Henry and Banjo review: James Knight brings two iconic Australians to life

HENRY AND BANJO. By James Knight. Hachette Australia. 415pp. $45.

In December 1902 The Sydney Morning Herald reported that a man had been found lying at the bottom of a cliff at Manly. He was lucky to be alive and his injuries, while serious, would not threaten his life. He was Henry Lawson, described in the paper as poet and story writer. Was it a mad attempt at suicide or just a mistake? The reader is left to wonder.

February 1900, and young Banjo Paterson, war correspondent, rode into the diamond mining town of Kimberley, South Africa, during the relief of the town.

It was a critical moment in the Boer War and Banjo described for Australian readers the way the British commander, General French, was mobbed by cheering supporters. During that war, young Banjo was to meet famous people such as Rudyard Kipling and Winston Churchill but also discover the horrors of war.

When I was a boy, growing up in the bush, Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson were part of my mental furniture. I laughed at that marvellous story by Lawson called The Loaded Dog and almost wept reading The Drover’s Wife.

My family would recite to me the lines by Paterson: And he sees the vision splendid, of the sunlit plains extended, and at night the wondrous glory of the everlasting stars. We could all sing Waltzing Matilda.

Gradually I explored places associated with Lawson and Paterson, Lawson’s grave in Waverley Cemetery and Sydney Grammar School where Paterson was educated. I was born in Orange and outside the town was Templer’s Mill where Paterson was born in 1864. Lawson was born on Grenfell goldfield three years later.

This book highlights the stark and sometimes bitter contrasts between the lives of two men, the privileges of one and the poverty of the other, as well as the genius of both, first published in the famous Bulletin.

James Knight, author, journalist and television producer, has written a kind of historical diary of his two subjects, with vivid and imaginative sketches of incidents and scenes in their lives.

He has made assumptions based on educated guesswork and most meticulous research into the sources for all his quotes. Both Lawson and Paterson have been the subject of fine biographies by such scholars as Clement Semmler and Colin Roderick, but there is room for a popular recreation of their lives and the colonial Australia in which they grew up. James Knight brings two iconic Australians to life.

Robert Willson is a Canberra reviewer.  

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