From Hoges to Hawkie, Aussies love a larrikin. Ahead of Australia Day, here’s a celebration of our loveable rogues.
From Hoges to Hawkie, Aussies love a larrikin. Ahead of Australia Day, here’s a celebration of our loveable rogues.

Great Aussie larrikin legacy lives on

When two best mates from a Sydney high school got married last November in order to throw a party with over 100 guests, exploiting a COVID-19 regulation loophole, the criticism was so mild it hardly registered as criticism at all.

Some were concerned, of course, because the virus can be deadly and outbreaks put us all in jeopardy, but most Aussies seemed amused by the cheekiness of the act. It was bold and brazen, and the boys didn't mean any harm.

It was a larrikin move in the finest Aussie tradition, and proof that this quirk of our national character survives despite the encroachment of political correctness, the Americanisation of our culture, and endless whining that the fun police have ruined everything.

The two young men from who staged a wedding ceremony in the backyard of a family home on Sydney’s North Shore to skirt NSW Covid gathering restrictions. Picture: @browncardigan/Instagram
The two young men from who staged a wedding ceremony in the backyard of a family home on Sydney’s North Shore to skirt NSW Covid gathering restrictions. Picture: @browncardigan/Instagram

 

Dawn Fraser stealing the flag at the Tokyo Olympics. Bob Hawke on the morning of the America's Cup win. Paul Hogan and Rebel Wilson serving up exquisitely dry jokes at the Oscars and BAFTAs. The 'Lawnmower Man' at the closing ceremony of the Sydney Olympics. The Chaser crew penetrating APEC security, with Chas dressed as Osama bin Laden. Is there anything that Aussies applaud with more joy than a perfectly executed larrikin act?

To be desperately un-larrikin for a moment, our cheeky, anti-authoritarian streak has also become part of that thing marketing types call Australia's "brand value proposition". If you look at the type of ads Tourism Australia uses to entice foreigners to our sea-girt shores, you'll notice the focus is not just on the far horizons and the furry friends; it's also on us, and our cheeky, irreverent but generally quite gentle sense of humour.

Tourism Australia Managing Director Phillipa Harrison said our national character had been a selling point since Paul Hogan's "shrimp on the barbie" ads in 1984, and it was one of the top five reasons why tourists choose to come here.

 

Paul Hogan putting another shrimp on the barbie in the celebrated 1984 Tourism Australia ads. Picture: YouTube
Paul Hogan putting another shrimp on the barbie in the celebrated 1984 Tourism Australia ads. Picture: YouTube

 

The success of the Hoges ads, she said, "resulted in a great legacy of celebrating the distinct and defining character of Australia and of Australians, which we have been able to build on ever since. Our recent Matesong campaign, which we launched in the UK in 2019, was all about elevating the Australian character and way of life."

COVID-19 killed off the full potential of Matesong, sadly, and there were widespread claims during 2020 that the virus was killing off our much-celebrated larrikin streak too, given our obedient following of public health orders during the outbreak.

But for author Kel Richards, who is currently researching a book on how convicts spoke, it's not that simple. While a healthy anti-authoritarian stance has always been an essential element of the Aussie character, he says, it has long sat alongside a more rule-abiding nature.

"The work that I've been doing on convict slang shows an anti-authoritarian attitude was common, but it didn't reflect in open rebellion, otherwise you got 50 lashes," Mr Richards said. "There's a really interesting double heritage we have from the convict past, both parts of which are still alive. Part of it is anti-authoritarian, making jokes about the boss and that kind of thing, but not necessarily to the boss's face, although sometimes you would get away with that.

"The other side is you do what you're told; you follow the rules unless you want to get into trouble. And if you look at this COVID year, all the Australians who were told to stay home, stayed home, and when they were told to wear masks, they wore masks."

 

Associate Professor Melissa Bellanta from the Australian Catholic University, author of the book Larrikins: A History.
Associate Professor Melissa Bellanta from the Australian Catholic University, author of the book Larrikins: A History.

 

The term "larrikin" - from "larking about" - became popular in Australia long after the convict era, but was strongly connected to it, said Frank Bongiorno, professor of history at ANU.

"When (the word) starts to get widely used in the media in Australia, from about the 1870s onwards, it's really very pejorative," he said. "It's a term that's used to describe badly behaved young males engaged in various forms of urban criminal behaviour - anything from sexual assault to attacking people in the street. It was regarded as a problem, and you get headlines in papers like 'Larrikin outrages'. It wasn't regarded as something cute and cuddly, or a positive national type. In fact it was often seen as a legacy of Australia's convict origins, that somehow this was related to the convict taint."

But the idea of the larrikin shifted over time, softening with the publication of the CJ Denniss classic The Sentimental Bloke, and acquiring affectionate connotations during World War One, when the first Anzacs earned a reputation for being ill-disciplined and insubordinate during training, but courageous, obedient soldiers on the battlefield.

For Associate Professor Melissa Bellanta, who wrote the book Larrikins: A History, the archetype really surged in the 1970s and 1980s, powered along by bohemian intellectuals like Barry Humphries, Philip Adams and David Williamson, who embraced the larrikin image "as a way of hitting back at a kind of Menzie-esque notion of Australian national identity."

 

 

 

The Ocker archetype also came into its own around this time, but while it has always been disparaging, we use "larrikin" affectionately, usually denoting a sort of clever cheekiness.

"We use it to refer to a bloke, generally, who doesn't stand on ceremony, doesn't take himself seriously, and likes pushing the boundaries of things without going too far," Assoc Prof Bellanta said.

But defining when a boundary has been pushed too far can be tricky sometimes, leading to a certain elasticity with our application of the term "larrikin".

When Mark Latham became leader of the ALP in 2003, his then Deputy Julia Gillard described him as a "larrikin Australian character" - a description she, and many others, would probably not use today.

And when nine private school boys stripped down to their Speedos at the Malaysian Grand Prix in 2016, triggering a diplomatic incident, some saw it as an expression of privilege rather than larrikinism.

Streaking at sporting events doesn't seem like the larrikin act it once was. One of the first recorded examples of streaking occurred in the UK in 1974, when Aussie Michael O'Brien ran nude onto the pitch during a rugby match for a dare. When Wati Holmwood streaked at the 2013 State of Origin decider in the final few minutes, potentially affecting the outcome, fewer people were laughing.

 

Michael O'Brien is caught after streaking at Twickenham in 1974. A police bobby found a novel use for his helmet.
Michael O'Brien is caught after streaking at Twickenham in 1974. A police bobby found a novel use for his helmet.

 

"There's no question there is greater sensitivity about all sorts of things now … and streaking falls into that strange category where it could be perceived as sexualised behaviour, or not," Assoc Prof Bellanta said.

"The term (larrikin) is very rarely used in a way that could be applied for women, and that's part of the problem now; it's used to excuse male bad behaviour and to invite a kind of boys-will-be-boys idea, and that indulgence is not extended to women. That's the most problematic aspect of it."

"But for anyone who grew up with Australian culture in the 1970s and 1980s, it's hard not to participate in the sentimentalisation of that larrikin idea," she said.

Kel Richards said we could do with more larrikin sentiment in Australian popular culture, particularly in our movies, which he said "seem to be made for social workers".

"When we see larrikinism expressed, we think: 'Aaaah, that's me, that's what we're like," he said. "We feel it really strongly."

 

LARRIKIN MOMENTS

 

THE DIGGERS IN CAIRO

 

Diggers from the Australian 9th and 10th Battalions at Mena Camp, looking towards the Pyramids. The soldier in the foreground is playing with a kangaroo, the regimental mascot. Many Australian units brought Australian animals with them to Egypt, and some were given to the Cairo Zoo when the units went to Gallipoli.
Diggers from the Australian 9th and 10th Battalions at Mena Camp, looking towards the Pyramids. The soldier in the foreground is playing with a kangaroo, the regimental mascot. Many Australian units brought Australian animals with them to Egypt, and some were given to the Cairo Zoo when the units went to Gallipoli.

 

Before they landed in Gallipoli, the Diggers got up to all kinds of mischief in the bars, brothels and streets of Cairo, with as many as 2500 of them participating in a drunken riot called the Battle of the Wazzir. While they went on to prove their mettle as soldiers, not all of them got the chance: on April 24, 1915 (the day before the Anzacs landed at Gallipoli), The Argus reported that 25 Diggers had been sent home from Egypt in disgrace, including "consistent leave-breakers and consistent thieves" and those who were sent home "in order that their influence for ill might be removed from the other troops".

 

DAWN FRASER AT THE TOKYO OLYMPICS

 

Dawn Fraser after winning the 100m freestyle final at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
Dawn Fraser after winning the 100m freestyle final at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

 

It prompted a ban that prevented her from competing at a fourth Olympic Games, but Dawn Fraser's decision to "souvenir" an Olympic flag on the night before the closing ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics ensured her status in Aussie folklore forever. In her 2002 memoir, Fraser revealed two other teammates had been with her during the drunken escapade near the Emperor's Palace, but they never got caught. "We decided we wanted a flag each," she wrote. "They were quite easy to get loose and we had two down and were going for the third when the whistles started sounding."

 

"LAWNMOWER MAN," SYDNEY OLYMPICS CLOSING CEREMONY

 

 

 

It was the sort of stunt you wouldn't see at any other Olympic ceremony: a rogue lawnmower driver who ploughed into a stage on which a "dignitary" was speaking. The hilarious moment set a party atmosphere for the event. "Australians have a tradition of throwing great parties, and this one will be imbued with a sense of fun, larrikinism and goodwill," artistic director David Atkins explained at the time.

 

BOB HAWKE

 

“Any boss who sacks anyone for not turning up today is a bum.” Bob Hawke at his larrikin best on the morning of the America's Cup win in 1983, Royal Perth Yacht Club. Picture: YouTube
“Any boss who sacks anyone for not turning up today is a bum.” Bob Hawke at his larrikin best on the morning of the America's Cup win in 1983, Royal Perth Yacht Club. Picture: YouTube

 

"Of all our politicians, the larrikin term attaches itself to Hawke," said Professor Frank Bongiorno. "It had a lot to do with the public image he crafted in the 1970s as a drinker and a fairly aggressive figure in the media, a ladies' man … but as PM he reformed his behaviour, giving up the booze and behaving in slightly more restrained ways." Skolling beers for test cricket crowds in 2012 showed that the larrikin and performer with Hawkie was still there.

 

MODERN POLLIES

 

Senator Jacqui Lambie shared this photo of herself in a onesie to her Facebook page in October. “Feel like we all need a bit of Aussie spirit right now! Definitely a Throwback Thursday, I can't even find this onesie anymore,” she wrote. Picture: Facebook
Senator Jacqui Lambie shared this photo of herself in a onesie to her Facebook page in October. “Feel like we all need a bit of Aussie spirit right now! Definitely a Throwback Thursday, I can't even find this onesie anymore,” she wrote. Picture: Facebook

 

Aussie politicians love to trade on the idea of the larrikin, even the famously buttoned down Kevin Rudd, whose occasional use of Aussie idioms ("fair suck of the sauce bottle") was lampooned for being inauthentic. But fewer modern pollies seem to fit the mould. Some might argue the case for Barnaby Joyce, but writer Kel Richards is sceptical. "He felt more like a larrikin before he left his wife, put it like that," he said. The experts seemed to concur that of all current politicians, Jacqui Lambie seemed to have the most larrikin appeal.

"She is able to laugh at herself, not entirely, she takes herself seriously, but she has that ability to be a bit self deprecating, and that sense of a popular touch," Assoc Prof Bellanta said. "In so far as larrikinism is a political register, she would embody it the most."

 

Originally published as Great Aussie larrikin legacy lives on

Author Kel Richards is working on a book on convict slang.
Author Kel Richards is working on a book on convict slang.


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