Wednesday, May 11, 2011

"...the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended"

By Darryl Mason

I had the extraordinary pleasure of seeing & hearing actor Jack Thompson read the poetry of Australia's legendary bush and city balladeers Banjo Paterson & Henry Lawson at the Gearin Hotel, Katoomba, last Sunday. Sorry, photos & vid were banned, unfortunately.

But the gig was filmed for a DVD release, and I have a feeling the performance will also show up on ABC1 or ABC2 on a Sunday afternoon not too far away.

I was lucky enough to have had a teacher in primary school who made sure he read to us a Lawson or Paterson piece at least once a week. But while I got the excitement of The Man From Snowy River and The Loaded Dog, the words and images of Paterson's Clancy Of The Overflow didn't really sink in, having not, back then, seen much of the real Australian bush, or the Big City, I couldn't compare two in my mind.

But hearing Jack Thompson do Clancy last Sunday was a revelation. I finally got it. Paterson dreamed of dumping the gritty city life to become a sun-drenched cattleman, but he knew in his heart it was just a romantic idea, a daydream. Droving cattle would have been broken Paterson as easily as an office life would have shattered his legendary Clancy. But it's the imagery projected by those words that really leaps out at me now. Here's the full poem, published in The Bulletin in 1889 :

I had written him a letter which I had, for want of better
Knowledge, sent to where I met him down the Lachlan years ago;
He was shearing when I knew him, so I sent the letter to him,
Just on spec, addressed as follows, "Clancy, of The Overflow."

And an answer came directed in a writing unexpected
(And I think the same was written with a thumb-nail dipped in tar);
'Twas his shearing mate who wrote it, and verbatim I will quote it:
"Clancy's gone to Queensland droving, and we don't know where he are."

In my wild erratic fancy, visions come to me of Clancy
Gone a-droving "down the Cooper" where the Western drovers go;
As the stock are slowly stringing, Clancy rides behind them singing,
For the drover's life has pleasures that the townsfolk never know.

And the bush has friends to meet him, and their kindly voices greet him
In the murmur of the breezes and the river on its bars,
And he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plain extended,
And at night the wondrous glory of the everlasting stars.

I am sitting in my dingy little office, where a stingy
Ray of sunlight struggles feebly down between the houses tall,
And the foetid air and gritty of the dusty, dirty city,
Through the open window floating, spreads it foulness over all.

And in place of lowing cattle, I can hear the fiendish rattle
Of the tramways and the buses making hurry down the street;
And the language uninviting of the gutter children fighting
Comes fitfully and faintly through the ceaseless tramp of feet.

And the hurrying people daunt me,and their pallid faces haunt me
As they shoulder one another in their rush and nervous haste,
With their eager eyes and greedy, and their stunted forms and weedy,
For townsfolk have no time to grow, they have no time to waste.

And I somehow rather fancy that I'd like to change with Clancy,
Like to take a turn at droving where the seasons come and go,
While he faced the round eternal of the cash-book and the journal
But I doubt he's suit the office, Clancy, of The Overflow.

You can pick up CDs of Jack Thomspon's beautiful readings of the words of Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson from Fine Poets here.

Here's Jack Thompson recording Clancy :

UPDATE : Didn't know this, but 'Clancy Of The Overflow', in retirement, penned a sardonic reply to Paterson's romantic view of his droving lifestyle, eight years after The Bulletin published the poem.

Thomas Gerald Clancy made sure readers understood the harsh reality of his world, back then :

Neath the star-spangled dome

Of my Austral home,

When watching by the camp fire's ruddy glow,

Oft in the flickering blaze

Is presented to my gaze

The sun-drenched kindly faces

Of the men of Overflow.

Now, though years have passed forever

Since I used, with best endeavour

Clip the fleeces of the jumbucks

Down the Lachlan years ago,

Still in memory linger traces

Of many cheerful faces,

And the well-remembered visage

Of the Bulletin's "Banjo".

Tired of life upon the stations,

With their wretched, scanty rations,

I took a sudden notion

That a droving I would go;

Then a roving fancy took me,

Which has never since forsook me,

And decided me to travel,

And leave the Overflow.

So with maiden ewes from Tubbo,

I passed en route to Dubbo,

And across the Lig'num country

'where the Barwon waters flow;

Thence onward o'er the Narran,

By scrubby belts of Yarran,

To where the landscape changes

And the cotton bushes grow.

And my path I've often wended

Over drought-scourged plains extended,

where phantom lakes and forests

Forever come and go;

And the stock in hundreds dying,

Along the road are lying,

To count among the 'pleasures"

That townsfolk never know.

Over arid plains extended

My route has often tended,

Droving cattle to the Darling,

Or along the Warrego;

Oft with nightly rest impeded,

when the cattle had stampeded,

Save I sworn that droving pleasures

For the future I'd forego.

So of drinking liquid mire

I eventually did tire,

And gave droving up forever

As a life that was too slow.

Now, gold digging, in a measure,

Affords much greater pleasure

To your obedient servant,

"Clancy of the Overflow".