Category Archives: out of the past

Chuck didn’t chuck

Leslie O’Brien Fleetwood-Smith

More Errol Flynn than Stevie Nicks

A glimmer of left arm unorthodox

As depression gripped the docks

Centre-part and pencil mo

Formed a pair with Billy O’

He did take one for two-nine-eight

But Hammond’s scalp was on his plate


Midwinter’s Midsummer Blues

Billy Midwinter

Debuted in the Autumn

Changed horses midsummer

He followed the sun

Got kidnapped by Grace

Frizzy Bush and The Coroner

Taken to Surrey

Dual citizen foreigner

He sailed back and forth

Australia, England, Australia

Franchise player, mercenary?

Or the system’s failure?

His initials were WE

So he played for both sides

But he knew where his heart lay

When it was time to die.

more on this unique character here:

What lies beneath the veil of Bradmania

Found this intro to a book Jonesey and I were going to write into the beautiful period of cricket before Bradman, It’s not bad! Dated 2007 so the attacks are on JW Howard, who manages to make other offspinners look good…

It’s hard to see history as a continuing, evolving stream. We like markers, a beginning and, often, and end.

In European terms, “Modern” history, at least as taught in Australian schools, begins with the French revolution in 1789. Before that, all history is “Ancient”. So, 100,000 years of human history in one category, and 216 years in the other.

You might expect that the delimiter would move forward in time with us, making what was once modern now ancient. Look in the mirror and tell me that’s not true.

In cricketing history, we choose the advent of the Bradman phenomenon as the delimiter. His first game in Sydney, for St George against Petersham at Petersham Oval, in November 1926, is the dawn of modern cricket history.

This is not to equate Bradman with Napoleon – his successes too polite, his failures so unromantic. (If we were looking for a parallel, Ian Chappell, the great moderniser, would be a better fit.)

As each year passes, and the amount of information placed in front of us grows, it becomes harder to look back into time and see what has gone before. This is especially the case with cricket, where our ageing memories shrink in direct proportion to the number of tests played, and the decreasing periods between them.

Each wave of history, each crescendo of achievement, works to obscure what has come before. Already we’re being force-fed the Clarke/Watson era as if it was a reality, and we haven’t even laid to rest the Waughs/Warne/Hayden/McGrath/Gilchrist era. Before that was the Border/Simpson era; the Chappell(s) era; the Benaud/Davo era; Bradman’s Invincibles; and Bradman before the war.

To put it into perspective, between 1877 and 1926, 50 summers, Australia played x tests, or . We also capped x players, or … And even outside of the Great War, there were still gaps of up to x months between tests (example)

You can see how Bradman’s complete domination of Australian and world cricket form 1928 to 1949 blots out anything that happened before it. It’s a cricketing blanket fog.

But there was life before Bradman. Just as there was civilisation before Napoleon, and even before the Medicis, Michelangelo, Leonardo.

We talk of how the Renaissance ended the Dark Ages, but in cricket many have called these pre-Bradman years “The Golden age”. Indeed, George Giffen wrote a book of that title.

So to ignore Clem Hill, Archie Jackson, Victor Trumper, Fiery Fred Spofforth, Tibby Cotter or Arthur Mailey would be as heinous as ignoring the Norman Invasion, the Hansa League, the Domesday Book, Magna Carta, not to mention the centuries of enlightenment that flowed out of Africa and Asia, long before Europeans started to get their shit together.

Not to mention Bardsley, Armstrong, Trumble, Murdoch, Noble, the Gregorys.

Yet all we ever seem to hear about, from our Prime Minister down, is Bradman. And what he begat.

There’s history there, lying under the silt and clay, like those skeletons at Lake Mungo. Just waiting to be uncovered.

Looking at that era gives a glimpse of the major issues cricket would face – debates over professionalism, contract disputes, constant rule changes, attempts to globalise the game. There were Aboriginal tours, games of XI vs XXII, and even the ugly face of sectarianism. It was time when it was Ok to be a Trott, and, if you were Midwinter, to change horses mid-summer.

Our problem’s not with Bradman. He WAS the greatest player ever, quite possibly of any sport. But he was not the only great player Australia ever produced. And he certainly wasn’t the most interesting –the metronomic prose of My farewell to cricket, reflecting the robotic nature of his genius, is one of the great cures for insomnia.

Just as history would suffer if we only examined Caesar, Alexander, Napoleon or Churchill, so is cricket the loser from an obsession with the Don.

His star eclipses everything.

But if we could build a Hubble telescope (rumoured to be named after WA’s spare parts paceman of the 1960s, Jim Hubble), to look past our sun back into time and place, surely it’s time to look past the Bradman constellation, to see the mystery and complexity of cricket as it was forming?

The Kiss of Life and Death – free book idea

 As flagged when I set up this blog, I’ll chuck up what I think are some promising ideas that I know I will never pursue.

Just found this outline from 2007 when looking for a story on Billy Midwinter… anyway, anyone wants to have a crack or collaborate, go for it/let me know…

 The Executioners –  a history of Australian test selectors, and their selections (maybe “The Kiss of Life and Death” is more marketable,a  it Drusilla Modjeska meets a Flanagan?)
* intro piece – the rise of “tenure” among players – and selectors. what if a coup – players sacking the selectors. 11/11/1975 etc etc. how it works in other countries.
1. Australian test selection – history and process. Home, and away.
2. Key personalities
3. Their playing records
4. Patterns – bowlers picking bowlers; states etc
5. Ranking – based on results of dropped/picked players. a selection index?
6. List of all Australian interventions post-WWII. categorise into retirement, injury, pitch conditions; dropping; retirement (forced and voluntary). who was picked -average length in game, age, recall, how long they lasted etc  Timeline.
7. Pen pictures – 20 executions and 10 beatifications:
Bichel 2004 (and Brad Williams?)
Slater x 2
Geoff Marsh
Whitney 89
Wood 88-9 (nice piece comes up on cricinfo about Woody)
Matthews post-Sharjah
Zoehrer “”
Yallop 84-5
Laird 82-3
Yallop 81-2
Walters 81
Yardley and Higgs 81
Hookes 79-80 (scored 43 and 37 against Windies – dropped!)
J Benaud
Greg Chappell
Miller (SA tour?)
Grimmett 38
also touch on Taylor, S Waugh and Hayden in ODI, maybe Yardley and World Cup 83
Martyn 2006
Symonds/Watson experimentation
Gavin Robertson
Peter Taylor
T Chappell, Beard, Bright, Wellham, Kent 81
Alderman 81
Richie Robinson
John Watkins
Thommo 72-3
(allowances will be made for depletion during WSC and SA rebel tours – so picking Hibbert and Kerr and Mann etc will not feature. the changeability in those times will be critiqued in 6 above.)
for these pen pictures, thinking lots of “reaction” – photos of headlines, quotes etc -and interview with the selectors (if alive) and players, to see how the news was communicated, how they felt, what info was given etc etc. and how long it took to get over it etc.
am thinking low production format, but lots of graphs and b/w pictures – like that ABC stat book I still have that you must read. maybe 240 pages.
can either be functional (as above) or just a historical narrative – so we deal with 1946-64, say, as one long piece, add all of the relevant bios from above for that era are discussed within it. maybe a “start writing and see” issue?

Hill by mouth

Henry Hill

Is up one still

Up with Jack

And up with Jill

Nobody gives

A hill of beans

For this hill

Of hilly has-beens

But Clem Hill

Should have had a hill

Named after him

Called Clem Hill Hill

For a man called Hill

He made a mountain of runs

Including 99, 98, 97…

He was heading to one!

Steel you away a.k.a. Big Whoop to Wuppertal :p

I’ve got a thing for steel. In construction, it’s the real deal. I’ve no engineering cred, and failed metalwork (and woodwork and leatherwork and music and art). But I have this thing for steel. The Sydney Harbour Bridge, its gray and thrusting glory, its curves, its brutal functionality – I choose her, over 100 Sydney Opera Houses. (And I choose the hammerhead crane at Garden Island, doomed as she is.)

I was late to love. I’d been to Paris many times but delayed gratification as long as I could; I think it pays to leave another reason to visit. So when I finally touched the Eiffel Tower in mid-2004, I was ready to commit. That busy and almost-embroidered superstructure, that soaring summit surrounded by lawn and river and six storey walk-ups. Amazing from a distance, and even more so up close. There was a firefighter stopwork meeting held beneath the buttresses, firecrackers and foghorns, an ampitheatre of solidity and sensitivity.


Later I researched Eiffel and how his innovative use of steel girders was applied to skyscraper design and construction. Even if the Tower had been dismantled as planned, his legacy would have been secured.

Years passed – six years, years of stopping and starting and false starts – it was time for another trip, with partner and child and grandparents. Paris was obviously on the list, but I decided to adopt a broader “steel” theme. Paris-Wuppertal-Bilbao. The latter was an obvious choice because we had always meant to “do” Northern Spain but had wavered and fizzled, the Guggenheim was there and so was the Bizkaia at Portugelate. More of that later…

Wuppertal was the one that had everyone scratching their heads. Especially the Germans. Why the fuck Wuppertal?  It’s just a smallish provincial city northeast of Cologne. But it has the Schwebebahn, the gondola monorail. Built in brutal steel. Innovative, effective, but an engineering dead-end.

I had been obsessed with the Schwebebahn since it starred in Tom Tykwer’s film The Princess and The Warrior. Franke Potente also starred. It’s a fascinating, arid love story of misfits, and the dreamlike sequences shot on the Schwebebahn captivated me. Round and round the city it went, straddled over dense streets and the river, a giant eel, fishing and gliding. In my past life, it became a running joke for me to proffer up a Schwebebahn as the solution to Sydney’s transport problems – it wasn’t the dumbest idea I had; you should have heard the one about a metro from… never mind : (

When we had visited Europe in 2004, we had to travel from Luzern to Lyon, and someone had left a copy of a newspaper on my train seat. On the front page was a story about the 100-year anniversary of the Schwebebahn! Even through the jetlag, I was resonating with coincidence. But we didn’t go that time.

Jump back with me to 2010 and the detailed itinerary planning. I figure I can sneak to Wuppertal by highspeed train and be back the same day. This is it, it’s now or never. So I book a ticket to Cologne on the Thalys and it’s cheap and I’m excited and everyone else thinks I am weird and consistently I treat that as a compliment and that is how I live my life and will keep on living it.

We come to Paris and I revisit the Eiffel, this time with my daughter, aged two and a half. She buys a small pink replica to hang off her backpack. Her grandparents are in Paris for the first time and he, a fitter and turner of some genius and decades of resilience, is also in awe of the engineering masterpiece. And he can explain it to me and translate the structural principles into a sort-of English. On our first night we had looked out and the Tower had been lit with flashing lights and fireworks, kitsch but we were kids in the kitschen, rushing to get our cameras.

Then the day dawns for me to go Wuppertal. My Thalys leaves at 6:30 so I’m up at 4, having a shower in our rented apartment and scalding myself on a baroque piece of exposed pipe. It wakes me up properly, and I am grateful of a variety, I see the irony in pain inflicted by metal on this day of all days. I take the metro to Gare du Nord and have a breakfast and decide to buy the last book in the Lisbeth Salander trilogy even though I haven’t read the other two. The Thalys is red and sleek, bound for Brussels then either Cologne or Amsterdam, one being an IT and media headquarters and the other still a mercantile wet dream. Even on Sunday, there are business people being propelled along this great economic corridor at 320km/h, blowing away the BMWs on the motorways, throwing shadows as fast as hurricanes on the golden fields.


Belgium arrives and I remember from a much earlier trip how British the coal towns look. It’s as if Orwell or someone wrote a “coalmining towns for dummies” and franchised it in Benelux languages. And then we’re through Aachen into Germany for the first time in 15 years despite saying I would never go back. But that was before the Schwebebahn.

The Deutsche Bahn office in Cologne is a monument to efficiency and courtesy, and integration of each and every transport need is achievable with the push of the right button, the periodic advancement in a queue and the exchange of Euros. There is a pass that lets you travel to Wuppertal and use all public transport – including the Schwebebahn – and that is what I buy. It is about 10am by now and I am feeling so fucking smart, and start getting the camera ready.

I would like to say the road to Wuppertal was paved with good intentions, but I went by train, and the carriages were mostly filled by people seemingly going from village to village for church services. After about 40 minutes we started to come into the outer suburbs of Wuppertal, and I was like a laughing clown, turning from side to side to catch a first glimpse of the green supports and the rails. There she was. Between some buildings. And again, over there, as the track looped around. The train pulled into the Hauptbahnhoff and I grabbed my daypack and threw the camera around my neck, expecting to join the swarm of daytrippers and trainspotters on the platform.


It was pretty dead. Germany is quiet on Sundays. Most retail is shut. It’s none of my business if they want none of my business. I grab a map and discern where the main Schwebebahn station is. I see the rails, and a train sitting there. I decide not to run, the frequency is pretty high. So I control my excitement and just walk around the corner into the station. The barriers are down. I look for another entrance. Barriers. WTF? Maybe this station is closed on weekends. I go to the ticket office. And there it is, the simple handwritten notice, “closed for repairs Sunday 12 October. Buses operating.” I gag. I have had 4 or 5 coffees and too much pastry and I can taste it all. Or is that it? Could that be something else in my mouth, a sad taste of rude awakening?

I check the date and my ticket and the sign and gesture and swear and the drunks who are everywhere gesture and swear and drink their beer. And I walk, I follow a crowd of people who don’t look drunk, into a modern shopping complex, where I figure I will hide and recover my haughty and work out my next move or how to spin this all to my advantage. But the shops are shut, people are window shopping in a mall on a Sunday because there is FUCKING NOTHING TO DO IN WUPPERTAL! And I know I deserve this, because I have been told, by multiple Germans with no axe to grind. I am the dictionary definition of bathos. In my own bathysphere, big enough for one.

Now I am convinced I will die and be buried in Wuppertal and I just have to get the hell out of there.  A souvenir shop yields two postcards and no mugs except this one. So I run to the station and jump a train back to Cologne, I know that there is a Thalys back to Paris at 13:00. I realise I can blame the DB attendant who sold me the pass for Wuppertal, she could have told me the line was closed. It would have made a small difference. I can blame her. So I head to her counter but she is gone and they won’t let me change my ticket without paying a supplement twice what I paid for the whole return ticket. I am starting to feel like Cary Grant in North by Northwest. I curse, tell everyone ahem that Sydney has a better transport system, or at least more caring staff, and head out into the wilds of Cologne with 6 hours to kill till my train to Paris. Did I mention it’s Sunday and everything in Germany is closed? Cathedral, trains, town square, beer, a third lunch. 5 hours to kill. Internet cafe, Australia doing ok in India, check work emails. Beer. Cathedral at dusk. Train station.


I have loaded up on German beer and have plans to drink to forget. I flirt with the idea of spinning it that the camera didn’t work but I still enjoyed the ride. But some deep, generally unrecognisable wellspring of maturity tells me that would make me even more pathetic. And then the beer goes flat because my heart isn’t really in it. I head up the carriage at 320 km/h to put it in the bin and we hit a curve at 320 km/h and the carriage jerks sideways and this jerk jerks sideways and throws his hands to the sides to brace and the wheat beer of great distinction essays a perfect curve all across the chest and face of a terribly nice and sympathetic woman of no easily identifiable lineage. Fuck me dead. This is it. They will kill me as a lager lout or softcock who can’t hold his beer, and it is OK, because i want and need to die. Right now.

She’s actually fine with being lathered in stale ale. Almost apologetic. Maybe my pathetic apologies and genuine harrow transcend the language barriers. Everyone nods and smiles and waves and does the old palms upturned peace man thing. Except for the prick in C32 who tuts and tuts and tuts. All the way to Paris.

Then my last metro ticket gets eaten at Gare du Nord and it’s almost midnight and I am convinced I will be eating by a dragon or mugged or at least fined for not having a ticket. But it’s OK, I walk through our arrondissement with the immigrants and the cats and the lovers. And by now I am enjoying the pain. You have to laugh, if not least because you know everyone else will – might as well get in first. So I laugh, a big head back, shrieking laugh. Like Sean Penn at the end of U-Turn. With better teeth. It’s after midnight when I get home and everyone’s asleep so I kiss my girl gently and tell her mum I’ll share my story in the morning.

The moral of the story is that only a dickhead would leave Paris and travel halfway across Europe and back in a day to ride around in a bloody toy train they saw in a movie. Guilty, as charged. But the story is better this way. I got to draw a line under my Schwebebahn obsession… if I had managed to ride the bloody ungainly beast that may have been the end of my transport planning career. I had to work much harder than that to reach the endgame.

We did get to Bilbao and ride the glorious Bizkaia transporter bridge, which we could see out the window of our swish room in a converted old palace. It’s a great town, Bilbao, and you could get seriously hard for titanium once you see the Guggenheim glistening in the sun. The guy who built the transporter bridge – a mechanism that hangs from turrets and shunts cars and people across a waterway without blocking shipping – was a disciple of Eiffel’s, and it shows. There’s only two or three left in the world that function, but that’s another story…



Drowning heart

When I was last in Scotland, more than 18 years ago now, I went, as I always did, back to Orkney. That strange collection of islands off the north coast, windswept, rugged, as much Scandinavian as Scottish, with a Pictish past to boot. Not for me the obvious delights of Skye or the other Hebrides. I went to Orkney the first time because everyone in the Edinburgh hostel was going to Skye. I fell in love instantly.

That time, in March 1995, I was accompanied by my partner, Rachel. She obliged me by sitting on a train north for two days, and then braving a two-hour boat crossing, sea legs not really running in her family. We ended up in Stromness on the Mainland, trying to track down a friend from Sydney, Cathy. We sat in the pub and looked across the water to Hoy, the sun blinding but the wind freezing, the weather so cold in Kirkwall that even the locals wore gloves. They could not believe we had come there in near-winter, when they were all itching for their regular break in Turkey. We had to settle a bet about which way Cook arrived in Australia. We got pissed, swore a lot, ate McCoy’s cheese flavoured chips.

We were going to give up the hunt for Cathy when we saw a note in the general store, saying “Ahoy, come to Hoy”, or words to that effect. So we caught the small boat the next morning, and were met by Cathy who, at 160cms or so, was working on a creel boat (the creel is a basket used for catching shellfish). They guy who owned the boat, Rick, happily offered to put us up. He took me out on the boat, which was an incredible experience, working the cold waters around the deep cliffs, plucking the crabs and lobsters from the deep and packaging them up to be air freighted to the Costa Brava. I did a bit, but not much, the boat was small and there was danger everywhere, from tangling ropes to flailing hooks. It was one of the best days of my life. That night, we all peeled a sample of the catch and had the best seafood buffet you could imagine. Beers at the pub, after watching Everton beat Spurs 4-1 to make the Cup Final. Reading Viz. Silly stuff.

We nicked off early the next day, going boat-boat-bus-train-train-train via a Force 10 gale, Inverness and Glasgow to hit London 24 hours later, en route to Paris.

The trip had to end, as all good things do. We came home, moved to Melbourne, came back. One night, the phone rang, it was Cathy, who had moved back about a year after we came home. Terrible news, Rick’s boat had gone down, all on board had drowned. Sadly, a common occurrence in the treacherous waters around Orkney. My heart sank. We had only known him for 48 hours, but he felt like he would always be part of the family. I imagined we would visit him for years, he would come and visit us in Australia, he was our special connection with a special place.

There wasn’t any sense that it could have been me. That would have been mathematical stupidity. It could have been Cathy, I guess. It was more that maybe it should have been me. He was such a warm, giving soul. Fun-loving, decent, hard working, family oriented, generous.

For some reason, I took it upon myself to write a tribute. I didn’t really have a choice, it just flowed out of me one night, I found a voice that I could never find in the years before when I had tried to be a poet or write songs. Then it hit me – this was “feeling”. This was “loss”. Not some abstraction, but a hole in the heart. I guess I’d been sheltered from true grief, or had just rationalised away the bad things that happened in my life, or to people around me. But I couldn’t rationalise this, it was personal, he had become Orkney, which was always meant to be my get out of gaol card.

Anyway, I asked Cathy and she said to send it off to Rick’s family. I did. That was pretty much it. We’ve never been back to Scotland, let alone Orkney, but not really because of this. More circumstance, and a love affair with Italy and Spain. Like most, we have headed towards the sun as we have aged.

I don’t think I wrote any poetry for 10 years, either, not until we had kids, and I started telling stories. Silly stuff.

I found the poem tonight, when looking for the Ring of Brodgar shot posted earlier. I’m going to have a scotch. And I’m going back to Orkney, if not before, then for my 50th. And you’re all coming!