‘Larrikins: A History’ by Melissa Bellanta

2012, 191 p & notes

For some reason my local library has taken to sticking little labels on the spines of its books denoting ‘biography’ ‘crime’ ‘Australian’ etc. Even though this book is titled Larrikins: A History, the library-gods have decreed that this book is ‘Travel and Culture’.  At first this seemed to me to be rather inappropriate, but on reflection, it is a journey into the subculture of the Australian larrikin between 1870 and 1930, framed very much in a current commentary.  This presentism may do the book a disservice ten or so years down the track however, when I hope that Corey Worthington (who?) has shrivelled back into  irrelevance and that Steve Irwin is just an embarrassing jingoistic memory. Bellanta starts and finishes her book with these men, along with the Beaconsfield miners and Bob Hawke, who are affectionately viewed as ‘a bit of a larrikin’, a good bloke, who cuts through the bullsh*t, and doesn’t stand on ceremony.  She reminds us of Kevin’s Rudd’s cringe-inducing attempt to be a larrikin with his ‘fair shake of the sauce-bottle’ (although I note that the ANU Word Watch gives this mangled expression a shred of credibility) and even ropes the Bundy Bear into the larrikin camp.

But, she argues, although there might be a feel-good factor about larrikins today, when the term first emerged around 1870, it was a term of abuse for shiftless, marginal, disaffected teenaged boys and girls – and certainly no Prime Minister would be falling over himself to be labelled a ‘larrikin’ then.  The origin of the term ‘larrikin’ is not clear-cut, but  the whole larrikin milieu was heavily influenced by English slang and the stage depictions of cockney characters who circulated as part of the empire-wide theatrical circuit of the mid-to-late nineteenth century.  In fact, many aspects of the larrikin phenomenon in its original form were moulded by what we would now call the media: the ‘Today/Tonight’-like feature articles on larrikin gangs in the press and in more ‘respectable’ publications like Blackwood’s Magazine,  the geographical nomenclature given to larrikin gangs like the ‘Gipps Street Push’ or the ‘Haymarket bummers’  in the crime reports, and the music-hall burlesque tradition.  But make no mistake, these larrikins were hooligans and thugs: they were involved in rape, bashings, theft, anti-Chinese riots as well.  They were mixed-sex groups, with girls or ‘donahs’ fronting the courts as well.  Their faces stare out from the mug shots that stud the book: young, defiant, with the odd hint of a shared street identity in their haircuts and clothes.

However, at the turn of the century and in the shadow of WWI both the larrikin phenomenon and its depiction changed.  Several factors were at play. European battlefields winnowed the ranks of these young men; there was a change in the retail sector that removed the  itinerant trade from the streets, and the rise of football, especially in inner-city Melbourne, both channelled and was an outlet for larrikin behaviour.  The burnishing of the Anzac legend incorporated a soft-focus version of larrikinism, and the swell of nationalist literature in the 1890s and early 20th century brought a tamed, more affectionate depiction of loveable larrikins like the Sentimental Bloke and Stiffy and Mo.  Larrikinism and organized crime were two completely different phenomena, and there gradually came to be increased tolerance for larrikinism in a world that had seen worse things.

The book is prefaced by three reproduction maps of the ‘larrikin belts’ of Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.  It is a paradox of this early larrikinism that it was strongly geographically based, often honing in on a particular street, a particular building, and yet the phenomenon itself spanned urban environments across colonies, and even spanned metropole and periphery.  In many ways the crime reports and mug shots are interchangeable: you’d be hardpressed to distinguish a Melbourne larrikin from a Brisbane one.

The frequent references to current events (Cronulla, hoodies) kept the tone of the book light, without detracting from the nuance of her analysis.  I must confess to being a bit disconcerted by her paragraph structure  that has a foreshadowing final sentence leading into the next paragraph- probably a grammar lesson well learnt- but I found myself re-reading thinking “hold on, do I know about this person?” until realizing that all would be revealed in the next paragraph.  It’s a stylistic choice, I suppose, but one that tricked me again and again.

Although the meaning of ‘larrikin’ might have changed from its nineteenth century usage, the fond, chuckling, good-guy version is likely to be with us for some time, especially at times of high public sentimentality.  As for that other, darker, more dangerous meaning which has never really completely disappeared-  the ugly, thuggish one-  no doubt new labels will be found for that too.

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4 responses to “‘Larrikins: A History’ by Melissa Bellanta

  1. Pingback: ‘Dancing with Empty Pockets: Australia’s Bohemians’ by Tony Moore | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

  2. Pingback: ‘Larrikins’ wins Ernest Scott Prize | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

  3. Pingback: Histories, Biographies, Memoirs – Roundup #7 2013 | Australian Women Writers Challenge

  4. Pingback: Awards for Histories, Biographies, Memoirs – Roundup #8 2013 | Australian Women Writers Challenge

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