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17 September 2013 637 views No Comment

Ross Fitzgerald reviews books on Bill Woodfull, Old Xaverians Football Club, Footy Town and Madeleine St John

WOODFULL

Faced with reviewing four books it seems fitting that a cricket tragic should turn his attention first to Alan Gregory’s finely nuanced biography of former Australian cricket captain, Bill Woodfull.

Born William Maldon Woodfull in Maldon, Victoria in 1897 – the son of a Methodist country parson , he had a first-class batting average of 64.99, including 49 centuries.

However Woodfull is best known for being an extremely successful Test cricket captain (God knows we need to read about one of those at the moment) and especially for his heroism during England’s infamous “Bodyline tour of Australia in 1932-1933. As a Test batsman, facing good bowlers, Woodfull averaged 46 runs per innings , a fine performance.

An essential modest man and a devoted Christian, Woodfull primarily thought of himself as a teacher who happened to play cricket. Hence he regarded his time as principal of Melbourne High School, where he had previously studied and worked, as being the apex of his life’s achievements.

As befits the author of ‘Strong Like its Pillars’ – a very fine centenary history of my alma mater Melbourne High School published in 2005 , the most important parts of Gregory’s fine biography deal with the years when Woodfull was in charge of this high-achieving academic and sports-oriented all-boys school, from 1956 to 1962 inclusively.

There were hugely talented and highly motivated students like David Parkin (later a famous Aussie Rules premiership player and coach); Alex Wodak (who was to become a NSW-based drug law reformer); Garry Evans (who later changed his name to Gareth), and athlete Ralph Doubell (who won a Gold Medal in the 800 metres at Mexico in 1968)

I count myself extremely fortunate to have studied at Melbourne High when Woodfull was principal. This is in large part because he had either recruited to the school, or managed to retain, such a fine body of teachers across many disciplines. This corps of talented teachers, most of whom stayed at Melbourne High for all their teaching careers, more than rivalled their elite private school counterparts.

The Melbourne High staff photo for 1962, depicts Graham Worrall – one of the school’s most brilliant history teachers. While the school’s other great history teacher, Ben Munday, stayed at Melbourne High, Graham Worrall became a lecturer in History at my other alma mater, Monash University, where he continued to inspire a generation of students.

Alan Gregory’s account of the 1930 Ashes tour of England , where Bill Woodfull, Don Bradman and Alan Kippax starred with the bat along with Clarrie Grimmett with the ball , provides new insights. Bradman’s clash with some of his Catholic colleagues (such as Bill O’Reilly) has frequently been explained with reference to the Protestant/Catholic sectarian divide of the day.

Gregory demonstrates that Woodfull (who destroyed his letters before he died) also had difficulties with Bradman’s lack of team spirit and general stingyness, but never indicated this in public. Like Bradman, Woodfull was a Protestant and a teetotaler.

Clearly it was not only Catholics who had problems with Don Bradman. Bradman did not play in Bill Woodfull’s testimonial match ,nor did he attend his retirement function as Melbourne High School principal , unlike most of Woodfull’s team mates who were still alive. Alan Gregory quotes cricketer Bill Ponsford, a friend of Woodfull, as saying that Woodfull felt let-down by Bradman but refused to elaborate on the matter.

RED & BLACK

The Old Xaverians Amateur Football Club was founded in 1923 and in this carefully researched, chronological narrative, RED & BLACK (which by the way are the anarchist colours) Paul Henderson deftly deals with the club’s 90-year history.

As befits a longtime teacher of history and politics at Xavier College, Henderson impressively blends football and politics. Indeed some would say that, far too often, in real life the two are, unfortunately, one and the same thing.

To this reviewer, the highlights of Henderson’s lengthy book deal with sectarianism during the First World War and the 1920s, fascinating as social history, and also with the interconnected roles of Melbourne’s long-serving Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, the Irish-born Daniel Mannix, and the influential Irish Jesuit priest Father William Hackett, who was an ardent Irish republican.

Intriguingly to an historian and teetotaler like myself, I found Henderson’s discussion of the changing role of alcohol and the footy club to be quite fascinating. From time to time it seems that some members of the Old Xavierians advocated prohibition and I say , more power to them!

RED & BLACK also deals in some detail with that well-known, Collingwood-based, ‘entrepreneur’, ‘philanthropist’, and Aussie Rules enthusiast, John Wren, who was a lifetime supporter of the mighty Magpies.

A fascinating episode in Henderson’s footy club history is the fact that, in 1928, almost certainly with the financial and personal aid of Wren, the Old Xaverians managed to secure as coach the hugely successful coach of the Collingwood Football Club, Jock McHale. As Henderson points out, by 1928 McHale had coached the Woodsmen for 16 years, including already winning VFL premierships in 1911, 1919, and 1927.

Although McHale was extremely busy at Collingwood, he did manage to come to coach this team of dedicated amateurs most Wednesdays evenings. Hence, although he could not attend Old Xaverian games on Saturdays, for three years during the footy season he took charge of training one night a week. As was written by a club spokesman in ‘The Xaverian’ at the time: “The great improvement in the play of the team was entirely due to (McHale’s) coaching and advice, and there is no doubt that we owe much of our success to his hard work and enthusiasm.

My favorite photo in this finely illustrated book is that of the E Grade Reserve Team, taken in 1965. Intriguingly, the middle row features the author’s brother, now executive director of The Sydney Institute , a stern looking Gerard Henderson. In the same row stands future Howard government minister Richard Alston and his brother Ian.

Prominent AFL footballers who have played with, or coached, the Old Xaverians include Terry Callan (Geelong), Jack Clarke (Essendon), Trevor Gowers (Richmond), Andrew Gowers (Hawthorn), Michael Green (Richmond), Craig Kelly (Collingwood), Des Meagher (Hawthorn), Barry Richardson (Richmond) and Alan Woodley (Hawthorn).

The two weaknesses of this engaging amateur football history are the lack of an index (which makes following the text difficult), plus the fact that the typeface could be larger. But, despite all that, the book itself is a joy to read and hold.

FOOTY TOWN

Far less successful as an integrated book than Paul Henderson’s magisterial history of the Old Xaverians is Paul Daffey and John Harms’ edited collection of Aussie Rules football yarns, called ‘Footy Town’.

Published by Malarkey Publications in Fitzroy North, Victoria, this strangely titled book is rather disjointed and the typeface is small. Those of us of a certain age must rebel against such technicalities, while we still can.

There are, however, some highlights in the book – especially a number of contributions about country football. There is also an energetically irreverent essay by the irrepressible Barry Dickins. Unambiguously titled “Go Lalor, You Pricks! Dickens deals with the Lalor Football Club, in outer suburban Melbourne, founded in 1955. As the piece points out, this team managed to produce two of the Carlton Football Club’s all time stars , namely Lance Whitnall and Anthony Koutoufides.

Perhaps the best and most intriguing piece, and the last in the collection, is by the talented Harms himself. “In Time and in Eternity, deals with the ragbag of players associated with the Adelaide Lutheran Football Club – nicknamed The Bulldogs – whose home ground is at Doggie Park, South Parklands. If what Harms writes is true, between 1985 and 1993 he played two C Grade games for the Doggies, and kicked one goal! Well done John.

The fourth book in my pile has, on the face of it, at least one thing in common with the other three , they are all published in Victoria.

MADELEINE

Co-author of two previous books , ‘Waterfront: The Battle that Changed Australia’ and ‘Better than Sex: How a Whole Generation Got Hooked on Work’, Helen Trinca has excelled herself in ‘Madeleine’ – a moving and detailed account of the life of a deeply troubled and highly talented expatriate Australian novelist.

As Madeleine St John destroyed most of her papers before she died, Trinca, an experienced and much-admired journalist, could only tell Madeleine’s life story with the aid of her family and friends. In particular, Madeleine’s sister Colette St John Lippincott generously provided Trinca with a key part of this fine biography , namely the psychiatric records of their tragic, alcoholic, French mother Sylvette, who committed suicide when Madeleine and Colette were young.

The other sad reality is that Madeleine St John loathed her father, Edward St John – the noted QC and independent-minded Liberal MHR for the safe Sydney outer suburban seat of Warringah – now held by Liberal Party leader Tony Abbott.

Although, at the time, many artistic, and other Aussies headed for London to seek fame if not fortune, there are some hints in the book that, at least in part, Madeleine left Sydney to escape her detested, but in my opinion, much wronged , at least by his daughters – locally famous father.

Madeleine’s crucial time in London also could only be told with the detailed assistance of a number of friends, including her avid supporters, Clive James, Germaine Greer, Peter Porter and Barry Humphries. The latter had written enthusiastically and expansively in ‘The Spectator’ about Madeleine’s first novel ‘The Women in Black’ , which was set in post-war Sydney.

An overblown peon of praise from the novelist, essayist and poet Clive James is featured on the front page of Madeleine. The now infirm and elderly Australian expat is quoted as saying: ‘The only lasting fame for any of the rest of us will reside in the fact that we once knew her (i.e. Madeleine). Even for James this is hyperbole.

Yet, as a writer, while Madeleine St John may not have been that influential, she was certainly industrious and well thought of, especially in English literary circles.

The fact is that in October 1997, as Trinca records, Madeleine’s third novel, ‘The Essence of the Thing’ was short-listed for the Booker Prize. St John was an eight to one outsider. However the noted English writer, A.S. Byatt, opined that ‘The Essence of the Thing’ excited her more than all the other novels.

Although she did not win the Booker, being short-listed could be seen as vindication that Madeleine had somehow succeeded – despite the opposition of many members of her family. As Trinca puts it, had she won the prize, “the sweetest victory of all would be over her father, Edward St John , politician, barrister and pillar of the community. Ted had died in 1994, but his daughter still had scores to settle.

In the main, this well illustrated and carefully indexed biography is thoroughly researched and, as befits a journalist of Trinca’s calibre, is extremely well written.

The reality is that ‘Madeleine’, like ‘Woodfull’, is a fine piece of work that deserves to be widely read. In my opinion, both Alan Gregory and Helen Trinca do their diverse subjects proud.

Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 36 books. Among the most recent are his memoir MY NAME IS ROSS: AN ALCOHOLIC’S JOURNEY (NewSouth Books: Sydney) which is now available as an e-book; the co-authored biographies ALAN (“THE RED FOX) REID and AUSTEN TAYSHUS: MERCHANT OF MENACE; and the co-edited ‘AUSTRALIA’S GAME: Stories, Essays, Verse & Drama Inspired by the Australian Game of Football’ published by Slattery Media in Melbourne.

Review of Alan Gregory, WOODFULL (Melbourne High School, Forrest Hill, South Yarra, Victoria), pp 262, 2011; Paul Henderson, RED & BLACK: The History of the Old Xaverians Football Club (Impress Print Management, Port Melbourne, Victoria), pp 414, 2013; Paul Daffey & John Harms, (eds) FOOTY TOWN (Malarkey Publications, Fitzroy North, Victoria) pp 382, 2013; Helen Trinca, MADELEINE: A Life of Madeleine St John (Text Publishing: Melbourne, Victoria) pp 280.

The Sydney Institute Quarterly, Issue 42, August 2013, pp 17-20

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