Banjo Paterson by Alistair Campbell

Reviewed by Wendy Lipke

This 29×26 cm hard covered book with dust jacket is a life in pictures and words from the Banjo Paterson Family Archive. All types of personal memorabilia have been brought together for the first time by Banjo’s great-grandson, and sole executor of the poet’s literary estate, Alistair Campbell, with intimate commentary of his famous relative.

In the Introduction, Campbell tells how he has retained these memorabilia in fruit boxes, shoeboxes and pillowcases and, needing more room, he enlisted Belinda Crawford to catalogue this collection into the ‘Papers of Andrew Barton ‘Banjo’ Paterson’ collection, now in the National Library. This collection of diaries, notebooks, correspondence, scrapbooks, ephemera and photographs was acquired by the library in 2019, following four generations of custodianship by the family.

Campbell says he wanted to try and reach behind the famous commentator and storyteller and consider the man, his times and some of the truths he shared. To do this, he has produced an interesting part of Australia’s history through the eyes of one of its best-known poets. The book is divided into eight chapters where each reveals some aspect of this remarkable man’s life. Most Australians will be familiar with his work in poetry but there appears to be much more to this life than poetry.

The dust jacket contains an easily recognised portrait of Paterson while the back cover contains the quote “Life, after all, is mostly made up of little things, prosaic and unpicturesque … If I can find therein some humour and some human nature, so much the better”.  Banjo Paterson. The hard cover is maroon in colour and bears the first verse and chorus of Waltzing Matilda. Gold has been used predominantly for the titles of the chapters and on this cover. It stands out well on the black background for the chapter title pages but not so well on the hard cover. If the dust jacket remains on the book this will not be a problem.

Many poems or excerpts from his poems are found throughout the book and the backgrounds upon which the memorabilia rest in the book, vary in colour and style. The Foreword is written by Marie Louise Ayres, Director-General of the National Library of Australia who outlines the book’s content and gives some background on where Waltzing Matilda was first penned.

The first chapter covers family history, and how some of Banjo’s interests such as poetry, storytelling and social commentary has run in the family, with reference to the poet Emily Mary Barton and the penchant for scrapbook-keeping as Banjo’s father did. A drawing of the family tree is followed by ten pages of family photos. Reference is also made to a book Illalong Children The story of Banjo Paterson’s childhood which was published forty-two years after his death by Alistair’s mother and aunt and A.B. Paterson’s Complete Works: Singer of the Bush 1885-1900; and Song of the Pen 1901-1941 the two-volume set compiled by his mother.

A Biographical Timeline covers the next sixteen pages with pictures of saved memorabilia above a band across the page with text below. This covers the period from 1864 to 1941.

The next chapter highlights change over this period which Paterson experienced in both word and picture form. This includes the family fortunes, from the power of the horse to the motoring age, from colonies to the Commonwealth, banding together on an unrelenting land and shaping Australian identity. During his life, Banjo witnessed the emergence of the wireless, gramophone and talking pictures. A record of his reflections on changes in his radio talk entitled ‘Australian Local Colour’ is provided. There is a portrait of an older Banjo by artist violet Bowring and many old photos taken during his life.

In chapter three, titled On the Frontier, emphasis is given to the adventurous traveller who was unafraid of change and who was always asking questions, many of which are as relevant now as they were when first asked.  This chapter also addresses Technology of the time foregrounding the Great Australian Basin and his wireless talk called ‘Golden Water’ in 1895. This was also the time for adventures in writing and Paterson was a keen participant. Evidence is provided of his willingness to explore different forms of writing for a variety of media – his use of Australian verse in the late 19th C.; Prose – “Saltbush Bill” and “Three Elephant Power” as well as the use of illustration where he worked with Norman Lindsay to produce ‘The Animals Noah Forgot’. His interests in film led to him selling the film rights to The Man From Snowy River in 1919.

Chapters four and five are devoted to working with horses and the war years in which Australia was involved. Andrew Barton Paterson was involved in three theatres of war which are covered in the many photos, maps, notes, greeting cards, telegrams, and envelopes presented.

Paterson as a family man is the focus in chapter six and in chapter seven Campbell suggests that Banjo told his stories from both sides to leave them open for the reader to draw their own conclusions. Some of his poems and paintings he had collected over his life and photos of some of the leaders of the time are also found here.

The last chapter looks at how Paterson is remembered today. This section is finished with a full-page family photo of the current family of the man responsible for this book. Alistair Campbell leaves a message for his family and other Australians, ‘I want them to recognise the legacy of those parts of my great-grandfather’s work – his wry humour; his love of ingenuity and adventure; his equalising, critical eye – which we as Australians have adopted as a picture of ourselves. I hope that you will recognise his appreciation of our unique landscapes, his arguments for the best of things for all of us, and his hopes for our future’ (268).

This book also provides a Bibliography, Endnotes, and Picture Credits as well as acknowledging the great work done by Belinda Crawford and Victoria Clark in curating the collection which took six months to complete and acknowledging their part in recording Australia’s history.

This would be a wonderful book to grace any coffee table in homes or waiting rooms.

Banjo Paterson: A Life in Pictures and Words from the Banjo Paterson Family Archive


By Alistair Campbell

Pan Macmillan Australia

ISBN: 978-1-76126-080-3

$49.99; 280pp

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