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Favourite Books of Peter FitzSimons

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by Steven G (subscribe)
Too much tertiary education... Former performer/wrestler, teacher, scientist; Published author & Father... Want to be a writer if I grow up...
Published November 25th 2018
Read something thought-provoking
Peter FitzSimons is an interesting character in Australia. He started life as a rugby union player and gravitated into journalism. He married a stunningly beautiful journalist and made appearances on TV. So far, he sounds like any of a number of famous or semi-famous sportspeople in the world.
Peter FitzSimons, book, rugby, bandana
Peter FitzSimons in 2013 (Wikipedia)

Except for one thing – when Peter speaks, he sounds intelligent. He is erudite and compelling. His opinions, arguments and ideas are well thought out and have true substance. When he speaks, you want to listen. He doesn't brow-beat, though – he talks to you, not at you, even down the lens of a television camera. When he puts forward the argument for Australia becoming a republic, you feel that it is worth considering. When he criticises some-one in power for being a pillock, you think that maybe they aren't doing the right thing.

And then he started writing books. History books in the main, though there are some others. And long ones, too. Not the sort of sports autobiography ghost-written by a mate from the The Age, but actual books of actual history. And, again, they are not what you would expect. Sure, they are well-researched (extensively so), but they are written with a humanity that gives true life to these people on the page.

As a writer (albeit of fiction), I read his work and understand why my novels struggle to get in through the front door. His characters come alive.

Now, he recently released Mutiny On The Bounty which I believe I am getting for Christmas/Birthday (at least, I've hinted enough I would like it…) so when I do get it, I will write a review of it (assuming no-one beats me to it). And, in that vein, I decided I would list my favourite of his books.

Disclaimer: I have not read close to all of his stuff. Just over a dozen would be it. But I think that is enough for me to compile this list, to get some people out there looking at his work and hopefully enjoying it as much as I do.

Nancy Wake: A Biography of Our Greatest War Heroine (2001)

Before I read this, all I knew of Nancy Wake came from one segment on some ABC TV show. Afterwards, I was asking why more people don't know about her. Since Peter wrote this book, articles about her have appeared in magazines and newspapers, but he was the one who started the interest in her.

The one thing about his writing in this case that stands out is that, while he praises her, he does not mythologise Nancy Wake. She is portrayed as an incredibly brave woman, but a human being for all that. Sometimes it does read like a sort of proto-James Bond but the fact it actually happened makes the reader shake their head in wonder. She comes across as a likeable and humble – she never cashed in on what she did – even though she saved countless lives and did things most people would consider insane. Yes, it was the subject matter that made the book, but it was not a dry history – the subject lived on the pages.

The Rugby War (1996)

I borrowed this book from the library under a misapprehension. I thought it was about the rugby league super-league crisis that tore the game in two for years, and which captured my imagination as a person who watched rugby (rare in South Australia, I know). When I read the preface and saw it was about union (which I had an amazingly unsuccessful go at in my late teens, early 20s) I almost decided not to bother. But I had nothing better to read at the time, so I decided to give it a go.

This was the first book by Peter that I read and started the idea that if his name was on the cover, I should read it no matter what. It is not as polished as future tomes, but the subject matter doesn't lead to the humanising needed in many other cases. It tells the story of how rugby union became professional in the 1990s. It was a fascinating read, full of politics and rubbish and total tripe happening behind the scenes. No-one comes out of this book smelling of roses, that's for sure. And what it did was open my eyes to the backstage world of high-level sport. I thought it was only the lower level stuff that was filled with petty politicians (as I have discovered to my chagrin), but the upper echelons are just as pathetic. Even if the outcome was a positive one, I found the book slightly depressing. Still, well worth reading.

Ned Kelly: The Story of Australia's Most Notorious Legend (2013)
ned kelly, book, cover

This is an incredible book. Like most people in Australia with some interest in our history, I have taken some note of the Ned Kelly myth. I read Peter Carey's fictionalised True History Of The Kelly Gang and didn't really enjoy it, and thought that maybe Ned Kelly was going to be something I wouldn't read anything decent about.

I was wrong.

What Peter does is not just focus on the Kelly gang themselves, but looks at all the characters involved at the time, as well as the politics of the era. He gives voices to policemen, other gang members, everyone at the time which gives not just the story of Ned Kelly but of Australia during a period of transition to a genuine country, not merely an English outpost. And his choice of language used in the book is interesting. Not sure how I would describe it, but it certainly helped paint a picture of the time and sense of place. More than a simple biography, this is a history book worth reading.

Gallipoli (2014)
gallipoli, book, cover

Following on from Ned Kelly, Peter went on to tackle the other great Australian myth – Gallipoli. Now, what strikes me most about this book is that it is not the story of the Australian soldiers in Turkey – it is the story of the campaign. The Turkish soldiers are included and get a fair hearing. All are treated as equals, soldiers doing their duty under the command of men with greater authority than themselves. There is not hatred between the sides – they were just doing their jobs. It makes these soldiers into men we feel compassion for.

The other thing about the book that really helps is the use of maps and photographs. Despite teaching about Gallipoli (in the way you have to when given a couple of days in a school year), Peter's research brought home to me some of the realities of their situation that I had not considered before. Meticulously researched, well-written and incredibly presented – this should be a text-book for all students of Australian history.

Batavia (2012)

And I will finish with my favourite of his books. I knew absolutely nothing about the ship the [I}Batavia[/I] apart from hearing it in passing on some documentary or another. To read about this amazing piece of pseudo-Australian history was something else. The desperation of the people involved, the almost Lord Of The Flies way some of the sailors reacted to their situation, the bravery of sailing forth to get help… It was stunning.

Words cannot do justice to this book. I read it in 2 days. I could not put the thing down. I was depressed and saddened and felt for the people as they tried to survive in what could only be considered the worst of times. And at the end when justice was meted out, I found myself thinking they deserved it – and me, someone who hates capital punishment. That is how well-written it is. This is a stunning book, a compelling look at a piece of history that has passed by and maybe should be remembered. And, with this book, I am sure it will.

So, there you have it – 5 books by Peter FitzSimons well worth your time. With summer coming, some good reading here. And when (if) I get the new one… well, I can hardly wait.

Now – what did I get wrong? What did I miss? What are your favourites? As usual, sound off in the comments section below!

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Your Comment
I have read only a handful of his books (so far). My favourites are Kokoda and Gallipoli.
by May Cross (score: 3|8260) 1582 days ago
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