Henry Lawson had a messy life.
He was a genius and an alcoholic. A soaring chronicler of the bush who hated being there. A champion of the working man who was sacked from The Bulletin and did time in Darlinghurst Gaol for repeated public drunkenness and failure to pay child support.
Dumped from the $10 note, his prose and poetry remain some of the finest ever written in this country, and The Drover’s Wife is among the best short stories in the English language.
So, do we still have time for Henry Lawson?
The Canberra Writers Festival will debate the question with singer and songwriter John Schumann and actor Richard Roxburgh, backed by musicians from the ANU School of Music.
Schumann and Roxburgh are working together on a September show with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, weaving together songs and readings. The Canberra preview also includes a discussion, canvassing the themes in Lawson’s life and writing and their relevance for 21st century Australia.
John Schumann says he’s been obsessed with Lawson since he found a book of poetry in a holiday house as a child. He went on to study Lawson at Flinders University, to write an album around the poems and will now present them with orchestral backing.
“I’ve carved out some sort of career predicated on the belief that our literature, our art, our drama, our music, is of equal worth to anything else that washes up on our shores, that is sold to us from other countries,” he says.
“Lawson was a failure, a dysfunctional drunk. But he found our voice and he showed us how to listen to it. What he wrote was intermittently absolutely brilliant, while being mired in all the political incorrectness of the time.”
Schumann says this is what makes Lawson fascinating: at times, he embodied what are today “deeply regrettable” attitudes about women, Chinese migrants and Aboriginal Australians, while at other times making their experiences a central focus of his work.
“The power of his work, the power of his observations and the capacity for him to distil a distinctly Australian culture and identity was extraordinary. I think if we threw him out on the basis of cancel culture, it would be very much to our detriment,” he says.
According to Kim Cunio, who heads the ANU School of Music, this is a powerful place to engage students. The Writers Festival event will bring together students from classical and contemporary/jazz strands of the school, including the Ellery quartet.
“It has to start and end with First Nations work for us”, he says.
“All the students encounter Indigenous music making and the notions of First Nations, and in many ways, we are now led by Indigenous knowledge practice. We’ve tried to break the hierarchy that says the Western model is number one, and the school must also look after the notions of what migrant Australia is.
“But how could we be so stupid as to ignore the glory of Australia in Lawson’s era, this brave, egalitarian place?”
Kim Cunio says he’s also drawn by Schumann’s capacity to articulate the best parts of the folk tradition and make it relevant and vital.
“He does the things that the best folk writers do, but in a very Australian way,” he says.
Kim thinks the students will find Lawson’s work revelatory. Many will have a passing acquaintance with it from their school days but may know little more about Lawson’s fiery radical politics and defiant Australian identity.
Richard Roxburgh will read several pieces of Lawson’s best work, including excerpts from The Drover’s Wife, Lawson’s poetry and prose writing. Schumann says he’s excited to work with one of our finest actors, someone whose work stands up on the global stage.
“You know, whatever, whoever he plays and whatever accent he brings to the table, there’s something uniquely and identifiably Australian about Richard. You can never mistake him for any other nationality, which I think is fantastic. I’m deeply reverential of the students I’ll meet next week and their skills and in awe of Richard’s craft as an actor.”
John Schumann acknowledges that much of Lawson’s work was written for a pay cheque from The Bulletin that would fund a binge with his mates.
“But in these days of Netflix and YouTube, mobile phones and laptops, I think we are tending to drift further and further away from the written word as somebody educated in the old school tradition, I regret that. At Lawson’s best, he was stunning. He was absolutely stunning”, he says.
Do we still have time for Henry Lawson? with John Schumann, Richard Roxburgh and the ANU School of Music is part of the Canberra Writers Festival. Saturday 13 August, 2 pm, Kambri Cultural Centre Cinema. Bookings here.