ABC Radio’s Kel Richards has written scores of books/ More recently he’s turned his attention to the Bible, giving it a particulary Aussie feel.
He talked with Faith Williams about his two recent excursions into the vernacular in The Aussie Bible and Aussie Yarns.
It’s easy to forget how being “Australian” really is a very special thing (with apologies to my international readers). While we share many characteristics in common with our neighbours, essentially we’re an island set apart. Kel Richards, renowned writer and ABC Radio presenter from Sydney, recognises this fact and the need to embrace our Australian-ness and all that entails in his most recent book Aussie Yarns.
After reading Kel Richards’s previous book The Aussie Bible, with its beautifully extravagant use of the Australian vernacular, it would not be unreasonable to assume that this, to some extent, would be the language style used by the writer himself merely being reflected in his work. However, speaking with Richards, such an assumption is dispelled from the moment he begins to speak.
“Australian English is really quite distinctive,” says Richards in his polished, quick voice. “According to the Australian National Dictionary, we’ve probably contributed between 6000 and 7000 words to the English language—they were coined here. We have our own way of expressing ourselves.” And it is this uniqueness that Richards celebrates.
Aussie Yarns, not unlike The Aussie Bible, attempts to address the issue of maintaining and embracing that beautiful thing that is Australian-ness, through the use of our very unique and idiomatic language.
Richards believes quite emphatically that “without getting offensive about it, we need to recognise that we’re a unique people and we speak a unique language, and we live in a unique culture. So, it’s important that we can address that culture and speak the language of that culture.”
The beauty of both Aussie Yarns and The Aussie Bible is that they appeal to a greater audience than simply those living the “traditional” Outback Australian life. Rather, a lot of Australians—from city or country—who “show their Australian-ness by wearing R M Williams boots or Akubra hats, or bushwalking or camping,” can relate to these books.
Richards became a Christian after attending a Baptist youth camp as a 16-year-old. His initial interest in church began “when I was about 15, because there were lots of girls there. When you’re 15 years old, that makes a lot of sense,” he says wryly. These days, however, he has higher motives, and remains an active participant in his church, which includes preaching from time to time.
As a result of his strong Christian convictions and his great love of Australia and of language and words in general, writing books that combine and celebrate these two aspects of his life seemed an obvious step. “I wrote The Aussie Bible in order to tell the stories about Jesus and the four Gospels into our culture, in our language… . If people don’t understand the gospel,” he insists, “it’s because we’re not saying it clearly enough. We’re not saying it in language that they can understand.”
Richards is adamant that the gospel makes sense, but it must be explained properly in order for it to really have an impact.
There can be no doubt that Richards’s unique approach to addressing his equally unique audience has been very successful. According to The Bible Society’s communications manager, Martin Johnson, some 100,000 copies of The Aussie Bible have been sold, mostly in Australia, as one would expect. According to Johnson, that’s a huge amount for any publication, let alone a Christian publication.
Asked why he thinks this is so popular, Johnson says he believes that the “retelling of the story of the life of Jesus in the Aussie vernacular has resonated with people—in the same way as the stories and poems of writers such as Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson still do today.”
People learn best in what he calls “their ‘heart language,‘” says Johnson, “Kel Richards’s Aussie Bible taps into this language, which many Australians learned through the school readers of the 1950s and 1960s. It’s easy to read, simple and sets out the story of Jesus in such a way that the truth sort of ‘creeps up on you.’ It’s a good yarn and one that 100,000 Australians have obviously agreed with.”
Unwilling to claim responsibility for any major contribution to a unique expression of Australian Christianity, Richards recognises that his work, particularly The Aussie Bible, has been widely accepted. “I’m sure there are a lot of other people who are also seeking to address our culture, so I’m very wary of saying what I’m doing is unique.”
His latest book, Aussie Yarns, once again is the result of Richards’s desire to celebrate and embrace our Australian-ality. “Aussie Yarns is a book of parables and short stories set in Australia, told in Australian language and there is a principle behind every punchline. Each of the short stories and parables sets out to say something about the Christian gospel,” Richards explains.
“I’m hoping,” he says, “that Aussie Yarns is going to work for a lot of Christians, looking for a book they can give to, particularly, non-Christian friends and relatives, because all the stories are entertaining, they’re fun to read. There’s that sort of jokiness and Australian humour running all the way through.”
“We’ve all got friends and relatives who just wouldn’t read a Christian book. If we gave them a Christian book they wouldn’t be interested. So what I’m hoping is that it will be a good enough read so that you can give it to Uncle Harry or dad or some friend who wouldn’t read a Christian book but who’ll read this bunch of stories. In a very subtle way, they’ll get the message. It’s tactful. It gets its point across without stabbing anyone with it.”
Aside from his writing, Richards also features regularly on ABC News Radio’s Word Watch program, which has been running for approximately five-and-a-half years now. Initially, Word Watch began as a filler when the “ABC news station couldn’t play commercials or songs, or when presenters needed time to switch guests in the studio. So the program manager at the time, Ian Wolfe, introduced The Minutes. Sports commentator David Lord exhausted as many moments in Olympic history as he could before Richards volunteered to come up with something else.”*
The result was Word Watch, where a new word would be offered each day along with its meaning and derivation. “Words and language are just enormously interesting,” says Richards, whose bookshelves are full of various types of dictionaries.
In total, Richards has written 33 books, which cover a wide range of topics and interests. “I’ve written a number of detective stories and thrillers, a number of children’s books and a number of nonfiction books. It’s in the last few years that I’ve realised this need to address our Australian culture. In a sense I suppose it’s a new direction.”
“I’ve got a very short attention span,” he says. “I like to change what I write about all the time! I get bored otherwise.”
*”Kel’s defining moment,” Sydney Morning Herald, November 11, 2003.
Baby In The Shed (Luke 2:1-21)
In those days Caesar Augustus ordered a head count of the whole Roman world. (This was the first big tally when Quirnius ran the Syrian branch of the Empire.) And everyone had to go back to the bit of the country they were born in to fill in the forms.
So joe hiked up from Nazareth (in Galilee Shire) to Bethlehem (in Judea Shire), because this spot in the mulga was where King David came from, and Joe’s family tree had King David up in the top branches. He went there to fill in the forms and sign the register with his fiancee, Mary, who was pretty near nine months by this time. While they were there, she gave birth to a baby boy. She wrapped him in a bunny rug, and tucked him in a feed trough in a back shed, because the pub was full to bursting.
There were some drovers, camped out in a paddock nearby, keeping an eye on their mob of sheep that night. Their eyes shot out on stalks when an angel of the Lord zapped into view, and the glory of the Lord filled the air like a thousand volts of electricity. The angel said: “Stop looking like a bunch of stunned mullets. Let me give you the drum, the good oil, its top news for the whole crew – everyone, everywhere. Today in that little town on the hill, a rescuer has been born: he is the Promised One, the King, the Lord. And here’ how you’ll find him: the little nipper is wrapped up in a bunny rug, and lying in a food trough.”
And before you could say, “Well, I’ll be blowed!” the whole sky was filled with more angels that you could count, all sining away at the top of their lungs (if angels have got lungs, that is): “God is great! God is bonzer – and to everyone on this planet who’s on God’s side: peach and goodwill, and, by the way, Happy Christmas.” (Which rather confused the drovers because they’d ever heard of Christmas befoe.)
Suddenly the whole choir had nipped off in the blink of an eye. The drovers said to each other, “We’d better make tracks to Bethlehem and have a squiz at what’s happened – check out this message from God.”
So the lot of them shot through like a Toorak tram to Bethlehem – and they found Mary, and Joe and the baby who was, sure enough wrapped up in a bunny rug and lying in a food trough. When they’d seen this they told every Tom, Dick and Harry about what had happened and everyone who heard the story was blown away by it. But Mary just made a mental note of these things and tucked them away in a corner of her heart. The drovers went back to the paddock, and their mob of sheep, as excitied as a racehorse on Melbourne Cup Day, and saying what a bottler God was, because everything was spot on – just as they’d been told.