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Posted on 20 Apr 2018 in The Godfather: Peter Corris | 1 comment

The Godfather: Peter Corris on Peter FitzSimons

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I met Peter FitzSimons at a television studio in Wollongong. He was promoting his biography of Les Darcy and I was spruiking whatever Cliff Hardy had appeared that year. Never interested in rugby and not a reader of Sunday newspapers, I was only dimly aware of who he was. He introduced himself; he was a giant well over my 1.8 centimetres and his hand swallowed mine. He said he’d read my book on the history of boxing in Australia and that he’d send me a copy of the Darcy book. He never did, but when I read it I thought it very poor – a rehash of the standard work, Raymond Swanwick’s Les Darcy: Australia’s golden boy of boxing (1965). The central point of my chapter on Darcy had been the likelihood that he’d been forced to throw a fight under pressure from gamblers. FitzSimons chose to ignore this.

As a result, as other books by FitzSimons began to appear and figure in the bestseller lists I was sceptical about their quality. But I knew two anecdotes about FitzSimons which I thought were to his credit. Evan Whitton, something of a mentor of mine when he was editor of the National Times, told me that FitzSimons had questioned him about journalism and that Evan had said something like, ‘Journalism is one of the few professions where you can have fun.’ FitzSimons had evidently embraced his and he’d become a very successful journalist. I’d also been told that, after giving a talk about his latest book and before sitting down to sign copies, FitzSimons cajoled people not to leave without buying a book. I admired this although I’d never had the chutzpah to follow suit. In addition, that he was an avowed republican and atheist predisposed me in his favour.

Come 2018 and I was searching for an audio books. I fancied re-reading Alan Moorhead’s splendid account of the Burke and Wills expedition Cooper’s Creek (1963) but it wasn’t available. Peter FitzSimons’s Burke and Wills: The triumph and tragedy of Australia’s most famous explorers (2017), came up. I knew that FitzSimons employed a team of researchers and I reasoned that more information must have become available since Moorhead’s time so I decided to give it a go. At 23 hours for the reading it would occupy me for some time and represented good value. When I mentioned the length of the reading to Jean she said, ‘Well, it was a long trip.’

Indeed it was and FitzSimons has chronicled it minutely, sometimes day by day. In the introduction he explains that he has cast the whole thing in the present tense for immediacy and this has worked. The characters, their tribulations, the settings, the manoeuvrings, all come to life. He also thanks his researchers, as well he should, because no one person could have trawled through the material in the time available to the author. His thanks to his editors I’d quibble with: there are too many Biblical and Shakespearean allusions and one lamentable attempt at humour employing an imaginary conversation between Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson – this should have occasioned the blue pencil. Similarly, there are too many smartarse alliterative sub-headings and tags such as ‘rats in the ranks’.

But what comes through strongly is a sense of the enjoyment the writer has had in putting the book together. This, along with the structure – switching effectively between the different exploring parties and the suits back in Melbourne – and the appreciation of the role played by the Indigenous people, is no mean achievement.

1 Comment

  1. Sarah Murgatroyd’s The Dig Tree(2002) is also well worth reading, but I don’t know if it is available as audio.