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The Colourful Characters of Australian History

Journalist and author Grantlee Kieza shares his love of Australian history.

Australian History

“The thing that really inspired me to have a love for history was having a grandfather who had fought in World War I and came home absolutely hating everything about war. He was on the Western Front in France and some of his friends from country Victoria were killed there. His stories, and those of my father, who was in World War II, intrigued me about the madness of a world that pushed young men into such horrible fighting.” Grantlee Kieza

Grantlee Kieza is a highly regarded journalist and author whose own story is probably worthy of a book or two. After leaving school in Brisbane, Kieza was 17 when he started working as a journalist, a career that took him all over the globe. Specialising in sports writing, Grantee also became an assistant trainer to Australia’s greatest boxing coach, Johnny Lewis, giving him a front-row seat when he covered world title fights around the world from the early 1980s to late 2010s. So it is no surprise that the first book Grantee wrote, was a biography about the boxer Jeff Fenech, in 1988.

“He didn’t like some of the aspects of the book, though,” explains Kieza. “It was a little too controversial about his delinquent past, so we actually had quite a severe fallout after the book appeared, before patching things up.”  Kieza knew Fenech personally, having been part of the training team of the star boxer since Fenech was a ‘youngster’.

Fenech was the first of many colourful Australian sporting figures Kieza wrote about in the 80s and 90s before moving into the history of sports. “I was always interested in the history of boxing and the history of sports in general. I also wrote books about the history of cricket and those books primed me to write big historical biographies about important figures in Australian history. I didn’t start writing the big Australian biographies until 2010 and I was a little apprehensive moving into new subject matter.”

Grantlee Kieza has since written about some of Australia’s most influential and interesting post-colonial figures including poet Banjo Patterson, Qantas founder Hudson Fysh, botanist Joseph Banks and writer Henry Lawson. He has also researched some lesser-known, but no less interesting characters such as the group of men who hunted the Kelly Gang, Ned Kelly’s own mother, Ellen and Mary Reibey, who went from a teenage convict to being immortalised on the $20 note.

The Remarkable Mrs Reibey is about a 14-year-old convict girl who was sentenced to hang in England as a horse thief but came to Australia as a convict, and became the richest woman in the colony of Sydney. I’ve been contacted by one of her descendants who is the Lord of Edinburgh Castle, and the man in charge of the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, as well as a personal friend of Queen Elizabeth and now King Charles. I think it’s incredible that more than 200 years ago a little girl was almost hanged as a horse thief, and now her descendant is among the most prominent people in Britain,” says Kieza.

History is all around

“I recently had lunch with my wife at a pub in Sydney called the Fortune Of War. It’s been there for more than 200 years. To think soldiers guarding convicts drank there once. Diggers coming home from World War 1 would have a drink there when it was already a quaint old pub. I just think that sense of history around us is quite fascinating,” he adds.

Kieza was fascinated by history from a young age, his interest being sparked by the stories of his father and grandfather, as well as a book he was gifted when he was ten years old.

“My grandparents gave me a book about Australian history – a big coffee table book put out by Reader’s Digest. It was called Australia’s Yesterdays and it analysed each decade in Australia and how life changed – everything from schooling, food, entertainment, housing, etc – over the years from the 1800s to the modern age.”

“I don’t think Australian children are being taught enough about the great characters – men and women – who made Australia what it is today – the people who built cities, who built universities, hospitals, our great scientists, our great doctors, our great explorers, our great adventures. These people risked their lives so that today’s Australians can have a very comfortable life in a modern, democratic society.”
– Grantlee Kieza

Kieza’s most recent book is about the navigator Matthew Flinders who proved that Australia was one giant island by circumnavigating the entire coastline, something that no one had done before. Many European place names throughout Australia are named for Flinders. “I think it’s important that we should all know where we came from, where the name of our country came from, and why these characters that I write about can inspire us all to do great things with our lives if we follow our dreams and work hard,” says Kieza.

Not one to shy away from presenting the less tasteful aspects of a story, Kieza has always strived to present balance in his articles and books. In recognition of his contribution to journalism, Kieza was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia. But that world has changed in many ways since he first started as a cadet.

“I think mainstream journalism has changed dramatically – and not for the better – since I started in the business in 1980,” Kieza says. “Because of the drive toward digital, I think journalism concentrates much more on the sensational – the clickbait stories, and often celebrity-focused – than ever before. Political bias has never been so obvious in the media and I think that alienates a lot of potential readers. I remember as a young reporter whenever I interviewed a politician I had to call their opposite number and get comments from them to give the article a sense of fairness and balance. I don’t think that happens too much anymore.”

But in focussing on writing biographies, Kieza is able to shed light on some of the lesser-known historical figures who have shaped Australia as we know it, and whose stories should be told as part of Australian history.

“My new book, Sister Viv, will be out in April. It’s the true story of a dedicated Australian nurse, Vivian Bullwinkel, who went to Singapore to help patch up wounded Australian soldiers in World War II but ended up being captured by the Japanese. She was marched onto a beach with 21 other nurses and they were all machine-gunned in the back. All of them were killed except Viv, who survived the bullet wound and then lived through the starvation and horrors of a Japanese prison camp for three and a half years. She came back to Australia after the war and dedicated her life to nursing in memory of all her friends who had died. It’s a story of incredible courage and determination, but also of the great love that Viv had for the rest of humanity and the way she dedicated her life to helping others as one of the most respected nurses in Australia.”


Shannon Meyerkort

Shannon Meyerkort is a freelance writer and the author of "Brilliant Minds: 30 Dyslexic Heroes Who Changed our World", now available in all good bookstores.

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