Saturday, October 18, 2008

Ned Kelly's boot and other relics

As part of my work on Ned Kelly, Joel and I rode down to the State Library. We walked through part of their relatively new permanent exhibition, past the medieval manuscripts, and early Chaucer prints, and took the lift up to the fifth floor. I had never actually seen the Kelly armour, but there it was in a glass case, complete with his rifle and ... a single, tall, cuban-heeled boot. The armour I had seen in a hundred reproductions and images, but this single boot is particularly haunting. It looks as if it has been cut open. It was probably pretty-much blood filled by the time they captured Kelly, who had, despite the armour made of plough-shares, been shot twenty-seven times, mostly in the leg.



The boot is on loan to the Library from the descendants of Jesse Dowsett, to whom it was awarded as a trophy for his role in Kelly's capture. Unlike the extraordinary and iconic armour, shown below in Joel's dramatic floor-view shot, this boot is both an ordinary item of the everyday, while also a semi-sacred relic.

If the armour seems unreal (poised, as I think it is, between influences drawn from medieval romance, the Chinese armour the gang would have seen at the Prince of Wales' birthday parade in Beechworth, and an enchantment with an industrial modernism), the boot belongs to a different order altogether. It's a bushman's riding boot that has been kept as a souvenir of the notorious outlaw, but unlike the armour or the death mask, hasn't been replicated a thousand times. I've only started my work on Kelly (and his associations with Robin Hood), but this is the first time I've seen the boot. Its preservation speaks volumes about the iconic status of Kelly, and the mystique and veneration in which he is held. "Oh yes," said our landlady in Milawa a few weeks ago, "Saint Ned!" And indeed, it looked very much like a saint's relic.



It was a day of firsts, actually. That thing about touring the world and not seeing the things in your own city? One of Melbourne's great tourist attractions is the old Melbourne gaol, where Kelly was hanged in 1880. I must have passed it a thousand times without going in, but today we did. It's a most creepy place indeed, so much so that I forgot to take photos, really, apart from this image of a perspex woman's silhouette that I think is supposed to haunt you; and this three-tiered belt they would considerately strap around you to protect your kidneys while they flogged you.


The gaol has three levels of cells, arranged along either side of a long corridor. The cells are of course tiny, with enormous bluestone flagstones on the floor. Most of them were open; many with displays about the various men and women who'd been imprisoned there: the two Aboriginal men who were the gaol's first hanged men; the Philipino; the Spaniard (who realised he was going to be hanged only ten minutes before the executioner came for him); the Chinese; the women accused of baby-farming and infanticide, and of course, Kelly and his mother, Ellen, who was allowed to visit her son shortly before his death. She was working in the prison laundry when he was hanged. As we walked in and out of these cells, I got quite jumpy. It was bad enough seeing a life-sized figure of a prisoner standing or sitting in his cell; but the spookiest moment was walking into a cell with a narrow mattress on the floor and a grey blanket, not folded up, but in a heap, as if someone had just got up. I found myself almost apologising for intruding, and backing out again.

There was also a two-actor show, dramatising scenes from Kelly's life, that was surprisingly good.
After this we did the tour of the old watch-house, that was used as recently as the 1990s. A young female sergeant marched us in, separated men from women, and locked us up in a cell and turned out the lights. Even with the good-humoured women and children in my group, it was still pretty scary, as was the large padded cell they showed us, too.

Hoping for a good night's sleep tonight, then.

4 comments:

Alexandra P said...

The two-actor show: was it the play where each actor takes several parts? If it is the one I'm thinking of, I was especially impressed by Ma Kelly; quite the harridan. While I'm not sure it was entirely accurate, it was still an impressive performance.

Incidentally, while I'm here, I thought of you as I started reading a new book today. I did your "Chaucer and the Canon" class oh, so many years ago; and I started reading an anthology called "Canterbury 2100," which - as the name suggests - is pilgrims in 2109 traveling to Canterbury, telling tales to pass the time. All Aussie authors, too! Haven't finished it yet, but it's an intriguing idea.

Pavlov's Cat said...

'It's a most creepy place indeed'

Oh yes.

I went in 1980 (before I ever lived in Melbourne -- and was therefore still doing touristy things; how right you are about that) when I was up from Geelong for the day for some reason or other. It was before they had cleaned it up as a tourist attraction so it was very neglected and dusty. The death mask was there, then. Apart from me the joint was abandoned, and it was very dark, very powerful and very disturbing. Haunting, as you say, and also apparently haunted. I didn't realise till I was halfway home on the train that it was November 11, which of course was the day he was hanged.

Are there any Sidney Nolan diaries or other such sources that talk about Kelly? Nolan was ferociously intelligent and articulate about his work.

Stephanie Trigg said...

Hi Alexandra! Yes, that's the one. I guess the turnaround of actors might be quite high, even if the script remains the same, but yeah, those things can be very tacky, but this was not. Haven't read that anthology yet, but it's going on my list.

PC, yes I bet there are. Nolan's figure is such an isolated one, though, that I'm not sure it's going to fit with my idea of Kelly as republican Robin Hood. But yeah, I'll be checking out that lead; thanks!

You can do a night-time tour of the gaol, led by a hangman. Now there's creepy...

Emily said...

Pardon the intrusion: I recently stumbled across your blog and am finding it very interesting reading.

I also think it's interesting how often we find empty shoes quite haunting. I was very small when the wreck of the Titanic was found, and when my parents bought a book with photographs from the wreck, the image that most frightened me was of a pair of boots sitting beside each other on the seabed. Later, when I was about six, we toured the former concentration camp at Dachau. There is plenty there to make even a small child fairly solemn, but what I have never forgotten is the moment when I walked into a small room and was confronted with a very large print of a photograph of a large pile of empty shoes. I think the photograph is fairly well known, but I didn't know that at the time. I just stared and stared at it, and I don't think I've ever tried to articulate to anyone the mixture of emotions it inspired, even in a six-year-old.

I feel very ill-equipped for this kind of discussion, not having worked much on hagiography or any of the other fields that might have given me useful vocabulary for it, but I've always been struck by the significance that an uninhabited shoe seems to possess.