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January-February 2001
January-February 2001
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Also this month:

In his own write: Alex McDermott looks at recent Ned Kelly literature, including Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang.

Naming rites: Brian McCoy on language matters.

A farewell to the Australian welfare state: McClure is newer, but not better, argues Francis G. Castles.

Flash in the Pan: reviews of the films Sunshine and Charlie’s Angels.

Back to the front page

In his own write

Alex McDermott looks at recent Ned Kelly literature, including Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang.

True History of The Kelly Gang, Peter Carey (UQP, 2000); Bandits, E.J. Hobsbawm (Penguin, 1969); Ned Kelly: A Short Life, Ian Jones (Lothian Books, 1995); The Kelly Outbreak, 1878–1880: The Geographical Dimension of Social Banditry, J. McQuilton (MUP, 1979); Selectors, Squatters And Stock Thieves: A Social History of Kelly Country, Douglas J. Morrissey (PhD thesis submitted to the Department of History, La Trobe University, 1987); The Outlaw Legend: A Cultural Tradition in Britain, America and Australia, G. Seal, (CUP, 1996)

In his True History of the Kelly Gang, Peter Carey has attempted to do something quite daring: to tell the Kelly saga using the very rhetoric which Kelly himself used in his famous Jerilderie letter. Yet, for an historian at least, the novel that has resulted from Carey’s imaginative raid on the sources lacks something vital. For a narrative that purports to follow the Kelly saga in the fashion of Ned’s own famous public declarations, written during his time of outlawry, too much is missing. The voice is for the most part right, but the context is wrong, or rather, absent.

No proper study has yet been done on Kelly’s two letters—the Cameron and Jerilderie, both written during his time of outlawry. Ned wrote them both with the specific intention of clearing his own name, and to sway public opinion against the police. The first letter was sent to Donald Cameron, a member of Victoria’s Legislative Assembly. Kelly’s attempt to gain a public hearing, however, came to naught: Cameron immediately handed the letter to Premier Berry, who deemed it prudent not to let the document enter the public domain.

For the second letter, Kelly decided to cut out the legislative middle-man, as it were, and go straight to the tribunal of the people—the press. This, along with the desire to hold up the bank and steal a lot of money, was one of the chief motivating factors behind the bailing up of the town of Jerilderie in early February, 1879. Once again Kelly was unsuccessful. In this case Mr Gill, the editor of the town’s newspaper, got wind of Ned’s desire to make his acquaintance, and accordingly made himself scarce. By the time Kelly arrived at Gill’s residence, Gill was hiding (legend has it) in a suitably remote creek. All attempts to convince Gill’s wife to show Kelly how to use the printing press were to no avail, and once again Kelly was unable to get his self-vindications and public proclamations into print.

There is a richness, a ribald energy in the letters themselves that Peter Carey, finally, does not grapple with, just as there are crucial aspects of Kelly’s world and personality which in some large measure continue to defy our understanding, especially of the man himself. The novel seems hamstrung by the fact that we are shown only those parts of Kelly that Carey chooses to cope with. We are given the honourable and savoury aspects of the life. But in Kelly, as with anyone, there is so much more than that. And in Kelly’s case we are especially lucky, as we have the Cameron and Jerilderie letters themselves, a rich reference source, to demonstrate what more there was.

For a taste of what might have been in the fiction, there is a good example in Kelly’s fracas with Constable Hall, prior to his outlawry. In Carey’s True History, Hall features as the ‘big cowardly policeman’. In the Jerilderie letter, Hall is all that plus more: ‘as helpless as a big guano after leaving a dead bullock or horse’. There is also Kelly’s response to the police searching his home: ‘I would have scattered their blood and brains like rain I would manure the Eleven Mile [Creek] with their bloated carcasses’. Or again, when informing the public as to what he had in store for those who would dare support the police:

I shall be compelled to make an example of them if they cannot find no other employment. If I had robbed and plundered ravished and murdered everything I met young and old rich and poor, the public could not do any more than take firearms and assisting the police as they have done, but by the light that shines pegged on an ant-bed with their bellies opened their fat taken out rendered and poured down their throat boiling hot will be cool to what pleasure I will give some of them and any person aiding or harbouring or assisting the Police in any way whatever or employing any person whom they know to be a detective or cad or those who would be so deprived as to take blood money will be outlawed and declared unfit to be allowed human buriel [sic] their property either consumed or confiscated and them theirs and all belonging to them exterminated off the face of the earth, the enemy I cannot catch myself I shall give a payable reward for …

One finds very little trace of such vitriolic ebullience in Carey’s novel. I think a critical reason why this is so lies in Carey’s own acknowledged indebtedness to the image of Kelly created in Ian Jones’ history, Ned Kelly: A Short Life. Both novelist and historian seem to share an implicit need to produce a Kelly who is to our tastes. If the martyr-hero of their conception committed any crimes, they are attributed to class or ethnic oppression. This leaves the reader with a laudable but miserable kind of Kelly, a very put-upon and suffering sort of fellow. It is an image of Kelly which the letters themselves do not confirm.

Carey maladapts, or perhaps simply misunderstands, the basic nature and actual intention of Kelly’s rhetoric, while proving himself a proficient mimic of its unpunctuated cadences and rhythm. His ear is tuned to the frequency yet fails to give us a full, thick sense of the social context which gave birth to the rhetoric. This leaves us with a Kelly who never quite becomes three dimensional.

Most Kelly historians of the past 20 years have been reliant on Eric Hobsbawm’s theory of social banditry when explaining the Kelly gang’s outbreak. The theory sees such traditional folk-heroic figures (the outlaw for example) as emerging from regions or periods of endemic poverty produced by political and economic oppression. This, according to Graham Seal, will ‘eventually throw up an individual or number of individuals who … rebel violently against their circumstances, infringing the laws controlled by the powerful groups in their society.’

This reading was given a Kelly context by John McQuilton with the impressively titled The Kelly Outbreak, 1878–1880: The Geographical Dimension of Social Banditry. In it McQuilton argues that the outbreak was the expression of the deep-seated antagonism between rich squatter and poor selector in the region, and that any stock theft which took place was in this way a ‘social’ crime. It is this tradition of understanding Ned Kelly which, more recently, Jones and now Carey has continued to draw upon.

While I was myself writing a thesis on the nature of the two Kelly letters, and suffering something of a cognitive impasse when it came to figuring just how the documents related to Kelly’s social environment, I was lucky enough to come across the meticulous study by Douglas Morrissey, Selectors, Squatters and Stock Thieves: A Social History of Kelly Country. This work shows conclusively that the wide-scale stock theft then current in the region was largely specific to a close-knit group of people who were not representative of the local selector population. Strangely (or predictably?) enough, this exhaustive study, which cuts right across and undermines the prevailing orthodoxy of Kelly studies, has never been able to find a publisher.
An appreciation of the part that crime played in the Kelly outbreak is vital to a full understanding of Ned Kelly’s world: it gives us the social climate which nourished and encouraged the cultural heritage and distinctive identity being articulated in the letters. It also goes a long way to explaining the feelings of persecution being expressed.

On the face of things, it may seem unlikely that an involvement in stock theft could provide the framework for an identity. But this stock theft was not simply a case of nicking some local cocky’s loose calf. Stock theft in the region was done through an organised and extensive criminal network, not poverty-stricken selectors struggling to eke out an existence on the land and supplementing their subsistence lives with an occasional cow illicitly obtained. Stock was stolen and moved from regions as far apart as Gippsland and the Western District in Victoria to Dubbo and Tamworth in New South Wales, with Victoria’s north-east region—Kelly country—serving as a two-way thoroughfare for the traffic of horses and cattle.

The animals were moved along remote stock routes, and kept for a while in holding paddocks—generally on the large properties of squatters who were in collusion with the thieves—until it was safe to move the beasts across the Murray. There they were usually let loose, impounded by local authorities and then ‘redeemed’ at public auction at a price well below the actual value of the stock. It was a procedure so organised as to be almost routine, a profession of sorts.

Aside from the sense of common identity which this sort of close-working association could be expected to foster, there is also the high prestige and notoriety value of this stock-stealing life to be taken into account. It was a way of life in direct contrast to the ideals current and being fostered by the selector life. That was a world of industrious labour and the steady accumulation of capital with which to further secure and expand the selection, or perhaps just to purchase another bullock—what with the last one having been nabbed by that larrikin Greta mob …

In the gradually subsiding excitement of the Gold Rush years, when for an intoxicating historical moment it had seemed that everyone’s fortune could be made in a day, those individuals reaching maturity in families already involved in stock theft would have felt little urge to join the ranks of the legally industrious. This no doubt was why Kelly could boast in the Jerilderie letter, ‘I never worked on a farm.’ A farm was for them, those good selector sons, a mug’s game. The sentiment echoes though Kelly’s continued refrain in the letters: he had stolen horses and cattle ‘innumerable’, and he and his stepfather George King were the ‘greatest horsestealer[s]’ in the region. Compare Kelly’s ‘I never worked for less than two pound ten a week since I left Pentridge’ with Carey’s righteously enraged (yet inescapably downtrodden) ‘I wished only to be a citizen but the mongrels stole my tongue.’

In contrast to the life of the respectable, the life of the committed stock thief was a glamorous one: a fair bit of money, fast horses to be seen astride and flash clothes to display. The result was a social group with a strong internal cohesion (a direct result of the requirements of their livelihood), and one well-versed in the arts of eluding the police. It is no surprise that after the Kelly gang was outlawed, it was the ‘Greta Mob’ (from the same district) who became the inner circle of trusted sympathisers, who would serve as scouts, decoys and ‘bush telegraphs’, ensuring the gang’s safety. Significantly, the habit of wearing the chinstrap tucked under the nose—originally part of the Greta mob’s public attire—became a public symbol by which one marked oneself as a Kelly sympathiser in the region.

As Douglas Morrissey makes clear, the origins of the Kelly outbreak ‘had its roots firmly planted in stock theft’. The conflict with the police in which Kelly, his family and associates were embroiled prior to the outbreak was an inevitable consequence of their success in co-ordinating, as Kelly put it, ‘wholesale and retail horse and cattle dealing’.

It is impossible to come to any clear understanding of the nature of Ned Kelly unless this is taken into account. It also makes his rapid ascent in our historical consciousness—from hunted criminal to mythic archetype—all the more breathtaking. And it can only serve to increase our admiration of the manner in which he was able, so aggressively, to utilise certain types of rhetoric—types integral to Australia’s collective understanding of itself—in the manner which he saw fit. This is the display we find in the letters themselves.

Once outlawed, Kelly tapped deep reservoirs of defiant oral traditions—Irish rhetoric, convict rhetoric, outlaw rhetoric—and used them masterfully. They clamour through every public display—Ned addressing Judge Redmond Barry at his final trial, Ned addressing the people corralled in the pub at Jerilderie, or in the substantial fashion of the two letters. But it is a mistake to presume that this rhetoric is a reliable analytic instrument applied to the wider social world of the time.

Carey makes this mistake, as have Jones, Seal and McQuilton before him. The rhetoric of the Jerilderie letter is not the spilling forth of a haunted soul, epitomising the oppression felt by all in the region. It is a stirring and a very public declaration, a warning of the outlaw apocalypse to come for those who do not submit to Kelly’s demands. In Carey’s novel, Ned’s rhetoric is domesticated in intent, made tame, safe and understandable. His narrative is no longer a document declaring absolute justification for his actions. Neither does it contain the magnificent and truly bloodthirsty threats and prophecies with which Kelly sought to lash the authorities and the general public.

In Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, the marvellous self-publicising beast who chilled 19th-century sensibilities has been deprived of tooth and claw. Kelly’s rhetoric now takes its place as part of a narrative directed to his (hypothetical) daughter. The words lose much of their power and their nature as threat. They are co-opted for a task they were never originally intended to perform. It’s all a family matter now. It falls a little flat.

Mythic rhetoric used to get inside the myth itself—this seems to have been Carey’s aim. Yet while in itself an extraordinary technical feat, it brings us no closer to the raw stuff of the Kelly story, especially the aspects historians have tended to shy away from. It is not even as if Carey has been able to replace one myth with another; he has merely embellished the existing myth further, adding another layer on top of the already tottering pile. The Kelly before whom Carey would have us genuflect is too sanitised to be believable: in each and every encounter and situation more sinned against than sinning. The novel tells a moving tale, certainly, but Carey doesn’t allow its ground to be as rich and dangerous as it might have been, and as the evidence—Kelly’s own letters—suggests that it was.

The challenge is there still, for a great novel, a rendering that encompasses both the light as well as the dark, the shady aspects of Kelly; the true brooding and implacable menace as well as the sense of honour outraged. Carey has taken an easier and well-trodden path, extrapolating further the story of Kelly as victim, a decent, good and loving sensibility cruelly wronged in repeated fashion, a man made rebel by dint of brutal class and ethnic oppression. Anyone familiar with Kelly’s own letters, or any reader who desires the truly riveting tale, cannot help but be left unconvinced.

Alex McDermott is a Melbourne-based freelance writer.

In November 2000, the Jerilderie letter was acquired by the State Library of Victoria. The extract from the Jerilderie letter above is from: MS13361. Ned Kelly. Jerilderie Letter, 1879. La Trobe Australian Manuscripts Collection, State Library of Victoria. Courtesy the SLV.

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