The Godfather: Peter Corris on as-told-to autobiographies Part 1
I’ve been commissioned to work on the autobiographies and memoirs of notable people six times. Five of these projects were completed with the books being published and one was aborted. Here are some notes on these exercises.
I’ve written several times about working with the late Professor Fred Hollows – how he took me angrily to task for my mismanagement of my diabetes; how we subsequently got on well and, as Fred was dying of cancer, how we completed the book (Fred Hollows: An autobiography, 1991) in record time. Fred was the ideal subject for this kind of project – he had extraordinary recall, could dramatise an incident or anecdote and his distinctive delivery was easy to capture in print. Furthermore, he left the job entirely to me and scarcely changed a word in the text I submitted to him.
It goes without saying that it was a job worth doing and that Fred easily met my criteria for a subject – that the life be an active, physical one as well as cerebral. In addition to being able to perform microscopic eye surgery, Fred had culled wild horses in outback Queensland, climbed mountains and battled politicians and bureaucrats in his humanitarian endeavours. He was also a lover of music and poetry.
I went to Vietnam with Fred and a team and saw him open doors that would lead to vision-saving work there. I was with him when he met the legendary General Giap.
At three well-attended book launches we signed about 1500 copies and later some thousands of bookplates. The autobiography sold over 100 000 copies and is the most successful book I’ve ever been associated with.
I dedicated a Cliff Hardy novel to Fred and modelled a character on him in a Hardy short story. He attended my 50th birthday party in 1992 and I attended his funeral later the same year.
The next project, also organised by publisher John Kerr, was to work with environmentalist John Sinclair, who had conducted a long, and ultimately successful, campaign to save Fraser Island from the sandminers. Powerful players on both sides of politics, but especially the egregious Queensland premier, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, had been determined to mine the island to a moonscape for its valuable minerals.
John Sinclair’s campaign had cost him his first marriage, his job, superannuation and house, and put an enormous strain on his physical and mental resources. He received physical threats for his challenge to the corporations he opposed. Originally a conservative voter, a conformist scoutmaster, he had morphed into an environmental radical, inspiring people, enlisting allies, raising money and public awareness of the unique features and national importance of the great sand island.
In an earlier column I mentioned accompanying John on one of his conservation-oriented tours of the island, an amazing experience that was a joy to write about. No dour iconoclast, John had his theatrical side, including dressing up as the ghost of Eliza Fraser to publicise his campaign and confound those who had taken out mining leases.
The autobiography, Fighting for Fraser Island, was published as a handsome, well-illustrated hardback in 1994. It was well received critically but sold poorly for reasons I don’t fully understand. ‘Greenies are meanies’ is a comment I heard by way of explanation. It may be, though, that Greenies prefer to do, rather than to read about what has been done. John Sinclair continues to conduct tours to iconic Australian locations. He has received international awards and an Order of Australia for his environmental work.
I had long admired actor Ray Barrett for his role in the 1960s British TV series The Troubleshooters and his work in such films as Don’s Party (1976), Goodbye Paradise (1983) and Rebel (1985), so when the opportunity came to help with his autobiography I jumped at it. Also a generous advance was on offer.
We met in my agent Rose Creswell’s office and got along well. Ray was affable, liked a drink, as I did, and was well read. We met for taping sessions in various locations, had a few meals together and once played golf at the Monash course in Sydney, where I was forced by an officious committee member to tuck my shirt in. I learned that Barrett had been an accomplished yachtsman, a single-figure handicapper at golf and a cricketer. When fielding in close in an exhibition match, he once caught out West Indian star Gary Sobers and reported that his hand swelled to twice the size under the impact.
This and other incidents, some comic, some dangerous, from his acting career, and his meetings (not always happy) with luminaries including Joan Collins, Peter Finch and Rod Taylor, made his story enjoyable to work on. Ray had lived on Majorca for many years, which provided interesting material.
He was a political conservative and once flirted with entering politics as a National Party candidate. Here we were out of synch and a problem arose when he insisted on writing sections of the book himself. This involved me in some tactful editing and rewriting, which was not always well received. At the time of publication, Ray’s wife (his third) objected to my agent about the size of my name on the cover and title page of the book, saying that people she knew had never heard of me. Rose retorted that she knew people who had never heard of Ray Barrett.
But this only came to light later, and we remained on equable terms. The launch of Ray Barrett: An Autobiography (1995) was a rather gala affair at the Royal Sydney Yacht Club.
The book did not sell well but I notice from my Public Lending Right records it is often borrowed from libraries. Ray Barrett remained active in films and on television until his death in 2009.
To be continued …