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A Simple But Highly-Valued Gift

  • Written by Ishiro
  • July 23rd, 2015
  • 7 min read

In the last year that we were to be together, my former Thai wife (Natalise) gave me a CD for my birthday – and I still wonder if she could have known how important that disc would become to me. It is a disc by Australian Country performer Lee Kernaghan and it is crammed full of Australian songs about life in the outback, stories in song of old Bushies, Cattlemen, Hard Cases, Showmen and all of the other characters that one would have encountered in the Australia that is quickly disappearing in the modern world that we are now cursed with.

She gave me many things in our time together but that gift remains the most important link to something that sits close to my heart and gives me enjoyment and inspiration on a daily basis. It takes me back to a period that no longer exists but was the epitome of life at that time for so many of the colorful characters that made the early Australia so unique. The title of the CD is "Rules Of The Road" and that is also the title of track 3 on the CD.

"There are rules of the road like some old unwritten code

Something Bushies and Showmen only know

You've got to take it on the chin and get back up again

It's a mystery you feel inside your bones

When you're livin' by the Rules Of The Road"

The chorus above says it all about the issues such as honor, responsibility, endurance, acceptance and true grit – the hallmarks of so many of the characters who made up the proud heritage that is Australia's past.

There was a "Golden Era" when a unique style of art was developed by painters who formed what was to become known as The Heidelberg School – legends such as Arthur Streeton, Tom Roberts, Frederick McCubbin, Jane Sutherland, Charles Conder and Walter Withers. We are looking at a unique period, c. 1886 – 1900, when truly unique art, that was to become legendary and representative of an impressionist style, was captured through the eyes of these Masters. Their selections of colour and brush strokes faithfully portrayed the natural integrity of the subjects to the point where one could look on the works and almost become part of the scene presented – while still acknowledging that here was work that was anything but a picture-perfect copy, in each case.

These Master artists have left us a legacy that will live on and document an era that may have long-since gone – but an era that is faithfully portrayed of the city and country – just as it was back then.

I must admit that my favourite artist is Arthur Streeton – and I was captured by his art, many years ago, when I first laid eyes on his representation of "The Railway Station Redfern" (1893). When I look on that work, I can feel the cold dampness of a rainy day in Sydney – I feel as if I am actually there.

On that CD by Lee Kernaghan, there is a duet cameo performance by Slim Dusty – "Leave Him In The Long Yard" – a tale of an act of kindness to a faithful old horse. Slim is an Australian legend who has toured the length and breadth of this enormous land, taking his music to far-flung places as a true travelling showman. Sadly, Slim (Gordon Kirkpatrick) is no longer with us – but he will never be forgotten as a true pioneer for giving us a unique gift through song and his words of inspiration.

As it was back then, so it still is today for those who chose a life on the land as farmers or graziers – a life that is anything but easy. It takes a special type of person to hold on in the face of season after season without meaningful rain – where stock and crops die from lack of feed and water – and, when the rains do finally come, it is often a case of too much of a good thing that can destroy the work of a season through flooding. But, as the song says "You've got to take it on the chin and get back up again" – and they do that, sometimes year after year, while praying that next season will be different and their fortunes will turn around.

No mention of Australia's heritage could be complete without a tribute to Henry Lawson – probably Australia's best known and loved writer of anecdotal prose and poetry that was particularly representative of the Australia of the time. Henry Lawson's life was a troubled one for a number of reasons and, in spite of his fame and recognition for his talents at writing, he spent his last years in sickness and poverty.

Henry Lawson's early life was one of worry, due to the estrangement of his parents and a feeling of discomfort in the company of his peers – a social awkwardness. Schooling for him was basic before he joined his father, working on building projects where his father was a contractor. Lawson was also cursed with a deafness that was to dog him for life – no cure being offered by hospital consultations. But, despite these things, he was a prolific writer and talented at sketching events that he saw in his travels to the outback and was passionate in his concern for those he saw having a hard life on the land.

On a personal level, Lawson became infatuated with a young book-keeper named Hanna Thorburn around 1895 and he asked her to marry him – but she refused, thinking it was not a good idea – and, In April 1896, Lawson married eighteen-year-old Bertha Bredt. The following March they sailed for Western Australia in the hope that Lawson would gain material, and perhaps pick up work painting. Unfortunately they had little luck in the West, and Lawson′s drinking made him impossible to live with. They returned to Sydney in October. In an attempt to sever Lawson′s infatuation with the young book-keeper and to curb his drinking, Bertha went to the offices of The Bulletin and asked Archibald for two passages to New Zealand, and for letters to people who might help her husband gain work.

It appears that Hannah Thorburn committed suicide about the time of Henry and Bertha going to NZ, so it would have been sometime between 1896 -1900. Lawson wrote a poem in reference to Hannah. It is called "Do You Think That I Do Not Know" and he refers to Hannah being buried "at Brighton, where Gordon sleeps". Now it is interesting because Adam Lindsay Gordon was a friend of Henry Lawson and he IS buried in the Cemetery at Brighton, south of Melbourne, Victoria.

Lawson's poem was put to music by Chris Kempster, an Australian songwriter who played with The Larrikins.

The time in New Zealand was not wholly successful so, on return to Sydney, Lawson returned to his drinking and became restless to try his luck in England in response to promising letters from English publishers. From this point onward, the tragedy of Lawson's personal life began to gain momentum because England was not a successful venture – so they returned again to Sydney, where Lawson suffered a slide into depression and a deepening dependence on liquor.

Who knows the reasons for his actions – but one must assume that the death of Hannah Thorburn had a deep impact on Lawson to the point where his health began to deteriorate. One would even suggest that the marriage with Bertha Bredt was taken on the rebound and perhaps should never have happened. Life can do strange things to a man severely wounded by the death of one who was loved – particularly if one sees that death to have been caused by the actions of leaving with issues left unresolved.

I think these words by Lawson are explanation enough for what was to follow:

But the haunting words of the dead to me

Shall go wherever I go

She lives in the marriage that might have been

Do you think that I do not know?

In 1917 he returned to Sydney, still writing, still drinking, and was often seen with his hat out down at Circular Quay. On 2 September 1922, halfway through writing a story, Lawson died in the small cottage in which he was living in Abbotsford, Sydney. His health had been precarious for some years; indeed, he had been recovering from a cerebral haemorrhage.

Newspaper tributes were testament to the great sense of loss that was felt as a consequence of Lawson's death. The Commonwealth Government decreed him a State funeral in recognition of his services to Australia.

One has to ponder on how Lawson's life may have panned out if only he had persisted in pursuing the union with Hanna Thorburn – instead of marrying with Bertha Bredt. Call me a romantic – but I do believe that his future was dependent on marryiing with Hanna Thorburn. Lawson's feelings say it all in the poem he wrote for her.