Biographer Stephen Dando-Collins wonders whether celebrated Australian author Paul Brickhill would want the fame and success he gained if he had his time again.
The ace World War II fighter pilot and prisoner of war, who went on to write The Great Escape, died a lonely and dispirited man.
His life has been the enigma Dando-Collins has wrapped his mind around in writing his new book, The Hero Maker.
The northern Tasmanian biographer delved into Brickhill’s life after realising no one had written about him.
His early research showed him the renowned journalist’s story began in his very own backyard, Launceston.
Dando-Collins’ work gained a personal edge when he realised he was walking where Brickhill’s family once walked.
The most valuable source for his research were the papers filed in the author’s bitter divorce from his wife Margaret.
“At first I felt a little bit guilty, that I was looking at their inner-most secrets,” Dando-Collins said.
Soon he remembered that throughout their lives, the couple courted publicity.
Margaret was Brickhill’s muse, but their relationship was tempestuous and the author ultimately regretted marrying her in 1950.
In a span of four years, he wrote classics The Great Escape (1950), The Dam Busters (1951) and Reach for the Sky (1954).
Brickhill’s creativity later failed him. In his last 25 years he struggled to write another book, and never did.
“I still wonder if he had his time again, had he known what lay ahead, would he pay that price.”
Initially Dando-Collins felt sorry for Brickhill, who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and worked to become a successful author after the war.
However he learnt that during the divorce, finalised in 1964, it emerged Brickhill had hit his wife.
“I was hugely disappointed,” Dando-Collins said.
“He despised himself for it.”
The Hero Maker is available from Monday, August 29.
- Page 15: Brickhill’s Tassie origins