May 2008

Encounters

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Sir Henry Parkes & Henry Lawson

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

At 22, Henry Lawson was dirt poor, painfully shy and deaf as a post. His first few poems had garnered considerable praise but writing was "clearly not to be relied on as a means of support". Haphazardly schooled, he found work where he could, mainly as a house painter. The grinding daily slog left him exhausted and frustrated.

His mum, Louisa, had a bright idea. In the political flurry that was Sydney in the 1880s, she'd intersected with the premier, the venerable Sir Henry Parkes. The Republican, Louisa's pushy little rag, was in favour of female suffrage. So was Sir Henry. A nod from the top would go a long way towards securing a government position for the promising young bard from Eurunderee. A spot at the railway workshop, say. Henry was qualified, experienced and his references were excellent, so it wasn't a lot to ask. And Parkes had form as a devotee of the muse poetic.

It was 50 years since the pre-eminent figure in colonial politics had arrived in Sydney as an assisted immigrant. Working-class in origin and Chartist in opinion, he was a poet before he was a politician. By the time Louisa Lawson's letter hit his desk, he'd jettisoned his radicalism, grown an enormous white beard, collected a swag of royal honours, won the premiership of New South Wales four times, spent time as a house guest of Tennyson and penned four volumes of unspeakably terrible verse.

He agreed to meet Mrs Lawson's son. But the nervous young Henry undersold himself, both as a tradesman and a poet. And Parkes, much given to oratorical rotundity, was not much impressed with this "gone a-droving" stuff anyway. The "boy" was a mere "improver", he concluded.

The job did not materialise. Looking elsewhere, Lawson went bush, combining journalism with the life of an itinerant labourer. It was thirsty work.

Two months after their meeting, Parkes kick-started federation with a speech at the Tenterfield School of Arts. In it, he proclaimed "with sanguine imminence of morn ... the day of the Dominion born".

When that glorious morn eventually dawned, Parkes was five years dead and Lawson had become the most popular writer in the country, a creator of works that spoke the soul of its people. In 1920, he was granted a commonwealth literary pension of a pound a week. But by that stage, he was long past carin'. He died in 1922, a ghost of a man and a martyr to the turps.

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Shane Maloney is a writer and the author of the award-winning Murray Whelan series of crime novels. His 'Encounters', illustrated by Chris Grosz, have been published in a collection, Australian Encounters.

Chris Grosz is a book illustrator, painter and political cartoonist. He has illustrated newspapers and magazines such as the Age, the Bulletin and Time.

Cover: May 2008
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