Digging up Ned - all over again

Digging up Ned - all over again

23 May 2008

Alex McDermott
Email: A.McDermott2@latrobe.edu.au

First broadcast on ABC Radio national on Friday 23 May

Like Robin Hood, Butch Cassidy, Jessie James, and Bonnie and Clyde, Australia's Ned Kelly is right up there in the pantheon of outlaw heroes.

For two years his criminal exploits and daring hold-ups through the British colonies of Victoria and New South Wales made headlines around the world. His last crime — an attempt to derail an entire train and kill the bulk of his region's police and black-trackers — was so outlandish, so larger than life, involved such great costumes (that armour, that helmet) that it seems to have come straight out of a comic strip.

Today Kelly's image is an emblem of Australia's rugged individualism, of loyalty to one's mates, of anti-authoritarian cockiness and a never-say-die gambler's optimism. The every-day Australianism, "as game as Ned Kelly" neatly encompasses the exploits and mentality of a man who backed himself to put on armour and take on the weight of British law enforcement at the fringes of its Empire.

Much remains to be mapped of Ned, specifically because he remains for us one of the few remnants of our past which continues as a really thriving tradition. The Kelly saga and all who sail in her continues to seethe with arguments, controversy, missing bones, stolen skulls, ceaseless internet chatter, tourist sites, souvenirs, and enduring iconography.

Whether you see Kelly as honourable outlaw or unholy brigand, you can engage with this man and his image in ways you won't, can't and don't with explorers, appointed governors, pioneer squatters or colonial statesmen.

Take a handful of significant historical Australian figures — Governors Phillip and Macquarie, William Wentworth, Alfred Deakin, John Monash for example. Here we have one founder (Phillip), one "father of Australia" (Macquarie), one ratbag radical and founder of a virulently free press (Wentworth), a key shaper of Federation, a writer of the constitution and possibly the most important of our pre-war Prime Ministers (Deakin), and a brilliant wartime general and civilian hero (Monash). Just think what the Americans would have done with this crowd!

Arguably each of these had far more direct influence on what made or saved this country than Kelly, a career criminal who eluded police for two years before entering folklore in gunfire, unsuccessfully trying to derail a train at Glenrowan. And yet each of these individuals has faded from what you might call the active consciousness of national memory. None forms a central part of a living historical tradition — except possibly Monash, who is subsumed into the greater Anzac legend, the one other spontaneously vital historical tradition, enshrining as it does the image of everyday larrikins and knockabout blokes into the heroic Digger archetype.

When it comes to our colonial century, we don't much care for founding governors, our very British explorers, our colonial administrators and politicians. As theatre director Peter Haughton recently lamented - "we are so ignorant about our history — half embarrassed and half bored". Since the 1960s we've been instinctively suspicious of histories which simply talk about these figures — too anodyne, too sanitized. "The only statues around Melbourne now are of politicians whose names ring faint, primary-school bells in your head. They're just something to eat lunch underneath. We don't care who they are. They're shade," writes Martyn Pedler in Melbourne and Other Myths.

Instead we like to claim Kelly, and, curiously, convicts. Perhaps this is because we tend to be more cynical about establishment heroes these days. Perhaps it is because we can embrace these latter people without that nagging feeling of bad conscience, in a way which somehow legitimizes and therefore liberates us. After all, it wasn't Kelly who displaced the Aboriginals, and the convicts, we all happily (if incorrectly) agree, were mostly poor oppressed wretches. Kelly, convicts and company, they're our get-out-of-historical-shame-jail-free card.

Kelly's rapid ascension from hunted criminal to heroic archetype in the space of 100 years vividly illustrates this turnaround. At the time of his outlawry and capture he was seen by the vast majority (and, I would argue, rightly) as a bush thug and career crim, albeit one gifted with real charisma and a powerful way with words. Most accepted that the outbreak in north-east Victoria was the direct result of a criminal subculture then thriving in the region, to the detriment of honest selector farmers and large landholders alike.

Kelly and his mates, the "Greta Mob", formed part of the inner circle of this trade, and fully embraced the larrikin and shanty lifestyle which went with it. Defiant and glamorous and "flash", they had money to spend, damn fast horses, and ostentatiously trendy clothes. As Germaine Greer once observed, this was the kind of bloke, with the kind of mates, who could really put the frisson into the Saturday night Country Hall dance. It was this aggressively self-assertive bunch which became the core of trusted sympathisers who assisted the Kelly gang elude the colonial authorities.

Partly through the mores, networks and circumstances of his early life and upbringing, partly through the fire that raged in his own head and drove him relentlessly on to pursue some strange and vengeance-dripping Armageddon, Kelly ended up a rebel against his own society, who disowned and executed him. While an outlaw Kelly had begun to fancy himself as political philosopher, mouth-piece of his grievance-filled people (the Irish), and possibly even a campaigner for a new society in this new world.

The experience of being outlawed, of being harried, pursued everywhere, able to trust only his closest mates, family and no one else, worked upon Kelly's mind powerfully. From being an ethnically apathetic Australian-born larrikin he was thrown back on his own mental resources, back onto the stories that he probably grew up hearing from his parents, and had previously ignored and discarded. His new sense of real isolation, dislocation, probably gave more sense to childhood stories of historic wrongs and persecutions. There was here, readymade, a tangle of old songs and stories from a country he'd never been to and only recently begun to identify with, perfectly apt to help explain the experience of a hunted outlaw, a mythic horizon that helped fit the increasingly extreme mental and cultural visions that he was becoming prone to.

While at Glenrowan, he told his captive audience that they were "damned fools to bother their heads about parliament at all for this is our country". He was talking chiefly to his own old mates, the criminal subculture who felt themselves at war with the colonial society around them. With their help Kelly planned — it is said — to not only smash a train and kill police, but also begin fighting for an anti-British republic.

Whether or not this is true hardly matters, for we have entered the realm of myth. Here Ned's Republic lives, partly because we have subsequently seized upon the rebels, the outcasts and marginalized in our past, and converted them into heroes.

Do we love Ned because we also are rebels against so much of the attitudes and ideals of our colonial past, just as he was? Because we aren't easy with our past?

On a recent television series exploring the ancestry of well-known Australians, the actor Jack Thompson's delight on finding out that his ancestor was a convicted and transported highwayman was both spontaneous and genuine: "Australian royalty!" he bellowed happily. It was a revealing moment, showing how radically our historical sensibility has changed in the past 50 years. The convict stain is now something to brag about.

We used to be ashamed of our convict origins, which is why we went off our heads with pride and relief when Anzacs stormed the beaches at Gallipoli, and then held them, under withering counter-attacks and heavy fire. We'd proved ourselves. Our stock was good, and not debased. The grand rhetoric of national becoming — being tried in the furnace of battle, the baptism of blood and fire — was seized upon almost from the very first newspaper report.

Beginning in the 1960s things have shifted completely. We now feel pride in the things which used to embarrass us most — our convict past, wild outlaws roaming remote uncivilized ranges. And in a beautiful balancing act of what seems real symmetry, we now feel shame about things which used to please us most — the intrinsic Britishness of our civilization, its cultural habits and institutions, the blitzkrieg of original pastoral settlement ("pioneers") the hubris and bombastic rhetoric of disastrous explorations into wilderness (e.g. Burke and Wills' "noble deaths" in service of Victorian hubris and Empire). Pride and embarrassment, or pride and indifference, have changed jumpers and switched teams.

Which probably explains part of why the Kelly saga continues to thrive as a living historical tradition. When people dig Kelly's putative bones up at Pentridge Jail, Australian author Thomas Kenneally gets interviewed by the BBC. When news emerges that Australia's founding father — Governor Arthur Phillip — has gone missing in a burial ground somewhere in England, there is little interest.

Whereas with Kelly we have big Hollywood movies — first Jagger then Ledger turn themselves into the renegade outlaw hero. Nolan's haunting and eerily beautiful Kelly paintings continue to goad and nourish our national soul. Peter Carey makes a Booker Prize winning novel out of his story. Our turn of the century cultural apogee — I'm speaking of the Sydney Olympics opening ceremony in 2000 — stars a choreographed tin symphony. A thousand Neds bloom before a no doubt slightly bemused international audience. Which didn't matter in the slightest: we knew what we were talking about, what the goofy helmeted heads were saying. Ned's Republic lives.

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