It is one of their most cherished national traits, but Australians fear that larrikinism – a blend of rebelliousness and cheeky irreverence – is on the brink of extinction.
There are few greater compliments in Australia than to call someone a larrikin – defined in the Macquarie Australian English dictionary as “a mischievous person”.
Larrikins embody a spirit of anti-authoritarianism harking back to Australia’s origins as a penal colony and the antipathy between convicts and their overseers.
Acknowledged larrikins include the comedian Barry Humphries, alter ego of Dame Edna Everage, the actor Paul Hogan and the former prime minister Bob Hawke, who is still lauded for downing a yard of ale while studying at Oxford in the 1950s.
Now there are fears that larrikinism is being crushed by a combination of social conformity, materialism and American cultural influence.
“These days larrikins are an endangered species,” said Bill Crew, an award-winning newspaper cartoonist.
“The desire to climb the ladder of social success, the aspiration to celebrity and an insidious cultural imperialism from the United States mean there is far less tolerance for larrikins.”
The debate over the demise of larrikinism has been sparked by the death of Australia’s oldest First World War veteran.
Ted Smout, 106, was hailed by one newspaper as “our oldest larrikin, a rogue, a nonconformist, a wit with a disregard for authority and a bloody good sense of humour.
“It seems this particularly Australian trait is not much longer for this brave, new, over-governed, socially conservative world.”
Smout extolled the spirit of larrikinism by riding rodeo-style on the back of a half-dead tiger shark and inventing a device to blow up large stretches of beach so that he could catch bait for fishing.
Watching a game of rugby league in a Sydney pub, Shane Langdon, 30, an events manager, was in no doubt that larrikinism is on the wane.
“There was much more opportunity for larrikinism in our parents’ generation but now everyone is obsessed with what you wear, what you drive, where you live,” he said.
At the next table, Warren Peacock, 57, said: “Australians are too serious these days. Come to think of it, the whole world is too serious.”
A self-proclaimed larrikin, the author James Murray, 76, said: “We are much more conformist today. I think it is to be deplored.”
The Larrikin Legacy
The Australian stereotype is intertwined with notions of larrikinism. It is a stereotype of a fundamentally good person that tests the boundaries of dubious rules. As defined by historian Manning Clark,
“Soaring over them all is the larrikin; almost archly self conscious- to smart for his own good, witty rather than humorous, exceeding limits, bending rules and sailing close to the wind, avoiding rather than evading responsibility, playing to an audience, mocking pomposity and smugness, taking the piss out of people, cutting down tall poppies, born of a Wednesday, looking both ways for a Sunday, larger than life, sceptical, iconoclastic, egalitarian yet suffering fools badly, and, above all, defiant.”
Although not all Australians are larrikins (most could probably be defined as quite conservative), when it comes to finding icons, no other character stereotype has proved to be as popular with Australians as a whole. In real life, these icons include bushranger Ned Kelly, swimmer Dawn Fraser, digger John Simpson, French resistance leader Nancy Wake, cricketer Shane Warne, actor Errol Flynn and singer Bon Scott. In movies, the larrikin characters of Mick Dundee (Crocodile Dundee) and Daryl Kerrigan (The Castle) have also proved popular with the public.
At the opposite end of the personality spectrum is the wowser. As defined in 1960 by Eugene Gorman QC,
“Wowser is a simple, satisfying, succinct, single word which aptly distinguishes the whole race of windy, watery, cantankerous, snuffling Chadbands, Stiggines, Holy Joes and Scripture-sprouting sneaks, hypocritical humbugs, and unctuous, dirty-minded rotters, who spend their time interfering with the healthy instincts and recreations of healthy-minded, honest humanity.”
The Australian affection for the larrikin and scorn for the wowser can probably be traced to the 80 years of Convict transportation that characterised the founding third of Australia’s urban existence. Many of the Convicts showed that they were more likeable, and more respectable, that those who had put them there, or made them into outlaws.
The word itself seems to have been coined by an Irish policeman in a Melbourne court who claimed the prisoner was “larkin about”. Overtime, larrikin became a word for people of the streets that were seen as potential criminals. For reasons that probably had something to do with the oppressive nature of Australian society, it also developed a positive connotation.
Sir Henry Browne Hayes
Sir Henry was both a knight and transported felon and this unusual combination made him quite a novelty in Sydney. A native of Cork, Ireland, he had been made Sheriff of the city in 1790 and knighted in the same year. Ironically, he was the Crown Agent for the transportation of 150 Irish Convicts in 1791, only to involuntarily follow them nine years later.
With his wealth, title and his incongruous criminal record, he clearly presented a problem for the colonial authorities. The conflict between his Convict status and his social class set a poor example to the other Convicts as well as the garrison officers, many of whom were on smaller annuities than Hayes. The Governor, Philip Gidley King, was also an enemy.
During his ten years in the colony, Hayes was arrested and convicted five times, earning sentences to Parramatta, Van Diemen’s Land, Norfolk Island and twice to the Coal River (Newcastle). Most of his sentences resulted from disrespectful behaviour toward the colony’s military leaders. A page from the letterbook of Judge-Advocate Ellis Bent gives some insight into Hayes’s personality:
“The first Person I tried was Sir H Brown Hayes, (before a Bench) for speaking insolently of Colonel Foveaux, and endeavouring to raise a riot. I reprimanded and discharged him. Since which he has sent me two Water Melons every week, of uncommon size and goodness. He is a gentlemanly man, in his manners, tho’ odd in his dress and appearance. He has made a vow never to Cut the Hair on his Upper lip, which, is very long and gives him a very formidable and grotesque appearance.”
Henry Brown Hayes trial gained a great deal of attention in its day.