WHILE Matthew Smalley’s fellow graduates were setting off on careers with Proctor and Gamble and the like, he was heading Down Under on an altogether different path.

“I had always wanted to go and work with horses, so I went to be a cowboy... after three years at university,” he laughed.

After several “extremely unpleasant” months toiling in a limestone quarry to raise the money, he duly set off to find work in what turned out to be a drought-ridden Australia, where outback workers were being laid off rather than taken on.

He got lucky, though, and before long, found himself mustering cattle on a bush station in Queensland. “They were mustering it clean, trying to round up all the cattle, but it was quite a job because the cattle were completely wild.

“We spent long, long days in the saddle chasing them down, but I loved it.”

His two-year stint in Australia and the life of a jackaroo might have been 40 years ago now, but the colours, feel and atmosphere have stayed with him and so when he picked up a biography of Sid Kidman, one of the biggest characters ever to have inhabited that vast continent, it had resonance.

Matthew, by trade a corporate communications consultant, had the subject for his first novel.

The Song of the Butcher Bird, with its subtitle Book 1: Bigfella Kidman, is out now. He envisages it as the first of a series.

Bigfella Kidman begins with the great man’s trip to London in 1908. By then he was 51 years old, a bonafide cattle king... and the biggest private landowner in the world.

“He could afford to stay for a year in one of London’s more expensive hotels, but his preferred means of exploring the city was to climb aboard a two-horse omnibus and slip the driver a tip to let him take the reins,” said Matthew.

“His unique self-drive approach to public transport and distinctive dented hat helped make Kidman a celebrity. So did his straight-talking newspaper interviews and his huge outback deals with land-rush speculators like the Bovril Consortium.”

He was a wheeler-dealer, yes, but the principle that ‘everyone deserves a fair go’ was as ingrained in Kidman as the New World he came from. He made the front page when he extended the offer of a new life in Australia to the hundreds of horse-pulled bus drivers who were losing their jobs to London’s new, red motor-buses.

In the book, he also spends an eye-opening weekend at the country home of one of Britain’s wealthiest financiers, who offers him an investment deal, with strings, that could double the size of Kidman’s outback empire overnight.

Both the real job offer and the fictional deal turn the lives of all the main characters in Bigfella Kidman upside down. The book follows them through the troubled golden autumn of imperial Edwardian England, from the dissonance of London’s complacent West End wealth and unionising East End poverty, to the enormous, heat-humming horizons of the outback, and ultimately to the desert battlefields of Palestine in the First World War.

Social injustice looms large, not least in its effect on the Aborigine, who had no means of standing up to the ‘whitefellas’ who took their land and their way of life. Kidman, however, was the exception. He never forgot how much the Aborigine had taught him.

The Song of the Butcher Bird is available in local bookshops and on Amazon now.