The great Australian larrikin: Myths, markets and moral panics

Tony Smith

Melissa Bellanta Larrikins: A History, St Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 2012 (296 pp). ISBN 9-78070223-912-0 (paperback) RRP $34.95.

Australians take an interest in their national identity for many reasons. European settlement is recent and so the blended nation perhaps remains in adolescence. While immigration has driven population growth since 1788, the period from about 1950 has seen a reduction in the dominance of Britain as the main country of origin. Whether Australian society is now genuinely poly-generic or multicultural is a matter for debate but the end of the British monopoly has stimulated discussion of what it means to be Australian. Occasionally, politicians exploit the confusion over Australian identity and there has been controversy over ‘Australian values’ in a test for citizenship imposed on migrants. Inevitably, when young Muslims clashed with police in Sydney during recent protests over a film which insulted Muhammad (Australian Broadcasting Corporation 2012a), their critics used the label ‘un-Australian’ to express their disapproval. It is debatable, however, whether the term has an agreed objective meaning.

One feature of Australian identity about which there is some consensus is our larrikin streak. This characteristic seems consistent with our supposedly relaxed nature, irreverence, iconoclasm, egalitarianism, stoicism and self-deprecating sense of humour. Clearly then, those commentators who condemned the Sydney demonstrations as un-Australian would not describe protestors as larrikins. However, as Melissa Bellanta’s new book, Larrikins: A History, shows, the term ‘larrikin’ had negative connotations when it entered the language during the late nineteenth century. The story of the shift in meaning of ‘larrikin’ makes absorbing reading, not just for linguists but for anyone interested in broader questions around the creation, modification and exploitation of images of national character. It also raises important issues for serious scholars and responsible policy-makers concerned about the social integration of young people. In particular, it should help to ensure that those concerned about the difficulties faced by young people do not recycle ‘convenient myths’ (Bessant & Watts 1998).

ALIENATED YOUTH AND MORAL PANICS

The etymology of the word ‘larrikin’ is unclear. Bellanta suggests that this uncertainty is less important than the need to scrutinise the way in which the term came into popular usage: ‘Why was it thought necessary to find a new word for urban youngsters given to rowdy insolence on the eve of the 1870s?’ (p. xix). The term might have been created by youth themselves or imposed from above by an establishment using a moral panic to justify a crack down on rowdiness, but disaffected youth adopted the condemned lifestyle and the label defiantly (p. xxi).

The etymology of the word ‘larrikin’ is unclear.

Larrikins came from suburbs that grew chaotically around city centres. They disdained regular employment and looked with contempt on people who could not survive as they did, seeking easy money and valuing their idleness. Bellanta favours a street wise or ‘leary’ attitude as the most likely origin of the term ‘larrikin’. These leary types displayed their rejection of social mores by lounging on street corners, disrupting entertainments, harassing people, fighting one another and resisting police attempts to control them. In a warning that should be heeded today, Bellanta comments that ‘when one starts looking at the rise of the word larrikin in print, what one is really charting is a trend in journalistic reportage and public rhetoric about rough youth’ (p. 5). As the term ‘larrikin’ cannot be used to generate fear about youth behaviour today, media commentators and politicians use other labels. Following the Sydney demonstrations, for example, the protestors were described as a lunatic fringe and a telephone box minority and their violence was said to be alien to Australian streets. The official response emphasised the importance of building a cohesive nation and a disciplined society.

Bellanta notes that young people in the late 19th century described themselves as larrikins, so it was not just a case of a new word being imposed on an old phenomenon. The word’s Melbourne origins owed much to the social chaos of the decades following the gold rushes and the sudden rise in population. A generation gap appeared between immigrants and the ‘gaggles of colonial-born youngsters who sought each other’s company in the consciousness of being a new breed’ (p. 8). Interestingly, while Bellanta did not discover a particularly strong connection with Sydney’s convict past, public alarm over late 19th century larrikinism might have been exacerbated by a belief that respectability was an essential element in nation building (Smith 2007, p. 170).

Each capital, or at least Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney, the cities Bellanta examines, had a ‘larrikin belt’ (p. 9) in the suburbs around the inner city. These suburbs housed people who survived by casual employment in unskilled occupations and frequented music halls, theatres and sideshows and danced in cheap saloons around Bourke Street and the Haymarket (p. 19). They enjoyed music hall songs (p. 22) and ‘leary songs in low singing rooms’ attached to hotels (p. 25), singing these to express their own values. While larrikinism was often linked with Irish-Australians, a strong Cockney influence was evident through the music halls. Bellanta points out that larrikins’ kinked age distribution, lack of skills and tendency towards delinquency meant that larrikinism was seen as a social phenomenon by policymakers wanting to identify risk factors. She observes however that larrikinism was also a cultural phenomenon, manifested through flamboyant dress, a self-promotional demeanour, a love of cheap amusements and ‘villainous songbooks’ (pp. 27–28).

Some understanding of the ways in which larrikin dress style developed can be seen in the modern regard for the ‘bogan’ (p. 107). The larrikin adopted clothing which gave a streetwise look, and affected a swaggering dancing style. In Sydney, the general look would later be described as ‘flash’ (pp. 112–118). When the ‘westie’ of Sydney’s suburbs today have such a poor media image, the adoption of bogan style enables those who see themselves as victims of stereotyping to snub their noses at the sections of society who accept those generalisations.

Historical accounts of colonial larrikinism rarely mention female participants.

Historical accounts of colonial larrikinism rarely mention female participants. The evidence suggests however that these were not just ‘donahs’ or ‘sex-objects or punching bags’ for men but larrikinesses in their own right. Their behaviour was inspired by bare knuckle fighters and ‘brazen burlesque performers’ and they displayed ‘knowing sexuality, toughness and sass’. Bellanta argues that the subservient image of female larrikins was a ‘Bulletin-style men’s fantasy’ attributable to the values of journalists and readers (pp. 31–33). Bellanta says that:

anyone versed in turn-of-the-century vaudeville comedy would have recognised the works by Bulletin authors as amusing parodies. This was especially the case for The Songs of the Sentimental Bloke, given that its very title foregrounded its connection to musical theatre. Mostly however, later generations of readers have failed to get the joke (p. 37).

While ‘male violence towards women was common in larrikin circles’ violence was also ‘expressed by young women towards each other and their male acquaintances’ (p. 45). A larrikiness in court might use ‘saucy gestures: tossing their bonnet, walking with bouncy sass, delivering a crushing “thank you” to the magistrate’ (p. 49). The influence of burlesque in the behaviour of both male and female larrikins was evident in their use of cross dressing to send up ‘demure femininity or effeminate masculinity’ (p. 55). While Bellanta could be accused in this chapter of generalising from a few prominent examples, her examination of the theatre and literature is convincing.

ORGANISED CRIME?

Following the Sydney protest, some observers argued that deeper problems cause some young Muslim men from Sydney’s western suburbs to feel alienated, and that the protests over the film expressed broader resentments which should not be ignored (Australian Broadcasting Corporation 2012b, Tabbaa 2012). When the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Senator Carr strongly condemned the violence of the protest, he was speaking as a former premier of New South Wales, who had taken a hardline attitude to managing street offences in Sydney in the late 1990s. When the NSW Government passed legislation allowing police to remove young people from the streets, a large percentage of those affected were children of Indigenous background. Sydney has experienced alarms over gangs of Vietnamese, Islander, Somali and Lebanese origins, so the ‘discourses of “gang” have largely been racialised’ (White 2004). This dimension of ethnic minorities complicates the task of understanding why youth might adopt behaviours that seem to threaten the social order.

The idea that young people were a category which cut across social class arose in many countries decades before the rise of Australian larrikinism. In Paris in the mid-19th century, young offenders were being handled differently from others. The arrest rates for young people who came into conflict with police soared at this time. Their largely victimless crimes were linked strongly to vagrancy, homelessness and petty theft and their likelihood of being incarcerated reflected employment patterns and skills. As Berlanstein (1979, p. 11) discovered ‘what was distinctive about the detained boys was their marginal participation in the usual institutions of childhood, schools and apprenticeship’. One study of the Australian phenomenon emphasises the ways in which economic pressures provided the pre-conditions for juvenile delinquency. Kylie Smith (2007, p. 173) says that:

In making work respectable, work itself became normalized and idealized, as did the disciplines required to ensure stability in the work force and in capitalist social, economic, and political relations. A failure to adopt this way of being in the world became an abnormal, individual pathology, or a crime.

Smith draws on the theories of Gramsci about hegemony and those of Freud about individual responses to the demands of capitalism for a stable, needy working class. While Bellanta does not situate larrikinism strongly within such theories, she notes that changes to the larrikin belt suburbs meant that the larrikins were drawn more closely into working class culture.

Around Federation larrikinism took a new direction.

Bellanta examines the larrikin phenomenon from the standpoint of the participants. In this she shares with other writers the desire to differentiate the pressures on youth and their responses from those applying to people of all ages.

Late colonial authorities were concerned about the spread of larrikin attitudes among young individuals, but some opinion-makers went further and warned of the rise of organised groups. Bellanta found that reports of ‘push’ activity in the 1870s exaggerated the connection between larrikins and organised crime. She notes the likely influence of Andrew Pratt’s book The Great Push Experiment (1902), in exaggerating the prevalence, strength and ferocity of groups of larrikins and suggests that the book should have been greeted as a ‘mess of narrative pottage’ (p. 59). It seems likely that labels such as ‘the cabbage tree mob’ were used more generically than to refer to a specific group (p. 63). By the mid-1880s however, larrikins were banding together in structured groups and the term ‘push’ was applied to them. In Sydney, ‘talent’ was used almost interchangeably (p. 67). When larrikins of the 1890s described themselves as belonging to a push they meant that they had mostly male associates who spent time together, adopted similarly swaggering styles and defended one another with their fists if provoked. Indeed the popularity of boxing heroes such as Larry Foley and Albert ‘Griffo’ Griffiths gave a further focus to push activity around gyms. Bellanta argues that the image of shadowy groups bound by oaths and run by bosses was spawned by fictional accounts. In reality the pushes were at best ‘makeshift alliances’ (p. 77).

The 1880s saw arrest rates rise across the relevant suburbs. The incident known as the Mount Rennie outrage provided an extreme example of the fear surrounding pushes. In 1886, larrikins associated with the Waterloo push raped a teenaged orphan girl in Centennial Park. Sixteen youths were tried, nine were sentenced to hang and four were executed (p. 89). People then were as much given to caricature and stereotype as they are today. Observers depicted the perpetrators as either ‘dear boys’ or ‘vile villains’ (p. 101). Bellanta argues that we should be able to accept complex explanations that encompass diverse images, rather than hanker for the stereotypical.

IRRESISTIBLE SOCIAL FORCES

Around Federation, writes Bellanta, larrikinism took a new direction. Especially in Melbourne, ‘football encouraged a territorial consciousness among push members at the same time as it helped integrate them into a sense of place and working class identity’ (p. 129). Rowdy youths sometimes claimed membership of a football club of some sort. One veteran of the minor league claimed that every match was followed by a fight and you had to win both (p. 133). Fences were erected to protect umpires and players, but did not prevent skirmishes between the fans of rival clubs. The footballing prowess of some larrikins led to softer community attitudes towards larrikins in general. Many residents of the larrikin belts felt that the pushes were too busy fighting one another to bother outsiders without a reason, some forms of youth welfare were started, policing became more discretionary and the justice system treated youth and first offenders distinctly.

As the labour movement gained power, inner suburbs gained a more solid working class character (p. 144). The larrikins lost much of their ability to remain outside the world of regular employment in factories and labouring outdoors. Around this time, larrikins lost a deal of their flashiness and flamboyance, possibly because same sex relationships were gaining public attention and they wanted to distance themselves from any possibility of being accused of effeminacy (p. 166). Finally, the First World War saw the absorption of the larrikin as his attitudes were adopted by soldiers. Bellanta notes that ‘the archetypal image of the Anzac digger was of an ordinary working man given to drunkenness, irreverent humour, anti-authoritarianism and nonchalance in the face of adversity’ (p. 172).

The digger’s dishevelled clothes reflected his lack of interest in social niceties. According to legend, the digger was chiefly influenced by the values of the bush, but Bellanta argues that vaudeville performers ensured that the ‘stage larrikin and digger became entwined’ in both civilian and military consciousness. The post-war Smith’s Weekly also had a hand in the ‘merger of the digger and larrikin’. One effect of this merger was to sideline the female larrikins as ‘larrikinism was now imagined as an emphatically masculine affair’ (pp. 174, 176, 179). The ‘flapper’ became the dominant street style for women. The larrikin image changed in other ways too, as returning diggers were of all ages and did not reside exclusively in the inner suburbs of the larrikin belt. Young rowdies ceased to claim the title.

A LESS THREATENING LARRIKIN

The old larrikin was gone forever. The new, publicly acceptable image of larrikinism is the familiar element of national identity celebrated in popular culture and embraced by politicians, sportsmen and entertainers today. By dispelling the myths surrounding the historical roots of the larrikin phenomenon, Melissa Bellanta’s study makes important contributions in several areas: first, it gives us improved tools for understanding national identity; secondly, it reminds us of the importance of scrutinising the political, economic, social and cultural contexts of our lives; and thirdly, it provides an excellent example of how critical history can help us to interpret the present.

Bellanta evokes the people and places of the larrikin belt well.

Bellanta evokes the people and places of the larrikin belt well, but her approach is strongest where it is thematic and examines developments in the concept of larrikinism. This allows the reader to apply the historian’s methods to the present. We should remember that reportage can be biased and that governments can respond to incidents of delinquency in ways that are politically attractive while ignoring the relevance of socio-economic factors. We should remember too that public policy lags behind social need and that, as Judith Bessant and Rob White argue:

certain stories about young people are constantly recycled as if they are new. The contemporary figure of the ‘juvenile delinquent’ and panics about juvenile crime-waves depend heavily on long-standing discursive traditions constructed by adults, usually professionals and the intellectually-trained (1998, p. 10).

A study that draws on the past enables us to treat the present with greater distance and objectivity. Bellanta’s study of larrikinism can help us to avoid the hoaxes of the myth makers in the tabloid press and talkback radio on matters such as the levels of violent crime, the appropriateness of sentencing and attitudes towards welfare recipients and asylum seekers. It shows us that commerce is a powerful social force and that even a street style that might have begun as an expression of nonconformity soon turns into the opposite.

Larrikins is a work of significance. First, it introduces some remarkable characters and situates them neatly in the general history of Australia’s social development. Secondly, it demonstrates the importance of taking a sceptical view of documentary sources. Thirdly, it provides stimulus for further research, for example into the experience of larrikinism beyond Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. Fourthly, it provides a case study in scrutinising the popularly accepted elements of our dominant national identity.

Bellanta’s study foregrounds the issue of circularity between cultural representations and behaviours. Familiar figures from Australian popular culture such as Barry Humphries, Paul Hogan, Norman Gunston and Kath and Kim create caricatures and parodies for entertainment but they are sometimes copied by people to express their own version of larrikinism, and are often cited by serious cultural historians (Caterson 2005). Perhaps we have a national tendency to admire the extreme, but to distrust and even punish those who embrace the style too enthusiastically. In her study of the Mount Rennie case Bellanta notes that the perpetrators who were treated most leniently were those who supplied alibis including evidence of activities that seemed mundane and ordinary. It is no wonder that we have made the larrikin into such a mild colonial boy.

REFERENCES

Australian Broadcasting Corporation 2012a, ‘As it happened: Violence erupts in Sydney over anti-Islam film’, ABC News, 15–16 September [Online], Available: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-09-15/anti-us-protests-hit-sydney/4263372 [2012, Sep 21].

Australian Broadcasting Corporation 2012b, ‘Sydney protest a symptom of deeper Muslim frustrations’, Lateline [Online], Available: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-09-17/randa-abdul-fattah-and-waleed-aly-discuss-reaction/4266756 [2012, Sep 19].

Berlanstein, L.R. 1979, ‘Vagrants, beggars and thieves: Delinquent boys in mid-19th century Paris’, Journal of Social History, vol. 12, no. 4, pp. 531–552.

Bessant, J. & Watts, R. 1998, ‘History, myth making and young people in a time of change’, Family Matters, no. 49, Autumn, pp. 5–10 [Online], Available: http://192.135.208.240/institute/pubs/fm/fm49jb.pdf [2012, Sep 18].

Caterson, S. 2005, ‘A preposterous life’, Griffith REVIEW, no. 8 [Online], Available: http://griffithreview.com/edition-8-people-like-us/a-preposterous-life [2012, Sep 20].

Smith, K. 2007, ‘Subjectivity, hegemony, and the subaltern in Sydney, 1870–1900’, Rethinking Marxism: A Journal of Economics, Culture and Society, vol. 19, no. 2, pp. 169–179.

Tabbaa, M. 2012, ‘He’s my brother – Why angry Muslim youth are protesting in Sydney’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 18 September [Online], Available: http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/hes-my-brother--why-angry-muslim-youth-are-protesting-in-sydney-20120918-264l1.html [2012, Sep 18].

White, R. 2004, ‘Police and community responses to youth gangs’, Trends and Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice, no. 274, Australian Institute of Criminology, March [Online], Available: http://www.aic.gov.au/documents/2/7/F/%7B27F98823-5B52-4D5B-A586-79EB22634B2F%7Dtandi274.pdf [2012, Sep 20].

Dr Tony Smith is a Bathurst writer and frequent contributor to the Australian Review of Public Affairs.

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