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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Ruminations on MacFarlane and the dark side of the Kelly world [Brian Stevenson]

It has been good to read the reviews and other commentaries on my own three part review of Ian MacFarlane's The Kelly Gang unmasked. Whether you agree with his conclusions or not, as the first anti-Kelly book for many a long year, it is an important book, more so because of the meticulous documentation throughout. I thank all for their comments, even if the line that I took on the book did not always meet with approval. 

Although part one of my review was partly favourable and part two was very favourable, I may have left the impression from part three, which contained some criticisms and suggestions, that I did not think that the book was a worthwhile one. Part three consisted of a laundry list of errors and misconceptions which I found in the book, together with what I felt was helpful information towards rectifying them for any future edition. Some of the errors were trivial - Redmond Barry's death date was a day out, for example - and some were serious, like the omission of Constable Hall's unwarrantedly brutal treatment of Ned.

None were particularly hard to fix - a line here, a word here, a new paragraph there - and none interfered that much with, let alone negated Mr MacFarlane's central themes, the perennially overrated heroic qualities and underrated criminal qualities of Ned Kelly. Alterations and emendations would not, as one forum participant claimed, have turned it from an anti- to pro- Kelly book. While my praise for it as it stands will never be unalloyed, it is a more than worthwhile and very thought-provoking antidote to the hero worship of Jones, and the generally favourable viewpoints of other respected authorities - McMenomy, McQuilton, Molony, Corfield and others. I do hope that a second edition, where some attention is paid to my comments, will be seriously considered.
Some see an inconsistency in my calling the book important and praising its meticulous documentation and then being critical of some aspects. Not at all. I found a great deal in the book to like, though of course I could not agree with every line on every page. Things are never that simple or clearcut. I covered neither Stringybark Creek nor Ned Kelly's trial in my three blog posts, but Mr MacFarlane handled both of these very well and provided some new insights. I am hoping to do separate blog posts on both of these issues in the future when I have fulfilled writing commitments with the Australian Dictionary of Biography and the Biographical Dictionary of Australian Senators which I have left unattended to for far too long.

His impressive intellectual, research and writing efforts apart, Mr MacFarlane is to be congratulated having the guts to produce what he must have known would be an unpopular volume. It was, of course, to be expected that he would attract some criticism, although it is likely that he did not foresee the lowness of the attacks that would be made on him on a particular forum (hint: forum jar)  thread that my flesh recoils from linking to this post. I use the term 'lowness' because it perfectly describes both the quality of the comments, and the mean-spirited nature of the people who made them. And, be it said, some of Mr MacFarlane's supporters in this particularly dark corner of the Kelly world aren't any better.
While the thread is ostensibly about the tragic events at Stringybark Creek, the three slain policemen, and indeed Ned, haven't got much of a look-in here. There is, however, plenty of ill-natured abuse and invective from both sides where, with very few exceptions, no pretence of politeness and reasonable debate is followed.
The quality of contributions in this place is not high either. If the only thing wrong with this wretched excuse for a discussion was the low quality of debate, it might be good for a guffaw on a wet Tuesday afternoon if you were really bored, or perhaps an argument for increased spending on adult literacy programs. But the nastiness of the posts here has long transcended their amusing aspects.
Surely, in terms of rational debate where one side can learn from another, the Kelly world can do better than this. It is hard to determine which side is worse. Needless to say no one is learning anything from this nonsense, except that when it comes to Internet discussions about Ned Kelly, pro or con, there is no upper limit to the rudeness and meanness of some participants, and no lower limit to their manners.
Somewhere in all this mess, by-the-by, is a repeated challenge to Mr MacFarlane to post a link on the book's Facebook site to my blog post that mentioned the errors in his book. I do not think any the less of his work by his non-posting, and it is his prerogative to post whatever he wants on his own Facebook page. If he doesn't want to link this part of my review, I don't mind. I don’t care. I don't think that anyone else should either.
Facebook links, whatever the effect may be on sales, will not affect the intrinsic worth of this book. Although it's a pretty lonely volume, it will last as an alternative viewpoint to the conventional 'wisdom' which has been recycled so many times. Like all worthwhile works of history it took years of organisation, self-discipline, hard work and intellect to produce something that most of these commentators could never put together for themselves. Putting together a whole book is no easy task and not for the faint-hearted at the best of times. The book is a reflection of intense research, original thinking, a willingness to look yet again at things that had been taken for granted and a questioning of the often sinister motives behind the short and stormy life of our most controversial Australian.
All these are present in this book, but the production and the publishing of The Kelly gang unmasked needed something else rather special, It needed something so lacking in so many of Mr MacFarlane's largely anonymous, ill-mannered and ignoble ill-wishers (and some of his supporters): courage. And whether you agree with him or not, in producing this book, this gentleman has shown it in spades.


  1. Well said Brian!

  2. Yeah dead right there Brian, but there is alot more I have read the book Ned and others, now I am reading the book from J.J. Kenneally. I am getting very very pissed off. The hatred I have for the law is very very real.Everyone has got there opinion. I have mine , OUTLAW, plus SUCH IS LIFE.

  3. Hello Brian S, I was impressed with your book review warts and all of The Kelly Gang Unmasked.

    I'm sure Ian MacFarlane will take note of your suggestions for his next edition, and am very sorry how some Kelly fans have been behaving on Jar forums, some just don't know when to stop.

  4. Quadrant for March 2013 has five page review of the book. Preferred your's by far Brian!


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