Lunch with Geoffrey Blainey
John Harms is a remarkable man with a talent for bringing remarkable people together. He's united people in print for many years through his wonderful writings in various forums (notably as a columnist for The Age and through his books, Confessions of a Thirteenth Man, Memoirs of a Mug Punter and Loose Men Everywhere. With the advent of the Footy Almanac, an annually published collection that reviews each AFL season through the eyes of average fans, he began to bring people together via the yearly book launch tour. When the Almanac became a website in 2009, he united 'Alamanackers' online.
With Footy Almanac lunches and dinners, John brings together people from all over the world and from all walks of life and he did it again at last Friday's Almanac lunch at the North Fitzroy Arms hotel, where the guest of honour was Australia's pre-eminent historian Geoffrey Blainey. He doesn't know it, but Blainey played a large part in me holding the role that I do today as contributing editor at australianfootball.com. It was his seminal 1990 book, A Game of Our Own: The Origins of Australian Football, that combined two of my loves, Australian history and Australian football, and awakened within me a burning passion to know more about our game's past, not just in Melbourne where I grew up, but countrywide.
As we tucked into our meal, (with me proudly seated at the table of Blainey and another greatly admired historian of sport and business, and Geelong supporter, Gideon Haigh), Harms introduced Blainey and the conversation began. Born in 1930, Blainey's first memories of the Australian game revolved around the Central Gippsland Football League in Victoria's East. When the Blainey family moved west to Geelong in 1937, Geoffrey was shocked to learn that there were football teams other than Yallourn Gold, Yallourn Blue and Leongatha that existed.
Blainey's father was a Methodist church minister and it was his transfer to the church in Pakington Street, Newtown that brought the family to Geelong. A very famous Geelong footballing family - the Rankins - were part of the congregation at the church. It wasn't long before the Blaineys got a taste of football, VFL-style, and Geoffrey has vivid memories of the bright colours on display at the old Corio Oval ground, the verdant grass and team jumpers providing a "wonderfully pretty sight".
In that first match, Geelong played host to South Melbourne, and Blainey's initial assessment was that the Swans had the better colours. Geelong, however, was the local side, destined to become Blainey's football love. Strengthening the bond was the obvious fact that it was the Geelong players that he would see each time at the ground. With the effects of the depression still heavy, few had the spare change to purchase a Football Record so, while local spectators knew the names of all the Geelong players, the South Melbourne players were something of a mystery.
Such were the effects of the great depression, Blainey recalls, that not many Geelong folks actually went to the football. It was talked about constantly, but few citizens of 'The Pivot' could afford the expense.
Lamenting the fact that no trace of Corio Oval now exists (Geelong's football club moved to Kardinia Park in 1941 when the venue was gazetted by the army as a military training camp during World War II, never to return), Blainey's words painted a wonderful picture as he described how the ground was protected from the north and west winds by embankments, the "ever so powerful" aroma of eucalyptus oil emanating from the change rooms, and the sight of steam rising from the saveloys at the hot dog drums.
The Blainey family was on the move again in 1941, this time to Ballarat. Upon arriving in that historic city, Blainey soon developed an acute sense of the people having been there since long before. He remembers one local family who had strands going back to the Gold Rush.
Blainey's interest in history intensified around the time World War II ended. In 1946 he was awarded a scholarship that landed him at Melbourne University. By the age of 17, he knew he wanted to be a writer. He became the editor of the university's newspaper Farrago, a role he took on with such enthusiasm that he used to submit letters to the editor under pseudonyms, criticising himself!
As a young adult having graduated from Melbourne University, Blainey boldly decided the time had come to write his first book. That task took him to the west coast of Tasmania, specifically to Queenstown¹. The local football club was Smelters (later Queenstown) and Blainey spent three seasons, from 1951 to 1953, playing with the Robins. As (bad) luck would have it, they were the three years his beloved Cats made the VFL Grand Final. While he missed the 1952 and 1953 deciders, Blainey was fortunate enough to make at back to the MCG for Geelong's drought-breaking flag in 1951.
Smelters' jumper design was based on a glass furnace, with a large 'S' in the centre. "The club was very proud of its literacy", joked Blainey. Though one of the youngest players at the club when he arrived, Blainey was immediately appointed as players representative to the committee "because I was literate!"
As far as Australian rules football grounds go, Smelters' was the rarest of them all. It had a gravel surface. The ground was surrounded by a bicycle track, and the smarter players would go very wide and bounce the ball on the track when running down the wing, because, as one could well imagine, an oval-shaped ball doesn't bounce particularly truly on gravel!² A wet, bouncing ball would, in fact, end up with small bits of gravel adhering to it, making a mark with the hands a somewhat painful affair. This led to some players become adept at marking the ball on their shoulders.
Blainey's football career took a back seat after his three years in Queenstown, the focus being very much on history, mainly Australian, but also Christian and World history as the years rolled on. He went on to publish another 30 or more books, including The Tyranny of Distance, Triumph of the Nomads, The Causes of War, and A Short History of the World.
When conversation turned to great players and Blainey was asked his favourites, he said it was too easy to think of current or recent players because they are freshest in the mind but he feels that Fred Flanagan was desperately unlucky to have had the first few years of his career taken away from him by World War II (Flanagan was stationed in New Guinea during the war). Blainey believes that Flanagan is the best centre half forward to have played in his lifetime and should be in the Hall of Fame.
While mentioning New Guinea, Blainey also poignantly brought up the name of Jimmy Knight (left). Knight played with the Cats from 1939 to 1941 before the club went into recess for the remainder of the war. He then spent a couple of seasons at Carlton before his commission as Flying Officer in the RAAF took him to New Guinea where he made the ultimate sacrifice, killed when the bombs aboard his Douglas Boston bomber exploded after the aircraft crashed during take-off from Goodenough Island. Knight, who had played 57 matches in total, wasn't a player I'd even been aware of, but his story moved and stayed with Blainey, as must the stories of so many other relatively unknown players who lost their lives in service with those who come to know of them.
Other players to spring to Blainey's still very fertile mind included Gary Ablett Senior, who left a lasting impression with his "marking, his long kicking, his torpedoes of over 60 yards - he always looked for the policeman behind the goals", Lindsay White, "a sensational drop kick in dry weather" and Tony Ongarello, who, with his Fitzroy teammates, was highly adept at negotiating the always-wet south side of the uniquely shaped Brunswick Street Oval.
When questions were thrown open to the guests, I was pleased that the topics of Tom Wills and the origins of our game were raised. Having read Blainey's writings on these matters, I was already aware of his thoughts and conclusions but it was good to hear him articulate those orally. The vexed question, "Was Tom Wills the father of the game?", was answered with a fairly definitive, "No".
The game, Blainey contends, was fathered more by a series of committees. He briefly detailed the known aspects of the life of Wills: born in New South Wales, spent time in the area that is now Canberra and at Ararat before being sent to board at the Rugby school in England where he amply demonstrated the gifted sportsman that he was. He rejoined his family, who had moved to Point Henry, on his return before moving with his father and other family members to Rockhampton.
It was while Tom Wills was living there in 1861 that his father and 18 others were massacred by Aborigines while during a siesta, Tom's life spared by virtue of him being "away with the dray" at the time. Wills later returned to Melbourne and, despite the atrocity of Rockhampton, remained always very supportive of the Aborigines, famously organising and coaching an Aboriginal XI which became the first Australian cricket team to tour England.
Inevitably the question of Aboriginal influence on the origins of the game was raised. The romantic in me continues to be desperate to find such a link but Blainey continues to steadfastly agree with Gillian Hibbins' contention that the game has roots in Marn Grook as a "seductive myth" and using his word, "nonsense".
Blainey cites another popular theory, that the game was also partially derived from Gaelic football in Ireland, but his research for A Game of Our Own, turned up not a skerrick of evidence of that. Indeed, there was in fact far more evidence that the opposite is true. His firm belief based on long research is that Australian football is an Amalgam of other games, particularly the early and pre-codified forms of Association football (soccer) and rugby.
Blainey is by no means pigheaded in his dismissal of the Marn Grook theory. He simply asks that those who subscribe to it provide evidentiary support that Marn Grook was anything more than a regional Aboriginal ball game, which makes the next question put to him a most interesting one. Did he place any weight on the story told to Martin Flanagan by Lawton Wills Cook (a descendant of Tom Wills' sister) some years ago, that when Tom Wills was a boy at Moyston, outside Ararat, he played Aboriginal football with the local blacks, and that they used a possum skin stuffed with charcoal and wrapped with sinew?³
Flanagan's story is one to which I'm always drawn, but Blainey is firm in his rebuttal of the theory of Wills' possible childhood experience being linked to the birth of our game. Where is the written primary source evidence to support the claim? There is, of course, none known to exist. At this juncture of the conversation I'm reminded of the question that I always grapple with in my own mind - should we dismiss evidence simply because it is oral only? After all, a vast portion of what we know of Australia's indigenous past is founded upon stories passed by word of mouth down tens, even hundreds, of generations.
Nevertheless, Blainey correctly points out that there is much documentation of Wills' interaction with the Aboriginals and the influence he saw that they had on the game of cricket. If he was willing to share those details, why would he never have mentioned any similar influence on football? I have no answer for that, yet I still hold onto the finest thread of hope that one day a concrete link will be found - much as I hold on to the finest thread of hope that the Dogs will one day break their premiership drought! In truth, the latter possibility, as far as away as it always seems to be to me, is far more likely.
Ensuring the debate didn't become too robust for a friendly lunchtime chat, Harms reminded us of something we can all agree on, that in modern football, "the umpires are as bad as ever!" With Blainey having generously given us much of his time, Harms brought the conversation to a conclusion by asking his fellow Geelong supporter of the Cats' 2016 prospects. Blainey believes the expectations place on the team at the beginning of the season were far too high, given the poor performance of last year. But Blainey himself was astonished and buoyed by the Cats' round one effort against Hawthorn, particularly after they looked gone at three-quarter time. However, his hopes had been dampened by the shock loss to Collingwood, and he is unsure how far the club can go this year.
On that note, Blainey was thanked with a warm and hearty round of applause, and Harms somehow convinced us all to sing along as he leads a rendition of the Geelong club song. When it was over I made a wish that we will be singing Sons of the West (or even better, Sons of the 'Scray) in celebration of a Bulldogs flag at the end-of-year Footy Almanac function. With that dream realised, I'll then be able to move on to achieving my next dream, finding evidence of a link between Marn Grook and Australian football that will be strong enough to sway the great Geoffrey Blainey.
1. Blainey stayed true to his aim. His first book, The Peaks of Lyell, a history of the Mount Lyell Mining and Railway Company, was published in 1954.
2. At least that was Blainey's apparent inference. Rex Powell, who played on the Gravel for two decades until 1963 (and who therefore presumably played with Blainey) tells a slightly different story in Paul Daffey's excellent 2002 Age article, Footy at the Gravel is cutting edge stuff. Powell claims that "said Queenstown footballers loved their ground because the ball bounced truly in any weather."
3. Martin Flanagan elaborated on this story in his 2011 John Button Oration, an edited transcript of which can be found here.