Ned’s last stand not a solo affair
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