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Novel Review: Lament (a Ned Kelly story)

When Muhammed Ali opened the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta a commentator remarked that the former boxer was, ‘the most famous man in the world’, and safely on my beanbag in front of the box I scoffed at the notion before later deciding it was likely true. His deeds, both noble and otherwise, continue to generate their own global momentum, and with a mythic, omnipresent station in Australian life Ned Kelly makes a similar, albeit local, impact.

While I’m not a Kelly obsessive some contextual experiences include Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly series which I first encountered at high school. These were intriguing and disturbing, and I knew there must be substantial reasons for the artist to complete 27 paintings on this subject although at seventeen I was naïve to their deeper reverberations. Around the turn of the millennium I read Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang and found it hypnotic, and I’m a huge admirer of Midnight Oil’s, ‘If Ned Kelly Was King’ (from their superb Place Without a Postcard) with its speculation on how our most iconic bushranger would handle modern multinationals.

With this literary and artistic baggage in hand I read Nicole Kelly’s Lament in this luxurious week between Christmas and New Year (this year’s ham intake has been down, oddly but healthily), and given the holiday freedom from tyrannical bosses that some of us are enjoying I’m sure Ned would’ve approved of my recreation. ‘Lament’ is a compelling text and the plot races along with the thrill and constant danger of an escaping bushranger’s stallion. The novel’s a balance of exterior action and, as a first person narrative, Ned’s acutely human interior. He’s also a charismatic leader of his gang

‘Pistols out, lads. Be ready for any bolters. We can’t have work out yet.’ I carry one in each hand. ‘We’re takin’ no prisoners. So give ‘em a warning and if there’s any movement, ye cut ‘em down, ye hear me?’ (Page 79)

The central purpose of ‘Lament’ is to wonder what might’ve happened if the Kelly Gang escaped Glenrowan, and this speculative fiction imagines how they hope to live once their bushranging days are done. So sympathetically, so abundantly does Nicole Kelly chaperone us into the private world of the central character that despite his inexcusable violence I found myself cheering for Ned, and his gang’s escape into happy, anonymous lives. As our narrator he observes carefully and with a native, attractive intellect

I warm to the two of them and it is her nickname, affectionately called, that confirms the great luck of my acquaintance with the couple. She’s another beautiful and formidable Kate within my life now. I think of my sister, who has always had my back. These people, so familiar and yet so strange, circling in my life. Surely, if I rely on a Kate, I am in good hands. (Page 146)

In this reimagining the character of Ettie gives symbolic and real agency to those frequently marginalised in this story of the marginalised. While it remains Ned’s version of events Ettie and other females like Anne Jones, the Glenrowan Inn proprietor, are given due prominence in this retelling and this is a strength of the writing.

Ned Kelly looms over our collective consciousness because, rightly or wrongly, he’s become the national embodiment of the themes of injustice and inevitable doom, but also love for family which have found forceful expression in this publication. With our sense of what it means to be Australian under heightened and probing scrutiny, this novel is most timely. I enjoyed my excursion into this historical domain of dark and light, and the chance to reflect upon a man who remains emblematic of much of our national identity.

Simultaneously of its time, but also distinctly modern in authorial attitude and style, Nicole Kelly has given us a new and welcome perspective on this infamous life.

Lament can be  purchased by contacting www.hawkeyebooks.com.au/lament/  or you can visit www.hawkeyebooks.com.au/nicole-kelly to contact her.

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Jazz and me

trumpet

My own musical career was fleeting. When I was eight I learnt guitar until the teacher moved, and Kapunda being a country town, that was it. I remember strumming in that measured, funereal way to “Banks of the Ohio” and being uneasy at having to sing

 I plunged a knife into her breast

 And told her she was going to rest

 She cried “Oh Willy, don’t murder me

 I’m not prepared for eternity.”

*

While at university I discovered Vince Jones, jazz vocalist and trumpeter and his album For All Colours. Its sophistication reminds me of Frank Sinatra, and “Straighten Up and Fly Right” stars a rowdy Wilbur Wilde sax solo. I then knew that the saxophone could be as cool as a guitar.

The first concert I attended was Midnight Oil at Memorial Drive (Julia) and Vince Jones at Le Rox in Light Square was the second. Standing with other students in the airless dark I note that Vince wears a suit and tie, and in contrast to Peter Garrett’s frenzied jumping the jazz ensemble appears uninterested.

But, I was in. Jones himself once said, “I want to be inside every atom of every note.” Over the next decade I saw him often, usually in the Piano Bar of the Festival Theatre. And then, I don’t know why, he stopped regularly touring Adelaide.

*

One wet Saturday in England I heard a BBC Radio 4 documentary on John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, so immediately jogged up the high street to a HMV and bought it for ten quid. And as rain and sleet lashed our windows, its saxophonic hymn brightened the crushing winter sky.

The storms of Coltrane’s personal life thundered in counterpoint to the spiritual still of A Love Supreme, and within two years of its 1965 release he would be dead.

*

One distant summer some Kapunda boys and I drove across the Hay Plains to spend a fortnight in Sydney with an air-traffic controller mate. He was among rude privilege in a Drummoyne apartment. We parked Woodsy’s Datsun 180B on the street. As we’d daily exit the Western Distributor there was a looming billboard with a huge fanged spider warning us to watch out for funnel-webs. We did. I still do.

Besides playing cricket by the Parramatta River, and body-surfing at Bondi and Curl Curl I hauled everyone to The Basement in Circular Quay. I was a fan of Live at the Basement on ABC Saturday evenings, and Galapagos Duck was the house band, and Don Burrows and James Morrison were often guests. I can’t tell you who played that sultry evening, but I liked it. The wooden tables, the ambiance, the enveloping melodies.

*

Among the more brilliant things about living in England is chucking a sickie, and knicking off at dawn on a Friday to another country. Easyjet flew us from Luton to Cologne so we could explore their Christmas markets.

The city is largely unremarkable save for its compelling cathedral; the Dom. With twin spires ascending to 515 feet, it was the world’s tallest building until the Washington Monument. Similarly astonishing is that in 1162 Emperor Barbarossa secured for the Dom the authenticated remains of the Three Magi. We drifted about its vast interior and leaving, presented some Euros to a nodding priest.

Papa Joe’s En Streckstrump is Cologne’s premier jazz venue so we find our seats early for Sun Lane Ltd, an ensemble from nearby Aachen. Slender waitresses disperse wine and beer. We can scarcely see through the stinging blue smoke. The punters surge in. Bespectacled, ample musicians squash timorously onto the picnic-rug stage. The pianist looks like a sheet has been stretched about a lumpy, wobbling refrigerator.

Standing unnaturally close, an energetic type suddenly clambers up and straddles a nearby stair- and me, as if he and I are posing for a gay fire-fighters’ calendar. I am startled. Forgetting that Europeans are often bilingual I blurt, ‘What the fuck are you doing?’

As the gentleman dismounts the step, and my groin, I mutter, “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome!” my intimate twitters.

“Say what you really want!” adds his friend. We don’t see them again.

The traditional jazz is brisk and zestful, and spilling out onto the Rhine’s bank Nina’s “99 Red Balloons” bursts from a heaving club. Lingering at the chilly Alter Markt, the wife sips a concluding gluhwein; the spiced, red wine and we confirm that Cologne jazz goes pretty well.

*

It was nearly an hour commute across Adelaide’s most miserable suburbs; Snowtown territory. After many months afternoon radio had become tiresome; especially when the old-age surrender of organising life around news bulletins, those ridiculous frissons began, so I fought this inevitability, by committing to Miles Davis. I submerged myself in Bitches Brew.

Menacing and swirling about you like a phantasm, the music is a sexual maelstrom, and its recording began within hours of Hendrix and his pyrotechnics at Woodstock. Was it jazz? Was it rock? Was it funk? I wasn’t sure, but I again knew that the trumpet could be as cool as a guitar.

Despite its ominous cadences and rhythms, I found it transportive and therapeutic as I’d make my way home to the beach. Bitches Brew is vital to jazz-fusion, and while the opening two tracks are rightly celebrated, “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” on side four is the standout. I still love getting lost in this 94-minute ocean.

*

This story begins with Mum and Dad’s record collection. Don’t they all? In among the usual 1970’s fodder of Ripper ’76 and the Best of Abba there’s some curios, and in the not on 5AD or 5KA and certainly not on Countdown section are some jazz albums, one a Dixieland compilation. I don’t especially recall any of the tracks, but these made significant impacts upon my psychology and vocabulary.

The jazz evoked widescreen travel and the speaking of strange tongues and moving about in dazzling metropolises that one day I might be permitted to visit. It was New York and Chicago and New Orleans. It wasn’t that I was trapped in dusty little Kapunda, it was that a planet was out there, and Mum and Dad’s jazz records captured these teeming, thrilling possibilities.

They still do.

BB