“Ned Kelly: Australian Son” can be purchased from the worlds greatest Kelly website, where its described as a “masterpiece” and “that perfect gift”. They’ve recently reduced the price from $34.95 to $29.95, with free Australia wide postage , but on the Angus and Robertson web page its RRP is $27.45. I saw an old copy for sale in a second hand bookshop recently for $18 so I snapped it up, and was looking forward to reading it, and reviewing it for the Blog. Given the above, I had high hopes for it.
Craig Cormick, editor of “Ned Kelly Under the Microscope” which was published this year (2014) asked himself at the beginning if there was any point in publishing yet another work about Ned Kelly, and – self evidently – decided there was. It surprised me then, that even in 1948, when this book was published, its author was also asking himself the same question :
“Why, otherwise should I add to the packed shelf of Kellyana?
The author, Max Brown was born in Invercargill, (a place in New Zealand brought to our attention by Sir Anthony Hopkins when he played another man born in Invercargill, Bert Hopkins, in the movie “The worlds fastest Indian” a personal favourite). But Max Brown was educated in Melbourne and lived in Australia from a young age. Ian Jones calls him “Kellys first biographer”, perhaps because he felt Australian Son was the first truly comprehensive retelling of the already frequently told story. Of his own work, “A Short Life” Ian Jones says he wrote it because Kenneallys 1929“Complete Inner History” was not “complete”, and Chomleys 1900 “True story” was not “true”. The reason Max Brown decided to write his biography of Ned Kelly is explained somewhat obliquely in the Foreword:
“People are not remembered for nothing; and Kelly, over seventy years dead, his own defence long denied a hearing, will not lie down. Why otherwise would I add to the packed shelf of Kellyana?”
In other words “Australian Son” was intended to be the “long denied” defence of Ned Kelly and the Kelly gangs exploits.What follows is a highly romanticised account that perhaps in 1948 was not so well known, but nowadays is the familiar chronology of the main events of the Kelly saga. Browns style seems heavily influenced by an attempt at Creative Writing that descends into somewhat purple prose:
“But, dream as I can in the shadow of the Alps where these four young bushmen rode, I shall never savour the tang of their voices, hear them laugh or curse, feel with my hand against their hearts, the impact of the first great disaster – of their summer of triumphs when the telegraph flung their deeds across the world, of the days of waiting and boredom towards the end, and of their final ill-starred attempt to come to terms with the police and officials they never ceased to contend had harried them without just cause”
And in another place:
“But the poor from the Bluff to Cape York talked constantly of Kelly. The barefoot kids ran down to the corner or out to the butter box beside the road to get the paper. And by word of mouth and from Pub to Pub along a thousand roads and rough bush tracks, yellow at noon and purple in the twilight spread and grew the legend of four bush lads who could imagine nothing better than to live and love light-heartedly and die in non-entity along the green plains between their stony hills”
Whew! This is heady stuff!
But the account is not just romanticized, it is also very partisan, as advertised in the Foreword, with almost nothing in the way of analysis or reflection or a critique of anything the Kellys did, and almost unrelentingly negative portrayal of Police, Squatters and Authority in general. For example, throughout the book, Brown quotes bush ballads of the time – these universally idolize the Kellys and make fun of the police
“The Kellys are having a very fine time
In the ranges not far away
And we on their tracks think it mighty fine fun
To be doing nothing all day”
And this is typical of Browns assessment of the Police:
“So the battle drifted as spinelessly as any before or since – Dan and Steve relishing neither escape or surrender, fearing that Ned as well as Joe had been killed and the Police still awed by the fabulous name of Kelly, waiting for daylight, the arrival of new reinforcements or some plan from their leaders”
“If a full dress finale were needed to illustrate the slovenliness of two years of police pursuit perhaps Glenrowan might claim some distinction. The only moment of the whole sprawling Kelly drama in which the Police could claim achievement ,had been made suspect by the very callousness the outlaws contended had driven them into opposition – the wanton killing of Johnny Jones George Metcalf and Martin Cherry and the wounding of several women and children by the very force which should have been their protectors.”
Of Detective Ward
“…well known in the district where his affairs with servant girls were common gossip and whose waxed moustache gave the lie to his many disguises”
Of Judge Redmond Barry
“Barrys family in fact had been oppressors of the welsh and the irish since the time of William the Conqueror”
In relation to selector crimes, on the other hand, Max Brown provides more than excuses – he elevates their activities almost to the level of a patriots duty :
“It was little wonder that he (the selector ) sometimes entered the rich mans fence at night and killed a ewe for meat”
“…their (selector) “lawlessness” was a necessary part in the development of Australia from a giant sheep paddock into a nation…”
In relation to the terror of being held hostage at Euroa, he relates this conversation without reflection :
“Oh mother are we all to be shot?” he said
“Don’t be silly George, we are all right”
But then a thought flashed through her mind and she looked wildly at her husband who put his hand on her arm and said
“Don’t get nervous now Susy; it will be alright in the end”
and at the end of the chapter quotes Mrs Scott
“ There was a great deal of personality about Ned Kelly and he knew how to control men and circumstances. His management of the Euroa affair was good, he seemed to consider everything and knew exactly what to do for the best. He would have made a magnificent general…”
The impression is created that the entire Euroa event was a campaign characterized by gallantry and military style precision, whereas , as recent events in Sydney remind us, and is hinted at perhaps in the conversation with the frightened child, hostage taking and violent threats at gunpoint terrify and traumatise its victims and often leave lifelong scars. But there is no hint of this in “Australian Son” It is completely lacking in self criticism and honest reflection.
At the end of the book for some reason that’s not explained, the full text of the Cameron and Jerilderie letters are appended, and like the book itself there is no attempt at analysis or reflection or commentary on what it all means. There is also an Index but no bibliography, so none of Browns sources can be checked independently, which is something modern readers have come to expect from writers of history and biography, a deficiency which in my view significantly reduces the value of this book as a resource.
I can well understand why modern day sympathisers would enjoy “Australian Son” as its dominant themes are the veneration of Ned and the Gang, and a denigration of authority, and of the Police. One should not be surprised at this, given that the author makes his intentions plain at the outset, but I tired of being forced to look at things from such a skewed perspective, and having to wonder if I am really reading history, or historical romance. I still think the best biography by far is Ian Jones “A Short Life”. Ian Jones is at least as much a sympathiser as Max Brown, but a Short Life is a much better read. “Australian Son” I am afraid is not a masterpiece but hagiography, and only true believers would really enjoy it.
As Margaret and David would say “I’m giving it two stars.”
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