Monday musings on Australian literature: City, bush and outback

If today weren’t Monday, this would probably be a literary road post but it is Monday which means of course that it’s a Monday Musings instead! See how flexible I am?


I know I talk a lot here about the bush and the outback but they are topics that keep cropping up in my reading and thinking. They cropped up again yesterday during a performance we attended at the Ballarat Heritage Festival. It was Bernard Caleo of the Museum of Melbourne reciting Banjo Paterson‘s “Mulga Bill’s Bicycle” and “The Man from Ironbark“. He performed them beautifully, but even better he provided some background to Paterson and his times. He spoke of the rivalry between Paterson and Henry Lawson. They were, he said, friends but they saw the bush in opposing ways: Lawson thought Paterson was too “romantic” while Paterson thought Lawson was all “doom and gloom”.

Caleo didn’t buy into the argument. That wasn’t, after all, his reason for being at the festival, but he did say that through publishing their poems and stories in The Bulletin they debated and defined our understanding of the city and the bush or outback. And he was right. Whether we read Paterson’s comedy or Lawson’s gloom or, even, Barbara Baynton‘s gothic, what we get is not only a sense of a divide between the city and the outback, but a rather schizophrenic view of the bush and/or outback. However, I don’t think these opposing views are irreconcilable: Paterson’s view of bushmen as heroic, free, and unsophisticated, and Lawson’s recognition of the harshness of outback life and the despairing resilience of the people are mutually exclusive. The way I see it, Lawson’s drover’s wife is heroic and Paterson’s Clancy works hard for his living. It’s more a matter of perspective than of there being a single truth … Don’t you think?

And yet, it’s not quite that simple either, because there is the issue of intention, or, at least, of impact. Paterson’s main goal seems to have been for city people to respect not ridicule bush people whereas Lawson, with his socialist leanings, may very well have hoped his writings would lead to practical improvements in the lot of the people he wrote about. On the other hand, maybe both just wanted to make a buck! Regardless, these two views of bush people are still relevant today ….  That’s what interests me the most when I read, or hear, their writing, the way those views persist. I’m sure to write more on’t.

7 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: City, bush and outback

  1. I know that most of the Australians live on the coasts and very few in the Outback.

    Is it easier to live in the Outback now? Better roads? Internet? Easy water supplies?

    I read Jill Ker Conway’s autobiography. It was hard to live on that sheep farm in the Outback.

    • You’re very right Isabel, they do. I don’t live on the coast, but I do live in a city, so am rather in the middle – not quite coast but not quite outback either. Caleo talked of the city, then the bush, and then the outback. I live in what we like to say is our “bush capital” — the outback isn’t far away but it’s not what my experience is.

      I think it is a little easier to live in the outback now but that depends on how “out” in the outback you are. There are more roads but not as many and as good as needed, and internet access is very flakey in many places. So, it’s easier than it was for Jill Ker Conway but not as easy as living in the main population centres. For indigenous people and others in very remote areas in the central and western deserts, life is still pretty tough, particularly if you want access to modern communications and all that they bring.

  2. It is easier to live in the bush these days than it was in Lawsons time but there are still drawbacks that the city folk never know. Distance and the exorbitant cost of fuel makes every trip you take an exercise in book keeping these days when farm $ are stretched to the limit already. Just trucking your sheep/cattle to the sale yards when prices have bottomed out gives one cause for reflection. Country people rely so much on their vehicles. Mums are often doing two hundred klms a day just dropping their kids to the bitumen to catch the school bus. Four trips a day add up and a grocery shop is never just five minutes down the road.

    Dirt roads play havoc with tyres – our postie/mail contractor never left home without six spares on board and on occassions went through the lot in one days mail run.. Isolation can cause many emotional problems and often more to the men than the women as they seem to not communicate so openely about their problems. Suicide rates are rising in country areas where the stress and strain is taking its toll.

    Computer link ups are slow or non existent in many cases due to old wiring to remote properties. Black spots abound for mobile phone usage – many was the time we would be driving all over the property trying to get a satellite link and getting land lines fixed can be a nightmare – we were ten days without phone or electricity after one particularly bad storm

    Getting tradies can be a bloody nightmare – they don’t do country properties.

    Indigenous groups have it even harder as there communities are usually in even more isolated areas.

    The pluses of course are just as many which is why country people stay where they are and always Australians have taken the good with the bad.

    The modern day Bush Poet writes from todays perspective, just as Lawson and Paterson wrote of their perspective of their era. Australian Bush Poetry is not all about sheep,, snakes and drovers, it is just as likely to reflect on CSG, Politicians and IPods. It is a genre of poetry about Australia and the Australian way of life written with rhyme and meter. Yes I am a Bush Poet in case you wondered..

    Most Australians do live on the coast and most who drive four wheel drive vehicles use them as show ponies and not work horses and god forbid if they get dust or stone chips on them.. Fifty klms west of town does not equate to being in the bush at all so most city folks have no idea what is involved.

    I came off a sheep property five years ago and now live in a semi-rural area in SE Queensland. Miss it like you wouldn’t believe but have enough brains to realize that age and time were against me .


    The Scribbly Bark Poet

    • Oh thanks so much for this perspective Maureen … I’ve heard some modern country music but have only read a very small amount of modern bush poetry. I’ll try to rectify that.

      I suspect you’ve made the right decision re your move but I can understand your missing it.

      BTW I spent three years of my childhood in Mt Isa … and did quite a bit of driving in outback Queensland. I haven’t lived the farm life but I’m very grateful for the experience I did have.

  3. Pingback: GoogleDoodleCollection | Henry Lawson’s 146th Birthday

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