Review: Born of the Sun by Gerald Walsh

Some time ago I was asked to write some book reviews for a journal which unfortunately never saw the light of day, so I thought I might share some of these not-quite-wasted words here instead.  Happy reading! 

Not-quite-wasted-book-reviews: Part 2 

Born of the Sun: Seven young Australian lives by Gerald Walsh 

Born of the SunBorn of the Sun celebrates seven Australians who achieved fame in their fields before untimely deaths in their teens and 20s.  Most of the seven were sportsmen, from champion oarsman Henry Searle to boxer Les Darcy.  All were born and died between 1866 and 1933, allowing Walsh to present their stories against a backdrop of depression, war, federation and the establishment of many enduring Australian identity myths.

Thoroughly researched and written in a spare, accessible prose, these are likeable mini-biographies that focus on the characters’ short-lived glory days.  Walsh doesn’t dwell, as do many biographers, on the minutiae of childhood influences, though he does establish each man’s social origins – flagged most prominently in the stories of those who succeeded despite early deprivation or marginalisation.  Succinct histories of the development of certain sports in the emergent nation also form part of this background information, along with contextual information about the Australian military and scientific spheres.

Although Walsh rations his data on family life, he spares few details about the career highlights of these young men; we learn how much they weighed, what they ate, the full list of their team mates, and who participated in their funeral processions.  We are told, for example, that a normal day for Searle included 16 miles of walking (taken in three shifts), 16 miles of rowing and 10 minutes with dumbbells, plus a careful diet of  cabbage, cauliflower and well-cooked meat (no potatoes). This level of detail may strike some as extraneous, but ultimately it succeeds in providing an insight into the political, social, religious and technological changes that surrounded these lives.

Walsh must have faced some difficult choices in deciding upon his subjects for this work. How do you single out just one of the many soldiers who fought and died in World War 1?  In part, Walsh has narrowed down a wide field by uncovering the things these very different men had in common: they died young, many succumbed to the same insidious and now treatable diseases (peritonitis, tuberculosis), and they travelled to England for combat, competition or education.  Occasionally, they are also linked by coincidences and crossed paths: swimmer, Barney Keiran, for example, was at meets with Australian swimming champion Annette Kellerman.  Whilst away in France, soldier Eric Edgerton’s Batallion had their own ‘Kellerman’ – a statue of the Madonna leaning perilously from a bomb-ravaged church as if diving into the square below.

Kellerman is notable for being the only prominent woman mentioned in the book, with others making fleeting appearances as wives and mothers. Walsh points out that this is a reflection of women’s roles at the time, however their absence strengthens Walsh’s unquestioning celebration of determinedly masculine identity myths.  There are many quotes from associates of the seven praising the value of “manly sports” to the emerging nation. There are repeated mentions of the fair-haired, bronzed, well-formed appearances of these men, their happy and unassuming natures, their mates, their triumphs over adversity, none of which are bad things to celebrate, but the repetition of which sometimes feels like a dated approach to Australian history.

Of course Walsh is making no claim to summarising the whole Australian experience, and what he has written is an engaging look into the lives of successful men who are not necessarily household names in contemporary Australia.  The stories are awash with potential: could Archie Jackson, who made his test debut alongside Bradman, and was the youngest player ever to have made a century in his first test, have outdone the Don if he’d been given the chance? There’s no answer to such questions, but at least these noteworthy achievements have now been chronicled and will not be forgotten.

Walsh, Gerald (2005) Born of the Sun: Seven Young Australian Lives. Pandanus Books: Canberra, ACT.

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