-changers', now eager to leave the city for the country, have few romantic illusions about life in the bush.
IN BOURKE IN October 2007, I found myself at a table in the Royal Hotel with a group of ‘city slickers' – most on secondment from the city. They were what critics would call ‘do-gooders': people who had come to Bourke to work with the local Aboriginal population as doctors, nurses, lawyers or social workers. In three hours, despite enough booze to loosen tongues, no one mentioned Paterson's romantic vision of the outback. No one talked about his ‘vision splendid' or ‘sunlit plains extended' or the ‘glory of the everlasting stars':
Gone a-droving ‘down the Cooper' where the Western drovers go;
As the stock are slowly stringing, Clancy rides behind them singing,
For the drover's life has pleasures that the townsfolk never know.
And the bush hath friends to meet him, and their kindly voices greet him
In the murmur of the breezes and the river on its bars
And he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended,
And at night the wond'rous glory of the everlasting stars.
These people implicitly understood the hardship and loneliness Lawson had described more than a century before. The realists, not the romantics, had won Archibald's circulation-boosting debate.
The supplementary debate about the city versus the country has not been settled, and this may be Banjo Paterson's enduring legacy. Lawson and Paterson were polarised about the true nature of the Australian bush, but they were equally polarised about the relative merits of city and country. Paterson wrote with romanticism:
Ray of sunlight struggles feebly down between the houses tall,
And the foetid air and gritty of the dusty, dirty city
Through the open window floating, spreads its foulness over all.
Of the tramways and the buses making hurry down the street,
And the language uninviting of the gutter children fighting,
Comes fitfully and faintly through the ceaseless tramp of feet,
As they shoulder one another in their rush and nervous haste,With their eager eyes and greedy, and their stunted forms and weedy,For townsfolk have no time to grow, they have no time to waste
Lawson savaged him with an unsubtle riposte:
When they drink and flirt and so on in the glow of private bars?
You've a down on ‘trams and buses', or the ‘roar' of 'em, you said,And the ‘filthy, dirty attic', where you never toiled for bread.
This was an argument about the nature of Australia, with positions drawn by a hard-edged socialist eager to present the reality of the bush and a well-heeled city businessman who saw it from a comfortable distance. No one at the time queried whether the Australian character was intimately connected to the bush. That wasn't an issue – it was a ‘fact'.
TODAY, A LARGER myth persists, a myth laden with irony. Lawson won the argument about the bush. It is harsh, and there is little room for romance. It was the artists – Drysdale and then later Nolan, Williams and dozens of others – overwhelmed by the blue sky, the eye-squinting intensity of the red soils and the flatness of the terrain – who defined the bush as the outback. Closer to the coast, few tried (and most failed) to capture on canvas the chaos of the heavily timbered Great Dividing Range and the jagged escarpments. But once the artists were out in Lawson's patch, walking the ‘great grey plain' and experiencing the continent's vast desert, they painted with passion and insight.
And as for the city-country argument, the suburban reality of coastal towns and cities has prevailed. We may harbour The Banjo's dreams while we travel to work or sit in coffee shops, but never hear the rustle of a red-bellied black as it slides off into the bush or have to deal with those irritating flies.
Still searching for Lawson, I scour Bourke and Hungerford and, instead of walking, I drive the dry, dusty road between them. There is a great, unforgiving beauty in this desert. You have to feel it, drown in it, to make it real.
Lawson wrote this landscape into an existence that transcended it. He saw it with humour, compassion, love and an unswerving commitment to the poor sods who tried to eke a living from its brutal grandeur.
The saddest irony awaits me as I walk around a corner in Bourke, map and instructions in hand, looking for the hotel and the tin shed where Lawson stayed. The Carrier's Arms is now boarded up. No one drinks at its bars. No one raises a glass to Australia's greatest short story writer and the pain and suffering he described. And, over the road where that tin shed once stood, there is now a supermarket.
The Lawson legacy has become a carpark.