How does he do it? Last year I reviewed his book on Breaker Morant, which, I thought, was wonderful. Exactly 12 months later, Peter FitzSimons is in the bookshops again with a biography of Sir Hubert Wilkins. The Morant book took readers to the heart of war crimes; this book places us in the midst of scientists coming to terms with climate change. Big books, big themes, big ideas.
I thought I knew a bit about George Wilkins, as he was before the knighthood, from my knowledge of the Australian War Records Section in the First World War, and Wilkins as a war photographer. I knew Wilkins to be an excellent photographer and an extraordinarily brave man.
But, in fact, I knew almost nothing. The tale FitzSimons tells is, simply, staggering. The reader absorbs adventure after adventure, near death experiences followed by more near death experiences, and a capacity for a humanity that is also exceptional.
Having completed one of the greatest aviation feats of all time, flying across the very top of the earth, in atrocious conditions, Wilkins returns to America and vast public adulation. An Australian official in the US arranges for an Australian celebration in New York and engages a young Australian actor, working off Broadway. Wilkins is intrigued, asking her out that night, Well, after she comes off the stage.
He takes her out dancing and the actor is astonished to discover that Wilkins is an excellent dancer. Sort of. He had a teacher with him for the afternoon and evening showing Wilkins all the dance moves so that he won't let the young lady down. They marry soon after.
That is the thing about Wilkins. You give him a problem or a challenge and he will study the issues involved until he has mastered them from every angle, developing solutions, posing additional questions, testing out theories. Wilkins is not only immensely brave; he also has all the hallmarks of genius.
It cannot be easy to write about such a towering figure. The writer risks inducing from the reader a yawn and incredulity. Can he possibly have been that good? FitzSimons is alert to that danger and corrects it by recourse to detail, but detail that is ever profoundly interesting and impressive.
Australian historians are now showing what can be learnt when we look carefully at the achievements and ways of our First Peoples. Wilkins was way ahead in this game, at least 80 years in front of the pack.
On his first exploration in the Artic, he decided to learn as much as he could from the local people. To observe, to question, to do, as far as he could, what they had known for centuries. Thus he quickly learns to build an ice house, how to cut the blocks, and how to place them. This knowledge will save his life at least twice.
In a hilarious episode - FitzSimons will always amuse his readers while he educates them - Wilkins decides to try the local method of despatching a polar bear. The method is to get the dogs to distract the bear, while approaching it from behind and sinking the knife deep into its heart.
Unfortunately Wilkins decides to take on an abnormally large and strong animal. The dogs do their work, Wilkins lunges, barely grazing the bear's skin. Enraged, the bear turns on him and will, no doubt, finish the explorer off. With the luck that accompanies Wilkins wherever he goes, the would-be assassin falls over one of the dogs, the bear misses, and those nearly doubled over in laughter come to Wilkins's rescue.
The wonderful humanity of this story is not lost on FitzSimons. The native people turn the whole debacle into a party tale, with all the actions, which is still being repeated years after the actual event. Wilkins enjoys the mockery just as much as anyone. He does not take himself too seriously, probably not seriously at all.
Which leads Peter FitzSimons to the big question: why is Wilkins virtually forgotten in his own country? Partly it was his own modesty. He never wanted the gaze to fall on him. So he did not write up his own adventures. Partly it was bad luck; Wilkins amassed a mighty archive which was not properly conserved, curated and preserved.
But partly, too, it was because Wilkins did not enter the Australian story. Though born in South Australia he had to travel to the furthest ends of the earth for the challenges and commissions that came his way. He went through the book of war photographs that Bean had published in the Official History, marking up his own work. Only for his own satisfaction. We never knew.
Peter FitzSimons has done his level best to return George Hubert Wilkins to the pantheon of the greatest Australians. He has told a story for the nation. It is now up to those who will read this book to translate that admiration into a solid effort to remember and commemorate this great Australian.
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