One of the few things I took from my Nan’s house when she died was a battered copy of Thomas Keneally’s The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. Within it were a series of underlined passages featuring a handyman, a jack-of-all-trades named Robert Woods. Woods doesn’t come across well in the book, he’s a bit hopeless, and after wounding Jimmie Bob and his buddy lose him in the bush near Wauchope. The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is based on the tale of Jimmie Governor who shot and killed quite a few people in 1900 and then went on the run across the northern rivers of NSW, shooting and killing some more.
Jimmie Governor was later executed. Robert Woods was my Nan’s granddad and my Nan was oddly proud of this connection to bushranging history. Governor himself came from the same town as Robert Woods, Gulgong on the central tablelands, where my Nan also went to school. It would have felt pretty fresh when she was at school in the twenties. She told me the story several times over, about how Bob Woods pursued Jimmie Governor for the reward and got so, so close to fame and fortune. But didn’t. I recall her telling me that Keneally’s book was” just made up” and that the Robert Woods on the page wasn’t her granddad.
It was, really. She would deny it but it was a little story about how we all are part of the dispiriting history of dispossession and the forced abjection of Indigenous people in Australia. The consequences of these are being played out everyday in Aboriginal Australia largely unseen by the happy (white) suburban folks living on the eastern seaboard. Only occasionally does a sighter of this dusty world of eucaplypts and shanty towns pop into view, such as Mark Coulton’s Toomelah worries last month which reprised all the usual fears and tethered generosities. But the shallowness and complicity hit hard when I read that Malcolm Naden had been captured a few months ago.
Naden found himself in much the same situation as Jimmie Governor. Naden had done bad things, run away, and for seven long years the police were after him. For most of those years no-one heard, or knew, a thing about him but when he started ducking and weaving through the bush with his twenty-two at his side people got interested. As soon as he was living in caves, rustling sheep, and leaving money on the fridge for stolen beer he got some attention. Part of what people liked was the exoticism of it all: the theft of nuts and toothpaste, the hide outs in the rugged headwaters of the northern rivers, the graceful evasion of the police dogs, the purple doona lifted from a washing line.
Naden was fascinating while he was running. Like the French resistance and the Vietcong, he acquired a certain cool from his elusiveness. It was a kind of radical chic with camping equipment: Australia’s most wanted turning the tables on the applied sciences deployed to catch him by using the old world, low-tech, techniques of evasion: a regular Butch sans Sundance. Throughout the northern rivers, in the gully country abutting the tablelands, Naden ghosted his way from national park to national park until a tip off led police to a house near Gloucester and the dogs bit him into submission.
When he’d finished running he was just another docket on a court list, just another Aboriginal man in trouble with the law. There’s been a fair bit of self-congratulation by police since he was detained, almost as if they’d gone to Tora Bora and come back with Osama. At the football the other night the dog that smelled him out delivered the game ball. I don’t imagine that he’ll ever get out of Goulburn, NSW is not generous when it comes to sentencing, but I don’t believe that makes anyone any safer despite the NSW Police media unit telling us that we can all sleep soundly now he’s inside.
This is all a replay of Jimmie Governor. White folks made safe (their beer and doonas too) from rampaging ignoble savages. Maybe the cops who caught Naden will tell the story, about how they caged the beast loose in the bush, just as my Nan did, and they’ll be proud. And their grandkids will be proud. Maybe in a few years an insufferable novelist will recycle Naden’s tale and a telemovie will celebrate the dog who subdued him in the bush that night. There might even be a nostalgic newspiece in fifteen or twenty years time recalling the thrills and laughs of the great pursuit.
Then we’ll forget. This is how we stay a white Australia.