Making a case for a love triangle

By Rhonda Dredge

Most people are scared of the legal profession but inside many a crusty barrister or stern judge beats the heart of a romantic.

Benjamin Lindner, counsel for the defence, has just launched the 21st book on Australia’s theme song: Waltzing Matilda: Australia’s Accidental Anthem.

Benjamin claims that Waltzing Matilda is, arguably, not about the 1894 shearers’ strike but a love triangle involving its lyricist Banjo Paterson. 

The author was young, he could write clever verse and two women were vying for his attention when he first penned the words 120 years ago.

The book was launched by Boolarong Press at the Essoign Club, in Owen Dixon Chambers, last month and the legal profession gathered to assess the case for a love serenade. 

One barrister said he was writing a book about terrorism, a judge had lessons from fiction writer Carmel Bird so she could write “all the things I can’t say on the bench.” Another had written a book on bail law. 

“We’re all wordsmiths. It’s what we do. It’s what we are. Words are our tool of trade,” said Benjamin, acknowledging the talent of the legal profession present. “All of us are becoming more and more written wordsmiths nowadays.”

Barristers like to get things right and that takes research. Benjamin’s argument is based on examination of transcripts of inquests, private letters held by the Australian National Library, shipping records and documents, and visits to key sites, including Dagwood Station where the song was composed in 1895. 

“I judge a book by its footnotes, or, at least, its endnotes,” Benjamin told CBD News.  “There are 10,000 words of endnotes. I’m an analytical type of person. I work as a criminal barrister. I sift through the evidence.  And so I sifted through the evidence on the origins of Waltzing Matilda to learn about its origins and to separate history from folklore.”

He is able to say with some authority that Australia’s most famous song was penned to impress Christina Macpherson, who was plucking a pretty Scottish tune on an autoharp, while staying at the station with Paterson’s fiancée Sarah Riley.

Paterson had travelled to meet his fiancée of seven years and flirted with her friend. He wrote the words on the verandah “to impress the musical, attractive, well-to-do Christina Macpherson.” 

The love serenade theory was accepted by Benjamin after he examined, among other things, the transcripts of coronial inquests in 1894 about the so-called heroes of the song, a swagman, troopers and a squatter. 

“I saw a play in Port Fairy,” he said. “There, I learned of the theory that the swagman had a name and the squatters and police could be named. All of the names were grounded in the shearers’ strike of 1894 at Dagwood Station and the burning down of its shearing shed.”

“I thought it would be an easy task to look at the evidence to support the theory.” But he found that treating the song as an allegory was flawed. 

There weren’t three policemen present, the swagmen didn’t die by drowning in a billabong and the squatter, who was meant to be present, wasn’t present when the shearer died.  

Banjo Paterson arrived at the station eleven and a half months after the strike. It was probably a topic of discussion. Benjamin says the words “waltzing matilda” are colloquial, Queensland terms, meaning to “carry a swag” or to sleep with your blanket. 

“It was an innuendo for sleeping with your loved one,” he said. The result was that the engagement was broken off.  “It is claimed that both women present were in love with Banjo.” Banjo Paterson was 31, a lawyer by day and a versifier by night. 

Judge Howard Mason launched the book.  He said that Benjamin, who has been at the Melbourne bar for 35 years, was known for his attention to detail. 

“He doesn’t do things by halves. He gives 150 per cent.” 

The launch finished with a singalong to the original tune by Christina Macpherson and the original words penned by “Banjo” Paterson.

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