The Dirge for a Sentimental Bloke

May 20, 2020
‘The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke’, originally a poem novel by C. J. Dennis, tells the story of Bill, a larrikin of the Little Lonsdale Street push, who is introduced to a young woman by the name of Doreen. The book chronicles their courtship and marriage, detailing Bill’s transformation from a violence-prone gang member to […]

‘The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke’, originally a poem novel by C. J. Dennis, tells the story of Bill, a larrikin of the Little Lonsdale Street push, who is introduced to a young woman by the name of Doreen. The book chronicles their courtship and marriage, detailing Bill’s transformation from a violence-prone gang member to a contented husband and father.  The poem is given greater visual power in film, television and theatrical adaptations, particularly in the silent film version in 1919, written and directed by Raymond Longford. It has become iconic in Australian culture, but with the unfortunate effect of misrepresenting the evolution of Australian society to the world.

 

The essay here is written for an international Classic Books clubs Meet-Up to discuss ‘The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke’. The essay addresses the image of provincial-suburban Australia which arises from the ‘Sentimental Bloke’ narrative. The ‘Little Lonsdale Street Push’ speaks to the provincial-suburban theme. It was the notorious ‘red light district’, known as ‘Little Lon’. It was associated with prostitution, petty crime and ‘larrikinism.’ A larrikin is an Australian English term meaning “a mischievous young person, an uncultivated, rowdy but good hearted person”, or “a person who acts with apparent disregard for social or political conventions.”[1] The dark semantics in the term, referring to “a lout, a hoodlum”  or “a young urban rough, a hooligan”,  became obsolete from its nineteenth and early twentieth century usage; a romanticisation of the culture and history.[2] Australian historians refer to this as ‘Sentimental Nationalism’.  Literary historian Karenlee Thompson captures well the mythology in contemporary Australian self-image; one boldly projected to the world:

 

…The clashes [4 and 11 December 2005] in Cronulla and its surrounding suburbs were labeled by the press as “race riots,” and the race issue soon overshadowed other factors that may have featured in the turbulence, specifically the apparent inherent violence in the nature of the Australian Larrikin.

 

…The profile of this typical Australian male – or bloke – or larrikin is captured by C.J. Dennis’s The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke and The Moods of Ginger Mick. The central characters in both works represent a violent and sometimes menacing urban dweller with a fondness for alcohol, gambling, and fighting. In the argot of the slum districts, Dennis’s Sentimental Bloke (Billo) proudly praises his friend Ginger Mick’s dubious virtues in “The Call of Stoush”:

 

‘E wus a man uv vierlence, wus Mick,

Course wiv ‘is speech an’ in ‘is manner low,

Slick wiv ‘is ‘ands, an’ ‘andy wiv a brick

When bricks wus needful to defeat a foe.

(Ginger Mick 30)

 

Ginger Mick shares a marked resemblance to today’s larrikin as we saw him in Cronulla protecting his turf. The relentless kicking and punching the world witnessed through the media echoes what Geoffrey Dutton refers to as the “kicking a man when he is down syndrome” of The Sentimental Bloke (13). When Billo and his girlfriend Doreen witness the play Romeo and Juliet , Billo is unable to control his excitement after Romeo stabs Tyball: “Put in the boot!’ I sez. Put in the boot!”‘ (Sentimental Bloke 42)[3]

 

Historian Melissa J. Bellanta links the literary vision of ‘The Sentimental Bloke’ to the working-class masculinities in the World War I era.[4] Other historians, such as Mark McKenna and Stuart Ward, draw the ‘Sentimental Nationalism’ narrative into the contemporary phenomenon of the Anzac mythology, although challenged by historian Bruce Scates on the more diverse reasons Australians participate on Anzac pilgrimages.[5] Although Scates has a valid point, it does not delegitimize the important criticism that the literary tradition has not been honest about the level of violence hidden in the sentimental image of the larrikin.

 

None of this ‘Sentimental Nationalism’ makes any real sense to an international audience unless the broader political history of the country is understood. Stuart Ward, in the abstract of his 2001 article, wrote:

 

For much of the twentieth century, Australia’s commercial dealings with Great Britain were profoundly influenced by the idea that Australia was a ‘British country’. Sentimental assumptions about a worldwide community of British peoples underpinned the sense of an organic imperial community of mutual self‐interest. This article explores the intersection between sentiment and self‐interest in the evolution of the Anglo‐Australian relationship, tracing the wide‐ranging manifestations of ‘British race patriotism’ in Australian commercial culture. It is argued that the demise of the imperial ideal in Australia can only be fully comprehended in terms of the radical changes in Australia’s international economic prospects occasioned by the British shift towards a European trading future in the 1960s.[6]

 

This is why on the critical, philosophical perspective, the cultural view for Australians coming from the literary tradition is so wrong; that, according to literary critic, D. J. O’Hearn, the story of ‘The Sentimental Bloke’ is “without any loss of self and owes nothing to the demands of a borrowed culture”.[7] The ignorance lies in how much of the citizen is shaped by cultural and other global ideas. There is arrogance in the Australian psyche which too much presumes on the historical theses, such as the ‘tyranny of distance’ and ‘terra nullius’. The historiography of radical nationalism was famously first articulated by the historian Russel Ward, in ‘The Australian Legend’, in 1958, and has been periodically revisited in contentious debates.[8] Ward’s (Russel, not Stuart) argument is to point out the dominance of a rural nationalist narrative for national identity, as a reaction to the imperialist cultural ethos and a desire for political independence. Although the historical roots are agrarian, Ward recognises that the central texts were from urban dwellers, coming from Dennis, but also Henry Lawson and Steele Rudd. The alleged decency of the 1890s bush mythology becomes the alleged respectability of urban larrikins, against the downward glare of the British colonial masters. However, Ward’s thesis is only historically accurate to the measure that one section of the Australian population believed the legend and acted accordingly. Most of lovers of the Australian Legend literature in the early 20th century were, in fact, imperialist in their cultural attitudes. The popularity of C. J. Dennis’s cultural icon speaks more of the nostalgia for the late Victorian ethos, pre-Federation, and the most sections of the population rejected the political message of the radical nationalism.

 

Historian Geoffrey Bolton wrote, in 1984, on the image of Australia in Europe, where he stated that the “time has come to discard the image of provincial-suburban Australia, and to ensure that Britain does not lag behind continental Europe in its appreciation of the character of Australia in the last quarter of the twentieth century.” Nearly forty years on, other international perspectives of Australia equally has to be updated, particular in the perspectives within the United States. In that regard Bolton is worth extensively quoting for a literary audience:

 

…This image of Australia as intrinsically inferior and provincial until very recently gained a hardy persistence among British intellectuals. We find it in G. K. Chesterton, of whom his biographer Maisie Ward comments: “he had an unfortunate habit of abusing the Dominions. They were the ‘suburbs’ of England.” And she detects an irony in the fact that it was in Australia, among the intellectuals of the Catholic movement for social justice and the Democratic Labour party that Chesterton’s distributist ideas gained widest political currency. W. H. Auden, writing in 1963 on the virtues of the European Economic Community, reiterated the same nonsense: “The Dominions, on the other hand, are for me tiefste Provinz [the deepest provinces], places which have produced no art and are inhabited by kind of person with whom I have least in common.” He wrote with all the confidence of who never in his life visited Australia.

 

It must be conceded that Australians in the first half of the twentieth century played up this unfavourable image. Consult for instance, The Round Table, a journal consecrated to strengthening the bonds of the British Empire and Commonwealth. Its Australian correspondents were prominent among the Melbourne intelligentsia, but their habitual posture was one of genteel woe at the failure of Australians to live up to the good example set by the Mother Country. Here is a passage written during the First World War – after the Gallipoli campaign, too:

 

“… in her concentration on the sublime purpose of the indication of liberty and justice in international relations England has reached a spiritual plane from which all sorts of great results will be possible in the future. Australia has not shared this discipline; and when the call to a supreme sacrifice came she did not respond. The moral elevation of spirit which might have come as a product of this dreadful conflict will not be hers, and in the future her politics will be, to a greater degree than before, a dismal record of sordid strife.”

 

Unhappy Australia, to fall so consistently short of the admired parental model; and this was the intellectual environment in which Sir Robert Menzies grew up. Come forward to the Second World War, and The Round Table was still sounding the same note: “We have had no Churchill among our leaders. Even now we have not achieved the political, social, and moral unity of which Britain has given so superb an example.” (We had Menzies and Curtin as our wartime prime ministers, both considerable figures by any standard.)

 

If Australians wrote about themselves like this for British condescension who could blame the British for accepting that Australians were a second-class lot? Especially during the 1930s the behaviour of Australian governments was not always suggestive of an autonomous maturity: in foreign policy following Britain unquestioningly, in home affairs preoccupied with the censorship of Aldous Huxley’s Brave World or with chiding H. G. Wells for his criticisms of Hitler. It was not a glorious period in Australian history. Nevertheless, most British observers were content with stereotypes. Lawrence might stay a few weeks to impose his own apocalyptic imaginings on the Australian landscape, Enoch Powell might stay three years as Professor of Greek at the University Sydney without apparent awareness of the irony of his situation as a migrant filling a job might have gone to a local scholar, but no observer between the two world wars addressed the task of looking at Australian society and institutions with the same fresh eye as Albert Métin.[9] Consequently the old images of Australia – the exotic landscape, the provincial-suburban culture – remained largely unchallenged and are still not entirely extinct among the British.[10]

 

The late Geoffrey Bolton can be seen as the second ‘Manning Clark’ of Australian history. Russel Ward, and Geoffrey Blainey, never quite had the great literary style of Clark and Bolton. They were the two historians who could tell a national story with both literary flare and the nuances of the historical themes, with detailed criticisms of their histories notwithstanding.[11] It is their work, along with colleagues, like Ward and Blainey (who were at varying times, critics, collaborators, and great supporters), which should have finally ‘nailed the coffin’ on the image of provincial-suburban Australia which arises from ‘The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke’. The self-inflicting violence killed the larrikin.

 

Image Source: Arthur Tauchert, actor, in The Sentimental Bloke, a 1919 Australian silent-film, National Film and Sound Archive.

 

ENDNOTES

 

[1] Frederick Ludowyk, Bruce Moore (2000), Oxford Modern Australian Dictionary.

[2] Arthur Delbridge, (2009), Macquarie Dictionary (5th ed.). Sydney, Macquarie Library,  p. 943

[3] Karenlee Thompson (2007), The Australian Larrikin: C. J. Dennis’s [Un]sentimental Bloke. Antipodes, 21(2), 177-183. Retrieved April 29, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/41957652

[4] Melissa J. Bellanta (2012), Australian Masculinities and Popular Song: The Songs of Sentimental Blokes 1900–1930s, Australian Historical Studies, 43:3, 412-428, DOI: 10.1080/1031461X.2012.706619

[5] Mark McKenna and Stuart Ward (2007), ‘It was really moving, mate’: The Gallipoli Pilgrimage and Sentimental Nationalism in Australia, Australian Historical Studies, 38:129, 141-151, DOI: 10.1080/10314610708601236 ; Bruce Scates (2007), The first casualty of war: A reply to McKenna’s and Ward’s ‘Gallipoli pilgrimage and sentimental nationalism’, Australian Historical Studies, 38:130, 312-321, DOI: 10.1080/10314610708601249

[6] Stuart Ward (2001), Sentiment and self‐interest: The imperial ideal in Anglo‐Australian commercial culture, Australian Historical Studies, 32:116, 91-108, DOI: 10.1080/10314610108596149

[7] D. J. O’Hearn (1994), Dennis, C.J. (1876-1936), in Eugene Benson, Encyclopedia of Post-Colonial Literatures in English, Leonard W. Conolly. Routledge, p. 355.

[8] Russel Ward (1958; revised 1983), The Australian Legend, Oxford University Press; Ken MacNab and Russel Ward (1962) The nature and nurture of the first generation of native‐born Australians, Historical Studies: Australia and New Zealand, 10:39, 289-308, DOI: 10.1080/10314616208595235 ; Russel Ward (1978) Australian legend re‐visited, Historical Studies, 18:71, 171-190, DOI: 10.1080/10314617808595586 ; John Hirst (1996) Russel ward (1914–95): The life and the work, Australian Historical Studies, 27:107, 356-358, DOI: 10.1080/10314619608596018

[9] Emile Albert Métin (1871–1918) was a French professor of history and geography, a prolific author and a politician who was twice Minister of Labor and Social Welfare in the French Government.

[10] Geoffrey Bolton. (1984). The Image Of Australia In Europe, Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, 132(5331), 177-178. Retrieved April 27, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/41373709

[11] I was very fortunate to have Geoffrey as a doctorate supervisor for a brief period of time.

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Neville Buch (Pronounced Book) Ph.D. is a certified member of the Professional Historians Association (Queensland). Since 2010 he has operated a sole trade business in history consultancy. He was a Q ANZAC 100 Fellow 2014-2015 at the State Library of Queensland. Dr Buch was the PHA (Qld) e-Bulletin, the monthly state association’s electronic publication, and was a member of its Management Committee. He is the Managing Director of the Brisbane Southside History Network.

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