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Ian Jones talks about his biography, Ned Kelly, a Short Life

Readersvoice.com aims to give people a few good reading tips. This issue focuses on a legendary British comedy writing team, Galton and Simpson, and Australian outlaw Ned Kelly. First up, an interview with Ian Jones about his biography Ned Kelly, a Short Life (Lothian Books, 400 pages). Ian Jones has spent more than 60 years researching the life of Ned Kelly, the Kelly Outbreak in rural Victoria in the 1870s, and the subsequent trial and hanging of Ned Kelly, 25, in 1880. The book portrays Ned Kelly as someone who was honorable, even though he was wanted for the murder of police officers and bank robbery.Ned Kelly, A Short Life is a suspenseful, tragic story.

READERSVOICE.COM: How do you get inside the head of someone you’ve never met?

Ian Jones: Well, it’s a funny thing, I suppose in the end you feel you’ve met him. I mean if you speak about Ned, you soak up everything you can. You read everything you can. You read what he said, you read what he wrote with his mate, Joe Byrne (the Jerilderie Letter, which amounted to Ned Kelly’s manifesto and explanation of why the Kelly outbreak happened, including his family’s persecution by police). You talk to people who are a bit closer to it than you are. I mean I’ve only ever spoken to one person who I could be really convinced had met Ned Kelly.
Most importantly I’ve soaked up the places he knew, the places that meant so much to him, and that has been a very very important part of it, because that was so much a part of his life, and if you don’t understand the country you’ll never understand Ned or his story.
The sense of place is terribly important. I mean with some people, some subjects I imagine you could say, well, it’s purely antiquarian your interest, but with anyone as intimately involved with the land as Ned was, whose life was so much a part of it, it is terribly important.
You build up a mosaic, I mean a jigsaw mosaic of incredible complexity, and then gradually, sometimes you juggle the pieces if there’s a missing piece.
And then the pieces sometimes fall in themselves, and out of it you do get the person, and you get a surprising level of contact with the person through that prolonged process.
I’ve been getting to know Ned now for, oh, God, it’s 61 years. Now that’s a long time. Now I thought I knew a lot about Ned when I was about 15 when I’d been at it for about five years.
Well, I already had a lot under my belt, but the point is it wasn’t digested.

It hadn’t coalesced. It wasn’t in any sort of real shape. I just had a lot of information. I think there is a great difference between information and knowledge.

RV: When did you decide to write the book?

IJ: I had my first ideas about writing a book back in the 1940s, I mean it goes back that far. In fact I’ve got a, I think, a copy of Robbery Under Arms which my cousin gave me in Christmas in 1949 and it’s inscribed “To Ian, with best of luck for his book about that great hero, Ned Kelly”. It took a long time to catch up with it.
Then, eventually, I’d been going to write a book, a novel, about Joe Byrne and Aaron Sherritt back in the 1950s, and it’s a story that fascinated me. (Kelly gang member Joe Byrne was mistakenly convinced that his friend Aaron Sherritt had betrayed the gang to police, and consequently murdered him.)

RV: The murder of Aaron Sherritt was one of the most pathetic moments in A Short Life.

IJ: It is a tragic story when you realise that Aaron hadn’t really betrayed the gang. It is, it’s a wonderful story, but I researched it and I used to go up and spend a lot of time camping in the bush in the Mallee, and getting to know the place and getting the feel of it and getting the feel of the boys, Joe and Aaron.
And after a while I realised I was going to write a novel, and I had so much material that it would have been wasted in a novel, so I chucked that away and thought, well, that’s a book I’ll write.
But then when it came to when I finally escaped from film and television in 1989, I realised that to write my book about Ned I would first of all have to write my book about Joe and Aaron because their story is so complex, and we have so much material, and it is such an entity in itself, that it tends to unbalance books about Ned Kelly. So that’s what I did.
I wrote my book about Joe and Aaron published in 1992, (The Fatal Friendship: Ned Kelly, Aaron Sherritt, and Joe Byrne) and that made it possible to write A Short Life in the 400 odd pages that it took.

RV: Without losing the course of the main story.

IJ: Exactly, and Ned remains the central figure where as in Max Brown’s book which is excellent, Australian Son, because of the nature of the material, I think Joe and Aaron almost take over. And Max wrote beautifully about Joe and Aaron, and the wool shed. I’ve been fascinated by the wool shed before I ever saw it because of Max’s writing.
But it is..the title A Short Life, it’s an ironic title because it was a short life and this is, despite the irony, a short life compared with what it could have been.

RV: Did you follow the whole path the Kelly Gang, where they rode on the run from the police through the bush of North-East Victoria and New South Wales?

IJ: Eventually, yeah, I did, but not…I didn’t set out to do it all in one rush. In fact the great tragedy is that when I was a young fellow I believed this rubbish about, you know, “Don’t mention Ned Kelly’s name in the Kelly country or else they’ll chase you out with a shot gun”. Which of course was absolute rubbish. And I could’ve gone up and talked to Jim Kelly (Ned’s brother). I could have seen the Kelly homestead virtually exactly as it was.
The additions were demolished in about 1950 and the homestead for a few precious years was just intact. And then it, because of the way it had been bashed around, and having a couple of weatherboard gables put on the front of it and then demolished, and then having a weatherboard wall put on and then ripped out, the whole place just fell down over the next six, seven, eight years.
So I did eventually catch up with it all, and it’s in that process I think that I really completed my confrontation with Ned.

-continued next page.