Of Armour, Bloody Cummerbunds & Missing Skulls 

Thursday, March 30, 2006

I hate the idea of Australia.

Yeah, koalas are cute, wombats cuter. But, hell, if all Australians aren't annoying. Haven't they got better exports than shrimp on the barbie?

The True History of the Kelly Gang, a prize-winning novel of epic scope was never on my list of books to read. It's Australian and an anchor of a book. Now, however, that I commute to work through traffic as fast as frozen lard, books on tape are my new friend and Peter Carey's novel, at 13.5 hours, has been a very good friend over the last three weeks.

The novel is narrated in unabridged finery with an Australian accent that could slice fleas. Its vocabulary, strange at first, has become part of my vocabulary. The truest test of fluency is the choice of swearwords in moments of anger: I curse adjectival this and adjectival that nowadays. A man's become a cove, his sausage a pizzle, a drinking place a shebeen, a tease a bull-maiden, the cop a trap, an outlaw a bushranger. I think more about cockatoo pies and wombat holes, never mind the novel's changeling boy and the banshee who sent me running for my celtic dictionary to re-consult their histories.

Mostly, I am in need of verifying the Australian curiosities in the novel. The outlaw, Ned Kelly, what was his true story and how he got curled into his intrigues.

Hung at 26, Kelly outlived his younger brother Dan Kelly, his brother's cross-dressing best friend Steve Hart and a poetic opium addict Joe Byrne. The four played the corrupt Australian law at its own game and ended up shooting dead three of the police officers sent to kill them. Spiralling into bank robberies, destroyed train tracks and disabled telegraph wires, the young men meet their doom encased in armour suits.

It's the tidbits that flow out of this story and beyond the scope, so far, of the novel, that keep me up tonight:

About the armour: "The sets of armour removed from the Kelly Gang were recorded on the spot. These sets were then taken to various locations around the state by the police. The armour was subsequently dispersed even further, with some pieces finding their way into private hands and others into the collections of institutions. A number of pieces were wrongly identified and, until recently, there was confusion and disagreement about the components of particular sets of armour."

About the photograph of the dead Joe Byrne: "On Tuesday morning, to the disgust of some of the onlookers, the body was taken outside and slung up against a door to be photographed.....The hands were clenched in the agony of death and covered with blood. Blood stained the blue sack coat and strapped tweed trousers, which, even in death, Joe wore with loose grace." In life, he was, by the way, fluent in Cantonese.

Ned Kelly's sash
, which he received in childhood for saving a schoolmate from drowning, can be seen every day from 9 am to 5 pm: "Made of green silk grosgrain, backed with plain weave green woollen fabric, and interfaced with undyed linen, Ned Kelly’s bloodstained cummerbund is one of the prized possessions of Benalla & District Historical Society. It is 230 cms long, 14 cms wide, and finished at each end with gold coloured metallic fringing.....Ned wore the cummerbund under his armour during his last stand at Glenrowan. It was collected at Glenrowan on 28th June 1880 by Dr. John Nicholson of Benalla, who dressed Ned's [28] wounds. It remained with his family until being donated to the Benalla & District Historical Society in 1973 by his daughter Mrs Emmie McNab."

Even more thrilling to a semi-ghoul like me is the whereabouts of Kelly's skull: "Ned’s death mask, made immediately after the execution by Maximilian Kreitmayer, proprietor of Bourke St waxworks. After his execution Kelly’s hair and beard were shaved, his head was cut off and the brain removed. Medical students then dissected the body. The flesh was boiled away from the skull, which was then shaved and oiled to become a ghoulish souvenir. While the headless body was buried in unconsecrated ground next to the Gaol, the skull's whereabouts are still unknown."

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