Another interesting piece appeared on the ABC last week, this time on Radio National. You can read about it or listen to the audio, but what it comes down to is a question about whether ‘Banjo’ Patterson’s character Clancy was a real person or not.
Judy Taylor, whose great grandfather was a fellow named Thomas Gerald Clancy, insists that “[it may be] true that there’s some literary license taken, [ but there’s no] doubt as to the fact that the person that it’s based upon is real, and that that person is our great grandfather.” Her cousin Antoni Jach (who also shares the Clancy ancestor) takes a broader view, saying that “writers use their imagination. … So Clancy is a character that comes out of the imagination, but based on people he has probably met.” Jach raises the interesting point that Henry Lawson also wrote about a Clancy, several years after ‘…The Overflow’ was published. “So then maybe Clancy becomes a certain type, [a] mythic and symbolic figure.”
On the question of veracity I tend to agree with Jach, but what I am more interested in is this idea of the mythic figure. It’s interesting that, even in 1889 when the poem was published, the figure of the stockman was clearly being romanticised. The argument between Clancy being a real person or a fictional creation neatly encapsulates a broader debate regarding the notion of Australia as an outback nation, populated by accomplished horsemen roaming the land on horseback. While we know that it’s certainly not an accurate picture of Australia today, the issue of Clancy as real vs fictional points to a question about whether this ‘vision splendid’ was ever true.
It could be argued that the desire to believe that he was real, and was based on an actual person, reflects the desire to believe that yes, there once were such noble figures, who loved their lives on the land, and lived as ‘real’ Australians. Now this latter view can be contradicted by Mr Thomas Gerald Clancy himself, who wrote a riposte to Patterson’s poem, part of which I quote below:
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.
(You can read the entire poem on the ABC page linked above, or if you prefer, here)
I certainly don’t dispute that there were drovers, or that the life had the potential to be a good one, at times. But I think it’s important to separate the romantic view from the reality, at least if we really do want to consider this as a legitimate part of Australian history. To do so, we need to accept that the glorious life of the drover was not one shared, in its entirety at least, by anyone, but that such idealised and fictional versions of it represent it at its best – if not at its truest.