Ned’s last stand not a solo af­fair

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Tom Gilling

ANY­ONE who sets out to write an­other his­tory of Ned Kelly — or Gal­lipoli, Kokoda, or the First Fleet, for that mat­ter — can ex­pect to have to an­swer the ques­tion: why? These sub­jects, the lowhang­ing fruit of Aus­tralian pop­u­lar his­tory, have all been cov­ered so of­ten, so thor­oughly and so well that it seems rea­son­able to ask what any new au­thor can of­fer.

Does the book re­veal new in­for­ma­tion? Does it bring a fresh in­ter­pre­ta­tion of pre­vi­ously known facts? Or does its value lie in the au­thor’s abil­ity to tell the story more vividly than it has been told be­fore? Or do none of these ques­tions mat­ter? Are some nar­ra­tives so cen­tral to the na­tional mythol­ogy that each new telling, even the most per­func­tory and unimag­i­na­tive, will find its own ea­ger read­er­ship?

Ian Shaw stakes a large claim with the sub­ti­tle of his book, Glen­rowan: The Leg­end of Ned Kelly and the Siege that Shaped a Na­tion. This is more than a bit mis­lead­ing, since the book’s fo­cus is not the leg­end but the facts. Draw­ing on of­fi­cial records and news­pa­per re­ports ca­bled dur­ing the hours af­ter the siege, Shaw gives us an hour-by­hour ac­count of what hap­pened in­side and out­side the Glen­rowan Inn be­tween Satur­day, June 26, and Mon­day, June 28, 1880.

The hand­ful of pages de­voted to the siege in Ian Jones’s mas­terly Ned Kelly: A Short Life (1995) bal­loons to al­most 200 pages in Shaw’s book. Shaw’s ex­pla­na­tion for this is a lit­tle vague: The sepa­ra­tion of fact and fan­tasy, story and leg­end, started to be­come prob­lem­atic in the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math of Glen­rowan . . . Par­ti­sans on both sides of the ar­gu­ment, those who pitch Ned the Saint against Ned the Sin­ner, all draw in­spi­ra­tion from Glen­rowan, each claim­ing the moral high ground through dif­fer­ent in­ter­pre­ta­tions of the same events.

His so­lu­tion is to democra­tise the story, to de­mythol­o­gise Ned by sug­gest­ing his ac­tions that day were no more ex­tra­or­di­nary than those of oth­ers caught up in the siege: What was the philo­soph­i­cal dif­fer­ence be­tween Ned walk­ing down from the bush in the pre-dawn mist and Charles John­ston cross­ing open and ex­posed ground to set fire to the ho­tel, clutch­ing his bun­dle of hay and kerosene? Glen­rowan was about peo­ple and the in­ter­ac­tions — some­times vi­o­lent, some­times ten­der — be­tween those peo­ple. Glen­rowan is about Ned and Charles and all the oth­ers who were there.

In a sense Shaw’s aim is to un­make the leg­end dom­i­nated by Kelly by writ­ing the mi­nor char­ac­ters back into the story, ‘‘ not to bal­ance some kind of score­card, but sim­ply to es­tab­lish that peo­ple like John Kelly (a

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