“Captain Frederick Hare didn’t know it, but the Kelly gang was in town, and holding up the Bank around the corner. He looked out past the faded orange calico curtains of his 2 room Police Cottage at Greta and decided it was time for a cup of tea. “English breakfast or Chinese Green?” he wondered as he filled his kettle a little over three quarters full, as he always did with luke warm water from the squeaky kitchen tap that needed a washer replaced, and then he struck a match to get the fire started. The first match went out, he tossed it into the little stack of kindling already set in the fireplace and struck another – there were only five matches left in the box which when new had over 60, but this time, the paper, torn from last weeks Argus caught fire, and the tiny flames spread and grew, they spread and grew until the kindling began to burn with a flicker and after 3 or perhaps 4 minutes the fire was burning brightly. Hare set the old battered kettle down carefully, its loose handle rattling, and looked back out of the window : a small crowd of people had gathered across the road – he counted them, being a meticulous Police Commissioner : three adults and a child. Father Morton he recognized at once, his black cloak moving in the wind, and old Joseph Ingleheim the Austrian store keeper with the bad hip. And was that Mrs O’ Reilly and her daughter Megan, the one who could by memory, recite the entire list of the 24 Books of the Old Testament? They were looking at a cat that had died, the tabby that octogenarian Mrs Mitchell had nursed through its old age, but time had finally caught up to it, and it went to sleep at her front gate never to wake again. “Shes going to be upset for sure” muttered Father Morton, the kindly Priest from the Catholic mission, shaking his head. “To be sure” said Mrs O’Reilly as Megan wiped away a tear. They all wondered silently to themselves “Who was going to be the one to go and tell her?”
Yes, this is my review of “Glenrowan: The Legend of Ned Kelly and the siege that shaped a nation” – to give the book its full title – by Ian Shaw, published in 2012. Ive just downloaded it to my Kindle, and read it over the New Year break. Here now is my Review, and I have to start by warning the reader not to go looking in it for the paragraph above about the dead cat – its not in the book. That’s because I wrote it myself, just now, after wondering if I could just as easily as Ian Shaw construct boring writing that misses the point, lists the names and trivial details of irrelevant people, is full of errors, and that leaves you wondering why bother?
Yes, I know its an exaggerated and unfair parody but that I am afraid expresses what I mostly felt after finishing a book that I had higher hopes for. This book nearly drove me insane!
To start with, one buys a book called “Glenrowan” because one wants to read about – wait for it – Glenrowan! But Shaw cant help himself and begins with a condensed version of the entire Kelly history that one has to wade through first, but it’s a version that is too short to contain anything really useful, but long enough to contain hideously superficial and inadequate accounts of all manner of Kelly stories, such as this:
“That was good thought Ned, because this was not a social visit to one of his family’s many friends in the township or its surrounds. Tonight was business for Ned. Business that began when he and his friends were hounded into outlawry by the police and the powers of the state who directed what the Police should do”
I decided to ignore the problems in these accounts and skate past Neds early life, past the Fitzpatrick incident, past Stringybark Creek, Euroa and Jerilderie, as Shaw had done and anticipate something more substantial beginning much closer to the incident itself, the area of Shaws declared fascination.
And sure enough (pun intended!) by the time the chronology had reached Aarons hut and everything that followed his murder, the microscope came out and a very detailed description of the exact sequence of events followed. …except….except that now there was way too much of it! Now it was fact after fact and name after name and a rather clinical description that tried to line everything up and make it all sensible and comprehensible, who was behind this tree or that, the distances between them, what time was it when constable A said such and such to Sergeant B, where Dan stood when Hare fired in that direction…… when in fact, there was chaos, noise, smoke, shouting, fear, screaming and bleeding and darkness and flames and flashes and the moon coming and going behind clouds, troops, Blacks, children and babies, death,rockets, horses…colour, movement, drama…but Shaw seems to have missed all that – there’s nothing really gripping in his storytelling, and for me, it all falls flat.
Compare these descriptions by two Ians of Ned under fire, and you will see what I mean:
“ Every time a bullet struck his armour Ned staggered as the impact was like being punched by a powerful man. The shots that struck his helmet were particularly painful without the skullcap that had absorbed some of the impact before” (Ian Shaw; Glenrowan)
and now this:
“The way to the Inn was opening up, but Ned found himself advancing into a broad half-circle of gunfire with bullets hitting him “like blows from a mans fist.” Arthurs shots had hurt and blackened both his eyes. The unpadded face plate of his helmet was smashed back against his cheeks, its top edge chopping skin from the bridge of his nose and a bolt end ripping the side of his face. Somehow he stayed on his feet and kept stumbling forward, his weakened legs and smashed right foot supporting the fantastic weight of his armour.” (Ian Jones; A Short Life)
See what I mean?
Later, when Kelly is captured, the Helmet is removed to reveal what it was doing to Neds face, and Shaw records this in clinical detail, but in these quotes you see the skill of Ian Jones, incorporating those same facts into the narrative to bring it to life.
So I ploughed on through the book hoping that perhaps Shaws particular obsession with Glenrowan rather than other events in the story would lead to an analysis of what Glenrowan was really all about, because there are still many unanswered questions about the entire incident. What was Ned REALLY hoping to achieve there? What WERE those rockets intended to signify? Why Glenrowan and not some other town? What would the outcome have been if it had all gone to plan? Exactly how and where were those mouldboards turned into armour, and where did the inspiration for the armour come from? What about the “Republic”? Were the Police REALLY as trigger-happy as some make out or were there just a few nutjobs among them? What about those persisting rumours about Dan and Steve – did they poison themselves, commit suicide with their revolvers or escape? What about Ann Jones being a collaborator, about the shadowy band of sympathizers lurking on the fringes….so many questions!
Sadly, I was again disappointed, not only to read passages that were screaming out for elaboration and explanation, but also to read what Shaw passed off as some sort of attempt at analysis:
“Ultimately though, Glenrowan is the story of an incident given historical significance by the reactions of a number of individuals responding to a specific set of circumstances. These circumstances were generated partly by social, political and economic inequalities that had grown and festered in Colonial Victoria. Ned through his personal and natural leadership qualities was the lightening rod that brought a lot of these issues to a head, partly through what he and others read into what were really just a series of criminal events.”
This last paragraph is so vague and so sweeping a generalization that it is true of almost everything in the universe – and therefore empty; substitute “Glenrowan” and the other proper nouns for any other thing you care to name – “The Cricket test at the MCG”, or “The discovery of chalk” or “Facebook ” – and it remains true, but explains absolutely nothing.
The books subtitle is “The siege that shaped a nation” but there is precious little discussion of how that is true, if indeed it is. One is left wondering…..
So for me at least, this is where the book fails. It details everything with precision but you are left without any real understanding of what actually happened, and without a sense of the drama and the horror and the great chaos of human endeavor that makes this subject such an awful and hypnotic moment in the history of Australia. This was the weekend where the great legend of Ned Kelly sprang impossibly out of the squalid history of poverty, the hateful criminality and outrages of the Kelly gang, the moment of longed for redemption for the whole lot of them, but if this was the only book ever written about it, nobody would have ever known.
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