Sunday, June 06, 2010


What Would Ned Kelly do?

It was freezing in Melbourne on Saturday. Slippery streets, cold drizzling rain, finger-numbing temperatures.

The Gregory Five were having a One Day/One Night cheap flight-n-hotel deal from Adelaide and joined us for Yum Cha, a wander around the city for a game of 'spot the weirdo' and a trip through the Old Melbourne Gaol.

I'd never been before and had resisted mostly because the reverence of bushranger Ned Kelly had always made me uncomfortable; the same deal for Phar Lap. After 80,000 years of Aboriginal culture and slightly over 200 of European settlement, all we have is a criminal and a horse to worship? And no, I've not studied or read about either hero in any detail, so I'll pre-empt any anger and ask that you direct all complaints to my alternative email address: kathwon'treadthis@couldn'tgivearat' .

Arriving through the git shop (the 'git' was a typo when it should have said 'gift' but I'm leaving it in now), there were ice-creams and Ned Kelly snowdomes for sale. Noooice.

Not unexpectedly, the prison itself was dank, grim, forbidding, sad, silent and dark. In the tiny cells that were open to the public, each contained a story about a particular prisoner who was hung, with their death mask enclosed to enhance the atrocity. Their backgrounds were all particularly harsh and cruel - bar none - and it was a relief to hear a bell ring and the actress playing Ned Kelly's mother call us down to the ground floor for her next performance.

With her loud Oirish accent occasionally segueing into Glaswegian, she restlessly paced the flagstone floor, telling us the tale of Ned and her sons from her rather biased and naturally emotional point of view. Life was unmistakably pitiful and merciless when she was widowed and left to care for eight children on her own.

It was cold on those hard plastic seats and every time I moved to crouch a little tighter or rub my hands, she seemed to be upon me, finger jabbing as she made her point, eyes boring into mine. "He was my SON," she yelled, making the elderly couple sitting next to me flinch involuntarily.

Three rows ahead, a young man groaned. It was then I noticed that he was one of six adults with intellectual disabilities. The teenage girl to his left was rocking back and forth, fingers in her ears trying to drown out the angry lady's voice. Sobs were heard from the boy three seats away who raised his arms in the air every few minutes on his own, lonely rollercoaster ride. "Err, this might not have been the ideal choice for their outing," my friend Kent whispered.

Forty minutes later, the performance ended and I found myself still struggling to accept the continually force-fed idea of Ned as a bonafide hero. The disabled adults, on the other hand, were struggling to make their way out of the hall without overturning any of the chairs in their haste. What had their carers been thinking?

Exiting through the gift shop, I wondered what Ned would have been thinking about had he been exhumed and given a few minutes to roam the Git Shop, casting his worn eyes over the foam and nylon balaclavas carelessly assembled into his head gear that were on sale for $9.95 a piece, or the 'Ned Says it's Your Shot' spirit glasses, koala-like clip on mini-Neds, beer coasters, pencil sharpeners, stubby holders, mouse pads......

.....and pencil cases;

....not to mention the earrings!

Perhaps he'd ask for a fair split of the profits before insisting, "I give fair warning to all those who has reason to fear me to sell out and and do not attempt to reside in Victoria but as short a time as possible after reading this notice, neglect this and abide by the consequences, which shall be worse than the rust in the wheat in Victoria."

Fair enough.


Louise Bowers said...

Great post Kath, I gotta get me some of them earrings eh! I'm with you on the bullshit folklore stuff. I bet it was his mother who suggested using a letter box for a helmut but it was probably so he didn't crack his skull open when he fell of his horse. The sooner we turn this place into apartments the better.

Baino said...

I loved Old Melbourne Gaol but it was a similarly gloomy day when we went there last earlier this year. Actually the courthouse tour was better, want to feel like a crim? Give that one a burl. C'mon now don't be too harsh, we turn our bushrangers into heroes and celebrate our greatest military defeat with a day off! I think you're being very un Australian.

Kath Lockett said...

Or if not apartments, Lorna, then public housing for singles or dedicated university students :)

'UnAustralian' I may be, Baino, then such is life.

drb said...

Who is your aussie hero then?

River said...

The way this reads, you'd think Ned Kelly's mum was the only woman ever widowed with eight children to raise. pfft! And this was certainly no excuse for them to become bushrangers. After all, the thousands of other orphans didn't turn to a life of crime. Maybe if Mama Kelly had smacked them upside the head a time or two....or even had them chopping firewood to work off their energy and anger, maybe we'd have a better "hero" to look up to.

drb said...

YOu must have smacked your children a fair bit then.

Interview with Ned Kelly in Beechworth Prison, The Age, August 9, 1880.

"If my life teaches the public that men are made mad by bad treatment, and if the police are taught that they may not exasperate to madness men they persecute and ill treat, my life will not be entirely thrown away."

Elisabeth said...

One of my daughters worked in the old Melbourne jail for a student job. She said the place was creepy. She did not tell me about the Ned Kelly performances, but she would not have been impressed.

We still have her National trust jacket. Another bit of memorabilia of sorts.

Like you I can't stand the mass production of fake heroes and their accompanying junk. It's all too much like MacDonalds.

R.H. said...

I once appeared at the old courthouse for a performance in front of Mr John Dugan SM. He hit me with a fine, which I still consider a bargain.
Dugan was an unusual magistrate: enormously good-humoured, he'd listen to evidence the way people listen to a joke, always on the the verge of laughter.
He was a good bloke, really. A good example. Not all officialdom is shit.
Many of the police in Ned Kelly's day were ex-convicts. Knuckleheads who'd been kicked around themselves.
Turning the old jail into dopey apa-a-a-artments would be no surprise, cafe fiends all around Melbourne want to live in poor areas where life was misery. It gives them a thrill.
They can never properly hide their contempt for the poor and uneducated. It always comes out.

Kath Lockett said...

Anonymous, dearest lovey sweetie - we were joking, honey bun. Joking, okay?

...and how brave of you to mention our names in your comment but not your own!

Pandora Behr said...

A brave woman who berates Ned Kelly - and I can't agree with you more on most points. I walk by the jail between offices regularly and it give me the creeps just walking past.

I went to Richmond Jail, just outside Hobart a few year ago - I can never shake the feeling of despair I felt there - but there was no hype, no snow domes, no death masks. The scale back nature of the place only added to the inhumanity. Incredible to see what was done in the name of "rehabilitation" back then.

One of the joys of being Australian - you have to question why a hell of a lot. Great post.

Kath Lockett said...

Maybe I should add something else here, just so Anonymous can rest easy - the Melbourne Gaol should of course stay as it is and the history inside it - and the displays - *and* Mrs Kelly's performance - are all important.

Just GET RID of the awful Ned Kelly souvenirs!

Jilly said...

Wow, you opened a can of Kelly worms (maybe they sell these at the gift shop too!).

R.H. said...

I haven't seen it, but Ma Kelly's performance sounds ridiculous.
If ALL proceeds from the gift shop go on upkeep it's okay. Tacky commerce otherwise.

Vanessa said...

Oooh fiesty reactions Kath. I am with you, I can't ever understand why we have to have the tacky souvenirs.
My perspective of jails is one of extreme sadness as my brother has been institutionalised in the system since he turned 18. For nine years his addiction to drugs has seen him live most of his adult life behind bars. I couldn't bear to think that in the future the jail he resides in would be a tourist destination.

Kath Lockett said...

Vanessa I wonder how many people thought the same thing in 1910 and 1810?

On our Tassie trip earlier this year, it was pretty sobering to visit Port Arthur - not the least because the 'asylum' part in the latter years held more 'free' men who were utterly broken and damaged than the actual prison held convicts.

R.H. said...

Of course jails are sad places, what else would they be? Your brother wouldn't be there for his addiction to drugs, it would be for what he did to get them.
Jails become tourist attractions because the general public have a morbid interest. Unfortunately the oldest part of Pentridge: C Division, was demolished a few years before the jail itself closed. Young blokes were sometimes put there as a final lesson the night before their release. The little brick cells had no sewage and no lighting, every night you got a stub of candle and a bucket to shit in.
Well there's always been a similarity between jails and asylums. G Division held psychiatric patients right up until Pentridge closed.

All souvenirs are tacky. Worthless, unless there's some sentimental attachment. I've got a tiny pink-coloured ceramic pig that my daughter staged an enormous tantrum to get at Sydney's Central Station twenty years ago. I've kept it because I'm sentimental. She's not like me.

Benjamin Solah said...

I've never been in Melbourne Gaol (Margo's uncle did stone work there a couple of weeks ago) but I'll admit to being partial to the Ned Kelly story.

Anonymous said...

It's Redcap - it's been so long since I blogged that I can't remember my password :(

I thought the same when I was there last year. The woman doing the Ned show just about drove me insane - and I didn't even sit down to watch it. She had a voice that could have stripped paint! I hate those bloody historical performances.

And if anyone's in any doubt that Ned Kelly was completely mad, just read the Jerilderee Letter. Barking :)

Cinema Minima said...

A Ned Kelly mousepad! Awesome! I've only got a lousy, half-full Ned Kelly snowdome. Sounds like the giftshop at the old Gaol got classy.

I love the Kelly story, and I love how we love it, though I'm not entirely sure why. Perhaps he is Australia's original bogan, so he endures.

And I love the tacky, awful 'Kellyana", the tea towels, stubby holders, etc. I don't want any of it in my house, but in my garage, right next to my calendar of a chimpanzee on a surfboard...

But I agree with Anonymous. How dare you have an opinion about something! And on your own blog and everything. Sheesh! Though I'm sure Ned himself would passionately support plans to get rid of the place.

Vanessa said...

You are right RH, he is in jail because he steals things - to pay for his drug addiction. Pity he isn't a good looking, overpaid footballer who can afford his drugs and therefore avoid jail.
Sadly though the lesson he has learned is that in jail he doesn't need to steal to get his drugs.

nuttynoton said...

The problem with these stories is that they are romanticised and made heroes out of people who kill!

Port Arthur is much more grim and if you read the story based on the prison there (for the term of this natural life) it makes you realise how tough life was and what menial things poor people were sent there for!

R.H. said...

If he gets dope in jail someone will be paying.
Footballers get their money through hard training and effort, I don't care what they do with it.

R.H. said...

Man at the Pub, anything said anywhere at all is open to contradiction. Saying it ON YOUR OWN BLOG doesn't free you. Blogs aren't scripture.

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