Exceeding charm may come with a harmful flipside. For decades, Rolf Harris was an icon of Australian popular culture. Yet in recent months, the icon has been erased: a result of his trial and conviction on charges of sexual assault against numerous minors, the details of which can be incredibly chilling. He has been sentenced to less than six years in prison, though given his advanced age it might approximate a death sentence. There were women from Australia, New Zealand, and Britain (among the dozen or so stories I read about his accusers), who have gone public with accusations of being raped by Harris when they were children. Harris, for his part, has shown little or no remorse. Harris is now featured prominently in major international media (like The Guardian, which hosts a stream about him), not as a warmly beloved icon, but as a widely reviled villain. Awards and honours are being rescinded as the icon gets a fast, premature burial.
His story, however, reveals much about the deep stains of colonialism that mark Australia, beyond the sexism: the treating of humans as objects of amusement, to do with impunity whatever one wishes, to treat humans as prey. Australian elites, like their US, British, and Canadian counterparts, may wish to impress the world with their liberal democratic self-representations, but then they are always contradicted by the messy everyday realities of casual brutality, which is the very bedrock of their societies and the foundation on which those elites rose to power.
Just before the medals and honorary doctorates were stripped from Rolf Harris, but well into the period when accusations had piled up, I accidentally came across a perverse tribute to the legend in a scene in the Australian movie, Wolf Creek 2, filmed around where I lived, and released in February of this year. Several years ago, the first Wolf Creek movie was at the heart of one my more popular essays on ZA, “The Revenge of the Local, the Horror of the Provincial, and Western Cosmopolitanism at Risk”. There I mentioned how Wolf Creek’s protagonist, the bloodthirsty Mick Taylor (played by John Jarratt) was an inverse of the other famous Australian Mick, “Crocodile Dundee”. I also mentioned that Wolf Creek’s Mick “thinks of tourists as nothing more than kangaroos to be shot”. In Wolf Creek 2—a much gorier and less artful sequel—Mick continues the inversion. The film begins with a reversal of order: unlike the poor swagman in “Waltzing Matilda,” the itinerant Mick brutally lays waste to two state troopers who foolishly bullied him when he was instead all charm. Mick still hunts people like he hunts animals, and in a memorable “welcome to Australia” scene (below), he shows that he will just as easily run down a British tourist as he runs down kangaroos. It’s all fauna.
Mick is not so different from “the discoverer,” Captain James Cook, who shot the first Indigenous person he met in New Zealand and then shot the first kangaroo he encountered in Australia. It’s this Mick who picks up Rolf Harris’ classic song, and delivers his rendition (below). The inverted icon, the sub-icon, thus buried the icon. Whether intentional or not on the part of the filmmakers, it was like watching a funerary ritual: what was once great and beloved, was now turned to muck, chewed in the mouth of drunken torturer at the bottom of a cave. That’s where the memory of Rolf Harris has been exiled.
Rolf Harris’ 1957 song, “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport,” was a top 10 hit in a number of countries besides Australia, including the US and UK. It was one of a few classics I learned while living in Australia, one of those songs that one picks up without trying, such as “Waltzing Matilda” (see this lovely Slim Dusty video) and “Home among the Gum Trees”. Such songs tend to reveal something of the history and cultural code of the majority population in the country, and I would pick up particular cues, for example: the romance of rural or “country Australia”; on the other hand, the class inequalities and violence to be found in “country Australia” (listen to “Waltzing Matilda” and you hear a story of a “swagman”—a transient, temporary rural worker—who steals a sheep and is executed by troopers); and, in the case of Rolf Harris’ hit song (listen to the file at the very top), a verse that is commonly downplayed or removed altogether in newer renditions, dealing with Aboriginal (“Abo”) ranch hands, treated as property by their virtual owner, the stockman:
Let me Abos go loose, Lou
Let me Abos go loose
They’re of no further use, Lou
So let me Abos go loose.
Ironically, Rolf Harris claimed that his song was inspired by my other favourite genre, calypso—“It was written as a result of the Belafonte calypso craze that was sweeping the world in the 1950s. It impressed me enormously,” Rolf Harris said. It was to be an “Australian calypso”. Unfortunately for Harris, Harry Belafonte may have heard the song with the verse above, before meeting Harris. This is how Harris recalled the encounter:
“Meeting Harry Belafonte, the American singer, was one of the biggest disappointments of my life. I told him that he was an inspiration. He looked at me for the longest time, and then turned his back on me without saying a word. It was as if I’d been hit with a bucket of cold water”.
If anything, Wolf Creek’s Mick is more politically correct than Harris: oddly enough, this brutal, tourist-hunting sexist and xenophobic nationalist, is no racist. All of his targets have been white Europeans, and besides never so much as mentioning Aboriginals, there is never a sign of even a single Aboriginal in the two Wolf Creek movies. So when Mick performs Harris’ song, the verse above disappears—yet another inversion, one that also serves to erase the memory of Harris’ original legend.
So here is Rolf Harris, not just a celebrated singer, but the host of a children’s television program, someone who painted for the Queen, and now a convicted sex offender and pedophile, celebrated only in Wolf Creek. Did Australians really believe that all the charm was real, without the flipside, like the flipside found within Harris’ hit song itself? Did they buy the deception that the past was the past, that the imprint of colonial brutality and preying on “weaker” others was cast to the margins? This is what I like about the strangely non-fictional fiction of Mick Taylor: he inverts what is preferred, hoped for, and even imagined to be true. He’s a charming bloke. He’s a lot like Rolf Harris, who even on his album cover somehow comes out looking like he’s stark raving mad. Either way, the burial of an actual icon’s fictional virtue by a fictional counter-icon is very impressive and perhaps a little more significant than some might have been willing to admit.