Monday, August 18, 2008

A Banjo and a Swagman

Original poems by one of Australia’s most famous poets, Banjo Paterson, have been found in the back of a soldier’s Boer War diary. The first line of Waltzing Matilda, probably Paterson’s most famous poem, talks of a jolly swagman, and, as it happens, there is a not-so-jolly swagman who kept a jolly good diary.

A local newspaper from the outskirts of Sydney, The Parramatta Advertiser, claimed a world exclusive last week when it ran the following story: Original Banjo Bush Ballads Discovered. According to the newspaper, the ballads were unearthed in a filing cabinet, in a tin shed at the back of the Royal New South Wales (NSW) Lancer Barracks in Parramatta, by former soldier and barracks spokesman, Ian Hawthorn. The ballads, both penned in 1899 and published in 1900, are called There’s Another Blessed Horse Fell Down and Johnny Boer.

What makes the ballads, and thus the find, so special is their author, none other than Andrew Barton ‘Banjo’ Paterson, one of Australia’s greatest poets. At the time, Paterson was a correspondent with The Sydney Morning Herald, and was travelling on the SS Kent from Sydney to South Africa during the Boer War. Hawthorn told The Parramatta Advertiser that he was ‘150 per cent sure’ the handwritten poems were authentic Paterson, but that A$1,500 would be needed to verify the signature scientifically.

After The Parramatta Advertiser broke the story it surfaced in the national Australian press, and picked up some more details on the way. According to the Courier Mail, which is part of the network, the poems were actually written in the back of a diary kept by Major G. L. Lee, who was commanding a squadron of NSW Lancers in South Africa during the Boer War. According to Hawthorn the diary itself is also ‘hugely significant’.

Paterson was born in 1864 and, when young, was educated at a bush school in Binalong. Later, he went to a grammar school in Sydney and trained to be a solicitor. His first poems were published in the mid-1880s under a pseudonym - ‘The Banjo’. Subsequently, he became a journalist, but also worked with horses. He is most well remembered, though, as the author of many ballads and poems reflecting life in the outback areas, such as Binalong. He died in 1941. His image appears on the A$10 note.

Paterson’s most famous poem, Waltzing Matilda, starts as follows:
Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong,
Under the shade of a coolibah tree,
And he sang as he watched and waited ‘til his billy boiled
‘Who'll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me?’

Interestingly, there is a Welshman, named Joseph Jenkins, who immortalised the lifestyle of a swagman - perhaps not a very jolly one - by keeping detailed diaries of his itinerant lifestyle in Victoria state for 25 years. He was born in Blaenplwyf, Cardiganshire, in 1818, and lived on his parents farm until the age of 28, when he married and tried to start his own farm. But in 1868, aged about 50, he ran off to Australia, working as a labourer in central Victoria, and eventually settling in Maldon. He only returned to Wales when his health started to fail in 1894; and he died four years later. Many volumes of detailed diaries he’d kept were discovered in Wales 70 years later. Extracts about his time in Australia were first published in 1975 with the title Diary of a Welsh Swagman. I can’t find any extracts of this online, but second hand copies are available through Abebooks.

The State Library of Victoria acquired the Australian diaries in 1997, and its website explains their importance: ‘The diaries are a reflective view of Jenkins’ life and detail the day-to-day tasks in a developing colony – splitting timber, digging ditches, hanging gates and fencing. . . Jenkins was an astute social commentator, and his diaries offer invaluable insights into 19th-century rural Victoria and the problems facing the young colony. Critical of much of the farming practices he saw around him, Jenkins had a keen interest in land management and sustainable agriculture. He did not confine himself to commenting on agricultural matters, deep though his interest and knowledge of the subject was. The diaries also contain observations on human nature, Jenkins’ poetry, and provide an indication of his reading habits. They also show an empathy with indigenous people and interest in world affairs.’

More recently, the diaries have been re-edited to provide a fuller picture of Jenkins life in a title published in 2002 - Pity the Swagman: The Australian Odyssey of a Victorian Diarist. says this about the man and his diaries: ‘Readers will find a rather different, though sympathetic, portrait in Bethan Phillips’ excellent biography, fifteen years in preparation, which has drawn on all Joseph’s surviving diaries. A melancholy and introspective man, he called his diary ‘this long lonely affair with myself’ and considered he was ‘doomed’ from his birth in 1818, at Blaenplwyf near Talsarn. He kept his diaries and notebooks as a ‘monument’ to his life.’

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