“Tenth rate” is probably the best synonym for execrable when it comes to describing this book and I should probably leave it at that! But I know people will say of me, as Mandy Rice-Davies said of Lord Astor when he denied even knowing her “(s)he would say that wouldn’t (s)he”. So, I will now explain why this is the worst Kelly book Ive ever read.
The first thing to say about this book is that there is almost nothing new in it. It’s a small pocket sized paperback that you can read in one short session – an hour should do it. It consists mostly of a very superficial recitation of all the well-worn Kelly myths, beginning at the myth of police persecution of the Kellys, and ending with the myth of the Kelly republic of North East Victoria. All these myths are merely stated as if they are facts, and no attempt is made to identify topics that are contested or controversial, they are all accorded equal status, and no attempt is made to justify any of them. In between myth-making, the police are routinely vilified, the criminal record of the Kellys and their extended family is glossed over or ignored, and known facts are ignored or misrepresented where they conflict with the authors fixed view about the Kelly story. One of the earliest erroneous claims he makes is that there are ‘tens of thousands of modern day Kelly sympathisers’. One of the last ones is the error that Ned Kellys trial was rushed – this idea was debunked over 50 years ago at the Wangaratta Kelly symposium by a Law Professor , but Brad Webb seems to know better. Along the way he screws up the sequence of events at Glenrowan, saying that the plan to remove tracks was devised after hostages had been confined to the Inn and had a few drinks! He repeats the Kelly myths about body straps, that the search party was in disguise and they were planning to kill Ned on sight. He says Red Kelly’s problem with drink began in 1865 after his release from prison. He goes way out on a limb to claim that Ned Kelly married Ettie Hart (p176). He quotes Paul O’Keefe as saying “all the evidence points to Ned and Ettie being childhood sweethearts” – what he is referring to there as ‘evidence’ is a line in a sentimental poem addressed to no-one in particular. This claim is as preposterous and as unsupported by anything resembling evidence as his earlier claim (p122) that at Glenrowan Ned Kelly “could have easily roused his troops and led a rear guard action that would have wiped out the Police” The ‘army’ is a myth – it never existed, just like the Declaration of the Republic which he says is ‘missing’ – it never existed either. And like many Kelly apologists before him he misquotes Nicholson in constructing his claim that the Kellys were persecuted : the quote is from 1877 when Ned was 22, by then a self confessed ‘wholesale and retail’ stock thief with a charge sheet as long as his arm. Webb ignores the bit where Nicholson orders that Police avoid “oppressing the people or worrying them in any way”. Later he recycles the distasteful Kelly myth that the Royal Commission was ‘possibly Ned Kellys greatest Legacy’, saying that ‘Neds stand against police corruption helped modernise the Victorian Police’. This would be as true and as offensive as claiming the Royal Commission into child sexual abuse is the greatest legacy of paedophile priests, and thanks to them the Catholic Church is a better place. It’s the same juvenile ‘argument’ as the one from the bogan who tosses all his rubbish out the car window saying if he didn’t, cleaners wouldn’t have a job.
The thing that repels me most about this book is how cynically and dishonestly Brad Webb has gone about creating this piece of outdated Kelly propaganda while pretending its something else. On the back cover he is described as a historian who has written ‘the essential guide to the Kelly legacy’ – but he is not a historian, but a propagandist from way back for an extreme unhistorical quasi-religious view of Ned Kelly, and this book is not an ‘essential guide’ but a tract exposing the dogma. If Webb was an actual historian he wouldn’t misquote sources, he wouldn’t ignore inconvenient facts or make things up, he would make use of the latest Kelly historical research and opinion, he would provide the evidence or at the very least references to the claims he makes, and the bibliography would be comprehensive. Instead in his short bibliography he lists the usual suspects – Ian Jones, Kenneally, Max Brown, Corfield and a few others, but no mention of McQuilton or even Fitzsimons, and as expected nothing of MacFarlane, Morrissey, Kieza or Dawson.
The thing is, Brad Webb almost certainly knows of and is probably very familiar with all these authors and their new thinking about the Kelly story, about the debates that are still being argued on this site and elsewhere, of the counter-arguments to the ones he advances in this book. But he has deliberately chosen to ignore them all and cynically produce a book that he may have been able to get away with in 1980, but in 2017 there’s no chance. This deliberate cover-up of the enormous progress that’s been made over recent years in understanding Kelly history is deliberately calculated to deceive, and can only be condemned. Where is the respect for truth telling in Australian history? Last year I came down hard on a publication called “Ned: Knight in Aussie Armour” by Eugenie Navarre, an obvious rank amateur. It was badly done research and a collection of personal anecdotes from old-timers in the North East. However, she at least had integrity, as well as being original, enthusiastic and completely genuine in her approach. None of those things can be said about Brad Webb.
I am left wondering what on earth he thought he was hoping to achieve in publishing this pointless piece of polemic. Was he just too lazy to do the work and make it meaningful? Does he think this lightweight effort is going to return his failed webpages to their glory days of 15 years ago? Does he really think this is a ‘contribution’ to the topic or was it just something he always said he would do, and now having thrown it together he can get on and do something useful for a change?
Having said all that, Kelly apologists will just love this book, which is clearly aimed at misinforming the pre-teen market. It’s like a Catechism of the Kelly Doctrines, and it could almost fit in the pocket. They could carry it around with them and read the verses to one another in times of need. Each chapter begins with a quotation from Kellys sacred writings in the Jerilderie letter. It includes cute little question and answer break-out boxes that recycle all the Kelly fairy tales in a way that will make their spines tingle, dispensing as it does with facts or any inconvenient referencing and balance. One they will love is “Did you know Fitzpatrick was an unscrupulous Policeman?” Another comforting one is “Did you know Ned had a name for his favourite gun?” Every few pages there’s a black and white image of the saints and demons of the Kelly legends to pay homage to, and illustrations of the outbreak that everyone is already familiar with. Theres also a picture (p155) of three WW1 soldiers in armour – Brad Webb thinks thousands of lives were saved by this armour, and if it hadn’t been for Ned Kellys armour they would never have thought of it and those lives wouldn’t have been saved. Wow Brad you’re amazing, I hadn’t realised that Ned Kelly was the first person ever to think of using armour! Oh wait….
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