A column about deceased celebrities

As the remarkable outpouring of grief after David Hookes’ death showed us, the sudden, accidental death of an Aussie legend is the cause of much sorrow. His Test career had been brief, but his larrikin fame endeared him to everyone who loved cricket. So a week where two of our popular heroes die is, as the late, much-loved Steve Irwin might have put it, an absolute bloody shocker.

Steve Irwin and Peter Brock were both remarkable examples of Australian macho manhood. Irwin could wrestle crocodiles, and always prevailed. And, to the satisfaction of the more politically correct among us, he also translated that incredible enthusiasm into conservation, ploughing his television income back into buying land for wildlife sanctuaries and helping ban croc hunting in the NT. He was the real-life Crocodile Dundee, right down to the oversized knife in his khaki shorts and the sassy American wife.

Brock won the Bathurst 1000, the Holy Grail of everyone who’s ever done lappies down George St in a supercharged Holden or Ford, an unsurpassed 9 times. And he scored most of his victories in a Holden Torana. The only way you can get more Aussie than that is if he’d somehow managed to drive the gruelling 1000km of the race while sculling tinnies and playing two-up with his co-driver, all the while leaning his arm out the window holding a Winnie Blue.

The sense of tragedy we feel about both these deaths has been amplified by the fact that both were “doing what they loved” – meaning in other words that they had a rare moment of fallibility in fields where both were exceptional. Our sense of shock is as much because they didn’t prevail, as we expect them to. Both were as close as you can get to superheroes in our culture.

Irwin was remarkably brave, regularly swimming with sharks and playing with cobras, and had a remarkable way with animals. So for him to die while filming a sting ray, probably one of the least dangerous animals he’d ever encountered, for a documentary was an incredible shock. While Brock had conquered Bathurst so many times that he was dubbed “King of the Mountain”, but lost control in a rally he was competing in largely for fun. Again, it was the relatively light-on event that proved fatal.

As a stereotypical inner-city latte-sipper, it’d be fair to say that the blokey worlds of motorsport and crocodile handling haven’t exactly ranked highly in my consciousness. The Crocodile Hunter’s popularity within Australia was never as great as it was overseas, because the networks felt there would be a strong cringe factor. I watched several episodes of his work over the weekend as part of a non-stop marathon tribute, and it’d fair to say that the exuberant ockerness of his presentation probably plays a bit too closely to our stereotype for most Australians – as if a Frenchman hosted a show in a beret and a stripey blue shirt, holding a baguette and a roll of onions, constantly saying “Ooh la la”.

But like Brock – who will remain a Bradman-like legend in this country – Irwin was the best at what he did. In the episodes I saw, his bravery is just incredible. He steps into murky lagoons with crocodiles, and he leaps onto their backs and holds their jaws closed with his bare hands – and all so he could relocate them so they didn’t have to be killed. He was the real thing, and it’s fitting that all Australians are finally acknowledging this.

It’s hard to imagine a renowned painter or scholar being mourned like Brock or Irwin, even if their deaths had been equally tragic. The experience has shown us that Australia is still above all a larrikin country that likes its blokey heroes – and especially in the eyes of the world. But few people seem more deserving of so frenzied level of mourning than Brock and Irwin. It’s rare for two extraordinary, ordinary blokes to be so revered after their deaths. And rarer still that they so clearly deserve it.