A few weeks ago, having been persuaded to plan a trip to steamy Asia, I went along to my GP for an assortment of vaccinations. As a traveller mostly to Europe, I hadn’t endured the needle since cholera had been struck off the list of evils threatening antipodean travellers. Before that, easily my most memorable encounter with preventative medicine was a typhoid injection in the army.

This procedure was carried out under a high-noon Puckapunyal January sun. We stood around for a long time for no apparent reason—a penchant for inexplicable hiatus was characteristic of our National Service leaders, and exotic rumours would flower and spread during such intermissions. Eventually, we shuffled forward towards the two or three sweating, ill-tempered, needle-jabbing practitioners at the head of the ranks, where those who hadn’t already fainted from heat or dread were duly inoculated.

As I approached the front line, I incautiously watched as the medic more or less threw the needle like a dart at the exposed flesh of the bloke in front of me and then, swearing at some problem with the plunger, unscrewed the barrel from the needle, which remained protruding from the patient’s arm, and screwed on a new one. And so the long day wore on—a signal one for me because since then I have always consciously looked away from the action on the rare occasions when I’m enduring needles for this or that no doubt excellent reason.

But all of that was a long time in the past and my sturdy habit of looking elsewhere long since established when I fronted up to my GP for a battery of protection against the bacteriological and viral assaults awaiting me in our near north. These involved typhoid (again!), a pre-emptive strike against hepatitis A, and the painful administration of a disincentive for some encephalitic pestilence the name of which escapes me.
As I was leaving, I inquired casually if there would be any side effects. Instead of reassuring me, he wanted to know why I’d asked.

‘Well,’ I said, ‘as a matter of fact, I have to give a talk tonight. I’m launching a new CD by John Schumann …’

‘Of Redgum fame!’ he footnoted, obviously pleased to show he was up with the pace.

‘Right,’ I said. ‘Anyway, Schumann’s made a wonderful CD, setting some of Lawson’s poems to music.
And, being a bit of a Lawson man myself, I was asked to advise on the project and …’

But he was interrupting again. I don’t know if you’ve noticed but there are certain professional people—GPs, medical specialists of one kind and another and dentists prominent among them—who are keen to show they are not prisoners of their own narrow field.

Discovering that, prone under the Damocletian scalpel, or stretched out on the examination table, or espaliered on the dentist’s chair gasping for air and desperate to swallow, is a literary person, they suspend hostilities entirely to talk books, announce preferences or test you out.

And so, true to type, my medico said: ‘Lawson. Born in Auburn.’
‘No, that was C. J. Dennis.’
‘Ah yes, of course,’ he said, ‘Lawson was the one who wrote Clancy of the Overflow.’
‘Banjo Paterson.’
‘Then Lawson made that famous jump at the Blue Lake.’
‘Adam Lindsay Gordon.’ I grinned deferentially to show that he was allowed to get these things wrong, just as I would make a mess of trying to give an injection. To each his own, said my smiling, tolerant visage.

It set me thinking, though. How rapidly, how irretrievably, I wondered, are our stories and their tellers and the language in which they are told retreating into a miasma of internationalised pop culture so that even the educated are losing track of the makers of our cultural heritage, the tuners of our original voice. And no sooner had I entertained this well-worn thought than the AFL considerately popped up with a resounding answer by attempting at the last minute to substitute Delta Goodrem for the long since contracted Silvie Paladino to sing the national anthem at the Grand Final.

Each woman is a wonderful and successful artist in her field: Goodrem, however, is a household word because she is part of the popular culture. Its vernacular is Americanised and its music is the stuff of international charts. I presume the AFL reckoned that this would speak more loudly to the fans than the operatic tones of Paladino. We should hope that they were wrong.

In the end, Paladino did the job, though you wouldn’t have seen much of her: the panning TV cameras ignored her physical presence almost completely. But the voice was the thing.

Anyway, some hours after my needles, and suffering no aftershocks, I celebrated John Schumann and the Vagabond Crew’s Henry Lawson in a way Lawson himself would have thoroughly approved. In his introductory remarks, and without, I swear, any collusion with me, Schumann said that although a Delta Goodrem launch would no doubt draw a larger attendance, perhaps a celebration of Henry Lawson, as one of the founders of our literature and our vernacular, was a more notable and important Australian event. He was applauded to the echo and even if he was preaching to the converted, it’s encouraging to think that the converted are still around and vocal. 

Brian Matthews is a writer who lives in South Australia’s Clare Valley, whose southernmost town, Auburn, is the birthplace of C. J. Dennis.



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