State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 70 Spring 2002

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Notes on ‘A Foreign Father

This story consists of two items which are filed separately in the Lothian Papers: a single page, in Lawson's handwriting, on ruled notepaper, containing the title and two introductory paragraphs; and a typescript on which the pages originally numbered 6 to 14 have been re-numbered 2 to 8. The footnotes Indicate that the typescript was intended for an English readership. During his stay in England Lawson's manuscripts were typed for him in the office of his agent, James B. Pinker, and after being corrected by Lawson were sent out to editors and publishers. As late as December 1903 Lawson in Sydney was still in touch with Pinker in London, and talking of sending him manuscripts. However, there is no indication that he sent any work to Pinker after his return to Australia. The typescript portion of ‘A Foreign Father’ may have been taken from what Lawson referred to in correspondence with Pinker as his ‘Weak Man novel': in places the text is very close to that of the autobiography (see the opening paragraphs of Section V, ‘Father') on which he began to work in late 1903.
In his The Essential Henry Lawson Brian Kiernan published the typescript under the title ‘Going on the Land', assuming that it was the story to which Lawson had referred by that title in his outline of the Joe Wilson series to William Blackwood on 15 October 1900. In Quadrant, August 1983, I argued that the story ‘Water Them Geraniums’ (originally two separate stories) was the ‘Going on the Land’ story of Lawson's plan. I further argued that the Lothian typescript was an excerpt from a larger manuscript (as the original page numbering indicates) and that the page headed ‘A Foreign Father’ had been prepared by Lawson later when he thought of getting it published as a separate Joe Wilson story. In A Camp-Fire Yarn, the first volume of his two-volume Lansdowne edition of Lawson's work, Leonard Cronin published the two items as ‘A Foreign Father’.
Lawson's additions to the typescript are indicated by braces.
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A Foreign Father
By Henry Lawson

Joe Wilson, long, dark, sentimental ex-bushman, with big brown eyes that were womanish in their sympathy and dog-like in their faith, and with a quiet voice and hard knuckles — Joe Wilson once, rather shamefacedly, handed me a bundle of manuscript, as we were parting, and asked if I'd mind looking through it. He said he'd been trying to write a bush yarn.
Near the beginning I struck the following sketch, which, I fancy, had been written late at night, and alone, and rapidly, by a man who felt keenly what he wrote, and had to write it.
Joe Wilson gave me permission to use the material “anyway I liked” so here is the sketch:.
{“ x x x x } And behind me, amongst the barren ridges{, in the Bush} was is a dusty patch in the scrub, with a pile of chimney stones and a blue-gum slab {or two}—all that was left of fifteen years of my Father's life, and the seven{,} that should have been brightest, happiest and best, of mine.

{X X X}

{“}I can't say much for the English side of my family. They came of English gypsies and were hop pickers in Kent—and chicken lifters for all I know, and the Lord knows what else besides. They were a queer tribe, tall and dark and mostly excentric. On that side I'm an Australian of two generations. The old man—the grandfather—would always rather camp in the bush and split palings or shingles for a living than live in comfort with one of his married daughters; he had ten and most of them had married well. He was a “character”, and a “hard-case” and a family mystery—he was too “deep” for his own family. He went on the spree about once every six months and never looked better than after a drinking bout. Perhaps I'm just as excentric as he was—without knowing it. Anyway I was always restless and a rover and I used to think that the “roving star” was my lucky star.
On the other side I go back further than England; for my father came from Norway. (1) He was a Norwegian sailor—a quarter-master, and he deserted in Melbourne, Victoria, to run away to the goldfields, in the Palmy Days of Ballarat and Bendigo and those fields He found gold and lost it—speculating in puddling-machines, crushing mills and “duffers”. He drifted into New South Wales with the gold rushes {and got married}. He was clever at all sorts of mechanical work, was well educated, the terror, in mathematics, of all the district school-teachers, and I don't believe a kinder man in trouble, or a gentler nurse in sickness, ever breathed. He was short, and nuggety and fair, but I was tall and dark, after the English side of the family. He died before I began to understand and appreciate him. He was a
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stranger and a foreigner to his own family—as are many of our foreign fathers in Australia. He had different notions, to we us Australians, about family life. He had a different past to look back to, in a foreign country amongst strange people, that we could never realize. We spoke English, or, rather Australian; he spoke broken English which grew worse as he grew older. I remember one day mimicking his broken English amongst my chums. I wish I could forget that. The thought of it has hurt my heart many a time. He used to write long letters home in Norwegian, about once a year. May-be he thought in his own language, as when he sat, as I have often seen him, smoking quietly by the fire—or walked to and fro, to and fro, with his hands behind his back, and after a hard day's work too. He used often, and after I was well on in my teens, come and tuck the blankets round me, if I coughed in the night, and say:
“You must keep yourself warm sonny.”
After the Gulgong goldfield petered out, and he took up a selection (1) at a place called Eurunderee (the “Old Pipeclay” Diggings) in barren ridges back amongst which the small farmers were shoved because all the rich black-soil river flats and red-soil slopes beyond were taken up by old land-grants; the Ccountry (2) was needed to “carry sheep”, for the squatters. But I fancy that Father took up this land mostly because it was on part of an old goldfield—the gold fever seldom dies out of a digger's blood until the day of his death. He was always prospecting round with a pick, shovel and gold dish, in spare hours, and when he died he had two men putting down a shaft for him on shares and rations. He'd worked as a ship builder as a boy, and now he worked at carpentering, in the farming town, or took contracts to build the little school-houses which were dotted all over the bush after the new Educational Act came into force. And between whiles he'd work on the “farm”, fencing, grubbing (digging out stumps) or making a dam to catch the surface water, for there was no “permanent water” there. I often saw him drive home, after a hard day's work in the town, with the spring-cart full of stable manure to put on the “poor” soil; and, after tea, he'd burn off logs and bush, or dig in the tank for an hour or so. People used to say that they never saw him rest. He had the name of being the hardest working man in the district—and it was a German farming district where {the} old men worked in the fields or vineyards till the last season of their lives; where German women worked [cancelled] {shepherding cows} in the fields up to within a few days of their confinements, and where elder sons were stoop-shouldered old men at thirty.
Father would seldom wake us boys on a cold winter morning to light the fire—
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he'd get up, himself, and light it—he never felt the cold; and very often he'd have his breakfast and be away to work while the frosty stars were in the sky. I've often, since then, had a strange fancy that his heart was broken when he left Norway, and he worked hard so as not to remember. He worked harder as he grew older, and talked less—but one week, when we were camping together on a contract, he told me a lot about his voyages and adventures in his young days—the first time he ever spoke to me of those things. And, a little while after that, one day he rested.
It was New Year's Eve and a blazing hot day. We were at home and Father and I were at work clearing a bit of likely ground in the far end of the outer selection, or forty acre block. We called it the “outer run”. (Runs in Australia are often 50 miles across.) Father was grubbing out a big brute of a dead iron-bark stump that wouldn't burn and was like cast iron to chop. He'd dug a big hole round it, in the hard clay, that wasn't much softer than the stump, and was kneeling in the hole, chopping away at the hard dead tap-root that tapered down from nearly the thickness of the stump to somewhere on the other side of the world, I think. We had to cut it through to get the stump out—for there was no tree to give a purchase— and afterwards dig trenches, parts of a mile, to trace the great surface roots (that had roots going down from them too) and all the branch roots that were big enough to break a plough-share. Suddenly father let the axe fall and fell back against the side of the hole. I thought he'd slipped—then I thought he's cut his foot, for his face went as white as his forehead was under his hat.:for he was very fair skinned
“My God Father!” I cried. “What have you done?”
“Help me up, sonny,” he said, holding up his hand. “I feel queer.”
I was about seventeen then, a head taller than he and very strong; I took his hand and helped him out of the hole—my heart thumping against my ribs, for I felt what was coming.
“Don't you be frightened, sonny,” he said holding on to me with one hand and holding the other to his side—he'd often complained lately of his side and back— “Help me into the shade, it's only a queer turn.”
I helped {him} into the dusty patchy shade of a clump of ragged saplings and eased him down with his back against one of them. How the heat did blaze all round! He sat back, looking very “queer” and letting the backs of his hands rest in the dust. He sat so for a minute, gazing straight in front of him, with a far-away look in his eyes as if he was seeing something in the past. I began to feel sick and cold in the stomach.
“Don't you be frightened, sonny,” he gasped, at last, rousing himself, and lifting his hands to his lap, “bring me the billy.”
We had a billy of water in the shade by the stump; I brought it to him and he drank a little.
“Father! I'll run and bring Mother,” I said.
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“No” he said. “No—run across and bring Peter Larsen.” Peter Larsen was another Norwegian, our neighbour on that side; he was working in his paddock {(1)}, that joined ours, and I soon had him. Father spoke to him low, in Norwegian— he was telling him something about a disputed boundary, and about his will, as Peter told us afterwards. {(Peter afterwards wrote a long letter in Norwegian to Father's people in Norway.)}
“Joe,” said Peter, “you go bring your mother.”
But Father spoke to him again, and Peter said:“You go and bring Fred Spencer, Joe.” (Spencer was our neighbour on the other side.) “tell Mrs Spencer to go to your mother, and you ride into the town for the doctor—hard as you can.”
I looked at Father, and he at me, with a look in his eyes that I never want to see again in the eyes of a friend of mine. Then I ran. I crossed the hot dusty road and ran down round through the bushes, out of sight of our house, to Spencer's place. Spencer started running up the road, raising a thick white cloud of dust {as he ran}, and his wife to our place. I got Spencer's bridle and ran up the gully to get my horse, but couldn't find him for some time and men had a job to catch him. I rode “bare-backed” and took a short cut across the “spur” and down to our house for the saddle. I saw young Fred Spencer running up towards me from the house (1)—and his face was enough.
“Don't go home, Joe,” he said. “Come with me—don't you go home.”
But I sat there on my horse and saw it all. When young Fred tried to lead the horse away, I snatched the rein from his hand and swore at him. Then he let me alone. Men seemed to have sprung up from everywhere—there had been three or four young fellows riding past out of town, and they had stopped. They carried father home—as I had seen other fathers home—on a sheet of bark, with two sticks underneath for the four men to lift it by.
The doctor came out from the town, with a mounted policeman! Men are buried quickly when they die in the drought—you haven't time even to be buried decently. The doctor said it was heart disease—something Latin of the heart. They let me see him just before the funeral. They said he looked well; some said that it was the only time they saw him rest. I thought that the kink in his forehead was deeper than it had been in life, and that he looked as though he were in pain. They said that that was on account of the post-mortem. And, as I watched—it might have been because of the dry mist that came before my eyes —I fancied that his horny knotted hands seemed to work as I'd seen them work when he slept—as though grasping the handle of the axe. Death couldn't whiten nor smooth those scarred and knotted fingers, nor mend the twisted and broken nails.
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I never cried over him. I couldn't. Some whispered that I was heartless. When the gentle, “piano-fingered” parson from town stood at the head of the grave, I couldn't help turning from him. Some said I was either a hard young scamp, or mad—I was generally considered a bit “ratty” as a boy. I went away and leaned on the cemetery fence, and watched the sun going down on the bush; and hated the bush, and the country, “my country”! and the English that owned it—the squatters and the bank shareholders who lived in luxury in the city—the hundreds who lived in idleness because of the wasted lives of toil of thousands of men like the man that lay yonder under the new mound of hard, lumpy clay that was already drying in the drought. And I wished that I could write.
The steady Germans, their elder sons and the older farmers round there respected him. The careless natives, sons of the English, Irish, and English-Irish settlers, referred to him sometimes as “Old Dutchy” and considered him mean because he worked hard and never drank a glass. He was only fifty-four when he died, but his hair and beard were grey, and his shoulders stooped, like a man twenty years older.
I leaned on the cemetery fence and thought of all this, while young Fred Spencer waited round to take me home when the fit passed off. It was New Year's Eve(Night)Eve but there was no need for bonfires, for bush fires were all over the distant range, and, as night came on, they showed out like lighted cities. Away in the farming town I saw {an early} rocket go up, and heard the local brass band playing. And I wished that I could write.

(1)

Joe Wilson's name must have been “Olsen” Anglicised. H.L.

(1)

“Selection”. A small holding taken under a section of the N.S.W. Land Law (“Free Selection before Survey”) under which by the payment of instalments the land eventually becomes “freehold”. A law for emigrants and poor men.

(2)

Country. In this expression Country means a tract or land.

{(1)}

“Paddock”: a field or run fenced in. Also an excavation or trench in shallow sinkings on the goldfield.

(1)

“House”: anything, from a bark humpy upwards. Slab and bark hut {in this case}.