Saturday, 20 December 2014

Ned Kelly : Australian Son


"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”

and later

"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."

9 comments:

  1. Dee, I keep posting this on another site where it is regularly removed. It uses extensive quotes from the publisher, so I don't uderstand why it is deleted all the time. I have made some kind edits for the festive season:

    _ _ _ _ _

    The 2013 hardcover edition of Max Brown's 'Australian Son' has been marked down to $29.95 for Xmas by Iron Outlaw's publishing arm.

    The 1948 book was republished by Brad Webb after the passing of Brown in 2003.

    However, this is not simply a republishing of the original book. It is an attempted update, because, says Brad Webb, "Max had sourced new material and updated many of this fine theory’s [sic] and findings. His manuscript, however, was still in a million pieces when he suffered a debilitating stroke. Upon his death, Max’s close friend Chester Eagle took it upon himself to undertake the mammoth task of comparing the five surviving manuscripts (including the one’s Max had given Brad Webb, Chester and Ian Jones) page by page to determine which sections were the most recent.

    "After months of work the end result was then scanned using OCR software. As Max had originally used an ancient word processor (whose disks went missing during the removal of his belongings from Stockton, New South Wales to Sebastopol near Ballarat, Victoria) the scanned pages were converted into a Microsoft Word document which was carefully reread by Chester - who compared the scanned page to the original, ensuring a perfect transfer. The result was released in 2005 by Network Creative Services to commemorate 125 years of the death of Ned Kelly. In 2013, Max's masterpiece was re-released in both a hardback and digital edition".

    So the 2013 Brad Webb editions are actually edited and updated by Chester Eagle - not Max Brown - based on five manuscripts that were 'still in a million pieces'.

    Verdict: I'll give this [word deleted by post author] a big miss, no matter how much it is discounted. I have a 1948 first edition, lucky me.

    Another mammoth Kelly literary disaster, the work of many hands. No wonder the Kelly legend is in such a huge mess.
    _ _ _ _ _

    If there was anything worthwhile or new in the new, revised edition, by Max Brown (Chester Eagle), you'd think Brad would have put it in the blurb.

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  2. That is the first, modern retake on 'Australian Son', Dee. This is why your blogs need to be republished in a book!

    Lots of new insights into the original book, most of which I didn't know. I had accepted it as a Kelly romantic retelling of the Kelly fairytale. But it had the furphy of the republican declaration in the introduction, and no citations or references (or bibliography). I had lots of trouble with the florid writing style too. Overall, its an unimportant contribution to the Kellyana literature.

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  3. The first "factual" Kelly book I ever read was Max Brown's Australian Son. I loved the examples of purple prose that you gave. They were highly evocative and the first one especially still makes my spirit soar. I still get goose bumps when I read that passage.
    Too right, that much is not "right" in it, but the mood it sets is perfect for those of us who are sympathisers and is a good primer for those just getting into the gang. I have not seen the new edition that is spoken of as having been edited by Chester Eagle after Max's untimely passing. I recall at the time that news was announced that I wondered if anyone can really do full justice to another's work, with the Simarillion and Christopher Tolkien's efforts to put it all together after his father's passing being a prime example.

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  4. 'Ned Kelly's last days: setting the record straight on the death of an outlaw' By Alex C. Castles, Allen & Unwin, falls in that category too. It was edited and published by his daughter, but is missing the necessary citations. In 2005, after publication for a dead author, Ian Jones unfortunately attacked it and the author in a memorable Age article. It certainly wasn't Ian'n finest moment!

    Sharon, thanks for your views about 'Australian Son'. Its just not my cup of tea, sorry!

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  5. The copy I bought is the "Revised Classics edition, 1981. It would be interesting to see what modifications/additions/alterations were made by Chester Eagle ( Is that really his name??)

    But Sharon, I can well imagine that if it was the first serious book you ever read about Ned Kelly it would likely convert you. Its the classic baddies v goodies imagery...

    So is it hard to get a copy of The Kelly Gang Unmasked over there or is it just that you don't want to read it? I will send you a copy if you want one.

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  6. I was already won over to the Kelly Gang's side from reading Peter Carey's novel "The True History of the Kelly Gang." It had me hook, line, and sinker. Max Brown just reeled me in!

    We all approach things from different perspectives, and that is fine.

    That is very kind and generous of you to offer to send me a copy, but I just went over to amazon and saw a used copy for $5.00, so I have ordered that since I had earned some amazon gift cards through a survey site, so it was no money out of pocket. Once that comes I will be able to access facts in that to compare with other facts elsewhere instead of having to depend on others to help me. I probably won't read it cover to cover, though, so don't expect any reviews.



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  7. Click on link above to read Max Brown's Australian son 1948 Book review in probably The Age. The clippings were in a second hand copy I purchased 20 years ago.
    Bill

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  8. Thanks for that Bill. I suppose you paid "two and six" for your copy! A nice find inside though.

    You know, having seen the hype about Australian Son on the Iron Outlaw site time and time again, I had really come to expect that it was going to be a great book. It took me ages to read, and I kept wondering why it wasn't working for me as I had been expecting, and when I finally wrote my review of it I was wondering if I had missed the point all together and that everyone else who read it would disagree with me!

    I just about spewed when I read the extract quoted where Ned calls the boys like Christ calling his disciples to follow him...really!

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  9. Sharon, did you notice the great customer reviews on Amazon in US and UK for the book. Your fellow-blogger Brian Stevenson gave the book an in-depth going-over in four blogs. His verdict was an overall tick. I think so too. I liked the review in the Melbourne Sun that ended "Verdict: Ned wouldn't like it". I bet he wouldn't.

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