Real war stories from the Fall of Singapore to El Alamein and the Kokoda Track

I have always loved books, and have been writing reviews for publication since 1966 when I was the editor of The Villanovan, the Villanova University newspaper in the US. I was also the literary editor of The Australian in the early 1980s for two years, and have reviewed books for decades. I am only mentioning this because the review below was written for the Returned and Services League (RSL) magazine, Reveille, edited by John Gatfield. I worked with John at Channel Nine and Sky News, and he asked me to review the book (it was pro bono). I did and he was happy with it. James Brown, the NSW President of the RSL (and son-in-law of the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull), ordered the review to be deleted. Why? John said: “He had no desire to do me any favours.” John Gatfield is no longer editor of Reveille. James Brown decided he didn’t want Reveille published by Acumen Publishing, which John and Richard Landels had been doing for nearly 20 years. It is an inspirational book, an excellent gift for veterans and their friends and families this Anzac Day.
The editor of this book of war stories says in his introduction: “My father never talked about his service or experiences in World War II.” Neither did my Dad, who was in the US Navy on supply ships off famous Pacific battlegrounds like Saipan and Iwo Jima. John Gatfield’s father served as a gunner in the Middle East with the NZ Army Field Artillery. Both had, I’m sure, marvellous stories to tell. They would love the 75 yarns written by ordinary Australians, many of whom performed extraordinary feats during the Second World War, from their courageous days as prisoners of war in Changi and the Burma Railway, to the battle of El Alamein (Featured photo above) which turned the tide for the Allies in 1942, to New Guinea and the Kokoda Track where the Diggers fought with dogged determination.
Take, for example, Trooper Bob Ebner’s tale about the “Heroic end of Captain Cobb.” The legendary Cobb led the attack on the Japanese position on Sananandana Road, and ran into machine gun fire. Using his revolver, bayonet, and rifle, Cobb accounted for at least 18 Japanese soldiers before he was killed. Colonel RS Garland commanded one of the units of the 2/3rd Independent Company which attacked and captured Ambush Knoll in New Guinea, a Japanese stronghold, in July 1943. In a bid to recapture the Knoll, the Japanese launched 20 assaults over 4 days. The result: Japanese casualties, 67 killed, Australians, three killed and seven wounded. Garland’s unit comprised “eight, tired, sick and hungry commandos,” but he was ordered by Major George Warfe to hang on to “this piece of ground.” After eight days of fierce fighting, they did. Garland writes: “Our meagre losses … indicate the high qualities of the Australian soldier when his back is to the wall.” Lt Col Bernard O’Dowd commanded the 17 Platoon, D Company of the 2/11th Battalion, known as a very good outfit with a highly developed spirit of mateship in its attack on Hill 710 in Wewak, New Guinea in May 1945. The successful battle was, according to O’Dowd, a “one-day show” that took 13 days and “cost us many good men, killed and wounded.’ He continues: “Nevertheless the D Company soldiers conducted themselves in the best tradition of the Digger, with determination, guts and aggression.” One Digger who showed all those qualities was Sgt Albert Hertzberg, who writes about the assault on Tobruk on January 20, 1941 in his “Diary of a Digger of Tobruk.” “We are working furiously,” says Hertzberg, “firing as fast as possible. We haven’t even time to duck some of the ‘Itie’ shells which land dangerously close.” The infantry breaks through: “Hurrah! It’s over.” Hertzberg praises the coordination of the navy, army and air force, and adds a lovely footnote: “Please excuse the roughness of this letter as I wrote it in the desert (where there are no tables and chairs).” A great piece by Corporal Alby Bannear, “El Alamein: Gate of the Road to Victory,” recalls the 1942 battle that forced Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox, into retreat with his once proud Afrika Korps. Banner writes: “We remember the end of the battle that came about 5 pm when every aircraft under the command of the 8th Army went over to be in the kill and to harass the fleeing and confused enemy.”

All the stories are worth reading, but I can recommend a few more: Able Seaman Alf Orton’s “HMAS Yarra: A Survivor’s Story” — after the ship was hit by three Japanese cruisers and two destroyers, only 13 of the crew of 151 officers and men survived. Orton was one of them. Una Keast was a captain in the Australian Army Nursing Service when she and about 150 nurses were evacuated from Greece from fishing caiques to the HMAS Voyager. One of the sailors on board said to Una “Give me your hand, mate.” She said: “”I’m all right, I can manage.” To which he replied: “Strewth! Bloody Women!” He hadn’t realised it was a woman. Una had more poignant moments after the war when she went to New Guinea to look after the POWs. She said it was an “absolute nightmare. We’d go off and cry our hearts out when those fellows came back. It was terrible.”
“Escape After the Battle of Crete” is Signaller Stan Carroll’s amazing story. He bolted for the mountains when the island of Perivolia was about to capitulate to the Germans. He hid in the hills for eight days with some other troops who also escaped. He borrowed a boat and sailed an incredible 350 miles across the Mediterranean to Egypt in seven days. He was at least 10 miles off shore when the mast smashed a hole in the boat. Stan swam, floated and surfed, at the end crawling on his hands and knees to shore. An hour later, he came across an air force listening post with two Maltese officers. He was safe at last. And last but not least, Sister Berenice Twohill of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Convent who was one of about 350 priests, brothers and sisters interned on New Britain by the Japanese during the war. She told John Gatfield she didn’t hold a grudge against her jailers: “I look at it this way: every soldier fights for his country. War either makes or destroys a man. He either becomes a man or he’s an animal.”
These Australian World War II stories are personal and poignant. There is not a sniff of elitism: the Diggers are down to earth, the brave prisoners endure hell, and the men and women we read about care more for their mates than themselves. This is a book written by and for returned servicemen and women, for their families and friends and for all Australians. Lest we forget.
Great Australian World War II Stories: From the Annals of the RSL, Edited by John Gatfield, ABC Books, 351 pages

Cricket Australia: The Tamper Crisis

During my years in the control room putting the Nine Sunday Program to air, inevitably there were mistakes: some more serious than others, usually, though, only the wrong caption name or a misspelling. But inevitably there was an angry outburst from the senior producer of the day that often had a director’s assistant or technical staff in tears.
After the producer had left or was otherwise occupied, I would say quietly to the tearful perpetrator: “Don’t worry. You didn’t kill anybody.”
I was reminded of this watching the media conferences of the three Australian ball-tampering cricketers and the coach who realised it was time for him and the team’s culture to go.
By now, you would know all about ball tampering and how Vice-Captain David Warner allegedly planned the scheme and sent young Cameron Bancroft to carry it out while Captain Steve Smith just let it happen. It didn’t work. It was a trio that couldn’t tamper straight.
When the cameras captured Bancroft putting something down his trousers that looked like sticky tape, the umpires questioned the 25-year-old and he admitted it, but lied about the tape. It turned about to be sandpaper, but that revelation came several days later.
The cricketing world and the Australian public were baying for the blood of the trio, although more were thought to be involved as Captain Smith mentioned the leadership group was involved. They also assumed Coach Darren Lehmann was in on the plot, so they wanted his blood, too.
Enter Cricket Australian CEO James Sutherland, the Prime Minister, former cricket captains and cricketers, columnists and a slew of social media commentators, to name more than a few. The anger and cries of “sack them all” continued to rise. In contrast, I was watching my alma mater, Villanova University, win the national basketball championship yesterday and after the game, Jay Wright, who’s been Nova coach for 17 years, talked about being “authentic” and how far it can carry you. ESPN Sports commentator Jay Bilas said the word “authentic” and “Attitude,” which is the title of Jay Wright’s book, summed up the Villanova culture. “They’re going to be about each other. They play hard, they play together, they play with a great level of toughness, and it’s about us, it’s not about any one individual.” Are you listening, Cricket Australia?
No wonder lovers of cricket began to worry about the future of the sport in Australia. The fourth day of the Third Test following the ball-tampering scandal was farcical. A partnership between Bancroft and Warner was ended when Bancroft was run out. After that, it was a complete collapse. The result for Australia: Ten wickets for 50 runs, a total of 107, and for South Australia, a 322-run victory. (It got worse. Australia lost the Fourth Test by 492 runs. The team couldn’t wait to get out of South Africa.)
Three days later, the tamper trio came back to Australia, with 12-month bans for Smith and Warner and nine months for Bancroft. Smith could try for leadership in two years, but Warner was banned forever. Update: All three cricketers accepted the sanctions imposed on them by Cricket Australia. The scene was set for apologies: Bancroft was first up at a press conference in Perth: “I want to say that I’m very sorry. I love the game of cricket and playing for my state and my country — there is no greater pride for me. Not a second has gone by when I wish I could turn back time. I’m very disappointed and I regret my actions. It is something I will regret for the rest of my life. All I can do is ask for forgiveness.” He broke down and cried.
Steve Smith came later, apologising and taking questions from the media at Sydney airport. “To all of my teammates, to fans of cricket all over the world and all Australians who are disappointed and angry, I’m sorry. Tonight I want to make clear that as captain of the Australian cricket team, I take full responsibility. I made a serious error of judgment and I now understand the consequences. It was a failure of leadership, on my leadership. I’ll do everything I can to make up for my mistake and the damage it’s caused. I’m sorry and I’m absolutely devastated.”
At this point, of course, he was no longer captain, but given the circumstances he was forgiven. His father was standing next to him, ready to offer help if he needed it (Steve Smith and his father at top of post. The Australian photo Jonathan Ng). Smith broke down when he mentioned his father, who put his hand on his son’s shoulder: “You’re affecting your parents and to see the way my old man’s been …. and my mum, it hurts.” Former England captain Mike Atherton wrote a poignant column about the father-son relationship in The Weekend Australian: “There was something deeply moving about Peter Smith, standing there at his son’s back. The father of the former Australian captain, Steve, wasn’t going to let his boy face the music alone after landing at Sydney airport.”
Those sincere, tearful apologies brought a chorus of support for Smith and Bancroft on Twitter. Another former English captain Michael Vaughan tweeted: “Good people make mistakes’ … I honestly think Steve Smith & Cam Bancroft are decent guys who had a moment of madness … they deserve a 2nd chance and hopefully get the right support around them now … Takes a lot guts to do what they did today …”
Darren Lehmann, who convinced investigators he had no knowledge of the ball-tampering plot, was not sacked, but decided to step down as coach after today’s Fourth Test. He watched Cameron Bancroft and Steve Smith’s conferences and realised his family needed him more than the Australian cricket team did: “After seeing events in the media today with Steve Smith and Cameron Bancroft, the feeling is that Australian cricket needs to move forward, and this is the right thing to do. I really felt for Steve as I saw him crying in front of the media, and all the players are really hurting. As I stated before, I had no prior knowledge of the incident and don’t condone what happened at all. But good people can make mistakes. My family and I have copped a lot of abuse over the last week and it’s taken its toll on them.”

The alleged ringleader of the tampering trio suffered the most abuse from cricket fans. Vice-Captain David Warner (Above. AAP photo Ben Rushton) didn’t front the media until Saturday morning, a day and a half after Bancroft and Smith apologised. Like the others he broke down in tears: “To the fans and the lovers of the game, who have supported and inspired me on my journey as a cricketer, I want to sincerely apologise for betraying your trust in me. I have let you down badly. I hope in time I can find a way to repay for all you have given me and possibly earn your respect again.”
Unfortunately, he wasn’t granted the same respect of his cricketing colleagues. Many suggested he was insincere in his apology. The Sydney Morning Herald asked a body language expert, James Kelly, what he thought (yes, a body language expert … the mind boggles). He said Warner’s “hard face, pained eyes and outward breaths” indicated he was deeply remorseful: “You could see his body was unanimated; it was almost like he’d taken a punch. It shows this is taking a huge toll on him.”
Wait for it. “Mr Kelly came away from the conference with the sense that Warner was most concerned about himself and his future cricketing career.” It might have been selfish, but is that a crime?
Despite the slings and arrows of outrageous ball tampering, love was in the air this week. One of the world’s best cricket writers and author Gideon Haigh wrote in The Weekend Australian about the love for cricket: “The players and the coach in their mea culpas all used the word ‘love’ when they talked about their relationship to cricket … I’m aware of the passion engendered by other games, but I’m prepared here to make a claim for the uniqueness of the love of cricket.”
He then goes to talk about a litany of reasons why cricket is loved: “There’s the love of cricket’s complexity, the fascination exerted by the intricacy, variety and subtlety of its skills. There’s the love of its romance, of the elaborateness of its rituals, of its ineffability and mysteriousness to continuity in the national story. There’s the love its difficulty … There’s also the love of its spirit … “
A little over a week ago, Haigh had been a guest of the Nyora Cricket Club’s presentation night in the small town in Gippsland, and he had “a great time, with solid cricket people. There was, as they say, a lot of love in that room.” Afterwards he and the Nyora coach watched as the tampering scandal unfolded. Later he mused about what he had seen: “To watch Steve Smith in tears and Cameron Bancroft in anguish felt voyeuristic, predatory. The desire to isolate, concentrate and punish the guilty was in part about the absolution of others who turned a blind eye to a worsening culture and reputation.”
Haigh sums it up very well: “ … it’s self-indulgent in these circumstances to give way to anger and dismay, not if you truly love the game. Sadly, perhaps, cricket’s not always going to make you happy. Sometimes it will disappoint, dismay and depress you … But love finds a way to rise above that, and there’s lots of it out there. I can recommend a visit to Nyora, Steve. You’d get a real kick out of it.”
On that same page in The Weekend Australian, award-winning sports columnist Patrick Smith was less forgiving of the tamper trio: “Don’t cry for once-upon-a-time Test captain Steve Smith. He seems to have that under control for himself. Stick a hose on him and he is a fire truck. Don’t cry for Cameron Bancroft. … He is not without a quid yet is just a kid in the multi-million dollar kingdom of Australian cricket. Supporters of David Warner might be harder to find.”
His summation is damning: “Smith’s visible grief represented what he had lost in reputation and what he had put at risk, the devastation of his family. His Thursday night news conference would have meant something valid and inspiring if it bemoaned the lack of opportunity to begin the new Australia. His sobbing was misplaced.”

If I may digress slightly in this long-form piece, I should explain how I came to love cricket and why I am upset about the Tamper Crisis. My love for cricket was gradual. I decided as an American in Australia who was probably going to live here for the rest of his life, and become a citizen of this country, I had to learn more about two things: cricket and horseracing. The latter is another story, but my cricket start is simple. In 1975, I asked a friend and colleague at News Ltd, deputy sports editor, John Swords, if he could teach me a bit about the code that captured the nation. He took me and a slab of beer cans, three-quarters full, to the SCG on the first day of the Fourth Ashes Test between England and Australia in 1975 (you were allowed to bring beer in those days). We went to the lower Brewongle Stand next to the Hill, where there were plenty of seats, but also room to move between the stand and the famous ground next to it. John said I could ask any questions I liked, and I was able to sledge the then English bowler with the South African accent, Tony Greig. The first snippet of knowledge came from editor Swords who said if the opening batsmen get fifty runs without getting out, we’d be well on our way to victory. The openers were Ian Redpath and Rick McCosker who managed a partnership of 96 before Redpath was bowled (hit wicket) by Fred Titmus. The entire stand heard my Yankee accent, and they started shouting words of Wisden and wisdom. By the end of the day, we had finished most of the beer and I knew a lot more about LBWs, slips and wickets. My love affair with cricket had begun.
So where does cricket go from here? Will Cricket Australia be able to sell its rights to the highest TV bidder now that Nine has gone to tennis? Will the Tamper Crisis and its aftermath severely damage the sport? I don’t think so as long as the culture does change. There was one brief shining moment in the last week from the new Australian captain, Tim Paine (Pictured above, AP Photo Themba Hadebe), who didn’t have a Test contract at the beginning of the season. He got his players to shake hands with the South African team at the start of the Fourth Test as a gesture of good will – something that has been in short supply in the series. Paine said: “It’s not something we are going to do every Test match but I think it is not a bad way to start a Test series. I think it’s something that we will use going forward. I just think it’s a good show of sportsmanship and respect.”
Tim Paine’s a captain who wants to show sportsmanship and respect to the opposition: “A natural leader,” according to Australian all-rounder Mitch Marsh. Maybe Paine is the unlikely messiah who can lead Australia out of the cultural wilderness.
Cricket lovers live in hope.

It’s time for the Eagles to fly

Next week’s Super Bowl brought back memories of an Eagles’ championship a long time ago.
Monday, December 26, 1960, was a cool 9 degree Celsius day, but perfect weather for sitting on the steps of a West Philly row house, listening to the broadcast of the NFL Championship game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Green Bay Packers. The match was blacked out in the Philly area as it was being played on Franklin Field, the home of the University of Pennsylvania. Due to the lack of lights on the ground, the match was moved up to Noon US EDT, in case of a sudden death overtime. Ticket prices were ten and eight dollars US for a capacity crowd of 67,325.
I remember screaming with joy when the grizzled veteran from western Pennsylvania, Chuck Bednarik, who played 60 minutes every match, tackled Jim Taylor and stayed on top of him until the clock ticked down to zero: “You can get up now, Taylor. This damn game’s over.” The Eagles, underdogs then and now, beat the Packers 17-13, and it was the only playoff game coach Vince Lombardi ever lost.
Fifty-eight years later, the winning team will receive the Vince Lombardi Trophy, named after the Packers legend, who guided Green Bay to five NFL championships and victory in the first two Super Bowls in 1967 and 1968. The 2018 Super Bowl will not be blacked out anywhere, with an estimated viewing audience of more than one billion people. In 1960, gross receipts for the game were $748,000 US; each Eagle pocketed $5,116 US, while each Packer earned $3,105 US. Things have changed. Last year the Patriots received $107,000 each, the Falcons $53, 000. This year, the Patriots and the Eagles will be getting similar prize money, depending on who wins and who loses.
The NFL doesn’t want the championship to be just about money, they want it to be about honour and passion. Lombardi once said: “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” The CEO and Chairman of the Eagles, Jeffrey Lurie, praised the Eagles’ fanatical supporters: “These fans are the most passionate fans in sport.” He’s right, of course, although Philly fans have had a chequered career when it comes to barracking for the home team. They threw snowballs at Santa Claus in 1968, after the scheduled Kris Kringle didn’t show (he was stuck in the snow). So management hired 19-year-old Frank Olivo, who was wearing a Santa suit at the stadium. The Philly spectators didn’t like a skinny Santa whose bag contained damp towels, instead of presents, so they pelted him with snow. The Washington Redskins, a team under fire by Native Americans for not changing their last name, had an unofficial mascot called Chief Zee, Zema Williams, who wore an Indian headdress. He made the mistake of going to a Philly home game in 1983 and taunting the fans when the Eagles lost by 10 points. He was attacked in the stands, and then the parking lot, suffering a broken leg for his taunts. And my favourite Eagles fan banner was in an exhibition game in 2009. Michael Vick, who spent 23 months in prison for running a dogfighting operation, had just been signed as quarterback. He was not greeted with applause. The banner read: “Don’t bring your Beagle, Michael Vick’s an Eagle.” The current coach of the Eagles, Doug Pederson, was a former quarterback with the Birds, and in 1999 he admitted the supporters were throwing batteries at him: “Those big ones. Those ‘D’ ones. I was spit at. Beer (thrown at him). But hey, listen, whatever.” You can’t imagine fans throwing batteries at Coach Pederson now. Like Jeff Lurie, Pederson applauded their passion: “I don’t think they sat down the whole game.” And the noise the 69,000 fans made at Lincoln Financial Field was akin to a jumbo jet plane overhead.

Of course, as a lifelong supporter of the Eagles, I’ve had to put up with criticism of Birds’ fans, even Down Under. When the Eagles lost their last Super Bowl to the Patriots in 2005, I was watching the match in a Sydney pub, one of many Super Bowl parties organised by a Nova Scotian mate, Iain Macintosh, and I told him if Brian Westbrook, a Villanova graduate, scored a touchdown for the Eagles, I would stand on a chair and sing the university fight song “V for Villanova.” It happened and I did, but there were some Patriot fans giving me dirty looks until Mac said: “Don’t worry. He’s okay. He’s from Philly.” There was a Patriot supporter I did like, a lawyer, who was detained briefly when he accidentally took a wrong turn into the front of CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, and told me: “The Patriot Act. What’s happening to Bush’s America?” I wonder what he would say about Trump’s America. I guess he’d still support the Patriots. Donald Trump has been friends with Patriots’ owner Robert Kraft, coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady for a number of years, though Kraft criticised the President for attacking players who protested during the national anthem against police brutality and racial injustice. It will be interesting to see whether Donald will continue to stand by the Patriots known as Team Trump because of Kraft’s one million dollar donation to the president’s inauguration committee.
Any true Eagles aficionado would know that Patriot and New York Giants fans would hate the Philly team. The feeling is mutual. This is what one New York Post reporter, Mike Vaccaro, wrote after the NFC match: “Put it this way: Giants fans loathe the Eagles so much, it has caused many of them to lose their minds and already declare the unfathomable: They will root for the Patriots in Super Bowl LII. ‘Like they’re America’s Team,’ one vowed to me Sunday night.” The cover (above) of the New York Post the morning after the Eagles victory over the Vikings last week says it all.
Okay, I am putting my neck on the line and predicting the Eagles will defeat the Patriots and win their first Super Bowl next Monday morning Australian time. Why? It’s the law of averages. The past few years have been the underdogs’ finest hour: The Chicago Cubs won the baseball World Series in 2016, their first since 1908; Leicester City took out their first ever English Premier League title in 2015-2016 after being 5000-1 outsiders at the start of the season; the Western Bulldogs defeated the favoured Sydney Swans in 2016 to snatch their first AFL premiership since 1954; and the Richmond Tigers clawed the Adelaide Crows in 2017 to achieve their first premiership since 1980.
Further back in the past, I firmly believed the Swans would defeat the West Coast Eagles in 2005, their first premiership since 1923. I was right. And, of course, it wasn’t sport but I did predict that Donald Trump would become president of the United States in a previous blog post. I wish I was wrong.

This is the Year of the Underdog. The Eagles were underdogs in both playoff games and finished on top, despite injuries and a back-up quarterback, Nick Foles (his photo at the top by Bill Streicher, USATODAY Sports), who took over the reins from Carson Wentz, out for the season with a knee injury, and is doing a splendid job. In spite of a long time in the wilderness, the fans believe in their team, and they and the players have started wearing dog masks (see photo above) mocking those pundits and Las Vegas bookies who called them underdogs. The Patriots, who have won five Super Bowls and lost two since 2002, are favoured by 5 points against the Eagles, who lost their two Super Bowl matches, the last against the Patriots in 2005 by 3 points.
It’s a week until the showdown between the upper-class New England Patriots and the down-to-earth Philadelphia Eagles.
It’s time for the Eagles to fly.

Comic duo Laurel and Hardy’s moments to remember: Tales of Hollywood stranger than fiction

Laurel and Hardy were two of my favourite comedians. Every year on Thanksgiving, a US TV network played one of their old films. We laughed at their jokes and slapstick, with perfect timing and the sheepish face of Stan Laurel and the exasperated reactions of Oliver Hardy providing moments to remember.
What brought back that memory? A brilliant new novel by John Connolly, a former Irish journalist who’s written 15 books about a fictional American detective, Charlie Parker, a crime series that started with a plane crash in the state of Maine and has branched out into an epic story about Hollow Men, the Brotherhood, a Monstrous Mother and a criminal empire. I’ve read most of them and noticed on Connolly’s website that he was publishing a novel reimagining the life of Stan Laurel, one of the great screen comics, with his jolly, overweight partner, Oliver Hardy. He is a work of fiction, but it’s based on an enormous amount of research, outlined in the Author’s Note, including four seminal Laurel and Hardy biographers and the letters of Stan Laurel, a prodigious correspondent whose missives can be found in Stan’s Correspondence Archive Project, along with a brief biography. Connolly loved Laurel and Hardy because they were part of his childhood. My childhood.
The novel begins in the Oceana Apartments by the sea in Santa Monica, California where Stan “chases butterfly memories” in the last days of his life. He remembers Oliver (Babe) Hardy: “Babe is always with him … But now Babe is gone, and he is alone.” We get to read more of Stan’s memories throughout the book (and this post). It’s a short first section, like the 202 remaining chapters, but it encompasses the life of the comic duo from Stan’s childhood in northern England where his father, Arthur Jefferson, aka AJ, managed theatres and was also an actor and director to Babe’s upbringing in Georgia carrying a sandwich board advertising specials at the Baldwin Hotel run by his mother. Along the way, Connolly tells tales of Hollywood and its stars (imagining what Stan would say): Chaplin for one, who has sex with 15-year-old girls; who takes actress Paulette Goddard to bed, believing she is 17, and ‘is disappointed when she reveals that she is twenty-two;” who is the greatest comedian Laurel has ever seen; and, last but not least, according to Stan, “Chaplin is a monster.” Harvey Weinstein comes to mind.
Stan Laurel had a Chaplin complex. He was Chaplin’s understudy at Fred Karno’s comedy company when he was only 19. Stan travelled with Karno to the US in 1910 and 1912. The company split when Charlie moved on to become a star in motion pictures in Hollywood. When Stan’s common-law wife, Mae Dahlberg, told him he was as good as Chaplin, he replied Charlie was the best that has ever been. Babe Hardy was working with movie producer Larry Semon, who wanted to make pictures like Chaplin’s and didn’t care who the Little Tramp was screwing. Babe believed Chaplin should be in jail. But Chaplin is Chaplin (often repeated in the novel). Semon had no vision and his company collapsed. It led Babe to sign a contract with Hal Roach, one of Hollywood’s most famous and successful movie magnates, and the partnership of a lifetime with Stan Laurel that began in 1926.

While Stan and Babe had a great partnership, it didn’t mean they always chose the right partners in marriage – not to mention their affairs. When Mae returned to Melbourne, Stan married Lois Neilsen in 1926. They had two children, a daughter Lois, and a son who died tragically nine days after his birth. They were divorced eight years later and Stan married Ruth Rogers. But Stan continued to pine for Lois, who refused to remarry. The marriage to Ruth lasted three years, who told Stan: “You’re just a child. You have no idea what you really want at all.” His next partner was a mad Russian actress and singer, Vera Ivanova Shuvalova, accompanied by Countess Sonia, and Roy Randolph, the Dancing Master. Stan and Vera had three wedding ceremonies. Connolly writes: “He (Stan) will spend most of 1938 drinking, for reasons not unconnected to their marriage.” Years later at the Oceana Apartments, Stan remembers Vera: “He remembers that Vera was a drunk. He remembers that Vera couldn’t sing … He remembers that Countess Sonia’s perfume smelled like cat piss … He remembers driving the wrong way down Reseda Boulevard, intoxicated and crying and only (his lawyer) Ben Shipman’s bamboozling of the jury keeping him out of jail.” There’s more. He remarries Ruth in 1941. That lasted until the end of the war, when he met and fell in love with Ida Kitaeva Raphael. When Ben Shipman read about their wedding in a newspaper on May 6, 1946, he screamed: “Jesus Christ, he’s married another Russian.” But this marriage endured until death did them part nearly 20 years later.
Babe Hardy had a similar chequered marital record, starting with Madelyn Saloshin, who played the piano at a theatre where he was singing in a quartet. They had a dog and a monkey. Babe said it wasn’t a marriage. It was a zoo. It was short, followed by a longer, but not much happier union, as his second wife, Myrtle Reeves, was a drunk. He had a lover, Viola Morse, but he continued to look after Myrtle, who did things like escaping from a sanitarium, sneaking out of her sister’s house and trying to drink herself to oblivion in a hotel. A policewoman talked her out of jumping out the hotel window, and Myrtle was arrested. Every newspaper in the country had the story. Still Babe found it hard to leave her, although he spent a lot of time at the races in Santa Anita. He sought comfort from Myrtle with other women, but eventually got a divorce and paid hefty alimony bills. Although he’d been with Viola Morse longer than Myrtle, Babe finally met his true love, Lucille Jones. Despite Viola’s pain, Babe and Lucille married … and she cared for her husband until he died in 1957.
Somehow Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy managed brilliant careers in spite of their marital problems and family tragedies. They made short films for Hal Roach, released through MGM, during the silent era in the late 1920s and took to audio like ducks to water. Their first sound movie was a success: Unaccustomed As We Are in 1929. With their traditional bowler hats, suits and ties, mixing sight and sound gags (mostly written by Stan), the Pom from Ulverstone and the Yank from Georgia enthralled American audiences during the Great Depression. Laurel and Hardy won the first Academy Award for Best Short Subject, Comedy, in 1932 for The Music Box, a revision of their silent film, Hats Off.

Later that year, Laurel and Hardy decided to take a vacation and made a deal with MGM: ten days of publicity, the rest of the time to themselves. They travelled by train to New York via Chicago and took what they thought would be a leisurely cruise on the RMS Aquitania to Southampton. Stan and Ollie were amazed by the thousands of people who waited for them in Chicago, just wanting to touch them, shake their hands. It was worse, and scarier, in New York when the Broadway multitudes did not let them pass. They had to hide in Minsky’s Music Hall and were smuggled aboard the Aquitania. Much to their surprise, Stan and Babe had become two of the most famous men in the world. In Britain, thousands greeted them from London to Leeds and Birmingham, to Glasgow and Edinburgh. Stan spent time with his father, AJ, who wondered why his son changed his last name from (Arthur Stanley) Jefferson to Laurel. Stan had no satisfactory explanation; it was Mae Dahlberg’s suggestion.
Laurel and Hardy made 105 films between 1926 and 1951, when they retired from movies. Laurel met Charlie Chaplin at his house in Beverly Hills, and they reminisced. Chaplin said: “Who else like us is left”? Stan “cannot help but admire Chaplin, even as he wishes him more capable of truth, and more worthy of affection.” He never saw or spoke with Chaplin again. For Babe, his moment in the sun was taking part in a John Ford touring production of What Price Glory, a fundraiser for the Order of the Purple Heart. Among the cast were John Wayne, Ward Bond, Harry Carey, Jr and Jimmy Cagney, who told Babe he was so good that if someone hadn’t held him upright, he would have fallen on the floor laughing. Hardy sat in the club car of the train on the way to San Francisco, regaling the famous actors with tales of old Hollywood, with Duke Wayne’s eyes and ears wide open. Connolly writes: “They were listening to me, Babe says. Can you believe that? All those great men were listening. To me.”
Stan and Ollie toured England in the early 1950s, to dwindling audiences, until May 18, 1954 when Babe had a heart attack. The tour was cancelled, and they returned to the US where Stan worked on scripts for television. In 1955, he had a stroke, from which he recovered, but Babe had another heart attack and a stroke, was paralysed and lost his voice. He died on August 7, 1957. At the Oceana Apartments, Stan pays tribute to his partner: “Babe is with him and of him … he knows that he loved this man, and this man loved him, and that is enough, and more than enough.”
Stan continued to write jokes and sketches for fellow comedians, and was recognised with a special Oscar for his creative pioneering work in cinema comedy in 1961 (Photo above from LettersFromStan.com). The actor Alec Guinness wrote Stan a letter which had a prominent place on his desk, congratulating him on his Academy Award: “For me you have always been and will always be one of the greats.”
In his Author’s Note, John Connolly says Stan Laurel “kept his telephone number in the Malibu directory because he enjoyed being visited and had no fear of those who might make their way to his door.” Among those visitors were Dick Cavett, Jerry Lewis and Dick Van Dyke. Stan Laurel died on February 23, 1965 and Dick Van Dyke gave the eulogy at the funeral: “The halls of heaven must be ringing with divine laughter.”
John Connolly admits his novel and his depiction of Stan Laurel might not meet with unanimous approval: “All I can say is this: by the end of the writing of this book, I loved Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy more than ever, with all their flaws, in all their humanity, and my admiration for their artistry had only increased.”
As a reader, I felt the same way.
He, John Connolly, Hodder & Stoughton, 453 pages
PS: If you’re interested in watching some of the old clips of Laurel & Hardy films, you can find them on their official website: http://www.laurel-and-hardy.com/ The BBC has produced a biopic of Laurel and Hardy’s final tour of the UK in 1953, titled Stan and Ollie, starring John C. Reilly as Ollie and Steve Coogan as Stan. No release date has yet been announced, but fans of the famous comedy duo won’t want to miss it. A preview by indiewire.com and photos of the film have been released on Twitter.

A journalist’s memoirs: From minefields to Mandela

“Welcome to the world of BLEEP.” That was a former executive producer calling to congratulate me on being appointed supervising producer of the Channel Nine Sunday Program in the mid-90s.
Yes, the missing word is rude and banned from most conversations, even frowned upon by social media outlets. But the congratulatory call was also close to the truth. Once you became a member of management in television you were expected to be a bastard. I was never good at treating staff badly, and I wondered: Should I include it in my memoirs? On second thought, should I write my memoirs?
Those thoughts occurred to me after reading a cracker of a book, Minefields, the recollections of a friend and former colleague, Hugh Riminton (Photo above: by John Appleyard), one of Australia’s best journalists and a Walkley-Award winner, who spent nearly three decades as a foreign correspondent with 3AW, Channel Nine and CNN, and is now a newsreader on the Ten Network. It is an honest, eloquent, at times poetic, account of what it was like to be a reporter in the days before the Age of Disruption.
Hugh begins with an author’s note praising some of the wonderful memoirs by the best reporters: Anthony Lloyd, Fergal Keane, Edward Behr, Philip Knightly, to name a few, and he describes the late Mark Colvin’s Light and Shadow as a “gentle masterpiece.” He also said he’d like to see Australian reporters publish their memoirs: Among them, Michael Ware, Sally Sara, Peter Cave, Steve Levitt, Robert Penfold, Matt Brown, and Sophie McNeill. Hmm, how about a producer or two?
Born in Sri Lanka to an Irish nurse in the RAF and a tea planter from Jersey, Jackie and John, who are still married 60 years later, Hugh wasn’t quite as lucky. He’s been married three times. He writes: “Helen Garner reckoned every time she wrote a book she lost a husband. It seemed every time I got a foreign posting I lost a wife.” And he had a plethora of postings from Fiji to PNG, London, Moscow, South Africa, Somalia, Sudan, Rwanda, Uganda, Israel, Iraq, the Western Front, Albania, Sarajevo and Afghanistan.
Back to the Riminton family. Hugh, two of his three brothers (the third would be born in Christchurch), and his parents moved to New Zealand where he fell in love with reading and rugby and became a student at Christchurch High School in 1974. Soon afterwards, he started drinking, suffered depression and tried to take his own life at the age of 15. Incredibly, his parents never knew about it.
After a job cleaning rats’ poo out of cages at a teaching hospital that did experiments on animals, Hugh was ready for anything. A 4-week radio course led him to a regional station where the news director called him in and asked why he wanted to be a journalist. He was planning on law school, didn’t really want to be a journo but he said the first thing he could think of: “Because it would be fun.”
Hugh became a cadet reporter at Radio Avon, aged 17. He was learning how to report and read the news. In fact, reading a bulletin while under the influence of marijuana may have saved his life. The grass interfered with his presentation and the sentences made no sense to him. He vowed never to do that again, reduced his alcoholic intake, and stopped getting sick from drinking. He writes: “Plenty of journalists have been alcoholics, including some of the best. I am a rare case. I was saved from alcoholism by journalism.”
His first big scoop was a year later in Auckland when he received a telegram at 9.30pm on a Wednesday night to ring work urgently. An Air New Zealand DC-10 carrying 257 passengers on a tourist flight over Antarctica had lost contact. At the search and rescue headquarters, Hugh kept his eye on the telex machine. Up came the message: WRECKAGE SIGHTED. MOUNT EREBUS. NO SIGN SURVIVORS. He filed reports and updates throughout the night, and in the morning was one of two radio journalists sent on an Air Force transport plane to the crash site. Hugh Riminton was now a full-fledged reporter at the age of 18.

(Photo above of Hugh in Moscow in 1993 after rebels tried to take over the Kremlin.)
There are many stories in the 415 pages of Minefields, but a few stand out. The title, by the way, refers to a piece to camera Hugh did in a grain field in central Somalia that turned out to be a minefield: quite a good story. In 1993 when Hugh was the London correspondent for Nine, he covered the return of 14 Australian veterans of WWI to the Western Front. Their average age was 95, and the crew only expected to do a few stories at the start, but the diggers’ spirt and courage won the nation’s hearts. Soon-to-be PM John Howard was on the tour to pay homage to his father and grandfather, but it was the surviving veterans who shone. Howard Pope, a digger aged nearly 100, visited the grave of his older brother for the first time, “remembering a youth who had not grown old.” Hugh sums up the veterans with eloquence and emotion: “There is the courage of youth and the courage of age. They had known them both. I have wept only twice while writing a script. Once was at Port Arthur. But the first time was there, feeling the precious, fading fragile link between these men and the times they had known.”
Three years later, Hugh was back in Australia having just accepted a Logie Award for “Outstanding Achievement in News” for Nine for its coverage of the French Nuclear Tests in the Pacific, sparking violent protests in Tahiti. A few months afterwards, Hugh confronted “the worst story I have ever covered in Australia,” the massacre at Port Arthur in Tasmania. He and Rob Hopkins, who had just won a Walkley for camera coverage in Tahiti, and sound recordist, Ilankovan Frank, headed to Tassie to report on two harrowing days of slaughter by a lone crazed gunman. Martin Bryant shot dead 35 people and wounded 23 in the deadliest mass shooting in Australian history in April 1996.
Nine reporters Charles Slade and John Vause had covered the survivors and the relatives and Bryant’s background, but Riminton had to tell the main story, with the deadline approaching. Everyone was asking “Why this happened,” and all Hugh could think of was Bryant shooting six-year-old Allanah Mikac, after he killed her mother and three-year-old sister. Hugh wrote these last three paragraphs: “There is no why. There are no reasons. There are no words.” Not surprisingly, he had difficulty doing the voiceover, choked up by emotion. Later he felt guilty that he had let emotions get to him. Then News and Current Affairs director Peter Meakin told him: “You said what all Australia was thinking.”
The massacre led to gun law reforms driven by the new Prime Minister John Howard, which have so far prevented a repeat of mass murders in Australia for 21 years, but no one was able to answer “why,” least of all Martin Bryant, still in prison never to be released.
Riminton had more questions after covering a story about genocide in Rwanda. Former PM Malcolm Fraser, then head of CARE International, Hugh and cameraman Richard Malone were in Tanzania when they came across a crowd of refugees crossing the border into Rwanda. Hugh noticed they were not as desperate as those he had seen on a previous mission to Somalia. A Red Cross worker explained: “These people are not starving. Don’t feel too much sympathy for them – these are the Hutus. These are the ones who have been carrying out the genocide.”
But Riminton spotted bands of young men with machetes at the fringes of the crowd. One looked at him as he passed by, as if to say: “I’ve got you if I want you. You are nothing to me.” Then they crossed the bridge from Rwanda to Tanzania over the Kagera River, the water thick with corpses. “An endless, piteous soup of lost humanity,” Hugh writes, “Malcolm Fraser and I stood a little distance apart, saying nothing, trying to absorb what we were witnessing.” The UN calculated five million people died in the war between the Tutsis and the Hutus.

When he got back to London, one of his questions was: “How could so many people … be slaughtered in a matter of weeks and so little be known about it?” Hugh’s answer: the champagne cocktail theory – a drink with 22 per cent alcohol, slight sweet and effervescent. A cocktail perfect for a foreign correspondent trying to get people to watch distressing news: “You can’t write the full horror. People recoil as it were poison. You lose them … You must concoct your own champagne cocktail – strong enough to leave no doubt what is going on, light enough to give the viewer permission to keep watching.” As I write this, I fear readers may be reaching for a champagne cocktail.
My favourite story from Minefields: A trip to South Africa to cover the 1994 elections: the first interracial ballot in a country once ruled by apartheid. (I was there producing a feature story for Sunday with Jim Waley and a Nine crew, including the excellent editor Mike Fleming and cameraman Ben Herbertson. A bomb exploded in Johannesburg’s CBD on our way from the airport to the Carlton hotel, killing 9 people. A shaken Jim Waley did a piece to camera. We expected a week of violence.) Hugh was there with Richard Malone and editor Mark Douglas, reporting for Nightline, when a second bomb exploded in the racially mixed suburb of Germiston. Ten people died that day in more than a dozen bombings.
During the election campaign, Hugh got to see Nelson Mandela in action. He and Malone and NZ colleague Cameron Bennett watched as Mandela calmed a crowd in Soweto football stadium after gunfire erupted. He lectured those who fired the guns, saying the new South Africa had no place for such failings. But he did not try to rouse the crowd, as Hugh puts it: “He wanted not triumphalism but empathy.”
The tension disappeared on April 27 as millions of black Africans were allowed to vote for the first time. The Star newspaper in Johannesburg had this splash headline: “Vote, the beloved country,” with the first sentence: “Apartheid died today.” Mandy, our terrific South African fixer (she helped both Sunday and Nightline), managed to get Hugh and his crew passes for the African National Congress (ANC) victory party in the Carlton hotel. On the night victory was declared, Nelson Mandela came to the hotel to announce the result. The ANC had won with more than 62% of the vote. Mandela concluded his remarks: “Now we know the true meaning of the words: ‘Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty we are free at last.” The closing words of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech.
Mandela disappeared from hotel, while the crowd outside had grown to hundreds of thousands. Hugh and Richard were surrounded by the dancing, exuberant crowd. Richard filmed a white guy driving out of the basement car park, looking a bit frightened, but he stuck his arm out of the car, and yelled “Amandla” – a cry of black solidarity. He had no trouble getting out of the huge celebrations. Hugh said it was the biggest story he ever covered, although he admits he’s not sure what the biggest story even means. This is what he wrote: “This was a night radiant with freedom and joy, a night of biblical promise, when the yoke of an enslaved people was finally throw down. In life – in history – there are few moments of such power.”
Hugh Riminton sets the scene with potted profiles of the places he’s reporting from: London in winter is “The Old Grey Lady, dark and shrouded in mists until 8.30am, the darkness falling again by mid-afternoon”; Soweto, “a dark triumph of apartheid’s social engineering”; Albania, “a sad old place”; Christmas Island, “A dot of rock resembling a stretching cat, it was best known for its profusion of land crabs”; and Jerusalem: “To walk among ancient olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane, as Jesus had walked before his betrayal and crucifixion, was powerful indeed.”
He also fights the good fight against employers when he thinks they’ve made the wrong decision. After Channel Nine ordered him and his crew to leave Baghdad as invasion day approached in 2003, Riminton went ballistic: “It was the worst journalistic decision I ever saw at Nine. They were gutless. They had lost their nerve.” When he got back to Sydney, the boss told him: “No story is worth dying for.” Hugh replied: “No story is worth the certainty of dying for. We are not suicide bombers. But any story that big is worth taking a risk for.”
And he loved working for CNN, anchoring the news from Hong Kong and covering big stories in Asia, from the Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004, to the huge snowstorm in China in January 2008, and four months later, the gigantic earthquake in Sichuan Province which killed 90 thousand people, and left five million homeless. CNN also sent him back to Baghdad during the Bush administration’s surge, a counter-insurgency plan that didn’t work. A US Staff Sergeant, Matt St Pierre, who led a convoy Riminton joined, told him: “This is our generation’s Vietnam. I don’t think this can be won. We’re caught in the middle of a civil war.” (Photo below of Hugh — lower left — in pre-invasion Baghdad. Photo: Richard Moran)

Riminton says to be part of the CNN Baghdad operation was the greatest privilege of his reporting life, but he finally left the network because of its culture, which was relentless work. His friend and colleague at CNN, Stan Grant, wrote about his mental breakdown in his book Talking to my Country, after working insane hours at the Beijing bureau. Grant is now with the ABC. And Hugh writes CNN “ran their star reporter Michael Ware, until his mental health utterly collapsed.” Riminton says: “All in all, CNN were wonderful people to work with, terrible people to work for.”
Hugh moved back to Australia as bureau chief of the Ten Network in Canberra in 2009, with his third wife Mary Lloyd, who he met while in Hong Kong as a producer with CNN. It’s a love story for the ages. Hugh now has four children, two with Mary, Jacob and Holly, and Caitlin with his first wife, Sue, and Coco with his second wife, Kumi Taguchi. In 2014, he moved back to Sydney to take on a newsreading job at Ten and spend more time with his children and support Mary’s career: “I became, at last, a proper family man.”
What does Hugh Riminton think about the future of journalism? He says journalism is in a state of financial collapse, but this is his last word from Minefields: “Sound information will always be in demand. It seems shonky information will be in even greater demand. But whatever shape the future takes, the old model of the journalist as the well-paid reporter and interpreter of the times is gone. For better or worse. I hope I have done my bit to do my calling justice. It has been a hell of a ride.”
Minefields: A life in the news game, Hugh Riminton, Hachette Australia.

The Buttons: Speechless but never at a loss for words

It’s taken me a while to read Speechless, a lovely book about speechwriting by James Button, Walkley Award-winning journalist and author and son of John, a senator and a former minister in the Labor Governments of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating. It’s not only a story about speeches but a father and son relationship, the public service and former prime minister Kevin Rudd. (SMH photo above, Left: James, John and Nick, at Geelong match.)
James Button worked as a speechwriter for Kevin Rudd when he was PM in 2009 and later with the Strategy and Delivery Division (SDD), part of the Australian Public Service (APS), where acronyms abound. The reason it took me so long to read Speechless was simple: I enjoyed it so much I wanted to savour every word. (The late Bob Ellis called it “a quiet masterpiece, to be savoured.) It’s also about words and even has a chapter devoted to clear writing in the public service called The Dejargonator, a blog Button’s boss asked him to set up so that people could post examples of “grisly official prose and have a crack at writing clear alternatives.” Button learned from the Great Dejargonator, Don Watson, and his books on jargon “lacerating bad language” that “we are all dejargonators now.” But he also discovered why jargon persists: for the government, it’s about managing risk. He writes: “a vast effort is expended to make sure nothing bad happens, which creates another form of risk: that nothing happens at all.”
As a speechwriter for Kevin Rudd, Button realised the PM rarely gave good speeches: “He could or would not find the connection with his audience. Yet, it’s strange, for he gave one great speech. It had people in it.” In his Apology speech in 2008, Rudd described Nungala Fejo, an Aboriginal woman taken from her family by welfare worker who never saw her mother again, as “an elegant, eloquent and wonderful women in her eighties, full of life, full of funny stories, despite what has happened in her life’s journey.” He spoke of the 1997 Bringing Them Home report on the removal of Indigenous children: “There is something terribly primal about these firsthand accounts. The pain is searing; it screams from the pages … These stories cry out to be heard. They cry out for an apology.”
But as James Button points out in his Acknowledgements in Speechless, it’s his father’s story as much as his. They had difficulty talking about the death of James’ younger brother, Dave, from a heroin overdose. They came close when James showed his Dad a draft of a long piece he had written about Australia’s future for Time Magazine in 1992. John replied: “It’s very long. It’s pretty bleak. And I don’t think you’ve quite caught the spirit of innovation in the economy.” That, of course, angered James who wrote a letter to John saying he had read the piece as a politician, not as a father. A few days later, John told James after a meal at a restaurant: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad,” a famous line from the English poet Philip Larkin. The anger disappeared. But ten years later, he helped his father write a Quarterly Essay on the Labor Party, both working hard for a week. His Dad spoke at the launch of the essay, thanking his son only in passing. His anger returned but he never told his father what he felt: “I should have said something to him! … I had robbed him of the chance to explain why he didn’t mention it … And we would have grown closer.” James then writes one of the key paragraphs of the book: “We were two articulate men, friends, who loved words and talking together about words. Yet in these respects, we were speechless.”
James still had questions about his father’s memoir, As It Happened, and his mother pointed him to a profile of his Dad in a book of interviews he did with a Melbourne University political scientist, Alan Davies. The psychological profile of the 26-year-old John Button paints him as “tense, troubled, self-absorbed,” a snapshot James recognises: “He seems to be saying, ‘I am a plain man, there is no bloody nonsense about me.’” Later James reads As It Happened again and goes to the last page where his father is musing on his life in politics: “He has regrets, but no complaints: rather the curiosity of wondering what life would be like if he had done something different. And that thought – what if he had done something different? – makes him think of his father: “From my father, I acquired the instinct of taking what comes in life and learning to cop it without complaining. As a child I learnt this the hard way. In later life I was grateful. I’m sure I helped to keep me sane.” James writes: “There it is, hiding in plain view, like the letter on the mantelpiece in a Sherlock Holmes novel. His father is the last person in his book. He has written the book he had to write. He won’t write another but it doesn’t matter. He has made peace with his father.”

I’m only sad because I didn’t have a chance to go to a footy match with John Button, a lifelong supporter of the Geelong football club. James describes walking beside his father at a Geelong match with his brother Nick: “I would hear a constant hum: ‘That’s John Button’.” In his obituary of his father published in the May 2008 edition of The Monthly, James talked about his Dad’s love of Geelong: “He was seriously, battily, obsessed by football, and by the Geelong Football Club. More than once, in the Geelong changing rooms, I caught Dad staring a little too intently at Gary Ablett’s thighs. Week after week, year on year, he would draw an oval on a sheet of paper and compile his team in his crimped handwriting, which a secretary of his once compared to the scratchings of a chook. Sometimes he would mail them to the coach; always he would mail them to Nick and me. I think football was a great release from politics. More than that, though, it gave him a chance to be with his two sons, and I know that his love of football was also a love of us.”
I was fortunate enough to produce John Button for a cover story he was reporting for the Channel Nine Sunday program (later moved to Business Sunday) in 1993, and wrote about it on my blog in April. He was a gracious, humble man who loved his footy and was loved by all the CEOs he talked to about the future of Australian business. He got along well with the workers as well, this “plain man” with “no bloody nonsense” about him. He even talked the then Prime Minister Paul Keating into doing an interview with him for the program, and it was a privilege for me to sit in Kirribilli House and listen to these two Labor veterans talk intelligently about politics and industry, and produce a few headlines for Channel Nine.
If he were still alive, I’d send him an email or a text, saying may the best team win in tonight’s finals match between Geelong and Sydney. But, of course, my team, the Swans will emerge victorious. I only know James as a fellow journalist, but he has written a wonderful book about the Geelong Football Club called Comeback: The Rise and Fall of Geelong, a profile of the Cats’ three premierships in five seasons from 2007 to 2011.
Author and cricket expert extraordinare, Gideon Haigh, reviewed Button’s book in The Weekend Australian last September, saying Comeback is “notably free of needless grandiosity. There are no special claims, for instance, about the bond of club and city: rather, Geelong is an ‘ordinary club in an ordinary town that has done extraordinary things.’ In what Button says he is never other than thoughtful; in what he excludes, the surfeit of repetitive, rigidly chronological detail that retards so many sports books, he may be even more effective.”
James, your father would be proud of you. May the best team win tonight.
Update: Unfortunately, from a Swans supporter’s point of view, the best team was Geelong, who beat Sydney by 59 points last night in a sudden-death final, and go on to play Adelaide in a preliminary final next weekend. The season is over for the Swans. The Button family will be happy.

A producer’s diary: The night the People’s Princess died

Matt White was a show business legend, from his days on Fleet Street after his stint in World War II in the Intelligence Service and later on The Daily Mirror and the Daily Telegraph in Sydney. He wrote about films and television and movie stars, many of whom were his friends. Matt was also a great mentor. Whenever I had a problem at The Australian, I would look for him at the local pub, The Evening Star, and ask for his advice over a beer or two.
When I decided to leave The Australian to become foreign editor at Channel Seven, I asked Matt what he thought about the move. “Well,” he said, “how many words do you write a week? You’re the literary editor and TV critic for The Australian, and write author interviews, book and tv reviews and profiles of famous celebrities.” I thought about it for a few seconds and said: “Probably about 3000 words in a normal week.” Matt replied: “How many words will you write when you go to television? You’ll write intros to news stories and voiceovers for packages and the morning foreign news list. You’ve got to keep writing every day, longer pieces.”
That made sense, so I thought about it and decided I’d keep a diary of my days in television. I started the diary in September 1983 and kept going until my last full-time journalism job in 2013, as a series producer for The Observer Effect, hosted by Ellen Fanning, working at Shine Australia and putting it to air with EP Paul Steindl on SBS. This blog began when I was working as supervising producer on Ten’s Meet the Press in 2011, but the diary still haunts me. I wrote a novel that was rejected by three publishers, mainly, I was told by those who read it, because it concentrated too much on television and not enough on the story. I’m still working on the third rewrite, but the diary notebooks are still there, and I decided to look up what I wrote in my diary on August 31, 1997. It was 20 years ago today when Princess Diana died in a car crash (photo above of Princess Diana: AAP; photo below of the car: AFP), and I was putting the Sunday Program to air. It all started on August 30 because I always worked from Saturday morning about 8am or so until Sunday afternoon when the show was finished, and the paper work and the political guest transcripts were completed.
Here’s an edited version of that day and a half, with some additions that weren’t in the notebook!
Saturday, Aug 30, 1997
“In early and I cut down the Stuart Diver piece with (gun editor) Ross Wilson and was finished by 2pm. Everything else was going well. The power piece was being cut by Cindy Kelly and it was finished by midnight after all the sound work by Cindy. I got the news feed in from Darwin at 10.30 to 11, thereby missing the end of the Swans game – which they managed to lose again (Editor’s note: Things have changed since then!). While waiting for Cindy to bring up the tape, I wrote a news story, and after that I got about 40 minutes sleep.”

Sunday, Aug 31, 1997
“Up at 5.10am, and as soon as the news editor Ross Chilvers was ready, he cut the Darwin package with Jim Waley’s voice on it. After a difficult night, I was just starting to relax in the control room at 9.30am (the show started at 9am), when Jim said on the floor via the IFB (Interrupted Feed Back): ‘Princess Diana’s been seriously injured in a car crash.’ We didn’t have any pictures from Paris yet (remember this was 20 years ago), and I was worried about how we were going to cover the story. All this occurred during (Nine’s political editor) Laurie Oakes’ interview with the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory, Shane Stone, so I had to write a back announce for Jim, saying Princess Di and Dodi Fayed had been seriously injured in a car crash in Paris and we would bring viewers the latest details as soon as they came to hand. After the 13-minute interview, Shane Stone turned to Laurie and said: ‘I don’t think we’re going to be on page one tomorrow.’ I then sent a message to the Nine News executive producer of the day, Anthony Murdoch, asking if we could get a two-way with reporter Danny Blyde in London, who he just woke up. Jim had asked for a voiceover to write at the end of the next segment, but we still didn’t have any pix. Jim had to do a long live read, and he wasn’t happy we didn’t have any pictures from the scene. Ross had cut some Princess Di background, but that was all we had. At 10.55am, with only five minutes left in the show, Anthony let us know Dan was there, with Michael Usher on his way to Lausanne for a SOCOG (Sydney Organising Committee for the 2000 Olympic Games) meeting! It was a brief two way: not many details were coming out of Paris. We went over a bit due to the breaking news, driving the presentation director bananas. It was that kind of morning. I was stuffed and sure enough, Diana and Dodi were both pronounced dead by one pm Sydney time. I turned on ABC radio and the veteran newsreader, John Hall, presented the sad news for the first five minutes of the bulletin, and then said: ‘In domestic news, the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory, Sharon Stone, told Nine News …’ I don’t remember what he said after that I was laughing so hard at John’s slip of the tongue, and I immediately called Laurie Oakes and said: ‘Did you hear what I just heard on the ABC? The Chief Minister of the Northern Territory, Sharon Stone?’ Laurie was laughing, too, and confirmed it.’ It was a laugh we needed after an emotional and very sad morning.”
I then wrote: “Wait till next week.” I was thinking how big the funeral would be for the People’s Princess on the following weekend. I wrote in the diary on Tuesday, September 2: “I had my work cut out for me this week with Princess Di’s funeral on Saturday night our time. It meant a ‘That was the night that was’ story, suggested by Jim, followed by an extended breakout written by me, and cut by Bruce Inglis, a former BBC producer, who covered Di’s last tour here. So we were okay on that one.”
The next Saturday Princess Di’s funeral was watched by 2 billion people around the world and all hands were on deck for the Sunday Program of September 7. We had to squeeze an obituary of Mother Teresa into the packed show. She died early on Saturday morning Australian time. The diary for Sunday, September 7 reads: “I didn’t get any sleep, but I knew that would happen anyway … It was a good show, a good week, and Father’s Day.” (My daughters used to call it half-jokingly Anti-Father’s Day because I was always working.)
Dear Diary: Thanks for the memories. Now a question I have to ask myself: Is it time to go through the diaries, and write a novel based on them, or make it a memoir? As another old mate, no longer with us, the wonderful journalist and author, Ian Moffitt, said to me when I asked about writing a novel: “We are all living on borrowed time.”

Scaramucci does his last fandango for the White House

Anthony Scaramucci is being divorced by his wife, was fired by the president and is now reportedly dead. Okay, rumours of his death have been greatly exaggerated as Mark Twain once said, but it’s been that kind of a week for the sacked White House communications director. The New York financier was removed from his job overnight at the request of new White House Chief of Staff John Kelly.
According to the New York Post, reports of Scaramucci’s demise came in the Harvard Law School alumni directory, which placed an asterisk after his name meaning the 1989 graduate of the prestigious institution (where Barack Obama also graduated), had been designated as dead since the book was published in 2011. Harvard apologised to Scaramucci and said the error would be corrected in subsequent editions.
But Scaramucci (AP photo above) might as well be dead. He managed to get the former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus sacked for allegedly leaking administration secrets, forced the popular Sean Spicer to resign as press secretary, and alienated the president and just about everybody else for his profanity-laden interview with Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker. The most quoted Scaramucci line of that piece was directed at Priebus: “Reince is a f…ing paranoid schizophrenic, a paranoiac.” He dropped the “F” word a number of times and said he would kill all the leakers “to get the President’s agenda on track so we can succeed for the American people.”
Scaramucci did sound like President Trump in that interview but the latest (and unlikely to be last) White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told the media: “The president firmly felt that Anthony’s comments were inappropriate for a person in that position.” She went on to say that President Trump didn’t want to burden the former Homeland Security secretary, General Kelly, with that line of succession. It was certainly some succession. You wouldn’t want to work in the Trump White House unless you had the courage of a Medal of Honour winner. Ironically, General Kelly attended a Medal of Honour presentation after the sacking, smiling and taking pictures of guests while the president tweeted: “A great day at the White House.”
Apparently a great day at the White House is one where you fire the chief of staff, the communications director, continue to attack the attorney-general and then claim there is no chaos in the Oval Office. The President tweeted: “Highest Stock Market EVER, best economic numbers in years, unemployment lowest in 17 years, wages raising, border secure, S.C.: No WH chaos!” Press secretary Sanders had the best spin of all in denying there was any chaos or ill-feelings on the part of the sacked communications director: “Mr. Scaramucci felt it was best to give Chief of Staff John Kelly a clean slate and the ability to build his own team. We wish him all the best.”
On an optimistic note, Alain Sanders, a political analyst, told the New York Post General Kelly was trying to restore a sense of order to the White House: “It’s at once surprising and unsurprising. Surprising that a communications director would serve for only 10 days, but unsurprising, because Mr. Scaramucci was quite unconventional, and there was that strange performance last week. It’s also not surprising that cooler heads would prevail at the White House, and may mark the beginning of a greater sense of purpose by the general.”
I hope he’s correct for the sake of America and the world. But I hear my 8-year-old granddaughter asking in that mock manner: “Seriously?” and I would have to reply: “Only in this White House.”
The last word should go to Democratic Congressman and ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff, who tweeted this not-so-fond farewell to Scaramucci: “Thank you Anthony @Scaramucci for your service. I speak for a grateful nation when I say ‘has it really only been 11 days?!?’”
PS: It’s only been 10 days, Congressman Schiff, but it does seem a lot longer.

Helen Garner: Everywhere I look I find words chiselled in gold

Preface: It’s been a while since I’ve written a blog post: various reasons, including judging a journalism award; the birth of my fourth grandchild, a boy named Max (you can see him in a photo on my Facebook page); a brief hospital visit; keeping an eye on my team, the Sydney Swans, now with three wins and seven losses (sometimes it’s hard to write after a defeat); and waiting for a story I can really get my teeth into. I found one, it’s on racism, and I am starting to write that today. But in the meantime, I will publish my review of a book I finished reading a while ago. It’s been sitting here as a draft. Now that it’s subbed it’s about time I posted it. It’s by one of my favourite writers: Helen Garner.
Everywhere I Look (Cover photo above, Text Publishing) is a wonderfully written book by a great Australian author. In her delicious collection of essays, diary entries and stories, Helen Garner chooses her words carefully and teaches them how to sing.
I took notes and found myself writing “lovely story” at least ten times. The first note came after reading “Dear Mrs Dunkley,” a terrific yarn about Helen’s fifth grade teacher, a hard taskmaster who terrified her but showed her how to take a sentence apart and put it back together. Helen Garner wrote about her in an introduction to an earlier collection of her essays, describing a dream in which she wore “instead of your grim black 1940s wool suit, you were dressed in a jacket made of some wondrously tender and flexible material, like suede and buckskin, in soft, unstable colours that streamed off you into the air in wavy ribbons and garlands, so that as you walked you drew along behind you a thick, smudged rainbow trail.” The introduction prompted a reply from Mrs Dunkley’s daughter, who said she enjoyed her book and the introduction and sent her a photo of her and her mother. In this photo (in about 1960), Mrs Dunkley was dressed in black, and her daughter said in her letter: “My mother was an alcoholic.” It made Helen see her teacher as she really was: “… an intense, damaged, dreadfully unhappy woman, only just holding on, fronting up to the school each morning, buttoned into your black clothes, savagely impatient, craving, suffering: a lost soul.” Garner writes: “Dear Mrs Dunkley, You’re long gone, and I’m nearly seventy. But, oh, I wish you weren’t dead. I’ve got some things here that I wouldn’t be ashamed to show you … I would like to thank you. It’s probably what you would have called hyperbole, but, Mrs Dunkley, you taught me everything I know…” Mrs Dunkley made fun of Helen for being weak on arithmetic, and she would say: “Stand up, you great MOON CALF.” In her last paragraph, Garner says goodbye: “Dear Mrs Dunkley. I know your first name was Grace; I hope you found some, in the end. Please accept, in whatever afterlife you earned or were vouchsafed, the enduring love, the sincere respect, and the eternal gratitude of your Great Moon Calf, Helen.” Wow. “Dear Mrs Dunkley” is only four pages long, but every word is a gem, chiselled in gold.

Another yarn that earned my “lovely story” tag was “Notes from a Brief Friendship” about the writer Jacob Rosenberg (photo above: The Age, Simon Schluter). Invited by the publisher to write an endorsement for his book of memoirs about the Holocaust, Sunrise West, Garner sends a “humbled sentence” for the cover. Jacob writes back to thank her and suggests lunch. The first one doesn’t go too well, but he does ask her to launch Sunrise West. This leads to several more lunches and a brief friendship between a man in his eighties and a woman at least 20 years younger. Both wonderful writers. There was a gulf between them, Helen writes, but “when the chips were down, when his storytelling voice breathed freely and I heard it without defence, my respect and affection for him were unconstrained.” After the launch, Helen hardly saw Jacob again, but she did go to his funeral, a Jewish service, “deeply satisfying in its formality, tender in the beauty of its readings and tributes.” The “brevity and shyness of our friendship made me feel suddenly weak with sadness,” Garner writes. Soon after his death, she hears an old interview with Jacob on Radio National in which he says: “Suffering is so singular an art … I believe that nothing is lost in the universe somehow.” Reading his memoirs again, she remembers a dream she had many years before she met Jacob. It’s about a bush that grew on the lip of an abyss. I’ll let Helen finish the dream: “The bush grew right on the very edge of nothingness, and yet somehow its roots were holding. It had a grip that no wind could disturb; it thrived there, all on its own, this modest little plant, and while the abyss yawned beside it, it went on bravely, doggedly flowering.”
In her diary section, “Dreams of Her Real Self,” Helen tells fond, moving and sometimes painful stories of her mother and finds a letter in which her nine-year-old niece pays a wonderful tribute to her grandmother just before she died: ” But what I liked was often we would go into her room … and see all theese speicial (sic) things of hers some belonging to her six children one of which is my mum. I love all six of them and give them my best dreams of Grandma, dreams of her real self, the self with no evil diaseases (sic), the strongest part of her body and everyone should know it’s still here.” Helen Garner paints poignant portraits: the author Elizabeth Jolley, who wrote “flesh-and-blood letters, dipping an old fountain pen into a bottle of ink ..” adding “how much her books mean to me, the spasms of laughter they provoke, the quiet tears of recognition and relief.” (“My Dear Lift-Rat”); Australian of the Year and advocate for victims of domestic violence, Rosie Batty, whose son Luke was killed by his mentally ill father (“The Singular Rosie”); and a lively portrait of a company of Australian ballet dancers (“In the Wings”). Garner spends five days in the studios watching the dancers in scenes from Swan Lake and becomes a convert to ballet. The last sentence leaves you gasping with delight and wanting more. In any review of her books, Helen should have the last words; these are about the dancers: “They manifest the tremendous onwardrushingness of life, which has only one destination, and yet constantly renews itself, full of a joy that transcends words.”
PS If you’d like to know more about Helen Garner, read this excellent profile by the highly respected literary critic of The New Yorker, James Wood, published in the December 12 edition last year.

Winless in Sydney: Fears of a winter of discontent for the Swans

Shades of 1993. My favourite Australian Football League (AFL) team, the Sydney Swans, have lost their first four matches of the year, the most since that dire season of 1993 when the team set a record of 26 straight defeats. Last night, the Swans lost by 26 points to the West Coast Eagles in Perth, leaving the Grand Final runner-up in 2016 with a record of 0-4, and only 18 games left in the regular season. (Some of the unhappy Swans leaving the Domain Stadium ground last night above. Getty Images).
There is no joy in Sydney on Good Friday, except perhaps among fans of the Greater Western Sydney (GWS) Giants, who are premiership favourites and play the Swans at the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG) next Saturday.
But for those Swans supporters, like myself, who are not fair-weather fans, let me return to that awful season 24 years ago when the Sydney side not only lost the first four matches, but also only won one game all year. I remember the victory well as it was a Sunday afternoon in late June, winter Down Under, and we were playing Melbourne at the SCG. Ron Barassi, a football legend with Melbourne and Carlton, had just taken over as coach in May and the AFL Commission launched a rescue mission for the Swans (Ron Barassi getting stuck into the Swans in 1993 below). Only 109,590 spectators attended the 11 matches in Sydney that year and I was one of them.
We had good seats in the Brewongle Stand upstairs in the first row near the middle of the ground. The Swans players came out directly below us from the locker room. We weren’t expecting much, but we cheered for the Swans, called the umpires “Victorian Cheats,” and then it happened. The Sydney Swans beat the Melbourne Demons by 40 points, 149 to 109. It was Barassi’s seventh match as coach and the Swans’ losing streak of 26 games was ended. As the players came off the field, all the fans stood (there were only 8000 plus of us!), applauding wildly and I had tears in my eyes as Paul Kelly and his band of warriors filed into the rooms below us. It was a victory for the ages.
Now if you don’t mind, a slight detour in helping Swans supporters see light at the end of the tunnel in 2017. The next day I flew out of Sydney to Perth with a Channel Nine Sunday Program crew as I was producing a cover story about the future of Australian business with our guest reporter, John Button, who had retired in March after ten years as Federal Industry Minister in the Hawke and Keating governments. A long-time legendary Labor politician, John was also a passionate supporter of the Geelong Football Club. He knew the code of Australian Rules well. We had been traveling around the country, and John was interviewing the CEOs of major businesses to give Sunday viewers an insight into the industry he also knew well. As you can imagine, I was still over the moon about the Swans’ victory and had mentioned it a fair bit before he talked to the captains of industry in their offices and factories in the city.
After a long day of interviews and shooting, I was sitting in the back of the crew car with John on the return to our hotel. He looked at me, smiling, and said: “Tom, do you mind if I tell you something about the day?” “Of course not,” I replied, thinking he was going to praise me for setting up the interviews and my sage advice about how to do pieces to camera, etc. “Tom, we have been around the city talking to some of the most influential business people in Australia. Did you know that the West Coast Eagles won the premiership last year, and they are proud of their club. They wanted to talk about the Eagles, and you haven’t shut up about the Swans, not once all day.” We both laughed and I said: “John, when the team walked into the rooms at the SCG yesterday, I had tears in my eyes. It was like winning the Grand Final.” We didn’t see each other much after the story went to air on Nine’s Business Sunday, but when we did meet again he referred to me as “the Swans’ number one supporter.” John Button died in 2008 months after his beloved Geelong Cats won the premiership in 2007 — their first in 44 years. Former Prime Minister Bob Hawke said the premiership meant a lot to John Button as he found out he had cancer soon afterwards: “It was a moment of great joy for him and it was very shortly after that that he got the bad news about the disease that very quickly killed him.”

So Swans fans do not despair that your team has lost its first 4 games of the season. After that disastrous 1993 season (and 1994, also a wooden spoon year), the Swans added Tony Lockett, Paul Roos, Leo Barry and Michael O’Loughlin in 1995, the same year Paul Kelly won the Brownlow Medal. And, of course, the Swans made it to the Grand Final in 1996, although they lost to North Melbourne. It wasn’t until 2005 that the Swans finally won the Grand Final under coach Paul Roos with “Leaping” Leo Barry taking that famous mark — and their first premiership in 72 years. The supporters of the South Melbourne Club whose team was moved to Sydney in 1982 welcomed the Swans to their Lake Oval home on that victorious weekend in 2005, bringing memorabilia of their 1923 premiership. Since then the Swans have played in four Grand Finals, and while only winning one have earned the reputation of being one of the toughest teams in the AFL as the South Melbourne Bloods were known in the VFL.
And in even better news given the bumpy road ahead for the Swans, five of their injured and ill stars are set to return next Saturday: Kurt Tippet, Sam Naismith, Isaac Heeney, Gary Rohan and Jarrad McVeigh.
While no AFL team has ever made it into the finals with an 0-4 record (North Melbourne did it in 1975 when it was the Victorian Football League), there is no reason why the Swans can’t create history. All they have to do is win 12 of the next 18 games. Easy peasy right? And all they also have to do is remember 1993 — and the winter of discontent.