State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 70 Spring 2002


Lawson Memories
by Harry G. Hodges

It Was the last time I saw Henry Lawson alive. He came, as so often he did, to the bookshop where I was employed. Silhouetted in the doorway against the bright sunlight without, his tall figure showed a strange angularity of high shoulder and awkward bearing. Here was one on whom the city had not set her stamp. Battered felt hat was drawn over his eyes; loose-fitting coat with misshapen pockets; baggy trousers and crinkled toe-capless boots. Lawson remained a bushman to the end of his days, though the city attractions had claimed him, and he looked peculiarly out of place in our orderly shop. Though some there were amongst our customers who recognised him, his haggard expression (for at the time Lawson no longer presented the handsome appearance of the well-known Lambert portrait), his ill-fitting clothes, and his bedraggled moustache caused many timid female customers to draw away.
As Lawson advanced further into the shop and his figure became less of a silhouette, he paused, and crooking his old walking-stick (a home-made piece) over his arm, removed the pipe from his mouth and commenced to sing a fragment of an old bush song. The city with all its noise and bustle roared about him, its callous folk surged on their city employment, but still in memory Lawson was re-living the life he had loved and hated.
Need I say what Lawson's state was? Let me treat the memory of this genius gently — other poets have had the same failing. Our firm had been his publishers and they treated him with every kindness, and we had our instructions for dealing with Lawson under circumstances such as these. So, acting under my orders, I went up to him and, taking him by the arm, led him to a quiet corner at the bottom of the stairs. Half-way up these he perched himself, with his long legs dangling unhappily on the unsociable edge of the steps, and with the paper and pencil I had placed in his hands commenced to write.
Strangely enough, it was in these circumstances, and in this state that he frequently wrote much of his best verse. Perhaps memory came easier and less unhappily then. He would croon under his breath and talk fragmentarily, perhaps to an imaginary mate or dog, and presently would begin to scrawl in uncertain handwriting a verse across the page. His luminous eyes (Lawson's eyes were of a wonderful liquid brown) would look unseeingly past us, and past the city, to the old haunts of his mates on the hot and dusty plains.
There was a time when Lawson made many visits to our shop, and his persistent attempts to see our managing director supplied us younger members of the staff with much excitement. With the best good-will in the world and the kindliest sympathies towards the poet, the ‘old man’ [George Robertson] nevertheless found it necessary to
avoid him. We would watch the ‘old man’ and Lawson playing their serious game of hide-and-seek, till, exasperated, the director would send one of us for his hat and disappear from the shop, or else lock himself up in some obscure office. Sometimes Lawson's luck would hold good, and great was our delight when he would unexpectedly appear round a corner and advance on the unsuspecting ‘old man’ — a delight we never dared show.
Sometimes Lawson would be communicative to us, and though I have heard him refer to his father I never knew him to mention his mother. His father was a Norwegian sailor called Peter Larsen. ‘I am Henry, son of Peter, who was Peter, son of Lars', and from his father he inherited his love of his fellowmen, shown strongly in his intense mateship, and his inability to remain long in one place. From his mother he perhaps derived his writing powers. She edited for some time Dawn, a feminist journal, written, edited, published, and actually printed by women.
From the dingy office of this paper was published a small volume, Short Stories in prose and Verse. I wonder how many mothers have personally published their own son's work? It contained the most beautiful of his tales — ‘The Drover's Wife'. It is over fifty years since this paper-covered volume was issued, and Lawson's reputation has grown in the interim, and ‘The Drover's Wife’ has since been accepted as one of the great stories in the English language. To what great figure in other countries can we compare him? He has none of Bret Harte's sickly sentimentalism, none of de Maupassant's obsession with sex; nor has he O. Henry's slickness and passion for surprise. He stands in comparison to all these men but he resembles none.
He is just Henry Lawson.
© Lee White
Bookman Harry G. Hodges (1894-1965) began his working life in the bookshop of Angus & Robertson, 89 Castlereagh Street, Sydney, and returned there after active service in the AIF during the Great War. In his recollections of that early period, Appendix to an Unwritten History, he writes of ‘a half-day seige’ of George Robertson by Lawson, ‘when the poet stood outside the sanctum door alternately demanding to be admitted, and asserting “I know you're there”, rattling the door knob at the same time to prove that he, Henry Lawson, was also there'. A typescript of ‘Lawson Memories', signed by Hodges, is in the Moir Collection, State Library of Victoria (Box 23/5). It is dated 1949, and carries the note: ‘The above reminiscences are based on and mainly taken from an article I wrote for the Auckland (N.Z.) Star in 1932.’ He had his own bookshop in Auckland in the early 1930s, later returning to Australia, where he again worked with A & R. He was a founding member of the Bibliographical Society of Australia.

Photograph by courtesy of Lee White.