Australian immortal icons
"The true Aussie
battler and his wife thrust doggedly onwards: starting again, failing again, implacably
thrusting towards success. For success, even if it is only the success of knowing
that one has tried to the utmost and never surrendered, is the target of every
Page & Robert Inapen - authors (1)
It would be wrong to say that Australia has, or has ever had, icons that everyone admires. Because Australia has always been a multicultural society defined by a diversity of values and beliefs, there have always been people criticizing those icons that have been held up as the "model" that Australians should aspire to be like.
Even though there have never been icons for the whole nation, there have been some individuals who were celebrated by their respective sub-culture of the day, and have remembered by subsequent generations. A common theme defining these individuals is that they were battlers. They were (usually) people who struggled against adversity and never gave up. Sometimes the adversity was nature. Sometimes the adversity was the criticism of fellow Australians.
The Australian's tendency to support the battler can be explained by considering Australia's environment and history. Unlike America, Australia was the colony were the dreams failed. The top soil was thin and droughts were common. It was not a place where people got fat off the land, and not a place where people could escape being punished by nature. Mirroring the harsh nature was the harsh history. The first rulers of Australia were sadists that took delight in witnessing human misery. Initial attempts to change the situation ended in disaster. The Convict uprising at Castle Hill was ruthlessly crushed as was the Eureka rebellion 50 years later. Although democracy eventually brought the chance for change, the problematic nature of Australian history still ensured that Australia remained diverse, and with this diversity came criticism over what a "model" Australian should be.
In this harsh environment and harsh history, Australians could never really dream because no one was ever able to come out and demonstrate that the Australian dream was alive and well. Consequently, instead of celebrating people who won, Australians celebrated people that didn't give up. It was a celebration that placed greater emphasis on the attitude rather than the result.
| || Phar
Lap - The loser horse that became a champion|
It would be inconceivable to many people around the world that a race horse could be more highly celebrated than an artist, but that is exatcly the case in Australia. Phar Lap was Australia's greatest race horse; winning 37 of his 51 starts in Australia's depression era. Although the winning ration was impressive, few Australians remember it. Instead, they remember the
challenges that he faced. They remember that he was born of poor blood lines and
lost most of his early races (unplaced in 8 out of his first 9). They remember
that he was ugly with warts on his face, that handicappers saddled him with enough
weight to stop a train and that someone tried to shoot him. Australians
remember that he overcame his adversity because his heart was almost twice the
size of most race horses(14 pounds compared to the average 9) and that when he
left Australia's shores to prove his worth in America, he easily won his first
race, and then died.
his achievements won him admiration, it was Phar Lap's style of racing that punters
found truly inspiring. The jockey would hold him back until the home turn and
let him sprint for the finish. Thus, just when onlookers believed all hope was
gone, he would find something extra to mow down the front runners on the line.
is admiration for that 'never surrender' spirit that helps explain why Australians
have made a national hero out of a horse, but forgotten the name of more "worthy" human alternatives.
Drongo - The
loser horse that stayed a loser horse
Drongo was a racehorse during the early 1920s. He looked promising and
often came close to winning major races, but in 37 starts he never won anything. Soon
after his retirement, 'Drongo' became an affectionate term for 'hopeless
cases' , 'no-hopers', and thereafter 'fools'. In the 1940s it was applied
to recruits in the Royal Australian Air Force.
affection Australians reserved for Drongo is similar to the affection they held
for the hopeless swimmer 'Eric the Eel' in the Sydney Olympics. The
two are admired not for their ability rather for simply having a go.
Bradman - The battling batsmen|
crease, Don Bradman appeared a battler. He was confronted with 11 Englishmen plotting
his demise, making taunts like "knock
that bloody Convicts head off." But as an exceptionally aggressive
batsmen, Bradman took it upon himself to turn the tables. In his own words, "When
you play test cricket, you don't give the Englishmen an inch. Play it tough, all
the way. Grind them into the dust."
was his supremacy, the English Captain, Douglas Jardine, invented bodyline;
instructing his bowlers to aim at the batsmen body with the intention of disrupting
Bradman's concentration by causing injury.
bodyline, Bradman averaged 99.96 in test cricket. He needed only 4 runs in his
last innings to average the magical average of 100 for his career. He
was bowled first ball.
|Ned Kelly -
Such is life|
Kelly, his mother and two of his mates were declared attempted murderers on
the sole word of a drunken police officer who had acted outside his
orders, flirted with/raped Ned's sister and was later described by his superior
officer as "not being fit to be in the police force; that he associated
with the lowest persons in Lancefield; that he could not be trusted out of sight;
and that he never did his duty".
mother and mates were convicted but Ned fled to the bush where he spent six months fossicking
to raise money for a new trial. Whilst on the run he murdered/killed in self defence,
three troopers who came to hunt him down.
the whole might of the Victorian and NSW police force was seeking Kelly's demise. Not only did he evade capture, he fought back. He robed banks; distributed
the money for the legal defences of his sympathizers and in the process, he made
the troopers look like buffoons.
1880, the Kelly gang derailed a train track with the aim of taking troopers hostage
and exchanging them for his mother and mates. The plan failed due to a
combination of unexpected police cowardice, betrayal by a school teacher and a
loss of nerve by sympathizers. This in turn resulted in an gun battle between
the Kelly gang inside the Glenrowan Inn and the police outside.
some hours, Kelly, clad in armour , burst through the police cauldron under a
hail of bullets. Realizing that his mates had not made it out as well, he then
turned back into the line of fire; advancing until his legs were shot out from
suffering 28 separate bullet wounds
to his body, his mates being dead, his plans in disarray and sympathizers deserting
him in the end, Ned's spirit was not broken. He didn't die as expected rather
he recovered for his trial where he engaged in verbal sparring with the judge.
last words before execution were 'such is life'.
Scott - It's a long way to the top if you want to rock and
Scott arrived in Australia from Scotland at the age of 6. Teased at
school for his accent, he was dubbed 'Bonnie' (Scotland) which stuck for
battled against the prejudice that anyone who tried to make a living out of music
was just a 'shirking laybout and probably a poofter to boot. ' For
years he persevered and eventually schemed his way into becoming the lead singer
of AC/DC, Australia's most successful artistic export. The
band hit the verge of the big time with the single 'Its a long way to the top
if you want to rock and roll' and the follow up album, 'Highway to Hell.' Shortly
later, Bon was found dead in a car; rumoured to have died from excessive alcohol
years after his death, AC/DC fans still undertake a pilgrimage to his grave to
pay their respects and pour some Jack Daniels over the earth.
Simpson- "my troubles".|
the 24 days he spent at ANZAC cove, John Simpson operated as a sole unit
with his beloved donkey/s and is credited with saving the lives of hundreds of
would start his day as early as 6.30 a.m. and often continue until as late as
3.00 a.m. He made the one and a half mile trip, through sniper fire and shrapnel,
12-15 times a day. He would leave his donkey under cover whilst he went forward
to collect the injured. On the return journey he would bring water for the wounded.
He never hesitated or stopped even under the most furious shrapnel fire and was
frequently warned of the dangers ahead but invariably replied "my troubles".
to gain an aura of someone with divine protection, Simpson was killed. He was
recommended for the Victoria Cross, twice, and the Distinguished Conduct
Medal but his larrikin behaviour did not endeared him to the authorities.
He was never decorated for his actions.
Victory in defeat|
April 1915, the British decided to use the Anzacs to launch an offensive
against the Turkish control of the Dardanelles. Quite stupidly, they landed
the Anzacs not on an open plain rather on scrub-covered hills that rose steeply
away. The Turks were dug in from elevated positions and mowed down the Anzacs
as they leapt from the boats.
Anzacs fought bravely in the adverse conditions and by November, they felt victory
was in sight. It was then that the decision was made to evacuate.
campaign cost the lives of 7,600 Australians and 2,500 New Zealanders. 19,000
Australians and 5,000 New Zealanders were wounded.
and Wills - Back from the dead only to die|
O'Hara Burke, a police officer, led an expedition from Melbourne in
1860 with the object of crossing the continent from south to north. Second in
command was W.J.Wills .
expedition was poorly planned and it was sheer determination that kept the party
moving forward against the harsh Australian environment. At Coopers Creek
in Queensland, a depot was established and Bourke and Wills, accompanied by King
and Gray, made a dash for the Gulf of Carpentaria.
On the return
journey, Gray died of exhaustion. The other three, weakened by severe privations,
struggled back to Cooper's Creek. There they discovered that the depot party,
after waiting six weeks longer that they had been ordered to stay, had left only
a few hours before their arrival.
and Wills died of starvation. King was cared for by friendly natives until a relief
party rescued him.
Fraser - Champion athlete and troublemaker.
Fraser is the only athlete in the world to win the same event at three successive
At the Tokyo Olympics,
she wore a custom made swimsuit and marched in the opening ceremony. Although
such actions are commonplace today, at the time she was acting in defiance of
As a consequence
of her actions, she was banned from competition for ten years which denied her
the chance to win a fourth gold at the Mexico Olympics. (Her
antics also rumoured to have included stealing the Japanese flag and running a
pair of knickers up the flagpole. )
Cazaly - Little man leaping high
Cazaly was a South Melbourne ruckmen in the 1920s and 1930s. He stood at 180cm
(5ft,11in) and weighed 79.5kg (12 Stone 7lb)
his small stature, he had incredible athletic prowess and a huge lung capacity.
His team mates and later the public would yell Up there, Cazaly
to encourage him to leap higher for hit-outs and marks.
The expression soon moved into the vernacular when Diggers on World War 2 battlefields
would yell "Up there, Cazaly" when going into battle. In the 70's,
the saying was turned into a pop song that reached number 1 on the Australian
Flynn - wicked wicked ways
Flynn was born in Tasmania in 1909. In his adolescent years, he was expelled
from every school he attended and never passed an examination. When his schooling
was complete, he left to sail the high seas. His adventures included farming,
skippering, slave trading, gold mining, poaching, a job biting the testicals off
rams, cock-fighting in the Philippines before finishing as a Shakespearean actor
in England. In one of his performances, his roguish
looks caught the eye of a Hollywood producer and a star was born.
Despite being in the public eye, Errol continued to live by his own wicked ways.
Rumours of his debaucherous romps abounded and inspired the derogatory saying
"In like Flynn." Curiously, Errol never denied the insult but
instead embraced it as his personnel motto.
though he is one of Hollywood's immortal actors, Flynn never received any kind
of award or even a nomination.
Chopper Reid - Bullet-proof to negativity
It is ironic that an urban society founded by criminals would commence its new millennium with a criminal as its greatest icon. Chopper Reid only spent 13 months out of prison between the ages of 20 to 38. In the 1990s, he started publishing books about his life experiences and ended up selling 500,000 copies to become Australia's biggest selling author. In the naughties, his star continued to rise. A movie was made about his life, he appeared on television commercials, had a character based on his story in a TV comedy series, and put his name put on Australia's most alcoholic beer.
While Chopper had his fans, his appeal was by no means universal. Ironically, his ability to become popular can be attributed to the actions of his critics. In the 1990s, left-wing Australians deconstructed mainstream identities in the aim of allowing alternative identities to rise to the surface. One of these deconstructions came in the form of the movie Priscilla Queen of the Desert. As Paul Byrnes from the Sydney Morning Herald explained,
"The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert went further than any of these in attacking the Crocodile Dundee mythology of the essentially harmless heterosexual outback male. These same types of men, usually depicted in bars in Priscilla, can be suspicious, violent, vulgar and extremely intolerant, especially when confronted with alternative definitions of masculinity."
The campaign was successful in that homosexuals were celebrated at the closing ceremony of the Sydney Olympics, and they would not have been had there been deconstruction of mainstream identities. However, with the deconstruction of mainstream identities came opportunities for all minorities – not just gays. Criminality was one such minority identity.
Chopper appealed to his respective fans largely because he was bullet proof to criticism. As a man who had spent most of his adult life in jail, there was nothing his critics could say about him that was worse than the truth he had reconciled about himself. In a sense, he was a modern warrior that could say whatever he wanted, how he wanted and where he wanted. For a society dealing with a critical world, he was the icon that they needed.
(1)Michael Page & Robert Ingpen. Aussie Battlers Adelaide, Australia: Rigby Limited, 1982.