The publication of The Jerilderie Letter in book form, 122 years after it was composed by a semi-literate criminal on the lam in colonial New South Wales and Victoria, is only the beginning of what may be a boom in the Ned Kelly industry. Peter Carey's Booker prizewinning T he True History of The Kelly Gang has brought international attention to a figure who has dominated the sparsely populated pantheon of non-sporting Australian folk heroes since he was hanged in Melbourne in 1880, aged 25. Thanks to Carey's book, there may now be more songs such as Fairport Convention's "The Ballad of Ned Kelly", more paintings such as Sidney Nolan's wonderful series of surreal Kelly portraits and, it must be hoped, a film to erase the memory of the 1970 catastrophe Ned Kelly , which featured Mick Jagger in the title role - a triumph of casting on a par with asking Ringo Starr to play Crazy Horse.
The letter, dictated to subordinate gang member Joe Byrne, was Kelly's testament and manifesto. Carey has described the 8,300-word tirade as "Ned's DNA", acknowledging that this is where he borrowed the patterns of speech and thought that informed his book - which is, after all, not so much a novel as an unauthorised autobiography. Australian historian Alex McDermott, in an introduction that neglects such trifling details as the dates and places of Kelly's birth and death, makes grander claims. The Jerilderie Letter, says McDermott, "prefigures the ambition of modernist literature to make the written and spoken words indivisible, as exemplified in James Joyce's Ulysses".
This assertion is gale-force nonsense. Kelly dictated the letter because he did not know which end of a quill to hold on to, but it illustrates the enduring seductiveness of the legend: the dashing bushranger, the tower of defiance in homemade armour blazing from both pistols at his famous last stand at Glenrowan - and he is a poet into the bargain! Too many have got his helmet confused with a halo. He was certainly capable of spirited abuse, but Kelly's undeniably evocative description of the Victorian police as "a parcel of big ugly fat-necked wombat headed big bellied magpie legged narrow hipped splaw-footed sons of Irish bailiffs or english landlords" spawned no literary pro-geny, unless one counts as such some of the despatch-box rhetoric of Kelly's fellow Irish-Australian, Paul Keating.
These cascades of invective are the most endearing parts of the letter - most of which is rather dreary. Without a supporting cast of 20th-century academics, novelists and other posthumous courtiers, Kelly's own words portray him as a self-righteous, self-pitying bore incapable of accepting responsibility for his actions, which included the murders of three policemen, the robberies of several banks and terrorising hundreds of people. Not for the last time in history, these deeds were swaddled in, and justified by, a misbegotten Irish nationalism ("The shamrock, the emblem of true wit and beauty," rhapsodises Kelly about a country he had never visited).
Ned Kelly was a rotten human being and a lousy writer, but the legend is a great yarn and a glorious myth that has tickled the imaginations of generations. Whatever results Kelly imagined as he bleated the Jerilderie Letter to his scribe, it is unlikely that he foresaw immortality as a muse to novelists and painters. But such, as he reputedly said to the hangman, is life.
Andrew Mueller is an Australian journalist living in London.
The Jerilderie Letter
Author - Ned Kelly
Editor - Alex McDermott
ISBN - 0 571 21477 0
Publisher - Faber
Price - £5.99
Pages - 84