The Godfather: Peter Corris on the Neddies
I was recently honoured by the Australian Crime Writers Association with an award commending me for my long career as a writer in the genre. Michael Robotham, himself deservedly a past winner of Best Fiction awards*, spoke of my work in a way that touched me deeply. I’ve previously won several other awards from the Association and when I told a friend, a Scotsman, about one of them – naming it as the Ned Kelly award – nicknamed a Neddy – he was astonished that we should name our awards after a criminal.
‘We don’t regard him solely as a criminal,’ I said. ‘Given extenuating circumstances and statements he made, we regard him as at least partly a rebel.’
‘He was a murderer,’ he said.
I explained that, prior to the events at Stringybark Creek where three policemen were killed, Ned’s only offences had been for assaulting police and for horse stealing.
He interrupted, ‘That was a hanging offence.’
‘Not in Australia,’ I said. ‘He served three years in gaol for it. The second offence against the police, committed under extreme provocation, was more serious. It was then that the gang went into hiding and were posted as outlaws with rewards for their capture.’
‘They murdered three coppers.’
I told him that, despite the gang not being posted as dead-or-alive fugitives at that stage, there is evidence that the police party that went after them were a semi-vigilante group who carried equipment designed to strap dead bodies to horses.
‘So in one sense the gang acted in self-defence,’ I said.
He remained sceptical but I’d outlined the circumstances that caused contemporaries and later generations to take a more favourable view of the Kellys. The authorities were provocative, heavy-handed and oppressive towards hard-scrabble settlers, many of whom, like the Kelly brothers, were descendants of convicts.
Nevertheless, it remains curious that we name our awards as we do. The US has no Jessies (I’m thinking of Jesse James) and Britain no Ronnies (as in Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs). Well, who cares? Let them have their Gold and Silver Daggers and their Edgars. We’re different and I’ve never heard of anyone refusing a Neddy on the sort of grounds my friend raised. I’m proud of mine – all of which in some way represent Ned’s armour, painted indelibly into our consciousness by Sidney Nolan. And besides, my maternal grandmother’s maiden name was Kelly and it was my mother’s middle name.
Footnote: Another past Neddy winner I ‘d like to name is Patrick Gallagher, the publisher at Allen & Unwin who published most of my Cliff Hardy books as well as many by other local crime writers. The recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002, Patrick has been in no small measure responsible for the popularity and marketability of the genre in Australia today.
* This year’s winner, with a twopeat (as we say in footy), was Adrian McKinty for Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly.