Date: July 21 2012
At the conclusion of Larrikins, Melissa Bellanta suggests that the term was originally the Australian equivalent of hooligan as used in Britain, or the American hoodlum. Why then has larrikinism become accepted as a light-hearted excuse for all kinds of bad behaviour in Australia, whether from sportsmen, politicians or businessmen? No British prime minister or American president would be described approvingly as a hooligan or a hoodlum, but we have had several larrikin prime ministers.
This is an excellent survey of the origin and use of the term ''larrikin'' in literature and the popular press. Bellanta has also investigated police records and the portrayal of larrikin types, both male and female, in the music halls and theatres of the late 19th century in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, and been able to demonstrate the existence of a youthful street culture mainly in working-class suburbs.
It was rebellious, disorderly, sometimes violent, verging on criminal, and not very different from versions of adolescent culture that have emerged in every generation since. It took its attitudes from the rowdy popular songs and dances of the day and was thus rather like contemporary gangs of adolescent followers of particular bands.
Then, as now, this culture was deplored by respectable society, though a contemporary tendency to be ''tough on crime'' probably exaggerated the apparent level of rebelliousness in the 1890s. At the same time there was a tendency to caricature larrikins, their defiant behaviour, their outrageous clothes and their street-smart slang.
Bellanta shows how these caricatures became the reality for subsequent accounts and how gradually, the actual larrikins who formed the street pushes (gangs) of the late 19th century and appeared in police records were mythologised.
The rise of larrikinism in Australia seems to have pre-dated the use of the term ''adolescent'' in the US, and it may be that in this, as in so much else, Australia was leading the world. Perhaps Australia's relatively high standard of living, steady employment and the highest level of nutrition in the Western world, produced a generation with energy to burn, money to spend and time to hang out, though these comparions have yet to be explored.
By the end of the 19th century, much of the energy of the larrikins began to be absorbed by football, with scratch games on vacant lots and rowdy attendance at matches on Saturday half-holidays. During World War I the larrikins joined up, becoming both the explanation of and the excuse for bad behaviour by Australian troops. At the same time, the women who had formerly been part of the class and culture of the pushes of the late 19th century became invisible. It seems that a fair degree of equality had prevailed on the streets (this was, after all, the period in which Australian women became equal citizens) with little romance in push culture. Sexuality served mainly to shock or parody respectable society, whether through burlesque-style cross-dressing or overt displays.
Whereas it had been accepted that 1890s push girls could be rebellious or brazen by not behaving in conventionally feminine ways, at the football they became mere spectators, and during World War I were romanticised after the manner of C.J. Dennis. Rarely since then have women been described as larrikins. The notable exception is Olympic swimmer Dawn Fraser, who was severely punished for souveniring a flag at the Tokyo Games, because, she says now, her larrikin-like behaviour was unacceptable in a woman.
Unfortunately, the detailed research for this book did not extend beyond about 1920. The large themes underlying its argument - changing ideas about adolescent behaviour and approaches to criminality, and changing ideas about sexuality, including the recognition of homosexuality as a widespread phenomenon - do not fit neatly into four decades.
The changes since the 1930s that explain how and why larrikinism has become an easy excuse for disgusting behaviour and mindless misogyny no longer have much relevance to adolescent behaviour. Instead, they probably reflect our deep confusion about our avowed egalitarianism and the bewilderment felt by new entrants at the bottom of the heap in a society whose aspirations are more to be rich than to be civilised.
LARRIKINS: A HISTORY
UQP, 296pp, $34.95
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