|You wont find Ned Kelly in amongst all these famous people|
The Beatles Sgt Peppers album, released in June 1967 is probably still at the top of the list of the greatest albums of all time, and the Album cover, itself a landmark in album design at the time remains an iconic image of the sixties and the hippie generation. 1967 was the year Rolling Stone Magazine was founded. In Australia 1967 was the year that Prime Minister Harold Holt disappeared when swimming, TV was black and white, a referendum was held to decide if Aborigines would be included in the Census ( hard to believe isn’t it? ) and that year Ronald Ryan was hanged for murdering a prison warder while escaping from Pentridge Prison, the very place where at that time Ned Kellys bones were buried. Ryan was the last criminal to be hanged in Australia : Capital punishment was abolished in 1985.
There was also an event of particular interest to Kelly enthusiasts that year, on the easter weekend which was at the end of March in 1967. It was the Symposium on Ned Kelly at Wangaratta, the aftermath of which was a great national awakening of interest in the Kelly story. The publication that resulted from the Symposium was the first of many books to follow, along with the development of Kelly history as a tourist attraction in Victoria, the creation of special museums and public and private Kelly touring routes and guides, and in general a great flourishing of interest and excitement about the discoveries and insights being made and yet to be made of a somewhat flawed and tragic figure who appeared to embody many of the values and ideals that Australians wanted to call their own.
However, 50 years later, I am sure to the disappointment of many, the Kelly Legend is in its twilight years. The great hopeful vision of the attendees and their teachers at the symposium, which for a long while appeared to be solidifying into a substantial truth has now been eroded to the point of near collapse, like a fantasy sand-castle, unable to withstand the incoming tide of scholarship and scrutiny. In spite of – or perhaps as a result of the advent of the Internet age, social media and mass communications, interest in, and acceptance of the Kelly legends as true history is on the decline. The Kelly descendants are at war with each other, and Iron Outlaw, the great monolithic internet site that dominated the on-line Kelly world for 15 or more years is a silent ruin, its once busy halls now only occasionally visited by its spent owner and the odd spectator passing through. The myriad of hopeful Kelly websites that sprang up in its shadow have been and gone, like the Glenrowan skyrockets which were supposed to be a call to arms, but fell to earth in 1880, burned out and were never seen again. Forums like the once buzzing Ned Kelly Forum disintegrated under the pressure of internal bullying, others have all closed their doors for good and disappeared without trace. There’s one that’s just surviving, but only because they’ve pulled down the blinds so nobody can see in except the members who are nervously hunkered down inside with the doors locked, and they’re not letting anyone else in. All that’s left are Bill Denhelds amazing Iron Icon website, this Blog – which is growing rapidly – and a few ‘pro-Kelly’ Facebook pages, desperately scanning the newspapers for something to talk about.
In the more traditional world of publishing, where new books about Ned Kelly were numerous and always referenced the legend and the hero, now the tide has turned and for five years, beginning with the 2012 landmark ‘Kelly Gang Unmasked’ by Ian MacFarlane, the dominant themes have been sceptical. As a mark of how things have changed, in 2017 Kelly sympathisers are saying the latest work is a balanced book, and praising it, yet its author repeatedly described Ned Kelly as a dangerous criminal, said nothing about the Kelly republic, and rejected Ned Kellys explanations about the Fitzpatrick affair, the killings at Stringybark creek, and many other once revered dogmas of the Kelly mythology.
But exactly fifty years ago this Easter, it was a different story altogether. In Wangaratta on Easter weekend 1967 the Adult Education Centre invited the general public to attend a Symposium to which noted Guest speakers came to discuss and to celebrate Kelly history. This was a landmark event in the Kelly story, being the first such event ever held, and it attracted huge interest. The Symposium was‘designed to pare away the layer of myth and Legend, of lies and innuendo, of half remembered truths and remembered half-truths, of romance and sentiment that encloses the Kelly incident; and to get at the flesh of the case, the truth of the man and his times.” In addition to public lectures from academics like the famous historian Professor Manning Clark there were three from the up and coming Ian Jones and there was also an exhibition of Kelly relics, documents and photographs, and finally a guided Tour of Kelly country. I would have moved heaven and earth to get to such a Symposium myself, but sadly theres nowhere near the public enthusiasm or academic interest in the Kelly story now as there was then to enable such an event to ever be staged again. In 1993, a 25th Anniversary symposium was held in Wangaratta but it was of much smaller scale, it was dominated by Ian Jones and no publications resulted.
In one sense though, it could be said that the 1967 weekend was a failure, because if it had successfully got to ‘the truth of the man and his times,’ as hoped, the debate would have ended right there. Instead what really happened was the symposium started the debate which has continued to this day. Following that weekend, interest in Kelly history blossomed over the next 40 or more years, and many new books were written, both fiction and non-fiction, other seminars and exhibitions were held, two full length feature films were produced, the Kelly Gang armour was reassembled and some went on permanent public display, the annual Beechworth Ned Kelly Weekend came into existence featuring such things as re-enactments of the Trials, the very influential TV Series ‘The Last Outlaw’ was produced, Ned Kelly images were beamed around the world at the opening of the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000 as a celebration of Australian larrikinism, and in 2012 Ned Kellys remains were dug up from the grounds of the Pentridge prison and reinterred in Greta, with great public fanfare – all that and so much more. Looking back we can see that The Wangaratta Symposium marked the beginning of a Golden Age of Ned Kelly.
“Ned Kelly : Man and Myth”, edited by Colin Cave was the book that emerged from the Wangaratta symposium and it was published in 1968. The book includes the text of seven lectures that were delivered. It also includes transcripts of the question and answer sessions that followed each lecture, wherein some of the most interesting material can be found, as members of the assembled audience brought their own contributions and questions and stimulated interesting debates about all sorts of related and sometimes almost unrelated topics.
Even the Bibliography of this book is fascinating to read, because in 1967 “A Short Life” by Ian Jones, the essential reading of Kelly enthusiasts today was yet to be written, as were the other standard texts of today such as those written by Molony, McQuilton, McMenomy and Corfield. The main references were newspapers from the time of the Outbreak, JJKenneally, Max Brown and Frank Clune. Its not easy to imagine a time without the detail and insights of all these newer works.
It was an important event in the history of the Kelly legend and I think it should be commemorated. In a series of Posts to follow up to and after the Easter weekend in 2017, we will look back at those seven Lectures and analyse the arguments in light of all the new findings and undertandings that have been developed since. It will be interesting to discuss how much closer we have come to ‘the flesh of the case, the truth of the man and his times.’
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