Jerilderie and John Safran: Staying out of the Way


So it’s nearly Christmas. I don’t have much to say about Christmas; my kids love it so it’s good to make them happy but mostly I find it all a bit crass. So let’s move on.

This morning I finished reading John Safran’s Murder in Mississippi, a true crime account of the murder of a white supremacist named Richard Barrett by a black man, Vincent McGee. The book is an exhaustive account of Safran’s efforts to get to the bottom of what happened and, if you like Safran’s “nerdy enfant terrible” routine, it’s a ripper. He befriends McGee and ‘buys’ a good deal of his story after the man has been incarcerated for at least three decades. If you aren’t a Safran fan or are not familiar with his television work, you might find it something of a chore. However, what carries the book (I think) is his boyish excitement at getting caught up in both the investigation of the main players in the story, and the writing of the book. He makes no attempt, it should be noted, to keep himself out of the story.

Recently I completed preparing a unit of work for English teachers, as part of the Reading Australia project, on Ned Kelly’s Jerilderie Letter. This text eluded me for some time– I had no idea how it approach the task of developing teaching or learning experiences evolving from it. It would seem to be written down more or less as it was dictated by Ned–most experts seem to agree that Kelly Gangmate Joe Byrne was the scribe–so it lacks formal sentence structure, grammar, punctuation. It is, as a text, somewhat chaotic for this reason. However, it is Ned’s story (or at least his version of events) in his own words, and for that reason it has a clearly defined cultural and historical significance.

Not long after I finished the Unit I picked up a Kelly hatchet job, The Kelly Gang Unmasked by Ian Macfarlane. I’ve read about five pages of this book and already it bugs the shit out of me. Why? Because it seems clear that Macfarlane made up his mind about Ned long before he wrote the book, so everything in it is therefore filtered through that prejudice. It’s laden with value judgements and therefore does not represent either good historical writing, or an interesting ‘true crime’ account. From the top of page 9: “Of course, Ned was fibbing as usual.” It’s the ‘as usual’ that I have a problem with, and goes to the heart of what I fear will be a tedious problem with this book. I may persevere with it. Of course, the Ned Kelly is open to different interpretations along the “Hero or Villain?” line so I’m okay with Macfarlane telling he wasn’t saint; I wish he’d been a bit more objective about it.

So how does all this come together? I’m interested in writers putting themselves in the way of their work, I suppose; placing themselves in the middle of their own stories. Without giving too much away, Safran directly involves himself in McGee’s personal affairs at the end of his book. Arguably, Ned Kelly reinvents himself somewhat in The Jerilderie Letter; he seeks in it to exonerate himself, especially, from the murders of the three policemen at Stringybark Creek in 1878. Macfarlane would seem happy to allow his biases to inform the presentation of his subject. Each writer is, in his own way, seeking to arrive at one or more truths. I am interested also in the difference between truth and fact. The rather dull cliche is that the facts should never get in the way of a good story, and certainly a writer’s role may involve either inventing or manipulating facts to suit narrative purposes.

It’s interesting to consider, perhaps, the innate relationship between narrative and truth, then. It is relatively easy to determine the facts of a situation (although some contest here is still possible, especially with regard to Ned Kelly) but facts only really become worthwhile when we imbue them with some sort of truth (which is usually subjective). On their own, facts are somewhat forensic, clinical; they need writers to give them shape and colour.

We might not necessarily like those shapes or colours, as readers; but that doesn’t make them any less interesting.




2 thoughts on “Jerilderie and John Safran: Staying out of the Way

  1. Vicki Riette

    Dear Cameron, I enjoy your broken frog blogs. On the subject of Ned Kelly, are you aware that Peter Fitzsimons’s latest blockbuster is about Ned Kelly? His books are lengthy but, if you want a lot of extra background material such as personal diaries, newspaper accounts of the time etc. he is very good. Hope that you and your little family have a lovely Christmas and that you will have another good year of creative writing ahead of you in 2014. Yours, Vicki

  2. Thanks Vicki, you too. I was aware of the Peter Fitzsimons book and I suspect he and Ian Macfarlane could have quite the argument over the Kelly Myth. Anyway, take care over Christmas and keep your pen moving too!

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