Authors: Niall Griffiths
In 1878 the troubles began; it was the year when ‘all the misery started’, in Ellen’s words, when Constable Fitzpatrick paid a probably-drunken visit to the Kelly homestead on his own. You’re probably familiar with what happened next, and know something of the Kelly narrative from this point on, and in any case I can’t go into it here; it’s freely available, from many sources. Ellen herself, though, outlived seven of her twelve children, and died, at ninety-one, in 1923. A grand old age. And, God, what a life.
I’m older now. I still think there’s something of the Fonz about Ned, even though I realise that the ‘natural’ state of enmity between himself and the law that he frequently mentioned was a consequence of his rustling, and that his appeals to Irish emancipation from repression are deeply undermined by the fact that those whose livestock he stole, and the police officers he shot at Stringybark Creek, were all themselves Irish-born or descended. Still, the whole story’s seductive, isn’t it? The armour and that. And, by God, what a turn of phrase the uneducated and supposedly subnormal feller had. Look at this, from the letter he wrote at Jerilderie, seeking to explain his actions and defend his case: ‘I have been wronged and my mother and four or five men lagged innocent and is my brothers and sisters and my mother not to be pitied also who has no alternative only to put up with the
brutal and cowardly conduct of a parcel of big ugly fat-necked wombat headed big bellied magpie legged narrow hipped
sons of Irish Bailiffs or english landlords which is better known as Officers of Justice or Victorian Police who some calls honest gentlemen.’ That’s brilliant. This letter, I feel, has been hugely instrumental in the rehabilitation of Ned from rustling thug to pioneering national hero. A lot can hinge on, and be ameliorated by, an interesting prose style.
But we need to get to Melbourne. Back in the van, back on the never-ending road. We pass through Glenrowan, which barely exists but for its Kelly connections; a bucket-headed statue of him stands as high as a house outside the general store. Plus there’s Ned’s Pizza Parlour, Kelly’s Inn, and so on. Like those towns in mid-Wales which have built themselves around the red kite.
I need water and razor blades, and walk under the shadow of the giant Ned into the store. They have no blades, and no bottled water. I stay hirsute and thirsty.
The death-masks intrigue and appal the boy. The cold plaster behind glass and the set expressions on the faces, all serene, all peaceful, never, now, to change. He searches them for any sign, any hint, the merest suggestion of what it might be like to die but he sees nothing, just gently closed eyes and calm mouths, belying completely the violence of their going. But this is plaster; maybe if he saw the death-in-flesh… Why worry anyway? Death is something that happens to other, older, people. It’ll never come for him. He’s immortal. But one mask in particular fascinates him
and holds him rapt; the facial features are much the same as the others’ but this one, running from nose to nape across the bald skull, has a crimp like that on a Cornish pasty where some awful rupturing has been sealed. The accompanying placard tells the boy that this man, in a last desperate defiance of the authorities, broke free from the guards who were escorting him to the gallows, bent his head and ran full pelt at some cell-bars, splitting his skull open, killing him instantly. The boy thinks about that, cannot help but think about it; is there something noble about that death, in that way? An act of rebellion, the only possible one left. The terminal action of this life, to regain self-expression, to wrest identity back from the vast and faceless machinery that had swallowed it. And to split the skull like that – he must’ve charged the bars as fast as he possibly could. He must’ve been truly determined, with every cell of his body.
Nothing else in Melbourne Gaol impresses the boy as much as this death-mask does. It doesn’t feel like a place of incarceration to him, with the laughing and running children and the tourists taking photographs and the light slanting in from the windows in the high ceiling and alive with motes. The gallows is on the third floor, and the boy wonders why it has to be so high. Beneath it, a long way beneath it, is a large drain.
The family stays in Melbourne for one night. They enter the state of South Australia on May 9th, Mother’s Day, and they stop at a garage to fill up on petrol and the boy’s dad buys a bunch of flowers for the mum. On a road entirely free of any signs of civilisation the back tyre bursts; from the back window, the children can see black rags wriggling in the road away from the car to turn and twist like snakes in the dust. The dad fits a new tyre, and buys a replacement at the next garage. ‘Another $36 gone’, the mum writes in her diary.
It’s cold. Didn’t expect it to be this cold. We get rooms at the Maroondah motel in Box Hill. The owner, a chirpy skinny feller who wears a hat like mine (maybe to hide chemo alopecia; he looks like he’s recovering from a bad illness), takes a shine to us and gives us a discount. We ask him how to use the phones, me to call the UK, Tony to call Sydney.
–Calling the old women, ey? Bet you boys have sheilahs coming out of your ears.
We laugh. –We’re doing okay.
In my room, I take a shower, which is like a hit of paradise, lie on the bed and watch Oz
which is more or less the same as the British one, including the accents. Same eyes rapacious for fame, even of a brief and tawdry sort. Same attitudes – same eagerness to jettison dignity. Same mix of character types; the snob the sporty the thicko the babe the slightly-unhinged the shit-stirrer. How soul-crushingly fucking dull. I sleep like a log that night and catch a tram into town the next morning, which takes the best part of an hour. News that morning had declared that parts of the city centre around the Flinders Street area have been cordoned off whilst police investigate a fatal shooting; three shot, one dead, one a woman, the dispute probably domestic in origin. The shooter not yet apprehended, so the sky above the city is buzzed by helicopters. (Some days later, they’ll catch the killer; he’d had a row with his girlfriend in a club, followed her outside, attacked her, then shot the man who came to her aid. Shot the girl too, but she survived; the samaritan died. Early 40s, young kids, on his way to work, killed because he couldn’t stand by whilst a woman was assaulted. There’ll be a photo of the killer in the
paper; ’roid-swollen arms across his chest, one of them bearing the tattooed word ‘CARNAGE’ in huge Gothic letters. Dead eyes. Utterly dead eyes.) The Immigration Museum, with its advertised exhibition about Ten Pound Poms, shut. I was looking forward to visiting that. Find an internet caff and check emails instead. Drink coffee and eat a muffin. Explore a huge second-hand bookshop, buy the
of Robert Creeley, and a Ron Hansen novel. I check the ‘g’s, of course. No Griffiths. Must’ve all been sold. I notice, in Oz, that used books aren’t ‘second-hand’, they’re ‘pre-loved’. That’s sweet.
A cold wind blows through the city’s gridded streets. I meet a mad
cold wind blows through the city’s gridded streets. I like the mad
seller. She’s got eyes like fruit-machine reels about to pay out and a laugh like a stack of saucepans falling onto a hard lino floor.
I remember the prison; I’m surprised, in fact, at how much I remember of it. The reproduction of Kelly’s armour. The high gibbet with the large drain beneath it (for ejected blood and faeces and guts; sometimes the body would be wrenched from the head). The hanging model of the lead weight which basically drops an inch and is hoisted back up again; you press a button to make this happen. Which I do. The death-masks. A few cells have life-sized flat outlines of women-shapes made out of transparent plastic; I don’t know why. But I like their lost and ghostly effects. The death-masks again. One in particular. Can’t find it. I approach a guide and tell him what I’m doing there and what I remember and what I’m looking for.
Ah, yer after MacNamara. He’s still there, ey. Cell
. Ya might not know, but after he did that, the governor at the time insisted that all bars be padded to stop it from happening again.
I go up to cell thirty-four. There he is – MacNamara. In his glass case with his skull still seamed. I’ve thought about you a lot, MacNamara, in the past thirty years. A lot. Wondered if I’d ever see you again, and now look, here I am, here you are, talking together again. You haven’t changed a bit, MacNamara. Your skull’s still split. You still look peaceful. What about me? Do I look now as I did then? Carry on sleeping, Mister MacNamara, carry on sleeping. Not like you didn’t earn a good long rest.
Souvenir shop; guides to the gaol, some stuff about executions in the state of Victoria, 1894–1967. 1967? Bloody hell. That recent. The sixties swuang in many ways. Kevin Morgan’s booklet carries the warning ‘contains graphic references to execution by hanging’, and the guy in the shop tells me that it’s very gruesome. I take the books, and more coffee and cake, outside to sit in the sun at a table by the gaol’s grand gates. Traffic roars and rattles past. The coffee’s strong, the cake is sweet, the sun is pleasant, the wind has calmed, the sky is very blue. Kevin Morgan begins by debunking the myth of ‘instantaneous’ hanging, rightly pointing out the political imperative behind the perpetuation of that myth: ‘any statement to the contrary would result in an electorate having to search its conscience[,] a discomfiting prospect for any government intent on maintaining office’. He writes that women would often have lead weights attached to their skirts so that they didn’t ride up ‘immodestly’ when they fell. Some hangmen were clearly incompetents with a strong streak of sadism; one, Robert Gibbon, was a ‘mentally deficient child-sex offender’, who took over from a feller called Pauling after he (Pauling, I mean) fled the state to escape from his alcoholism and gambling debts. Gibbon was also installed as
Victoria’s chief flagellator, but lost his job in 1909 when ‘his mind broke down altogether. He hallucinated that naked girls were taunting him in the streets and, complaining to the police, declared that if nothing was done about the problem, he would begin hanging the girls himself.’ A fine man for the job, then. Morgan outlines several case histories, people who suffered executions just as savage and vile and hideous as the crimes they were convicted of (and often much, much more so). It’s depressing reading, a horrible glimpse into human coldness and numbness: ‘The whole exercise of a hanging was seen as little more than a legally-sanctioned indulgence for one or two inquiring medical men in an experiment with ropes and weights and forces about which no-one seemed to know less than the executor himself.’ I’d recommend this book to anyone who supports the re-instatement of capital punishment, except that I know that not even books like this one will deter them from their foaming need for vengeance. As long as it’s not happening to them, they don’t really care.
I’m so glad that hanging was outlawed. It has no place in the world. We’ll kill the person who killed the person because there’s nothing worse than killing a person, except when we do it, because we’ve made murder legal, for us (and, often, the death sentence was passed for non-lethal crimes). Disgusting. It must never come back.
Ah Christ. No-one really notices that the world turns and never stops turning. And that there are little creatures on it that all breathe in the same way the same air. The ‘Melbourne Visitor’s Guide’ tells me that the original Kelly armour is on display at the national library so I ask a gaol guide for directions and he points to a tall tower in the sky and tells me to head for that but that it’s closing very soon so
I dash round to that tower and check my bag in at security. It’s in the ‘Changing Faces of Victoria’ exhibition, the armour, on Level 5 of this colossal, cavernous cathedral of a building. Lift. Up. Level 5, big glass case and there it is – Ned’s original armour. The very one he wore, bullet-pocked,
. It’s missing the helmet, which is on a national tour, apparently, which is disappointing; there’s always something you can’t see, isn’t there? Always something missing. But there are photographs here, too, taken during the final
; there’s Ned himself, crouching behind a fallen tree in his steel suit, pistol raised. There’s the post-office in flames. There are the gnarled and blackened corpses of Ned’s gang, dragged from the smoking ruins. It takes a while for what I’m seeing to truly sink in; real photographs of Ned Kelly? Of the final shoot-out?
photographs, from the time? The most primary of sources? Apparently so, yes. I wasn’t aware such things existed. Why aren’t these more widely known? Why haven’t I seen them before? For three decades I’ve been interested in Ned Kelly, read the books, seen the films, visited the exhibitions, and this is the first time I’ve even been aware of the existence of these photographs. Who’s been hiding them from me?
That afternoon, I meet with Fiona Gruber, a lovely, sweet woman, originally from Shropshire, who runs Melbourne City Radio. She interviews me in her house for her afternoon programme. I notice a book on her shelves:
Diary of a Welsh Swagman.
What’s this? Something else I’ve never heard about. By Joseph Jenkins. Collated by William Evans. I make a note of it, and a mental note to search for it in every bookshop I’ll find in Oz from here on in. It’s her husband’s book, Fiona tells me. His surname is Williams. Has an interest
in Cymric things. I arrange to meet her later and Tony and I catch a cab to St Kilda. Once Melbourne’s Kings Cross, now gentrified, a bit. I saw a play once, in Aberystwyth, called
St Kilda Tales,
about transvestism and drug use and madness and abandon and desperate celebration in the area, and I’ve wanted to visit the place ever since. So I drink in the Prince of Wales and the Espy, the Esplanade Hotel, which is brilliant, and allows you to smoke. The sky gets black outside. Stars bounce off the sea. Has this place got anything to do with the British St Kilda, I wonder, the remote and abandoned island off the coast of Scotland? I don’t know. But it’s a great place. Tony likes it, too.