Monday, 22 October 2018

Book Review - Bushranging and the policing of Rural Banditry by Susan West

Bushranging and the policing of rural banditry in New South Wales, 1860-1880 by Susan West

North Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2009     ISBN 1740971661

What an interesting and frustrating book! It's clear that, like much of the output of Australian Scholarly Publishing, this book is based on a thesis submitted to a University (in fact it is, a PhD thesis submitted to the University of Newcastle). While it has much of interest within its pages, it would have been better served to have been re-worked into a book that gave more context, and a broader view of the subject than that required by the strictures of a PhD thesis.

All Australians know the most famous of our Bushrangers, Ned Kelly. What is perhaps less known is that bushranging as a crime was far more prevalent in New South Wales than Victoria, and West in this book focuses on the outbreak of bushranging that occurred in New South Wales in the 1860s - why it happened, and the response to it.

Given its origin as a thesis, this book is not a narrative history of the outbreak, but more a theory-based explanation of what happened. For the casual reader, this is a shame, for West assumes a lot of knowledge about the social and legal situation abiding at the time, and even of the bushrangers and their crimes: while Ben Hall figures prominently in the text, we know little about him even when the book has been finished.

So, while this is not a book that one would read to learn the history of bushranging in New South Wales, it does contain some fascinating insights into the bushranging "outbreak", and policing of the time. West uses as a basis for the thesis the idea that the outbreak was an example of "social banditry" as outlined by the English historian E.J. Hobsbawm, and so tries to fit history into this theoretical framework. Unfortunately this results in some clunky writing at times, but there is some stuff of interest in the idea. New South Wales in the 1860s was a turbulent place. The Gold Rushes that began in Victoria spurred discoveries in New South Wales, but most of the rushes were short-lived, and didn't pay out well. This led to many people moving around the State, often destitute. It also meant that there was money, mail and materials moving along roads that were poorly policed. The combination of events proved too tempting for many local-born rural residents, who were at the bottom of the social and economic strata.

The spectacular Escort Robbery by Frank Gardiner, the richest haul by any bushranger, not only spawned a chain of copy-cat bandits, but also was the root of the scare campaign run by the newspapers, the Sydney Morning Herald in particular pushing political agendas via its reporting of the "scourge". West points out that the paper was dog-whistling about class as well, suggesting that the outbreak was not very surprising given that the free-born settlers were children of convicts, after all... there is much to write about how class and strata affected the way the countryside was policed - West touches on it, but more context would have been helpful in the text. What West does clearly show is that the fear campaign worked, with sentencing becoming much harsher during the height of the outbreak; the idea being to set an example.

However, it was the improvement in policing that eventually drove the decline in criminality West shows us that the change to a centralised police force in 1862 was initially a disaster, with the Government unwilling to employ local people due to fears of corruption: but, by mostly employing recent migrants and sending them to unfamiliar country, the police were at a great disadvantage compared to the bushrangers, who not only knew the country like the back of their hand, but often had the sympathies of at least some of the local population, who helped them escape capture.

The harshness of the legal system, which bore down particularly on the rural poor, generated an "us against them" mentality, where the "them" were the land-holding class (who - at least initially - were often also the magistrates of the local area), and any other representatives of government, which included the police. The police were also harshly treated by the government, with a lack of resources praying heavily on their ability to hunt down and capture criminals.

West provides some useful statistical breakdowns as well, with the majority of those committed for bushranging crimes being Catholic and Irish descent (although there was one Buddhist as well), and showing clearly the peak in arrests and sentencing in the mid 1860s and the drop-off in offences toward the end of that decade. She argues that the capture and death of the "elite" bushrangers such as Hall showed others that the fate that awaited them was not a pretty one.

This is not a book to read for an introduction to, or a general overview of, bushranging in New South Wales. Given its genesis as a thesis, it is too narrow, and too clunkily written, to be an enjoyable read. However, it does contain much of interest for those that want to dig deeper. The book itself is not well made, with my library copy falling to pieces...the apparatus is OK, but the index is not very helpful.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Book Review - Eucalyptus by Murray Bail

Eucalyptus by Murray Bail

Melbourne: Text Publishing, 1999       ISBN 1875847944

I have reviewed other works by Murray Bail on this site, and I have always found his books worth reading, even when they are flawed. As a novelist, Bail has followed his own path, and is not afraid to be obscure if he feels he needs to be. I'm sure that the success of Eucalyptus came as a surprise to him, given his relative lack of it before (and, perhaps, since). It was without doubt the best book of the year in Australia in 1999, winning both the Miles Franklin Award and the Commonwealth Writer's Prize.

I read it at the time and enjoyed it immensely; re-reading it has not diminished that pleasure much. The beauty of the book is its simple timelessness. A beautiful woman is held captive in a remote place. To win her hand, a suitor must complete a herculean task: this story is combined with echoes of Scheherazade's story-telling gift, romance, and a happy ending...what's not to like?

Bail's Australian twist on the classic plot-line makes the book quirky, and different in a likeable Australian way. Ellen, a beautiful woman, lives with her father near a country town in central New South Wales. Her father has planted on his property an example of every known species of Eucalyptus. He decides that he will give the hand of Ellen to the man that can successfully name each species.

As the suitors come and go, Ellen encounters a mysterious man wandering the property, who seems to magically appear, tell a story, and then just as magically disappear again. Each story seems to have some sort of connexion to the tree that they are standing under at the time. Meanwhile, Mr. Cave is inexorably naming the trees on the property, each day coming closer to claiming Ellen.

The tension Bail creates in this plot is heightened by the stories of the stranger, which invariably deal with lost love - or more particularly - lost moments: when people let love pass them by, or cast it aside. Each story that the stranger tells brings him closer to Ellen's heart. Bail intertwines the plot with vignettes about the trees themselves - the many facets of the mighty Eucalyptus family.

Bail's weakness as a writer, in developing characters and writing dialogue, don't stand out in this book, as the characters are archetypes; vehicles for his stories and vignettes, and the dialogue is minimal.

I wondered when reading this book if Bail didn't originally conceive of it as a way to use his undeveloped story ideas, but it is more complex and clever than that. It is, at the end, a quirky love story. Worth the re-reading.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell