Jhe sepia lithograph from the National Library was irresistible to Robert Drewe’s novelist. Painted in 1866, a small boy in red shorts leans against a milestone on a winding English country road. On the stake is a winner’s belt. John Day was “Australia’s Child Phenomenon”.
He was 10, weighed four stone and was an undefeated juvenile world champion in the hugely popular sport of 19th century ‘pedestrianism’: grueling competitive long-distance walking. “He was the youngest world champion ever,” Drewe recalled.
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, among other things, Nimblefoot . “I said to myself: ‘This is extraordinary! Why has no one heard of him?
The author of The Drowner, The Rip and The Bodysurfers, Drewe, 79, is one of Australia’s most 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 days in two sports proved fruitless: the ‘child of Australia phenomenon’ had disappeared from the story. “So I decided I wanted to invent an imaginary life for him,” he says. “So I did.”
Although a very different novel, Drewe’s Nimblefoot shares a conceptual similarity with 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 in turn-of-the-century Australia, blending fact and fiction and powerful, fragmented imagery – with plenty of humor in there too.
In Australian Book Review, Winkler described Nimblefoot as a “book of plenty…every detail detailed, every detail particularized”. To The Guardian, in a subsequent 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 time,” he said. “He was always ahead of the curve.”
But unlike Winkler, Drewe has never been listed for Australia’s top literary prize. “The Miles Franklin judges obviously decided a long time ago that I would never get parole,” he notes dryly.
We meet at Drewe’s in the northern rivers region of New South Wales, which is in disarray. He was at his other home in Western Australia when the February floods hit, and that home had flooded – before sitting in standing water for three months. When he opened the door, he was “welcomed by this extraordinary smell. The mold on the wall was like a living creature, like something out of an alien movie. His archives and research papers, as well as all of his own published books, were mush.
Although laced with biting humor, Nimblefoot was written through a period of devastating loss for Drewe. “So many bad things happened in our family’s lives, it was just a horrible time.” Her son Ben died in Malaysia in 2019, when he was just three months from the start of the book. “I got sick from it,” he says; he was admitted to hospital with heart disease.
Then last November, three months before the arrival, his daughter Amy died. “The family is still coming to terms with this.”
Drewe is known to be a deeply loving father to his seven children, from four marriages. Those close to him say writing grounded him, as he channeled 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 it oddly comforting to retire to my desk and read the novel,” he says. And so, in the midst of the unbearable pain of losing her own adult children, Drewe created a living life for a lost and forgotten child. “Writing the wild and imaginative life of Johnny has relieved me. Johnny started looking like a friendly acquaintance after a while.
Says her editor Nikki Christer: “Everything that happened to Rob seemed to have happened to Rob. And he still got his book on time and it was amazing to work with him the whole way through. I don’t know how he did it.
Drewe got her start as a journalist and was part of the generation that included Helen Garner, Roger McDonald, Peter Carey, Murray Bail and Frank Moorhouse; writers who helped shape the identity of Australian settlers by sending us back to ourselves. His breakthrough was the 1983 short story book The Bodysurfers, which captured the zeitgeist of the times, introducing the beach to literature as central to how Australian lives unfold. Exuberant, sandy and seductive, it has been adapted for film, television, radio and theatre. It has been in print for almost four decades.
Now with his imaginative powers in full swing, he seems to get funnier with age, more playful. Her 2017 novel Whipbird was a biting satire of modern middle-class life. “I’m less struck by the idea of writing serious fiction. I give more scope to my sense of humor than when I started,” he says. At the time, “the Australian establishment was all old and tweedy and very reluctant to let you through the gates. All of the writing was very country-based; there was very little written about city life and certainly not about suburban life. Squatters were very common and the women enjoyed themselves under the jacaranda. But now it’s much freer and I’m glad it’s the case.
Drewe is a story collector, an acute observer of life’s absurdities and incongruous oddities. If you’re a bit of a wanker, you have to be careful – you might end up in one of his books. “If the occasion arises where you need a character like that, it’s handy to be able to remember that,” he says. (Says Christer: “He’s kind of sitting there watching and absorbing, and you think, ‘where is he going to use that?'”)
He is also the master of fast shipping. A paragraph can go by quite peacefully until a character disembarks from an ocean liner, dies of the bubonic plague, or falls from a fourth-floor balcony. We feel a perverse pleasure, with a humor sometimes so subtle but drastic that we do not see it coming.
There’s also often a pizzazz that emanates from the pages; 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 feminine fragrance. A kiss, a frown, a flurry of activity, a rare laugh, the smell of cooking and perfume, the tickle of a lock of hair against her cheek.
Imagining his way into the past, without the tedious problem of consequences, Drewe dramatically and cruelly takes aim at the British monarchy – Prince Alfred in particular, who visited Australia on a private trip in 1870. In Nimblefoot, Alfred de Drewe is a bit of a sleaze. “There are all kinds of stories in contemporary publications that he enjoyed gambling, running and horseback riding,” he says. “At that time, brothels in Melbourne were heavily frequented by society people.”
So the prince takes young John Day, still dressed in his purple racing clothes, to a brothel to celebrate his Melbourne Cup win. Day witnesses two murders by the royal party and the quick cover-up. Suddenly he is a handicap, which the Imperial forces want to get rid of – so Day goes on the run.
He finds himself on the coast of Western Australia, where Drewe grew up and where he returns again and again in his writings, and for six months of each year with his wife Tracy. In Nimblefoot, a WA sunset is “African, hysterical, biblical. It’s Monet’s Monet.
The elemental nature and the salty smell of the coast, says Drewe, “always have a huge impact on me…I really love experiencing the wilderness – and I love putting that in a book.”