Review of ‘Bumper: The Life and Times of Bumper Farrell’ by Larry Writer, 12th June 2011

IN 1945, Bumper Farrell was accused of biting off part of opponent Bill McRitchie’s ear in a scrum. He vigorously denied the claim, arguing that he didn’t have enough teeth left to do such a dastardly thing. Most of his chompers, he argued, had been smashed out by McRitchie earlier in the season.

These were the rough-and-tumble times Bumper played in and they suited him well. The star player and erstwhile captain-coach of the Newtown Bluebags, Bumper’s toughness and intimidating reputation saw him earn representative honours, appearing for NSW and Australia in the front row, where he would punch, kick and pummel opposing props in the scrum then go for a few drinks with them after the game.

Training in those days consisted of a couple of nights a week of running around an oval, then going to the pub. Injuries were not treated with the care they are now and Bumper once reacted angrily to an ambulance officer who tried to revive him with smelling salts, fearing he would look soft for receiving treatment.

The Life and Times of Frank 'Bumper' Farrell, by Larry Writer (Hachette Australia, $35)The Life and Times of Frank ‘Bumper’ Farrell, by Larry Writer (Hachette Australia, $35)

Off the field, Bumper’s job as a police officer saw him display the same disdain for rules that made him such a formidable opponent.

He loved nothing more than dispensing a little rough justice, often delivering a boot to the backside of a youngster playing up in the Cross, or more fearsome beatings to the violent pimps and organised-crime figures that peopled his beat, an area that included Kings Cross and Darlinghurst, then in the grip of notorious sly-grog merchants.

For Bumper, Larry Writer explains, the end always justified the means. When people get nostalgic for the days when cops used to give hooligans a belt around the head to keep them in line, Bumper is the kind of policeman they are thinking of. His methods would not be tolerated today but his take-no-prisoners approach earned him plenty of supporters and loyal friends at the time.

Tales abound of him protecting prostitutes from violent johns and exploitative pimps and showing compassion to the working poor and the needy. His was a black-and-white world of heroes and villains and some of his escapades, such as disarming a man who was rampaging through a hotel with a knife, seem ripped from the pages of a comic book.

In an era of large-scale police corruption, Writer can’t bring himself to believe Farrell was crooked, reckoning he only accepted the odd free drink or tray of fruit instead of the regular bribes many of his colleagues took. He certainly never became wealthy, as some police of his era did and, after leaving the force, he continued to work, including a typically eventful spell doing security work for News Ltd, where he enlisted Roger Rogerson to deal with Ita Buttrose’s stalker.

This endlessly colourful character must be a biographer’s dream. Everyone, it seems, has a Bumper Farrell story. He ate raw meat, got someone to eat a live goldfish for a prank, beat up a gangster until he cried, relieved himself on mates‘ trousers for a laugh and once commandeered a police boat to give him a lift home, jumped overboard and swam ashore.

When he was initially denied entry to the force because he was slightly too short, he made up the extra inches by stretching himself on a frightening-sounding contraption. You couldn’t make this stuff up.

It is hard not to detect a glow of admiration shining through these tales and, at times, Bumper comes across as a kind of Robin Hood with cauliflower ears. I can’t bring myself to warm to the punch-happy Farrell as much as his biographer but Writer has done an invaluable service in assembling these anecdotes and painting a picture of a man inescapably of his time and place and of a part of Sydney that seems all but unrecognisable now.

Originally appeared in: Sydney Morning Herald

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