The Godfather: Peter Corris on The Runner
I’m not ashamed of any of the books I’ve written, although I am more proud of some than others. But there is a book I would have liked to write but won’t.
I have in my head a story about a professional foot-runner in late 19th-century Australia: Paddy Mahony, obviously of Irish, possibly convict, heritage. An attractive man in his early 20s (I can never understand why writers choose to deal with unattractive protagonists, unless they have the charisma, say, of Hannibal Lecter), Paddy has won a number of professional footraces in the Australian colonies and is in training for a major event – the Clontarf Gift, a race to celebrate the visit of Prince Albert, Duke of Edinburgh and second son of Queen Victoria. The race, to be held in conjunction with a picnic at Clontarf which the prince is to attend, carries a prize of 1000 guineas.
At the time, professional foot racing , though popular, is thoroughly corrupt, with participants running dead in events to boost their handicaps and bumbling connections bribing runners, officials and track preparers to produce results to their advantage.
Paddy has steered clear of all this but he has two pressing problems. One, he is in love with Lucy Colino, who is part Aboriginal. Racism is rampant in the sport at the time and Paddy is nervous about the connection with Lucy and with her brother Henry, who, acting as his trainer, has helped him to achieve his present level.
The Colinos pass themselves off as Spanish but there are rumours …
Paddy’s second problem is with his own family; his father is dead but his uncle, Dermot, is a Fenian, a radical Irish nationalist involved in a plot to assassinate the royal visitor – the presenter of the prize Paddy is expected to win.
Pressure is put on Paddy from two quarters – from racist opponents threatening to expose his Aboriginal connections if he wins, and from Fenians threatening to kill him unless he wins and, at the crucial moment, contrives to present the royal personage as a target …
I like the cast of characters. I like the sporting milieu, which I’ve written about in other places. I like the feelings of racial tension balanced against the anti-British, anti-monarchist sentiments of the Irish underclass. I imagine myself poking fun at the slavish adulation of royalty at the time – an adulation not totally diminished now. I can feel the torment of the individuals at the centre of this maelstrom.
The outcome of the assassination plot is well known, a matter of history, but the effects of its planning and execution on people tangentially involved is up for grabs for the novelist.
But, now, in 2017, I can’t write the book. It would take a great deal of research to provide credible detail for all these backdrops – sporting culture in late 19th-century New South Wales; racial attitudes at the time; Irish attitudes and the Establishment’s awareness and precautions. Hours, weeks of delving into Trove, which I would have enjoyed when younger. I haven’t the eyesight to conduct the research or the energy to construct the fictional scaffolding. Pity.