As MANY other Australians will be, I am most grateful to Clement Semmler for his comprehensive and penetrating book — The Work, Life and Times of A. B. Paterson. I have been glued to it in its least acceptable form, galley sheets, coiling and uncoiling myself through it with excitement and close attention.
My father, who was a Melbourne surgeon brought up at Longwood in Victoria, gave me the first taste of Banjo Paterson. I grew up in that period of childhood when men sang to us when we wandered in and out of their rooms while they dressed; if they did not sing they recited, or perhaps spoke, poetry and verse. The sounds brought a sense of action and rhythm: the lines were simple racy statements that evoked a life we understood and sometimes shared. Many men then sang, as they still do in the open country, and they quoted verse to bring them pleasure, to keep themselves awake, or sometimes to send themselves to sleep.
Most Australians are aware of Banjo Paterson. He is the great link between the Australia of the eighteen nineties — a period forgotten, unknown, in detail though not in essence — and now. He was masculine, robust, a writer for men, one of the first writers of ballads to emerge as someone who belonged to this country, one of the first Australian coins out of the mint. He was no longer the man transplanted from the Old Country trying not to feel homesick and alien in a subtle and often hostile land. Australia was the home of Paterson and he loved the bush and knew it, as he knew the kind of men he encountered there.
For the great armies of city dwellers that we now have I cannot resist quoting from his ballad "In Defence of the Bush":
For the rain and drought and sunshine
Make no changes in the street,
In the sullen line of buildings
And the ceaseless tramp of feet.
We are nationally bound together by Paterson's ballad of "Waltzing Matilda" where the music and the verses, polished and slightly altered from his original words by common usage, come together into a kind of vigorous perfection. I first heard it, myself, consciously, in Canberra in 1932, sung from the top of our Duntroon house by a builder from Queanbeyan, Jimmy Beecher, who was mending the roof. He altered the words a bit, as many have done, to suit his own taste and the words floated down to me, clear and rich: "Waltzing Matilda, Matilda, my Darling! You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me!"
Some of the value of this book lies in Paterson's descriptions of the life and persons he met in the Boer war where he had gone as war correspondent; and later in Egypt in the First World War where he was in charge of horses. His passport to both countries was his knowledge of horses, and from South Africa he revealed the same ability to pick young men as potential winners (AUenby, Haig, Churchill) as he did colts and fillies.
In Bloemfontein in 1900 he asked Rudyard Kipling, whom he had come to know, how he as an author obtained his material. Kipling replied: "Some of it I saw; some of it I was. As for the rest, I asked questions." This might have been said by Paterson. Through the extracts quoted from him while away from Australia he emerges in perspective as a man of exceptional character and perception, and as a superb writer. Much that he wrote in those years is of first class importance and fits into history. One can scarcely wait to read the expected edition of A. B. Paterson's prose writings which are to include material as yet uncollected and unpublished.
I had the pleasure of meeting Paterson once myself in the Hotel Canberra in the 1930's. This meeting was to me of great interest, of course, since my father was a fan of his and so was I. But I was also interested because one of his nieces, Ruth Whiting (née Lumsdaine and a daughter of his sister Florence) was a much admired friend of mine and I looked at him therefore with special visual attention, hoping to find in him some trace of the noble qualities I admired in her — which I did find. Niece and uncle were dark-complexioned with sad brilliant eyes, fine aristocratic bones and elegant carriage. They had personality without too much emphasis; the strength was there but it was contained.
Clement Semmler's book is a much needed extension of the character of a man admired and loved by many Australians. Banjo Paterson was a great writer of ballads, at his best a true poet, and a prose writer of exceptional ability. This book gives us also a picture of the Australian times in which he lived with his intelligent, lively and dinkum friends, without bunk. It reveals their staying power, energy, directness and dry laconic wit — qualities we like to think we still possess.