Wednesday 29 July 2015

“The True Story”

Its been announced that someone is planning to make a movie adaptation of “The True Story of the Kelly Gang” an award winning novel by Australian Peter Carey. I’ve yet to read the book, and might not ever because its an acknowledged work of fiction and I am sick of reading fiction about Ned Kelly. 

Predictably, Kelly sympathisers  are whining about the fact that once again what they regard as the “True” story is not being told, and on the Iron Outlaw Facebook Page they are  conducting a readers Poll, asking which non-fiction book should be considered if they want to film an accurate portrayal of the Kelly Gang?”  They give a list of 7 to choose from.

After a week, only 20 votes had been cast and the clear winner was “A Short Life” by Ian Jones, with 8 votes and the runner up on 4 was “Ned Kelly” by Peter Fitzsimons. Frankly, if there’s to be yet another movie about Ned Kelly, it needs to be one based on something other than any of those books, and Ian Jones’ one in particular, because he has been deeply involved in most of the movies and documentary series already produced, and they have pleased no-one.   Moreover, because those books don’t provide “an accurate portrayal of the  Kelly Gang”  neither would a movie based on them. In fact Kelly sympathisers aren’t the least interested in "the true story” - what they are interested in is a fairy tale, and in pretending that their fantasies about Ned Kelly are true. 

What’s needed, for anyone genuinely interested in the “True” story is not yet another rehash of the tired old mythmaking of Jones, Moloney and Fitzsimons  but a fantastic  new movie based on new scholarship, specifically the new works of MacFarlane and Morrissey.  A new movie would not portray the Police as bumbling corrupt buffoons or the Kellys as depraved maniacs but would hopefully incorporate a balanced understanding of the times into a sympathetic portrayal of the Kellys, insights into the psychology of a psychopath and into the challenges the Police faced, and show Ned Kelly to be colourful,complex raging and passionate, but ultimately tragically flawed. An amazing subject for a movie! 

Ned Kelly wanted to believe that the Police “exasperate to madness men they persecute and ill treat” and that his own life had been made “mad by bad treatment”.In other words according to Kelly someone else was to blame for his criminal choices, and that view has been the theme of all the movies made about him to date. However, as I have tried to make clear on this Blog, such a view is unsustainable. 

My own view is that Kellys life illustrates the corrosive and destructive effects of inter-generational hate, particularly the hatred of the English and of Authority  that was  taught to him from birth. Ultimately it consumed him. That’s what I think is the truth about Ned Kelly, and its a perspective that could make a new movie an interesting proposition. But please please please lets not have any more sickening syrupy fairy tales about a sad misunderstood and mistreated crusader. Ned Kelly was never such a person. The actually true story of Nd Kelly has still to be told. 

Thursday 23 July 2015

Glenrowan:Part 3 : The True Hero

“Without a doubt, Thomas Curnow was the most pivotal figure in the story of what transpired as the Glenrowan Siege”

I read this statement on the website of Culture Victoria in a beautifully illustrated section about the Glenrowan School. It’s a thought that at first surprises, because commentary on Glenrowan is universally dominated by the violent and outrageous actions of Ned Kelly, the images of his armour and the siege at Ann Jones Inn.

But think for a moment about what the story would have been if Ned Kellys plan for Glenrowan had succeeded, and think again about why it didn’t : the answer is that a limping school teacher outsmarted the rampaging Kelly Gang, and a candle and a red scarf proved mightier than a hundred and fifty kilograms of armour, gunpowder, skyrockets, bullets revolvers and rifles.  All that seething hatred, all that plotting and angry scheming, the murder of an old friend and the imprisonment of a town full of human shields came to nothing because one man with a conscience was brave enough to stand up against wrong, and do whatever it took to stop the murder of innocent people in a train crash.  There can be no mistake – what Curnow did required extraordinary bravery, and he later admitted he expected to be killed in the attempt, but even his own wife’s pleas couldn’t dissuade him.

Read what he wrote a mere three weeks after the event, in his Statement to the Police:

"In overcoming Mrs Curnow’s opposition to my going for she was in a state of the utmost terror and dread, and declared that both I and all belonging to me would get shot if I persisted in going, and in securing the safety of my wife, child and sister while being away time passed, and just as I was about to start I heard the train coming in the distance. I immediately caught up the scarf, candle and matches and ran down the line to meet the train. On reaching a straight part of the line where those in the train would be able to see the danger signal for some distance, I lit the candle and held it behind the red scarf. While I was holding up the danger signal I was in great fear of being shot before those in the train would be able to see the red light, and of thus uselessly sacrificing my life."

This man is the true hero of Glenrowan, and its about time his bravery was given the recognition that it deserves. Compare his bravery, a schoolmaster going alone with only a candle and a scarf, unarmed, with the “bravery” of Ned Kelly, armed to the teeth after weeks of target practice, enclosed in armour, protected by human shields, and a member of a gang….an extraordinary comparison!
A piece of red fabric, more powerful than Ned Kellys armour
The immense irony of Curnows actions was that by preventing Kelly from succeeding at Glenrowan, it became possible to ignore what was planned and instead create the Legend Of Ned Kelly out of what actually happened, as if that was all Glenrowan was about. The truth is that Ned Kelly planned an act of appalling and merciless violence at Glenrowan, and thus he revealed the true state of his mind and motivation : it was the mind of a mass murderer - No doubt about it.

The fact that he didn't actually commit mass murder is neither here nor there in this context, because he didn't abandon his plan, but was stopped from carrying it out. What was in his heart is what condemns him.

The truth is that if Kellys plan for Glenrowan had succeeded, and the Train had crashed and its passengers slaughtered by the Kelly Gang as was intended, there would never have been any argument about Ned Kelly being a hero or a villain. It would have been plainly demonstrated, by mass murder that he was a villain and Ned Kelly would be reviled for all history as a crazed mastermind and not a hero or an Icon. Instead, because that atrocity didn't actually take place, Kelly sympathisers pretend he was a hero. They can only do this by deliberately ignoring what Ned Kellys plan revealed about the true state of his heart and mind. It revealed not idealism,or a vision and hope for the future but anger, hatred revenge and murder.

So what do the Kelly sympathisers websites have to say about Thomas Curnow, the man who made it possible for them to have a mythology? Searching both the Ned Kelly Forum and Iron Outlaw reveals he is mentioned in passing but to my initial surprise I could find absolutely no specific discussion about him, and yet, as the quote at the top of the page recognizes, he was THE most pivotal figure in the drama at Glenrowan. Without Curnow they would not have had a Legend to talk about and yet they have effectively airbrushed Curnow out of the picture entirely. 

When you think about it though, its not that surprising because discussion about Thomas Curnow poses a difficult dilemma for Kelly sympathisers. If they praise him, they are admitting that what he did in stopping Ned Kelly at Glenrowan was a good thing – or, to put it the other way round, that what Ned Kelly planned was an outrage and it was good that he was stopped - but none of them wants to be caught admitting such a thing, supporting the authorities and agreeing that Neds plan was an outrage. On the other hand if they condemn Curnow, they are giving consent to what Ned Kelly planned for Glenrowan, the slaughter of a trainload of Police and other innocent people, an act that today would be rightly regarded as terrorism. People go to jail for a long time, for even planning let alone carrying such things out. How many Kelly sympathisers want to be associated with THAT kind of behavior?

So what the sympathisers do as far as possible is ignore Curnow, and they ignore the reality of what Ned Kelly planned for Glenrowan, a terrorist outrage that was stopped by Thomas Curnow. Its only by such wilful denials of the facts of history that myths like the Kelly Legend linger on.

I believe if we want to talk about heroism at Glenrowan, its not Ned Kelly we should be thinking of, but Thomas Curnow. Long may his memory live. He really was a genuine hero.

Friday 17 July 2015

Glenrowan : Part Two : “this bloody armour"

In Part One I argued that the abject and humiliating failure of Ned Kellys grand plan for Glenrowan proved that he would  never have made a great General in an Army, as Kelly mythmakers like to claim.  In fact Glenrowan was Ned Kellys Little Big Horn, a place where, like General Custers Last Stand at Little Big Horn Ned Kellys last stand resulted in the total destruction of the gang and their deaths at a tragically young age, and all without achieving a single one of their objectives. A total failure of strategy and tactics in the planning, and a fatally rigid and maladaptive response to what actually unfolded on the Battle scene are not the hallmarks of a great General. It would be truer to say they are the hallmarks of overconfidence, perhaps of a delusional fixation on armour as a total solution, of a desire for revenge that clouded all better judgment and a lack of imagination and of an ability to focus on the detail.

Ned Kellys plan went wrong right from the very first Act, the killing of Aaron Sherritt.  Kelly correctly guessed that on hearing of his murder by the Kelly Gang, the Police would rush from Melbourne in a special train, so his plan was to set a trap for them at Glenrowan. What Kelly forgot to do was ensure the news of Aarons murder got back to Police HQ quickly, by having Aarons killers and Kelly sympathisers abandon Aarons hut once he had been shot, leaving the Police in the hut free to get to nearby Beechworth and break the news. Instead the killers remained outside for a couple of hours daring the Police to come out, which sensibly they didnt do. After they departed, sympathisers continued the harassment and only when they left at dawn did the Police finally emerge.  Little did Joe and Dan and the sympathizers realize, but their time-wasting indulgent taunts and  sneering intimidation of the Police in Aarons hut had just doomed the whole of the rest of the plan to failure.

The news didn’t reach Melbourne till that afternoon, some 20 or more hours after Aaron had been killed, and it was another 15 or so before the train finally reached Glenrowan, a full day later than Neds plan had demanded.  During this long wait, to prevent news escaping of what lay in store for the Police train, the gang were forced to take hostage just about everyone in the town. However,  the prolonged delay provided sufficient time for some of the hostages to plan and execute an escape and for  Thomas Curnow to successfully trick Ned into letting him go, not realizing that Curnow had learned of the Gangs plan and was determined to thwart it. Curnow stopped the train before it reached the broken track and saved everyone on board. The Police then surrounded the Inn where the Gang was, and essentially, apart from a lot of shooting it was Game Over!

But failing to ensure the news quickly reached Melbourne wasn’t the only blunder that Ned Kelly made in his Grand Plan. For a start,  while Aaron was being killed,  Ned Kelly and Steve Hart were supposed to be secretly ripping up a section of railway track in the dark at Glenrowan, but having brought with them neither the  skills nor the tools to do the job”  (Peter Fitzsimons words) they found it impossible. Suddenly this crucial element of Neds plan, so poorly thought through, was in jeopardy; their only hope was to abandon the plan to do it secretly and force someone else to do it. So they woke at gunpoint six railway workers they expected would be able to do the work for them : wrong again – they were gravel carriers. Next Ned woke the Stationmaster and his entire family, thinking Stanistreet the Stationmaster would know what to do : wrong yet again! Finally, at gunpoint, Ned forced the Stationmaster  to take them to two platelayers who lived further down the line and at last Kelly had the line ripped up. But now, the secret was out and he had 14 hostages to deal with. And as the day wore on the number kept increasing.The whole thing was descending into chaos.

And then there was the Armour! Famous, iconic and terrifying as it looks, the armour, Ned Kellys singular innovation, and the thing that he is most famous for proved to be useless in the field. Ned wanted to attack but with the armour on all the Gang could do was defend. Ned Kelly ignored Joe Byrnes complaint  that “this bloody armour will bring us to grief” – but Joe was right.

The armour was a failure, not least because for some inexplicable reason its design left the wearers legs exposed. But it was also incredibly heavy and cumbersome, it restricted not just the wearers ability to move but to see and to hear, and the bolts and sharp edges on the inside of the helmet cut into the face and nose every time a bullet hit it and sent it lurching back against the wearers head. So, as Ned staggered about in it confronting the Police cordon alone in the early morning, and already wounded in the arm and leg, not even one of his shots found its mark. Not one! Joe was killed by a bullet that went between the plates, and once it was realized that under his coat Ned Kellys legs were vulnerable, it was only a matter of minutes before he was brought down too. Under his helmet the skull cap he wore to protect his head from the helmet was soaked in blood.

If you believe the stories, there was a gathering of Sympathisers waiting in the dark beyond police lines, many more sympathisers than Police, who could have been quite quickly overwhelmed if the Sympathisers had acted soon enough. Two signal rockets were let off for reasons nobody seems to be sure of, but nothing changed as a result, the sympathiser participation failed to materialise, and yet another component of Neds  grand plan failed before it had even begun.... Ian MacFarlane reasonably proposes that the numbers have been greatly exaggerated, and these shadowy figures may just have been “rubber neckers” ....we will never know.

Fortunately for the dozens on the train, and the horses, Ned Kellys plan for Glenrowan failed completely, but not before two more innocent lives had been taken. John Jones and Martin Cherry, two of the Kelly Gangs 63 human shields at the Ann Jones Inn were killed by Police crossfire in the dark of the night. Modern day Kelly Sympathisers, forever looking for reasons to attack the Police, claim the Police are to blame for these deaths and relentlessly excoriate the Police for them. However I reject this view completely -  the fault and the responsibility for these two deaths lies fairly and squarely on Ned Kellys shoulders because he was the one who masterminded the entire debacle.  It was Ned Kelly who imprisoned these innocent people at Gunpoint in a flimsy building that offered them almost no protection- while he himself was encased in armour. It was Ned Kelly who chose  NOT to surrender and let them all go at the very beginning when challenged, but instead commenced a furious gun battle with Police. It was Ned Kelly who commenced a furious gun battle with Police even though by then his Grand Plan was almost completely undone - there was no train crash, no Police slaughter, no Sympathiser support, only the prospect of either capture or death.  At that point Kelly KNEW Johnny Jones and Martin Cherry and all the others were in the Inn behind him, he KNEW the risk that he was taking with their lives, that innocent people could be killed - but that didnt concern him. The concern he huffed and puffed about in the Jerilderie Letter for the "suffering innocents” is here revealed as hypocrisy - his quest was for revenge at any cost. All he wanted to do, realising that he was going to go down was take as many of the bastards with him and to hell with the collateral damage. To hell with John Jones and Martin Cherry. 

In contrast, the Police at that moment, in the dead of night did NOT know exactly who was in the Inn, whether there were many or a few people there, if they were sympathisers or hostages and if they were protected or not. I am not attempting to say the Police were exemplary in every way at Glenrowan - they were not -  but to claim the Police were responsible for the deaths of two innocent hostages at Glenrowan is quite wrong. Did Ned Kelly think that by imprisoning innocent men women and children as human shields, the Gang was going to be able to stand there in armour, shoot at the Police and not receive fire in return? This was yet another Kelly miscalculation that had tragic consequences, this time for young Johnny Jones and Martin Cherry.

Glenrowan was a massive criminal debacle from start to finish. And it was all of Ned Kellys making. 

Sunday 12 July 2015

Glenrowan : Part One : Ned Kellys Little Big Horn.

General Custers disastrous Last Stand at Little Big Horn: 
 almost exactly four years before Ned Kellys equally disastrous Last Stand at Glenrowan
Its often said by Ned Kelly supporters that if Ned Kelly had been a soldier,  being so brave and commanding a person, and so able at planning and co-ordinating such things as attacking Police in the Bush and pulling off Bank Robberies, he would have made a great General.

However as so often happens with Kelly mythology, this claim  disintegrates completely when its examined closely, and nowhere more comprehensively does it break down than in relation to Kellys most famous act, the confrontation with the Police at Glenrowan.  Here, after months of planning and preparation, including the manufacture of  the iconic bullet-proof armour, Ned Kelly envisioned a bloody  and decisive triumph over the Police. Precisely what he planned to do after that is unclear , but in any event whatever it was, it depended entirely on the successful realization  of  his planned outrage at Glenrowan.

The result however was immediate, complete and utter disaster for Ned Kelly. His grand plan failed in every possible way, except perhaps for the killing of Aaron Sherrit – yes, in that he succeeded because as ever he was brilliant at killing innocent people, but in no other way could Glenrowan be called anything other than failure and humiliation : his brother was dead, the other two Gang members were dead, he was captured and within a few months hanged, no additional Police had been killed and his mother remained in Prison.

Some try to rescue from this  debacle a heroic Ned Kelly battling against impossible odds, making a brave Last Stand like General Custer, fighting to the very end against a dark  corrupt and overwhelming force prepared to stop at nothing to bring him down. But this calamity was entirely of Neds making, exposing his strategy and his tactics and planning as badly thought out, weak and blundering and his leadership as inflexible, blinkered and unimaginative.  He trapped himself and his brother and Steve and Joe right there in Ann Jones Inn and when it was obvious, very early on that the Grand Plan was falling apart he lacked the wit and the imagination to do anything other than blunder on with it rather than think his way out, to create a new exit strategy, to change his objective.  I don’t think it was heroic – it was stupidity. Ian Jones called it madness.  In fact, Glenrowan, on June 28th 1880 was Ned Kellys Little Big Horn, the place where General Custers faulty strategy and tactics left him and all his men, and his brother, all dead as well, almost exactly four years earlier, June 25th 1876, in Montana.

I looked up the date of Custers last stand because I am not very familiar with the story but I have yet to hear Custer nominated as a great General. Given that Ned Kellys grandest plan, after months and months of planning came to a similarly disastrous and rapid end, I am forced to conclude that people who think Kelly would have been a great General know absolutely nothing about Glenrowan. 

So what went wrong? Well, firstly, the train came a lot later than Kelly had planned for. This meant that he had to keep hostages for much longer than was intended and it gave some of them greater opportunity to escape, or as in the case of hostages like Thomas Curnow, to trick Kelly into letting him go.  Curnow was of course the great hero of the day who stopped the train and saved everyone on board.   

But how can Kelly be blamed for the train not coming on time? It was beyond his control was it not?  Well there are two parts to the answer: the first is that a good General wouldn’t have made his plan so dependant on things he couldn’t control. Secondly, sympathizers love to claim that the delay actually resulted from police cowardice at Sherritts hut, saying that if they hadn’t been so cowardly they would have emerged immediately after Aarons murder and alerted authorities down the line the same evening. Again, a really great Generals Plan wouldn’t have been dependant on Police acting in such a particular way and time frame, but more importantly it was the actions of Joe and Dan, after killing Aaron that actively discouraged the Police from coming out and created the delay. These two assasins hung about for several hours shooting at the doorway, yelling at the Police inside and even attempted to set the house on fire and smoke them out. To say the Police were cowards for not emerging straight away into the dark night, essentially blind– to be shot at the door as Aaron was – is absurd. The Police were protecting themselves from a Gang of known Police killers who had just brutally killed another innocent man. Only an idiot would have put his head out the door. If the Generals killers had done as they were told, killed Aaron and then headed to Glenrowan maybe the train would have arrived a lot earlier, but the delay resulted from the time-wasting intimidation by Dan and Joe – already the Plan was unraveling.

Sunday 5 July 2015

Another Innocent Man Murdered by Kelly Gang

The ambush and murder of three innocent Policemen in the bush at Stringybark Creek was a monstrous crime committed by a Gang of Four led by Ned Kelly. One would have thought that killing three innocent Policemen would have been sufficient payback for the jailing of Ned’s mother, if indeed that was his motivating grievance. There’s no doubt he sought the Police out to kill them, and though he says it was “self defense” – an excuse that doesn’t stand close scrutiny of what actually happened at SBC – Ned Kelly did have other options, such as fleeing Victoria altogether.  But no, three dead innocent Policemen were not enough for Ned Kelly, he wanted to kill more, many more, and so devised an evil scheme that required the murder of yet another innocent man to act as a trigger,  this time one of his own people, a selector, a poor farmer and former friend named Aaron Sherritt. 

The basic facts are well known: Joe Byrne, - Kelly Gang “Lieutenant” according to Ian Jones - tricked the unsuspecting Aaron into opening his door at night, whereupon he was immediately shot twice and killed in cold blood. This murder was carried out with the purpose of provoking the dispatch of dozens of Police to the region in a train that would speed into a trap set for it at Glenrowan where the Gang had removed a section of track. The train would crash down a steep embankment, and the Gang in their newly made armour would kill any survivors. That was the plan.

The justification they gave for the execution of Aaron was that he was co-operating with the Police and had betrayed the Gang. It was also complicated by a dispute that had arisen between the Sherritts and the Byrnes, Mrs Byrne having told Aaron that Joe would kill him if he knew what Aaron was up to. There was also a dispute about a stolen saddle and some bad language between them. However like many of the Kelly stories, the claim that Aaron was a traitor doesn’t stack up. Instead it very much looks like Aaron was playing a sophisticated double–cross, making a little money on the side and rather cleverly gaining intelligence from the Police and preserving the Gangs freedom.  As far as I can tell  Aarons activities resulted in frustration for the Police and not the slightest extra trouble for the Gang

This is what Ian Jones writes in The Fatal Friendship

“Ned was reluctant to believe Aarons betrayal and he may have opposed the killing. But he was prepared for bloodshed- perhaps  on a horrifying scale. If Joe was now committed to killing his mate this death like the others  must be seen in the context of warfare. If Aarons death was inevitable it must be part o the campaign plan”

Ian Jones is suggesting here that Joe Byrne had decided to settle the private quarrel between the Byrnes and the Sherritts  by murdering Aaron,  a solution which seems  extreme  given the relatively minor nature of the disagreement between them.  I woudnt be surprised if the truth was that Joe was NOT “committed to killing his mate” but Ned Kelly made it so by incorporating it into his plan to kill more Police. Ned Kellys  obsession with exacting terrible revenge on the Police had become so intense that nothing would be allowed to stand in its way, not even the possibility that their chosen sacrifice was an innocent man. Ned Kelly  was more than willing to use the petty feud that seemed to have developed between the two families as an opportunity to create the necessary human sacrifice that would make the police come running. This is typical of a psychopath.

Who knows where Jones gets the idea that Ned may have been reluctant to believe in Aarons betrayal – but it highlights the great uncertainty right to the end about what sort of game Aaron was playing at. The Police suffered the same uncertainty:  they were never entirely sure if Aaron really was on their side.

I have read and re-read Ian Jones book ‘The Fatal Friendship’, to try to get clarity on Aarons true purpose, but even Ian Jones seems to struggle to understand what was going on.  Nobody seems prepared to state categorically that Aaron betrayed the Gang, because no-one can point to any particular harm that came to the Gang or to sympathisers or anyone else as a result of Aarons behavior.  On the other hand nobody seems  prepared to say that Aaron was innocent because doing so would imply Ned Kelly and the Gang had made a ghastly blunder in killing him.

My interpretation is that Ned Kelly needed a dramatic event that would attract Police into his trap at Glenrowan, and he decided to make it Aarons murder. He used the dispute between Aaron and the Byrnes, and the confusion that surrounded Aarons police interactions to portray him as a traitor and an enemy, and to provoke Joe into killing him. Whether or not he was a traitor, or the personal dispute justified a murder was irrelevant - he was just a pawn in the Kelly scheme to exact revenge. This is another clear example of Ned Kelly’s rhetoric  being completely discredited by his actions : claiming to speak for the innocent , he was happy to use abuse and even murder them when  it suited.

One question I think  worth asking is what evidence is there for actual harm resulting from Aarons behavior ?

And the other is, wasn’t Aaron another of Ned Kelly’s innocent victims?