the week On Radio
There are few things in life quite as pleasurable as having a stereotype confirmed, and Mean Times - Australia (Radio 4, Tuesday) offers this pleasure in abundance. At times, you find yourself wondering, in fact, whether the whole point of the series isn't to confirm all your worst fears of Australians.

There are six programmes, each exploring some episode in Australia's past through a mixture of interviews and documents. This week's programme, the second, looked at the nation's bushranging heritage.

Bushrangers thrived between the 1850s and the 1880s: Robin Hoods according to some, who brought Ireland's long struggle against the British yoke to this New World and never hurt anybody who didn't deserve it.

Much of the programme was set at a bushrangers dinner, an annual event where the descendants of the rangers and the police who hunted them would meet up and chat amicably about the old days, the bushranging side bragging about just how bad the apples were on their family tree (one woman stated firmly that her ancestor was at least as nasty as any of the big names, like Ned Kelly; he just died too young to be properly appreciated).

Others are more sceptical - notably Edgar Penzig, who has devoted his life to debunking the bushranger myth, and claims that other people regard his books as the "ultimate" on the subject (he modestly refrained from saying that he thought so himself). Penzig's line is, roughly, that the bushrangers were bloodthirsty highwaymen who would sell their own grandparents. As far as that goes you could hardly blame them, seeing as how their grandparents were so willing to sell them - we heard the story of one bushranger grassed up to the law by his grandfather for a bounty of pounds 500.

Penzig's doggedly unimpressed commentary on the awfulness of bushrangers ran through the programme, debunking every story, bringing things down to a practical, dry-as-dust level. Lots of women, he said will tell you that their grandmother hid the notorious Ben Hall under their skirts. But by referring to mean female heights in the 19th-century typical Victorian lingerie and Hall's own well-attested peculiarities (including a gammy leg), Penzig demonstrated that this incident could never have taken place.

It was emblematic that when we first met him he was donning one of his clip-on ties. The clip-on, he declared, was the greatest invention since the wheel. Just as he would waste no time on dandyism in dress, so he despised it in history.

As I say, the programme at times seemed to be out to bolster all your prejudices about Australians. Taking this with last week's episode, on the first encounters between Europeans and Aborigines, you could begin to build a picture of Australian history as a bloody, racist, hate-filled mess, and modern Australians the inevitable product.

But I think John Dryden and Ann-Marie Evans are pushing towards something more subtle and serious than this: there lies behind the series a sense that because Australia (European Australia, that is) is such a young place, it has a particularly intimate relationship with its past. British heritage has a pipe and slippers and is happiest alone in front of a fire with a pile of muffins to work through and a Daily Telegraph to mull over; Australia's history is the sort of grandparent you can take down the pub to meet your mates. And what it's doing isn't confirming stereotypes; rather, it fleshes them out - shows that far from being empty, they are a pasty reflection of something vital and complex - and in so doing, wrecks them.

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