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Australia’s Greatest Storyteller: Review of Banjo by Grantlee Kieza

November 20, 2018

He was the boy from the bush who became the voice of a generation. He gave us our unofficial national anthem, Waltzing Matilda and beloved ballads, The Man From Snowy River and Clancy of the Overflow. But how much do we really know about the man widely recognised as Australia’s greatest storyteller and most celebrated poet?

In a new biography, Banjo, a colourful and vibrant story of a remarkable life crammed full of adventure, romance and some interesting twists, emerges. It is not a life without its blemishes, but this only adds to the feeling of authenticity that pervades this intriguing and highly entertaining read.

Born in 1860, it emerges that A.B. (Andrew Barton) ‘Banjo’ Paterson called Barty by his family and friends, inherited his writing talent from the women in his family – his grandmother and mother. We learn that that he was a brilliant amateur jockey, that he fudged his age to enlist in WW1 – and that his pen name, ‘The Banjo,’ was inspired by a racehorse of the same name that once belonged to his father.

Written in 1895 in Queensland, Banjo reveals Waltzing Matilda came about as the result of Barty collaborating with one Christine Macpherson, who was the best friend of his fiancé. She wrote the tune while he wrote the lyrics but in we learn that during the creative ‘process,’ the notorious ladies’ man cast his co-creator ‘a flirty eye,’ and bingo, his engagement to Sarah Riley was ‘dead in the water.’

While there are probably more versions of the origins of Waltzing Matilda than there are recordings (more than any other Australian song according to the National Film and Sound Archive), Banjo claims it was an expression popularised by Germans on the goldfields. ‘The expression ‘auf der walz’ meant to ‘go tramping,’ while Matilda was the name given to a coat that kept swagmen warm…’  

Marriage took its time ensnaring the dashing Barty, and it wouldn’t be until the age of 40 that the romantic adventurer finally tied the knot and settled down. An incorrigible adventurer and traveller, Banjo, like the life of its subject, straddles two centuries and covers a very broad canvas.

A solicitor at the beginning of his working life, once the newly launched Bulletin began publishing his pieces writing gradually claimed Barty who covered the second Boer War as a reporter, eventually becoming a newspaper editor, columnist, novelist, foreign correspondent and ABC broadcaster.

While he always claimed he wasn’t a poet, but ‘a versifier,’ his burgeoning talent was clearly evident very early on. Take this piece he wrote as a teen about the monotony of waiting for a dignitary to arrive at a wharf: ‘It was rather dull waiting; but seeing some boys fall in the water, and one policeman kick a dog, which immediately bit the next policeman, somewhat enlivened the time.’

Horse racing was one of the great passions of his life, ‘from riding bush nags to watching the mighty Phar Lap’ and a description of Barty riding his pony to his tiny country school along a trail frequented by the outlaw Ben Hall, helps set the scene in Banjo.

Illalong (near Yass) where Barty spent most of his early childhood is a ‘bush paradise, air laden with the perfume of roses and jasmine,’ and it’s easy to understand how Barty, who enjoyed a carefree life in the outdoors, eulogised the beauty, spirit and nobility of a rural life in his famous ballads. At the same time, Banjo does not gloss over the grim realities of life on the land: Fire, declining wool prices, flood, drought, heat, snakes, flies, isolation and bushrangers ‘who would threaten women and kill a horse for a lark.’  

For a woman, like Barty’s mother, Rose, the pioneering life was tough. Often left alone while her husband Andrew went off to work on the property, she was far from medical aid or help if any kind if trouble loomed. With large families the norm back then, Rose gave birth to her seventh and last baby almost 18 years after her first. Sadly, she died at the age of 48 after years of ill health.

The lyrics to all the most famous ballads are there along with some lovely historic photos but there’s also some confronting stuff, like the shocking jingoism and ugly racism of early Australia, but it adds context and Banjo is all the better for it.

From encounters with Breaker Morant, Winston Churchill, Rudyard Kipling and the tragic, brilliant Henry Lawson, from the wild horsemen of the Snowy to the refined airs and graces of high society, Barty embraced his amazing life with open arms and heart – and that dry sense of humour that is so very Australian.

In the Acknowledgments, the author, Grantlee Kieza stands alongside Banjo’s great grandson, Alistair Caird Campbell on the veranda of his bush home in NSW as he reminisces that his mother, Rosamund, remembered him as a kind and loving grandpa.

A great end to a great read.

About The Author

Grantley Kieza

Award-winning journalist Grantlee Kieza has held senior editorial positions at The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Telegraph and The Courier-Mail. He is a Walkley Award finalist and the author of twelve acclaimed books, including the recent bestsellers Mrs Kelly, Monash, Sons of the Southern Cross and Bert Hinkler.

Purchase a copy of Banjo here 

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