Friday, 30 January 2015

Book Review: "Glenrowan" by Ian Shaw



"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” 

What?

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.

2 Stars.

16 comments:

  1. I thought the book was a huge disappointment too. Nothing new and just a weak rehash of the well worn story. Paul Terry's 'The True Story of Ned Kelly's Last Stand' was a boring rehash too. The newspapers of the time explained that people 'emu-bobbed' the Jones hotel site for days, which is why nothing meaningful has ever been found there. The Tony Robinson Time Team Glenrowan investigation was on SBS again the other day. Red Faces as far as the eye could see.

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  2. Anyone who has read my blog (and for you newcomers it is located at elevenmilecreek.blogspot.com) knows that I have previously written a review of this book. In the review I did a laundry list of errors I found and what the facts really were. Just before I put the errors I said in part "I don't put these corrections here with malicious glee to show how smart I am or to big note how well acquainted with the Kelly story I am. I put them here to help out readers to aid them in getting to the truth of the Kelly saga. That is the only thing that matters." That really should put the kibosh (but knowing the haters, it won't) on those who want to complain about me pointing things out that are wrong. Then, again, they do say that ignorance is bliss, so if ya wanna be happy just on believing everything you read in some of these books! Anyway, maybe it is a coincidence, or perhaps not, but just after my review it was said that a certain historic place decided to stop selling the Glenrowan book in their gift shop due to the number of errors in it. Still, as I said in the review, "It is a very good book, but it could have been a great book if only a bit more care might have been taken in fact finding and research." All that said, when I do my own Kelly research it always stays on the shelf.

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    1. Oops, shoulda made that "just keep on believing everything you read.."

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  3. Actually I do read your Blog Sharon and should have checked it before bothering to review this book, and saved myself the trouble. I am now reading a MUCH better book, and I am not sure how I will review it yet, perhaps in parts...its going to need a lot of thought which is why nothing new has appeared this week, quite apart from the ending of the summer holidays.

    Daily checking the MailBox for the new Morrissey book due any day now...:)

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  4. Dee, I always find it interesting to see what others think of a book, so no worries if two people with differing (or the same) views do a review of the same book (not like there is such a big Kelly book lake to fish in anyway, so two or more are bound to catch and release the same one at some point). I just put what I had done on my blog as a counterpoint. :)
    I am looking forward to your Morrissey review. Hopefully, Brian Stevenson will get a copy and can also do a review since he had done such a good job reviewing the thesis. Will be interesting to see what carries over from the thesis and is possibly expounded upon in the book. Or is this just the thesis sort of repackaged as someone else wondered? Not that many had the original thesis to start with. Time will tell.
    I see that Amazon has the book on offer over here. Deciding whether or not to go on and pull the trigger on it right now or not because I have some other goodies on my wishlist ahead of it.
    Has anyone else gotten their copy yet?

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  5. I am also awaiting my copies of Morrisey book eagerly. I suspect this one, more than any other, will cause a few aneurisms and apoplectic rage within the Kelly world.

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  6. I am also awaiting my copies of Morrisey book eagerly. I suspect this one, more than any other, will cause a few aneurisms and apoplectic rage within the Kelly world.

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  7. And heart attacks too, Mark, and they couldn’t happen to more deserving people! I am wondering if they’ll be boasting about NOT reading it, as they have done in the recent Past - which might be a sensible way to avoid the apoplexy, aneurysms and heart attacks. Nothing in my Mail today...

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  8. Dee you said, “And heart attacks too, Mark, and they couldn’t happen to more deserving people! I am wondering if they’ll be boasting about NOT reading it,”

    You will be disappointed to learn that the person you are deriding did not have a heart attack. Although he does need heart surgery, it is hard to believe that even you could be so cold and callous by wishing harm to a person who has criticized a book you claim to have nothing to do with.

    Mark Perry, you have shown you are no better as you are quite specific in what you state, leaving no doubt that you are also wishing harm on the same person.

    Comments like these confirm what this person has said about followers of the book he is unmasking.

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    1. That person deliberately set about wrecking my earlier Forums, and bragged about it, and has threatened to wreck this one as well. That person posted pornographic images with my name on them to my earlier Forums.That person has failed to respect my right to privacy and has preoccupied himself with attempting to identify me publicly but has so far only managed to stupidly and wrongly identify and probably embarrass a number of people who have nothing to do with this Blog. That person launched a spectacularly unsuccessful but nasty campaign against a Book that has nothing to do with me, but he persists with this fixed delusional belief that somehow it does. That person has abused other members on this and other forums, and promotes homophobia, racism and anti Islamic rhetoric. That person has been proven wrong about all manner of outrageous acts of Trolling on the Internet and has never once offered an apology, retraction or explanation.

      And I am supposed to feel sorry for the predicament his lifestyle has landed him in?

      Tell me you’re joking!

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  9. Dear Shocked. Please hear this loud and clear. I wish no harm to anyone, EVER. It is not my way. My comment was very tongue in cheek but I guess i can't present a smirk in writing very well. You will note that I advocate in other posts that we all get along better together on a subject we all care about. This vitriole and bile is bemusing and even starting to concern me. I am the fifty shades of grey Ned guy. Interested in everyones opinion. And I wont yell at you if you don't agree with it. Let me just say again: I wish no harm on anyone. EVER. Thank you.

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  10. Dear Shocked. Please hear this loud and clear. I wish no harm to anyone, EVER. It is not my way. My comment was very tongue in cheek but I guess i can't present a smirk in writing very well. You will note that I advocate in other posts that we all get along better together on a subject we all care about. This vitriole and bile is bemusing and even starting to concern me. I am the fifty shades of grey Ned guy. Interested in everyones opinion. And I wont yell at you if you don't agree with it. Let me just say again: I wish no harm on anyone. EVER. Thank you.

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  11. I find it shocking that anyone in the Kelly world ever accuse Mark Perry of being anything other than a gentleman and a scholar (or as he always refers to himself as a "Kelly student"). Sometimes things are said or written and they are not aimed at anyone in particular, but are taken the wrong way or too personally by someone who might be overly sensitive for any number of reasons. Some of those reasons might even be unbeknownst to the original writer/speaker. Most of us have experienced it. Some people are just too quick to grab the wrong end of the stick and start swinging.
    That said, and back on point, I have finally ordered a copy of Morrissey's book and my wait now begins!

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  12. meant "would ever accuse"

    darn, why do I keep having typos and missing words? I need to proofread before hitting publish! :)

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    Replies
    1. Thank you Sharon. Very appreciated.

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    2. Thank you Sharon. Very appreciated.

      Delete

1. Moderation is back on. I haven’t got time to be constantly monitoring what comments are made and deleting the mindless rubbish that Kelly sympathisers have been posting lately. Please post polite sensible comments, avoid personal abuse and please use the same name whenever you Post, even if its a made-up name.


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