Bush poet’s treasure from scribbled note
BANJO Paterson, a tall, dark and sad-eyed young solicitor, was daydreaming in the office of his legal firm at 105 Pitt Street, Sydney.
It was late in 1889 and the young lawyer, who loved fast horses and beautiful women, was thinking about the next poem he might write for the radical Bulletin magazine, whose cluttered office was located down the same busy thoroughfare in a small, shabby brick building at the top of what Banjo remembered as “a narrow and never dusted flight of stairs”.
Times were tough and Banjo much preferred being a writer of verse to running his firm Street and Paterson, which represented big banks chasing money from poor farmers.
For the “want of better knowledge’’ Banjo had written one letter of demand to a drover with the surname “Clancy” who was working on a property called “The Overflow” along the Lachlan River.
So there was Banjo, in his dingy little office sitting under a stingy ray of sunlight, when he opened a response from “The Overflow”.
It came from one of Clancy’s shearing mates and was written in a scrawl so untidy that it looked like it had been made with a thumbnail dipped in tar.
It said simply: “Clancy’s gone to Queensland droving, and we don’t know where he are.”
Queensland had played a big part in Banjo’s life and the shearer’s curt sentence and fractured grammar stayed in his mind all his days.
Banjo wrote Clancy of the Overflow for the Christmas 1889 edition of the Bulletin and was paid 13 shillings for what became a timeless treasure.
Banjo was born just outside Orange, NSW in 1864. The anniversary of his birth is next Saturday.
I spent some of last week opposite the ruins of Banjo’s first home at Buckinbah Station at Yeoval in the central west of NSW, talking about the Queensland drought that ruined his father.
At their superb Banjo Paterson Museum, Yeoval’s Alf and Sharon Cantrell showed me all manner of Banjo artefacts that Alf has been collecting for most of his 75 years.
Among them was a letter that Banjo’s father wrote to the Western Bank in Lanark, Scotland a few days before Christmas in 1854.
Andrew Bogle Paterson had just arrived in Australia from there with some siblings and a dream of building a pastoral empire.
He asked the bank for a transfer of funds from the estates of his late father and uncle.
Eventually Andrew Paterson, and his brother John, operated huge sheep runs at Buckinbah, Illalong Station near Yass in southern NSW, and the 10,500ha property Stainburn Downs, 25km from Aramac in central Queensland.
But the Queensland property devoured so much of their time and capital that the Paterson brothers went bust, losing their holdings in NSW as well.
Young Banjo Paterson saw his father spend the rest of his short life as a hired hand on a property that he once owned.
It was a similar tale of the little man fighting for a fair go that inspired Banjo to write Waltzing Matilda during an ill-fated love affair on a trip to Dagworth Station, north of Winton in 1895. By then Banjo was already Australia’s most popular writer. Through all of his days he remembered the letter from Clancy’s shearing mate and the vision that it conjured of the drover riding out into the wide open spaces, far from the hurrying city-people shouldering one another in their rush and nervous haste. Banjo often thought of Clancy and how lucky Australia’s bushmen were in seeing first-hand the “vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended, and at night the wond’rous glory of the everlasting stars”.
THROUGH ALL OF HIS DAYS HE REMEMBERED THE LETTER
firstname.lastname@example.org HarperCollins/ABC Books will publish Grantlee Kieza’s biography of Banjo Paterson later this year.
GREENER GRASS: Banjo Paterson’s work evoked the age of drovers and farm workers striving for a fair go.