The sepia lithograph in the National Library was irresistible to the novelist in Robert Drewe. Painted in 1866, a tiny boy in red shorts leans against a milestone on a winding English country road. On the milestone is a winner’s sash. John Day was the “Child Phenomenon from Australia”.
He was 10 years old, weighed four stone and was undefeated juvenile world champion in the wildly popular 19th century spectator sport of “pedestrianism”: gruelling long-distance competitive walking. “He was the youngest world champion ever,” recalls Drewe.
His interest was piqued, so he kept digging. It turned out that while Day was still a child, he also became an apprentice jockey, and in 1870 – at the age of 14 – he won the Melbourne Cup on a bay gelding called, of all things, Nimblefoot. “I thought, ‘This is extraordinary! Why hasn’t anyone heard of him?’”
The author of The Drowner, The Rip and The Bodysurfers, Drewe, 79, is one of Australia’s most highly decorated writers, whose work has been adapted for film, TV, stage and even song (Paul Kelly based Our Sunshine on Drewe’s novel of the same name).
In Day, Drewe had found his next novel – but research into the boy’s life after his glory in two sports proved fruitless: the “Child Phenomenon from Australia” had disappeared from history. “So I decided I wanted to make up an imaginary life for him,” he says. “So I did.”
Although it is a vastly different novel, Drewe’s Nimblefoot does share a conceptual similarity to another recent Australian release: Michael Winkler’s Grimmish, which this year became the first self-published book to be shortlisted for the Miles Franklin. Both detail the punishing lives of unlikely sporting heroes around the turn of the century in Australia, blending fact and fiction and powerful, fragmented images – with a lot of humour in there too.
In Australian Book Review, Winkler described Nimblefoot as a “book of abundance … every detail is detailed, every particular is particularised”. To the Guardian in a later phone call, he described Nimblefoot as “a wild thing”.
Winkler first read Drewe as a young teenager. “He is the most versatile and prolific writer of his generation, and an indispensable chronicler of his times,” he said. “He has consistently been ahead of the curve.”
But unlike Winkler, Drewe has never been listed for Australia’s most important literary prize. “The Miles Franklin judges obviously decided long ago that I was never going to be granted parole,” he notes drily.
We meet at Drewe’s home in the New South Wales northern rivers region, which is in some disarray. He was at his other home, in Western Australia, when the February floods hit, and this house had been inundated – before sitting in stagnant water for three months. When he opened the door he was “met by this extraordinary smell. The mould up the wall was like a living creature, like something from an alien movie.” His archives and research documents, and all his own published books, were pulp.
Although laced with mordant humour, Nimblefoot was written through a time of devastating loss for Drewe. “So much bad stuff happened in our family’s life, it was just a horrific period.” His son Ben died in Malaysia in 2019, when he was just three months into the book. “I got sick as a result of that,” he says; he was admitted to hospital with a heart condition.
Then last November, three months before the finish, his daughter Amy died. “The family is still just coming to terms with that.”
Drewe is known to be a deeply loving father to his seven children, from four marriages. Those close to him say the writing anchored him, as he channelled his overwhelming grief into intense creativity, resulting in some of the most imaginative work of his career.
“The times were so sad and dramatic – I was constantly anticipating bad news – that I found retreating to my desk and to the novel was strangely comforting,” he says. And so amid the unbearable pain of losing his own adult children, Drewe created a vivid life for a lost and forgotten child. “Writing Johnny’s wild and imaginative life came as a relief. Johnny began to seem like a friendly acquaintance after a while.”
Says his publisher Nikki Christer: “Anything that could happen to Rob seemed to have happened to Rob. And he still got his book in on time and was incredible to work with all the way through. I don’t know how he did it.”
Drewe got his start as a journalist, and was one of the generation that included Helen Garner, Roger McDonald, Peter Carey, Murray Bail and Frank Moorhouse; writers who helped shape the identity of settler Australia by reflecting ourselves back to us. His breakthrough was the 1983 book of short stories, The Bodysurfers, which captured the zeitgeist of the time, introducing the beach to literature as central to the way Australian lives are played out. Exuberant, sandy and seductive it was adapted for film, television, radio and the theatre. It has been in print for almost four decades.
Now with his imaginative powers at full throttle, he seems to be getting funnier with age, more playful. His 2017 novel Whipbird was a biting satire on modern middle class life. “I’m less struck by the idea of writing serious fiction. I’m giving my sense of humour more range than I used to when I was starting out,” he says. Back then, “the Australian establishment was all old and tweedy and very loath to let you through the portals. All the writing was very country based; there was very little written about urban and certainly not suburban life. Squatters were very prevalent and women mooned around under the jacaranda. But now it’s much freer and I’m pleased that it is.”
Drewe is a collector of stories, an acute observer of the absurdities and incongruent oddities of life. If you are a bit of a wanker you need to be careful – you might end up in one of his books. “If the chance comes where you need a character like that, it’s handy to be able to remember them,” he says. (Says Christer: “He just sort of sits there and watches and absorbs, and you think, ‘where is he going to use that?’”)
He is also the master of the swift dispatch. A paragraph can be going along quite peacefully until suddenly a character pitches off an ocean liner, dies of bubonic plague, or topples off a fourth-floor balcony. You sense a perverse pleasure in this, with humour that’s sometimes so subtle yet drastic that you don’t see it coming.
There is often a pungency coming off the pages, too; Drewe is a sensory writer. In Nimblefoot, John Day remembers his mother who died when he was six. “In his memory she was a feeling, a scent, rather than a name. A womanly aroma. A kiss, a frown, a flurry of activity, a rare laugh, a cooking and perfumy smell, the tickle of a hair curl against his cheek.”
Imagining his way into the past, without the tedious problem of consequences, Drewe takes spectacularly cruel aim at the British monarchy – at Prince Alfred in particular, who visited Australia on a private journey in 1870. In Nimblefoot, Drewe’s Alfred is a bit of a sleaze. “There are all sorts of stories from contemporary publications that he loved gambling, racing and riding,” he says. “In those days Melbourne brothels were well attended by society people.”
And so the Prince takes young John Day, still in his violet racing silks, to a brothel to celebrate his Melbourne Cup win. Day witnesses two murders by the royal party, and the swift cover up. Suddenly he is a liability, who the Imperial forces want to get rid of – so Day goes on the run.
He ends up on the coast of Western Australia, where Drewe grew up and where he returns again and again in his writing, and for six months of each year with his wife Tracy. In Nimblefoot, a WA sunset is “African, hysterical, biblical. It out Monet’s Monet.”
The coast’s elemental nature and salty smell, Drewe says, “still has a huge impact on me … I really do enjoy experiencing the wilderness – and I love putting it in a book.”