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Book Review: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor… The Life of Colin Kerby, OAM by Jan Mitchell

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Anyone who thinks that a single career choice has to be the sum of a person’s life needs to read Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Sailor…. Early on in the book, I expected Colin Kerby’s biography to be that of a surgeon. Certainly Colin Kerby was a surgeon, but not for long, as his itch for change and transformation took him into many other professions. Despite being a deft hand with a knife, a master at amputations, an expert anastamoser, and a budding pathologist, Colin didn’t continue with his surgery. Instead he developed his diving and salvaging skills, became a photographer, created Kerby’s Confectionery (inventing new ways to make classic lollies), created his own diving show, trained sea lions, brewed beer, invented his own gyrocopter, became a cancer researcher, and invented a range of medical machines. And as if that weren’t enough, Kerby also worked for the Salk institute (the book opens with a letter of recommendation from Jonas Salk himself), ran a laundry and dry cleaning business, ran a sandwich kiosk, taught high school chemistry, built a yacht from scratch, worked as an engineer for hire, became a car salesman, traveled the world, saved hundreds of lives, and received the Order of Australia.

It’s an odd sort of progression from surgeon to sandwich maker and from confectioner to showman. It’s hard, at times, to believe that this is a book about one person, though there is a kind of entrepreneurial inventor thread that links everything Kirby does.

There were times, reading Tinker, Tailor Soldier, Sailor (no spy, though that was probably the only career that Kerby didn’t have), where I almost felt exasperation every time Kerby had a career shift. After all, he would have made such a great surgeon, and though it wasn’t his fault that the cancer research fell through, it seemed like this was a career where, had he found an alternative position, he might have gone on to invent more wonderful machines and made a real difference in people’s lives. Nevertheless, it’s clear that Col Kerby is a renaissance man with such a wide range of interests and hunger for knowledge that one career just wasn’t enough. The man seems to have an almost superhuman hunger for learning, and energy levels that a twenty year old would be envious of.

The story is told in short, easy to read vignettes, each grouped more or less around the different career phases in Kerby’s life, even though not all of them were sequential. At times there were two or three (or more) careers on the go, including, for example, running his street photography, confectionery, and dry cleaning enterprise all at one time. Each of the vignettes is told in first person memoir style, with Kerby narrating the events that happened to him. His wife Judy also tells some of the story, including her early days as a dancer in Melbourne’s Tivoli Theatre, the story of their romance, and a long section on the travels that the couple took primarily in their later years.

Throughout the book are evocative black and white photographs showing Kerby and his Judy at various points in their lives, along with bits of memorabilia such as certificates. Moving from Kirby’s childhood in the early 1920s through to 2010, the book encompasses a broad range of history, covering life in New Guinea, World War Two, and modern day innovations. There is plenty of action too. Kerby nearly dies several times, from an overabundance of urea, to a severed artery in his leg, falling off a twelve foot girder, diving and flying accidents, a near drowning, and he even had a gun pointed at him in Mexico. At one point in the book an unknown woman in Spain recognises Kerby, telling him that he’s “a little piece of history”. Though he never finds out who she was, the statement is a fair one.

At 90 years old, Kerby is still working on his yacht, and between him and Judy, it looks like there’s plenty of energy for a few more career changes yet. Tinker,Tailor, Soldier, Sailor is a well-written enjoyable read. Colin Kerby is a man who comes across as so utterly down to earth that he’s easy to relate to — a kind of everyman, and yet, taken as a whole, his life is an extraordinary display of flexibility and capability, full of insight and interest.

All profits from the sale of this book are being donated to the
Hamlin Fistula Relief and Aid Fund.

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About Magdalena Ball

Magdalena Ball is the author of the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Sublime Planet, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks. Find out more about Magdalena at www.magdalenaball.com.
  • jenjen

    I was very disappointed with this narrative, I had expected a biography, instead I found that Jann had compiled a lot of Col’s stories, but neglected to critically examine what makes this amazing 90 year old tick.