Acclaimed Bangalow author Robert Drewe, who will be featuring at Byron Writers Festival, is having his latest book Nimblefoot launched by Kerry O’Brien at The Book Room at Byron, 27 Fletcher Street at 6pm tonight.
Drewe’s latest endeavour springs from the true story of Australia’s most famous pedestrian. That’s right, Australia’s most famous child walker, John Day. It is a story that begins early in the life of the rather short John Day, who disappeared at the age of 14 after riding the winner (a horse called Nimblefoot) in the 1870 Melbourne Cup… and being a witness to two murders.
‘I was in the National Library in Canberra and they showed me an exhibition of famous and infamous Australians, from royals to bushrangers, and then there was this little kid,’ Drewe told The Echo.
John Day and his inveterate gambling father travelled the world so that John could participate in the long-distance walking competitions that were the forerunner to today’s Olympic walking events.
‘It was a super version of Olympic walking and marathon running,’ said Drewe.
‘It wasn’t like if you lift your feet off the ground like in the Olympics [you’d be disqualified]. These events could be held from town to town, over 600km and other big distances. Others were held in velodromes, you could hold these things in a theatre, the MCG or from Sydney to Melbourne. Regardless of which version he competed in, John won.
‘He won 30,000 pounds in prize money which equates to $8 million today between ages 9 and 12, then stopped walking and at 14 won the Melbourne Cup. I looked him up and there was nothing after that. He intrigued me enough that I thought I’d reimagine his life in fiction.’
Drewe’s novel takes the reader back into an Australia that is a place of racism, sexism and abuse that is at some points challenging to observe. Using imagery such Pears Soap advertising from the period, in which the cherubic white boy washes the black boy clean of his colour, the book also refers to the abuses of power by those in charge, recognising the embedded racism and power imbalances that were a fundamental part of forming the Australian psyche.
Following two murders in Melbourne, John’s life in the book becomes true fiction as Drewe imagines what his life could have been.
‘John ran foul of the Sydney trainers and I thought I’d try and fill in a life for him. The only reason someone would truly vanish is because someone is after him.’
Where John ends up, and how he survives the ‘boy hunt’ that ensues, is where Drewe takes you on a journey into the challenges of his possible life.
‘I did enjoy sitting down with Johnny every day,’ says Drewe. ‘I got to him know him very well. When I am dreaming about him every night I know everything is working.’
You can catch Robert Drewe at the 2022 Byron Writers Festival 26 to 28 August. He will be in a one-on-one conversation about Nimblefoot with Russell Eldridge on Friday, 26 August and then on the panel ’Sporting Heroes’ with Ben Quilty on Sunday, 28 August.
Tickets are for the Byron Writers Festival and featured events can be purchased at https://byronwritersfestival.com.