Review: Flash Jim by Kel Richards

 

Title: Flash Jim: The Astonishing Story of the Convict Fraudster Who Wrote Australia’s First Dictionary

Author: Kel Richards

Published: 5th May 2021, HarperCollins Australia

Status: Read May 2021 courtesy HarperCollins Australia

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My Thoughts:

Though English has been considered the language of our country since it was invaded/colonised by the British in 1788, did you know that legally Australia has no official language? Neither did I! While our language today continues to adhere to the conventions of British English with regards to spelling and grammar, from very early on, Australian English began to develop its own unique quirks.

Slang, also known as flash and cant, was a term originally used to refer to the language used mostly by criminals in 16th and 17th century England and so it’s no surprise that it thrived in Australia, and took on a life of its own as British, Irish, and Scottish convicts mixed in the British penal colony.

In 1812 an opportunistic convict, James Hardy Vaux, heard the grumblings of the colony’s police and magistrates who were at a loss to understand much of the slang used among criminals, and always eager to press any advantage, presented his supervisor with ‘A New and Comprehensive Vocabulary of the Flash Language’ – Australia’s very first dictionary. Included as an Appendix in Flash Jim, browsing through the dictionary proves fascinating, revealing words and phrases both strange and familiar.

The bulk of Kel Richards Flash Jim however is a biography of James Vaux, drawing on several sources, mainly the man’s own published memoirs, ‘Memoirs of The First Thirty-Two Years of the Life Of James Hardy Vaux, A Swindler and Pickpocket; Now Transported, For The Second Time, And For Life, To New South Wales. Written By Himself.’

Flash Jim reveals a man who was an extraordinary character. Though born into a family able to provide him a good education and entry into a comfortable profession, James took his first step into a life of crime by embezzling from his employer at aged fourteen. Over the next few years, never satisfied with wages earned as a clerk, James indulged in a number of illegal activities from confidence scams to pick pocketing, with reasonable success, that is until inevitably, his luck ran out. Not that even being sentenced to transportation to New Holland on three separate occasions, seemed to deter his criminal impulses. Vaux, who used a number of aliases over his lifetime, seemed to have possessed an uncanny charm which often saw him turn even the most dire of circumstances to his advantage. I was absolutely fascinated by him, and his antics, marvelling at his ego and nerve, though as Richards regularly reminds us, Vaux’s own words can hardly be trusted.

It’s unclear just how much of Richards own creativity informs the retelling he has crafted, though I imagine he has taken some liberties. I thought it read well, though personally I would have preferred for the author to have found a way to integrate the story of the dictionary more fully into the narrative of Vaux’s biography.

James Hardy Vaux is the sort of incorrigible, dissolute character that Australians delight in claiming as part of our convict past so I’m surprised that I hadn’t heard of him before now, particularly given his twin achievements as the writer of Australia’s first dictionary, and the first true-crime memoir. I expect Flash Jim will be enjoyed by readers interested in Australian colonial history, the etymology of Australian English, or just a bang up yarn.

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Available from HarperCollins Australia

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository I Booktopia I Amazon

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. denisenewton1960
    May 28, 2021 @ 07:05:58

    I enjoyed this one also. For me it was proof that England’s diabolically harsh sentences, especially for property crimes like theft or fraud, proved no deterrence.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

  2. Trackback: It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? #SundaySalon #Sunday Post | book'd out

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