September 2008

Encounters

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

‘Banjo’ Paterson & Rudyard Kipling

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz
Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

In March 1900 in Bloemfontein, in the Orange Free State, Andrew ‘Banjo' Paterson attended a dinner hosted by the commander of the British forces occupying the town. The 36-year-old Sydney solicitor and poet was in South Africa to cover Australia's contribution to the stoush against the upstart Boers and he found himself seated beside the greatest literary celebrity of the Empire, the laureate of imperialism himself, Rudyard Kipling.

Kipling was not unaware of his dining companion's accomplishments. ‘The Man from Snowy River' and ‘Clancy of the Overflow' had made Paterson a national figure in Australia and the cantering cadences of his verse had much in common with Kipling's own galumphing style.

Paterson found Kipling "a little, squat-figured, sturdy man of about 40", a nervous, energetic gabbler with a tendency to Americanisms, a result of his long residence in Vermont. At first they talked books and newspapers, then politics. Kipling couldn't understand why there were so many radicals in Australia. Paterson "didn't feel equal to enlightening him". Kipling thought the Australians should stay on after the war to keep the Boers in line. Paterson didn't think the country worth fighting over - water was short and Cecil Rhodes had snaffled the best land.

A year later, Paterson called upon Kipling at his home in Sussex. Fancying himself a motoring correspondent, Kipling had just taken delivery of one of the newly invented machines, a Lanchester. Piling into the car, the two men hurtled about the South Downs like a scene from The Wind in the Willows, taking in views of the sea and raising a trail of leaves.

Pulling up outside a butcher's shop, Kipling pointed to a lamb carcass in the window and asked Paterson to guess its weight. Bush-born and raised, Paterson was only two pounds off the mark. Astonished, Kipling told the butcher to henceforth "buy all the Australian lamb you can get, and keep the money in the Empire." The butcher reckoned his customers were not much interested in the Empire, a sentiment seconded more politely by Paterson with the suggestion that Australians, likewise, "would always put Australia first".

Kipling's blustering certainties were cruelly punctured in 1915 when his son, John, was killed at the Battle of Loos six weeks after his eighteenth birthday. "If any question why we died," he later wrote, "Tell them, because our fathers lied." The Banjo had signed up, too, although past 50. He drove an ambulance and looked after the horses. He died of a heart attack in 1941, and his ghost may be heard as you pass by the Northern Suburbs Memorial Gardens in North Ryde.

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.

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