I’m not in habit of writing reviews about books I haven’t finished reading, but this time, needs must! I’m in Queensland tonight visiting my parents – and my father has swiped my review copy of Larrikins and won’t give it back! Well, he would if I insisted, but he’s enjoying it so much, I don’t have the heart … if he hasn’t finished it by the time I leave to go home, I’ll buy myself another copy …
My father and I have been talking about books together since I learned to read. Throughout my childhood we walked down to the library together on Saturday mornings to choose another hoard of books for the week, and when other adolescents were out playing tennis and watching footy on the weekends, my sisters and I talked books all afternoon with Daddy. Important authors like George Orwell and Thackeray; books about philosophy, religion, music, and history. While my parents still lived in Melbourne it was a habit that I retained well into adulthood, for I used to visit them every weekend and spend most of my time talking about books. And now that he lives in Queensland, the letters we exchange are of course always partly about the books we’ve read.
So he and I were talking books within ten minutes of my arrival here today, and it took only a moment for me to start talking about Larrikins, A History, which is Melissa Bellanta’s new book that UQP had sent me for review. I’d started reading it this morning while still loafing in bed (‘cos it’s Sunday) and I couldn’t wait to tell him about it. Like me, he immediately assumed that it was going to be about the lovable rascal larrikins of our time, perhaps our knockabout former PM Bob Hawke, or the cricketer Shane Warne, or maybe even the celebrity Lara Bingle. After all, contemporary larrikinism has positive connotations, and Aussies take a certain perverse sort of pride in characters who don’t ‘bung on’. We like the larrikin’s laconic sense of humour, his irreverent attitude, his scorn for pomposity, and his scepticism. We’re inclined to overlook or excuse bad behaviour from this type of larrikin because it’s associated with Australian identity.
But no, it turns out that Bellanta’s book explores larrikinism in the 19th century and early 20th century, and those larrikins were a different sort of creature altogether.
Melissa Bellanta is an historian who is interested in masculinity and class, and these strands come together in her study of larrikins in the period between 1870 and 1930 when gangs of street-based youth formed unwelcome sub-cultures in the cities of inner Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. She makes the point that the larrikin phenomena of that type still resonates today and that racist riots, gang violence and raunch culture generate similar disapproval and fear. The larrikins of that earlier era were a far cry from the wealthy, successful examples I referred to above: they were poor working class lads and lasses, factory workers with very little education and very little prospect of bettering themselves. The term larrikin used to be a term of abuse or a self-proclaimed label suggesting defiance of social norms. Larrikins of this period were involved in bashings and street fights, rape, racist thuggery, gang rivalry and altercations with police. It was not until World War I that the perceptions about larrikinism began to change.
All of which would count for nothing if this book were written in a dry academic style, but it’s not – and neither is it dumbed down as so many popular histories are. As my father’s swift appropriation of this book attests, the author strikes exactly the right balance for the general reader. I can’t wait to get it back and finish it!
This is the blurb from the UQP website:
From the true-blue Crocodile Hunter to the blue humour of Stiffy and Mo, from the Beaconsfield miners to The Sentimental Bloke, Australia has often been said to possess a ‘larrikin streak’. Today, being a larrikin has positive connotations and we think of it as the key to unlocking the Australian identity: a bloke who refuses to stand on ceremony and is a bit of scally wag. When it first emerged around 1870, however, larrikin was a term of abuse, used to describe teenage, working-class hell-raisers who populated dance halls and cheap theatres. Crucially, the early larrikins were female as well as male. Larrikins: A History takes a trip through the street-based youth sub-culture known as larrikinism between 1870 and 1920. Swerving through the streets of Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney, it offers a glimpse into the lives of Australia’s first larrikins, including bare knuckle-fighting, football-barracking, and knicker-flashing teenage girls. Along the way, it reveals much that is unexpected about the development of Australia’s larrikin streak to present fascinating historical perspectives on hot ‘youth issues’ today, including gang violence, racist riots, and raunch culture amoung adolescent girls