In 1986 Robert Drewe published his third novel. The title Fortune derives from the central story of the book, the obsession of shipwreck hunter Don Spargo who finds the Dutch wreck Fortuyn.
The novel is set around Drewe’s lightly fictionalised narrative of his journalistic career, firstly in Perth and then Sydney, which is interspersed with breaks to attempt full-time writing. The narrative follows a series of unintended long-resonating connections, beginning with the true story of cartoonist Len Lawson who wrote the popular Australian Lone Avenger comic books but who began a career of rape and murder that saw him jailed first in 1954. This leads to delayed repercussions on a succession of people, ultimately leading us to Don Spargo. Spargo is the very lightly disguised Allan Robinson, the larger than life Western Australian shipwreck finder. Robinson claims he independently found the Vergulde Draeck, written up here as Drewe’s Fortuyn and then lost the location, coming back with others in 1963. Robinson’s claim of early discovery is discounted, and this lack of official recognition was to rankle with him for the rest of his life [Robinson 1980].
According to Bill Bennett Drewe had written several stories about Robinson when he was a Perth-based journalist, covering his various discoveries, claims and confrontations. When Robinson was being tried in Sydney for the attempt to murder his former wife in 1983 he apparently approached Drewe to be a witness for his defence [Bennett 1989: 14].
Spargo / Robinson represents not only the real haunted and increasingly obsessive man, but the media creation of a celebrity version of Robinson, thriving in media attention and feeding off the public desire to for almost cartoonishly exaggerated heroes. Spargo is the ‘regular bloke’ who may not be educated or cultured, but stands up for what he believes against the insiders and the wankers. But Drewe makes him a ‘regular bloke’ on steroids, taking his sense of injustice well beyond the limits of reason and ultimately exposing himself as being unstable and reckless. Spargo’s fictional death, like Robinson’s, is a possible suicide in his cell the night before he was going to be acquitted of the charges for which he was on trial. That this is quite upsetting, however much we disliked the character, is a good indication of the power of Drewe’s writing to engage with a tragic figure such as Spargo.
Drewe’s book gets a mention here because of its direct link to Robinson. I argue in my discussion of Robinson’s claims for finding Phoenician evidence in NW Australia that we need to look at his character as much as the evidence in judging the evidence. The character of Don Spargo would similarly need to make us suspicious of claims, but in any event we should not judge real people by their fictional portrayals, however close the author has come to capturing their idiosyncratic nature.
Aside from the secret visitor speculation, the book is a very good read.
Bennett, B. 1989
‘Literature and journalism: the fiction of Robert Drewe’, Ariel 20 , pp. 3-16.
Also available online
Drewe, R. 1986
Fortune, Pan Books, Sydney.
Robinson, A. 1980
In Australia treasure is not for the finder, privately published, Perth.
WA Maritime Museum
Verguelde Draeck,accessed 12.3.2011.