Robert Drew on the discovery of the baby phenomenon in Australia: “I thought, ‘Why hasn’t anyone heard of it?'” | Australian Books

TThe sepia lithograph in the National Library was irresistible to the novelist Robert Drew. A young boy in red shorts was painted in 1866, leaning on an English winding country road. On the teacher is the winner’s scarf. John Day was the “Child Phenomenon of Australia”.

At 10 years old, weighing four stones, he was the undefeated world juvenile champion in the popular sport of walking in the 19th century: competitive, grueling long-distance walking. “He was the youngest ever world champion,” Drew recalls.

It piqued his interest, so he kept digging. It turns out that while Day was still a child, he also became a trainee jockey, and in 1870—at the age of fourteen—won the Melbourne Cup on a bay called, of all things, Nimblefoot. “I thought, this is unusual! Why hasn’t anyone heard of it?”

The Drowner, The Rip and The Bodysurfers author, Drewe, 79, is one of Australia’s most decorated writers, whose work has been adapted for film, television, theater and even song (Paul Kelly Based our sunshine on Drew’s novel of the same name).

Sir Johnny Day, Australian Infantry Champion c 1866
Sir Johnny Day, Australian Hero of the Infantry, in a lithograph from circa 1866. Photo: National Portrait Gallery of Australia

In Day, Drew finds his next novel – but research into the boy’s life after his glory in two sports has proven fruitless: The “Australia Child Phenomenon” has vanished from history. “So I decided I wanted to make him a fantasy life,” he says. “So I did.”

Although it’s a very different novel, Drewe’s Nimblefoot shares a conceptual similarity with another recent Australian edition: Michael Winkler’s Grimmish, which took place this year. It became the first self-published book to be shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Prize. Both detail the grueling lives of unexpected sports heroes at the turn of the century in Australia, blending fact and fiction and powerful, fragmented imagery — with plenty of humor there, too.

In the Australian Book Review, Winkler described Nimblefoot as “a book of exuberance… every detail detailed, every particular particular”. To the Guardian in a subsequent phone call, he described Nimblefoot as a “brutal thing”.

Winkler first read Drew when he was a young teenager. He said, “He is the most diverse and most prolific writer of his generation, and an indispensable historian of his time.” “He was always ahead of the curve.”

But unlike Winkler, Drewe has never been included in Australia’s most important literary award. “It’s clear that Miles Franklin’s judges decided long ago that I wouldn’t get parole,” he recklessly notes.


We meet at Drew’s house in the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales, which is a bit of a mess. He was at his other home, in Western Australia, when the February floods hit, and this house was inundated – before it sat in stagnant water for three months. When he opened the door “I was met with an unusual smell. The mold hanging on the wall was like a living creature, like something out of an alien movie.” His archives, research documents, and all of his published books were like paste.

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Although Nimblefoot was associated with humor, it was written during Drew’s devastating loss. “A lot of bad things happened in our family’s life, it was just a terrible period.” His son Ben died in Malaysia in 2019, when he was only three months into the book. “I got sick as a result,” he says. He was taken to the hospital due to a heart condition.

Then last November, three months before the end, his daughter Amy died. “The family is still coming to terms with that.”

Drew is known to be a very loving father to his seven children, from four marriages. Those close to him say the writing cemented him, channeling his intense grief into intense creativity, resulting in some of the most creative work of his career.

“The times were so sad and exciting—I was constantly expecting bad news—that I found withdrawing into my office and into the novel was oddly comforting,” he says. And so amid the unbearable pain of losing his adult children, Drew creates the living life of a lost and forgotten child. “Writing Johnny’s wild and imaginary life came as a relief. Johnny started looking like a friendly acquaintance after a while.”

His publisher Nikki Christer says, “Anything that could happen to Rob seems to have happened to Rob. He still gets his book on time and it’s been great working with him all the time. I don’t know how he did it.”

Robert Drew at his apartment in Fremantle
“I give my sense of humor more scope than I’m used to”: Robert Drew in his Fremantle apartment. Photograph: Tony McDonough/The Guardian

Drew started his career as a journalist, and was one of a generation that included Helen Garner, Roger MacDonald, Peter Carey, Murray Bell, and Frank Morehouse. Writers who helped shape the identity of Australia’s settlers By rethinking ourselves to us. His achievement 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 life is done. Prolific, sandy and seductive, it has been adapted for film, television, radio and theater. It has been in print for nearly four decades.

Now with his imaginative abilities at full speed, he seems to be getting funnier with age, and more playful. His 2017 novel Whipbird was a scathing satire of modern middle-class life. “I am not very impressed with the idea of ​​writing serious novels. I give my sense of humor more scope than I was used to when I was first.” At the time, ‘The whole Australian establishment was old, livid, and too loathsome to let you pass through the gates. All the writing was country-based; there was very little writing about urban life and certainly not in the suburbs. Squatters were very prevalent and women were wandering around. Under the jacaranda. But now it’s much freer and I’m happy about that.”

Drew is a collector of stories and a keen observer of life’s paradoxical absurdities. If you’re a bit snooty, you have to be careful – you might end up in one of his books. “If the opportunity comes up where you need a character like that, it’s easy to be able to remember it,” he says. (Krester says, “He just kind of sits there and watches and sucks, and you’re thinking, ‘Where’s he going to use that?’)

He is also a master of fast transmission. Paragraph can go in complete peace until one of the characters suddenly jumps out of the ocean liner, dies from the bubonic plague, or falls from a balcony on the fourth floor. You take great pleasure in this, with humor that is sometimes so subtle but so radical that you don’t see it coming.

There is often a dent sticking out of the pages as well; Drew is a sensual writer. In Nimblefoot, John Day remembers his mother who died when he was six years old. “It was in his memory a feeling, and a smell, not a name. A feminine scent. A kiss, a frown, an outburst of activity, a rare laugh, a cooking and an aromatic scent, the tickling of the curls on his cheek.”

Drew imagines his way into the past, without the problem of boring consequences, and takes a startlingly ruthless aim at the British monarchy—in Prince Alfred in particular, who visited Australia on a private trip in 1870. In Nimblefoot, Alfred Drewe is a bit of a spoiler. “There are all kinds of stories from contemporary publications that I loved gambling, racing, and horse riding,” he says. “In those days, Melbourne brothels were well attended by members of the community.”

Nimblefoot by Robert Drew is out August 2022 by Penguin Random House

And so the young Prince John Day, still dressed in purple race silk, is escorted to a brothel to celebrate his Melbourne Cup win. Today witnesses two murders by the royal party and a rapid cover-up. Suddenly he becomes a burden, which the imperial forces want to get rid of – so Dai keeps running.

He ended up on the coast of Western Australia, where Drew grew up and where he returns again and again in his writing, and for six months each year with his wife Tracy. In Nimblefoot, a Western Australian sunset is “African, hysterical, bookish. From Monet Monet.”

Drew says the pristine nature of the coast and its salty scent “continue to make a huge impact on me…I really enjoy experiencing the wildlife—and would love to put it in a book.”

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