Tag Archives: History of masculinity

Knife culture, or Australia’s lack of it

11 Jun

An article in the Sydney Morning Herald today discusses the culture of knife violence in Glasgow.

Endemic to the problem is the fact that so many of those involved valorise the carrying of knives and bearing their scars as a sign of tough masculinity. So too is the fact that gang-fighting has been normalised within certain Glaswegian neighbourhoods: either accepted fatalistically or actively lauded as a way of life.

The degree to which street violence can be seen as ‘cultural’ has long been controversial in debates about gang violence and juvenile delinquency. At worst, it becomes a way to lay all of the blame for the problems associated with street fights on the communities in which it takes place, ignoring the other ‘social’ factors at play (unemployment, badly-resourced schooling, poor public amenities and housing, etc).

From my perspective as an Australian historian who has researched urban youth gang fights in the late 1800s and early 1900s, however, it is striking to note the cultural differences with Glasgow. The most notable of these is that comparatively speaking, knives have played so little role in street violence among Australian youth.

Small numbers of organised criminal gangs fought with razors in late 1920s and 1930s Australian cities, especially Sydney, just as they did in Glasgow. Among the youth gangs called ‘larrikin mobs’ or ‘pushes’, however, many of which skirmished over territory, knives never played a significant role. There was a short-lived spurt of gun-fighting just after the First World War, particularly in the inner-Melbourne suburbs of Carlton and Fitzroy, but it never lasted long enough to become a part of those districts’ culture.

Glasgow’s Community Initiative to Reduce Violence thus seems to be on the money in directing itself chiefly at tackling knife culture before anything else. Its chief aim (apparently) is to not to stamp out youth gangs or turf wars per se, but rather to convince those involved to do away with the knives.

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The Sentimental Bloke

13 Mar

When my sister was still in high school a few years ago, I went to see her in a musical based on C J Dennis’ Songs of the Sentimental Bloke. Apart from watching her as an Anzac-era working girl, flouncing and sashaying about in the chorus, the main thing I thought as I sat in the audience was how little Dennis’s work now speaks to us. Published as a collection of poetry in 1915, it became immensely popular during World War One – particularly given that Dennis wrote further spin-offs, The Moods of Ginger Mick and Digger Smith, which featured Anzac heroes. There seemed to be such a gulf to me, sitting in the auditorium of a Sydney high-school, between what appealed to wartime Australians and what appeals to audiences now.

For a start, the vernacular in which Dennis had his characters speak no longer sounds Australian (”Er name’s Doreen… Well, spare me bloomin’ days!’). No one hawks rabbits through Melbourne slums now, either, as Bill the Bloke does in Dennis’ poems.  More than anything else, though, the reason that the musical seemed so removed from my own sensibility, at least, was because it wasn’t funny. In its own day, The Sentimental Bloke was renowned for its comedy, but what is comic now about a plain-torkin’ bloke who loves a ‘tart’ from a pickle factory?

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(Still from an amateur production of The Sentimental Bloke, ransacked from this public photo-album. Click to enlarge.)

When I first began thinking about it, I decided that perhaps The Sentimental Bloke was funny in its day because of the incongruity of its larrikin character, denizen of Little Bourke Street, talking of ineffable yearnings and ‘ideel love’. There was something condescending about the laughter he incited then, with his rough vernacular rubbing up against his soft spot for Doreen. Perhaps this humour was augmented, I surmised, by the fact that sentimentality was not quite the thing for a man of the time. In an era when men were increasingly supposed to be tough, muscular, and beloved of other men’s company, here was the doltish bloke Bill carrying on about Doreen, oblivious to the fact that his wistfulness made him ridiculous to his fellow man.

Now that I have been reading a little further into it, it appears that most of The Sentimental Bloke‘s Anzac-era fans found it funny not because they found his sentimentality ridiculous, but because they found it sweet. I know that humour can be both things at once: witness, for example, the comicality of Michael Caton’s Daryl Kernigan in The Castle, a latter-day sentimental bloke if there ever was one, or Kath’s husband Kel Knight in the TV series, Kath and Kim. But from reading contemporary accounts so far, I don’t get any sense of the snigger-snigger that Kel and Daryl incite in reactions to The Sentimental Bloke. So far, references to his embodiment of supposedly universal longings, and of a defiantly anti-elitist love of the Bloke’s sweetness, are what prevail. 

In his preface to the 1915 edition of Dennis work, for example, Henry Lawson vaunted the Bloke’s everyman status and his ‘exquisite humour’ as the key reason for the book’s appeal. Others similarly spoke of the Bloke’s ‘sentiment’ as his most alluring quality. And the very pictures that accompanied the original book suggest that this sense of his sweetness didn’t come with the laugh-at-the-bogans edginess of later comic offerings. They portrayed Bill as a chubby cupid, pink-skinned and baby-cute.  

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How, I wonder, does all this celebration of sweetness and sentimentality fit in with the historiography of masculinity in the early twentieth century? In Making the Australian Male, for example, Martin Crotty looks at the way that middle-class Australian boys were inculcated in a certain dashing manliness and militarism in the lead-up to World War One. They were taught to place less emphasis on domesticity and sentimentality than the generation before them, he says. In an English context, John Tosh similarly talks about a movement away from an expressive personal style and from domestic desires among middle-class men in this period. In Australasia, there is also of plenty of commentary on the consolidation of the muscular, stoic-masculine ideal after the War, as the Anzac myth got underway.

The popularity of the Bloke’s wistfulness makes me think that there was rather more attraction to sentimentality among Australian and New Zealand men in this period (among working-class and populist men at least) than we might imagine from this historical literature.

References

Martin Crotty, Making the Australian Male: Middle-Class Masculinity, 1870-1920 (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2001).

C J Dennis, Songs of the Sentimental Bloke (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1915), including preface by Henry Lawson.

John Tosh, Manliness and Masculinities in Nineteenth Century Britain: Essays on Gender, Family and Empire (Pearson Longman, 2005), especially the last chapter.