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Wit, irony and the Australian vernacular: Remembering Brian Matthews

  • 15 June 2022
Prof Brian Ernest Matthews BA. Dip.Ed. MA. PhD. FAHA  27/12/1936 – 2/6/2022 Most of us, when pushed, can name a couple of teachers who had a profound influence on our lives. For me, Brian Matthews was one such teacher. I enrolled in English at Flinders University in 1972. On asking the enrolling officer whether anybody was ‘doing anything about Lawson’, I was directed to the office of Brian Matthews, a recent appointment to the English Department.

‘I hear you know something about Lawson,’ I said, leaning in his doorway.

He turned in his chair and looked up at me. ‘Oh, maybe a bit.’

This was an understatement of some magnitude. Matthews was then putting the finishing touches to ‘The Receding Wave’, a controversial analysis of Lawson’s artistic and physical decline which got him into a fair bit of trouble with the Lawson cheer squad. In the decades that followed, Matthews became a leading international authority on the life and the works of Henry Lawson.

As Brian later wrote, I ‘saddled up’ for English. He turned out to be an extraordinary teacher and, in subsequent years, I enrolled in every course he taught. Among many other things, Brian Matthews and the other profound influence on my life, Brian Medlin, taught me that wit, wisdom and erudition did not have to be delivered in a faux Oxfordian accent, so beloved of many academics at the time.

A great friendship developed beyond the classroom walls. In subsequent years, until his recent and sudden decline, we wandered across the literary terrain together, told each other stories, jousted, laughed — and drank just a little.

'Brian Matthews was an important and influential figure on the Australian literary landscape. He was also an outstanding teacher. A number of his students went on to make their own significant contributions to our national culture. We all acknowledge his inspirational role in our careers.'

Brian Matthews, an Australian academic and author, was born in St Kilda shortly after Christmas in 1936. He was educated at De La Salle College and Melbourne University where he did a BA in the 1950s and, later, an MA under the direction of Vincent Buckley.

After graduating, he taught in rural Victorian schools before travelling extensively overseas.  Returning by ship from London, he met his first wife, Jeanne, on board. They married in Melbourne in January 1963 and had five children before adopting a Vietnamese refugee in 1973. In the late 1980s, Jeanne