Shoot Straight, You Bastards: A Frustratingly Poor History of Breaker Morant

This book reads well as a novel, but as a history, it’s difficult to credit. I’d recommend it for people wanting a bit of a bush yarn. It’s light and has a rebellious lead character who does terrible things and is pulled down by them. That’s a classical tragedy. I just can’t recommend it as a history.

The book’s liberties with history are just appalling. For example, the author accepts Morant’s claims to have been the illegitimate son of Admiral Digby Morant, and works hard to prove it might be plausible. To him, it’s entirely possible that Morant’s mother, Catherine Murrant, happened to choose a man with a name homophonic to her husband’s as her lover. To him it’s entirely likely that a young lordling looking for a mistress chose a poorhouse matron. To him, the fact they lived thirty miles from each other is an argument for plausibility, rather that noting that at the time thirty miles is a day and a half’s travel. Apparently not only did the young officer choose a married woman who lived in a poorhouse (effectively a sort of open prison), but he was willing to make special journeys on the off chance she’d be able to slip away from her husband.

For the rest of the book, Morant has an admiral as a father, and is raised by an uncle who happens to be a major author. The proof for this is so thin as to be laughable, and to be held together only by the author putting in fictions, marked as such by italics, in which the uncle gives contradictory, unlikely and really unappealing tips on how to handle horses like women.

As another example, the author suggests Morant’s wife Daisy, later the famous Daisy Bates, suggested he change his name from Murrant to Morant. He has Daisy saying she’d only have a man who had a tie to title. The author then describes her other two husbands, both of whom were bushmen with no claim to title. He suggests that a letter, from Morant to Banjo Paterson may indicate that Morant is the inspiration of the chase scene in The Man From Snowy River. In fact, it proves the opposite. We know Paterson kept Morant’s letters, and we can presume Morant didn’t write the same things over and over. His congratulation afterward, that the details are correct, precludes him from the process of creation. Writing afterwards that mounted horses are faster downhill than wild horses isn’t something you do if you’ve already explained that to the author before he puts his book out.

It’s easy to dismiss this as persnickettiness, but the thing is: if his minor details are obviously wrong, it makes it more difficult to take the author on faith for more significant details which the reader can’t easily check.

The makers of the audiobook have not attempted to mark the fictional sections, which are italicised. Fortunately they are obvious. Whenever the author attempts to write in the Australian vernacular he falls into a strange sort of parody pidgin which seems to come basically from C J Denis. Bushies did not sound the way they sound in movies: they did not say “mate” and “cobber” and “fuck” nearly as often as the author imagines, and did really say “pal” and “bloody” rather more. Also, because the author loves a cliché, Morant keeps quoting the “wide, brown land” bits of My Country by Dorothy Mackellar, which was published nine years after he died.

So, a good yarn, but a poor history. Recommended for people who don’t much care about the truth or falsity of the legend. The Library Service has copies in electronic and CD formats.