Joe Darling: Cricketer, Farmer, Politician and Family Man

Joe Darling_cover_front.jpg The first batsman to hit a six in Test cricket, Joe Darling is one of the giant figures of cricket’s Golden Era, best remembered as a record-breaking batsman and outstanding leader of men.

Captain of three Ashes tours to England in 1899, 1902 and 1905 he guided Australian cricket through its coming of age … Larger than life, Joe Darling, by his discipline and democratic approach was admired by cricketers who served under or played against him.

This biography concentrates on Joe’s cricket at all levels – Test, colonial/state, and club – but includes a chapter on his other main sport, Australian Rules football. In addition it discusses his life as a farmer, politician and family man, as well as a member of the pioneering Darling dynasty, several of whose other members are profiled in detail.



Buffalo Men (2018)

BUFFALO MEN IMG_5430An extended family history, this is the story of buffalo hunters Joe and Reuben Cooper. Reuben was also one of the founders of the Northern Territory Football League and his descendants have remained prominent in the sport.

John Mehaffey: a Life in Sport (2018)

JOHN MEHAFFEY 1 IMG_5328John Mehaffey’s life centred around sport. A South Australian tennis player and Australian Rules footballer, and Australian representative in table-tennis in his peak years in the 1940s and 1950s, a successful sports store proprietor, and long-time sports commentator, this is a fascinating story from a time when leading athletes were poorly paid but rich in the variety of experiences they were able to enjoy.

Strike a Light: a Memoir (2018)

STRIKE A LIGHT IMG_4494 A memoir in which I was able to assist my good friend Bruce Weir. In the middle of 2017 Bruce received a dire health report but faced the news with great coverage and threw himself into painting with amazing passion and energy. At the same time I suggested that we do a series of oral history interviews in which to record details of a productive life. These were conducted over several weeks during June and July.  Bruce spoke about his main interests in cosmology, geology, native flora and fauna, his love of the Flinders Ranges, his main career in the law and creative talents as a guitarist (rock, classical, flamenco), photographer, wood worker and finally painter. Fortunately the book was published and Bruce was able to enjoy it for several weeks before his death in March, 2018.

Adelaide Sporting Sites (2018)





The Adelaide Grand Prix drew much larger crowds than does that of Melbourne which stole it. Adelaide Test cricket crowds sometimes surpass Sydney’s numbers and trounce those of Brisbane and Perth. Oakbank is the biggest picnic horse race meeting in the nation.

Adelaide Sporting Sites is a story of venues past and present. Of Adelaide Oval, Football Park, Memorial Drive, the City Baths, Morphetville and Victoria Park racecourses, Norwood Oval and Norwood Velodrome, Wayville and Globe Derby trots, Rowley Park and Mallala speedways. Of events and associations: Crows/Power derbys, Magpies/Redlegs rivalry, Australian Tennis and Golf Opens, the Bay Sheffield, of Phar Lap racing at Morphetville, Tulloch at Cheltenham, and Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost and Nicki Lauda on the East Parklands circuit.

Sports fans often love the places where the action occurs more than their favourite teams or players because they represent continuity in their lives. This richly illustrated book will prompt memories of familiar venues as well as enabling you to discover a glorious history of Adelaide sport.


There It Is Again

DON WATSON There It Is Again: Collected writings. Reviewed by Bernard Whimpress


There It Is Again is an anthology of Don Watson’s sharp-eyed observations on political and social issues in the 21st century.

While Australia is the prime focus, the first of these 47 essays, ‘Rabbit Syndrome’ is devoted to American politics, and the United States is the subject of a further four: ‘Faith, Freedom and Katrina’; an excerpt from American Journeys; ‘Palin Politics’ – a precursor to Trump, and ‘American Berserk’.

Anthologies are dip-in books and ‘Once a Jolly Lifestyle’ is a good place to start, with author Don Watson getting an early morning hair-cut in the Victorian Wimmera town of Horsham. ‘So how’s your day been so far?’ his female hairdresser enquires.

The answer goes like this:

There was a time – a very long time – when country people rarely asked more of another human being than how he or she was going. In this same time there was often the whiff of damp hay, dogs or sweat around country schoolrooms, churches and picture theatres. Country people – this was before they were called rural and regional Australians – were the living embodiment of their work and environment, somehow even of their faith. They were as seals are to rocks and owls are to night, the elemental Australians.

But now, as Watson says, that question ‘becomes pretty well mandatory’ for ‘customer-focused businesses, worldwide, and the world now includes the Wimmera’. It also induces a ‘state of mindlessness’.

Mindlessness is at the core of the use and abuse of the language, and politics and the English language are key concerns here. It is hardly surprising that the author of Death SentenceWeasel Words and Bendable Learnings should mourn the loss of verbs and their replacement in speech and writing by such clichéd words as ‘commitment’, ‘accountability’, ‘strategic’, ‘values’ and ‘outcomes’.

I can also relate to the hairdresser’s question as a shortened version of it – ‘How’s your day been?’ used to be put to me by a friend, a public servant, in a city pub at the end of a working day. And I found it intrusive – as if I was being held to account for my work (or lack of it), and had to mark off some KPIs (key performance indicators) in a social setting.

It also reminded me of the mid-1980s when I worked for a year in local government and a colleague used to spend five minutes every hour documenting what he had been doing for the previous 55 minutes. A historian, he was shortly afterwards seconded to an internal management team working on restructuring the organisation. Several years later I returned to the same body and the same man was still working on management reviews. Whether any recommendations from his reviews were ever implemented, or any benefits resulted from them, I do not know.

As Watson comments in ‘National Trust Heritage Lecture’:

The language of management – for which we read the language of virtually all corporations and companies large and small, public-service departments, government agencies, libraries, galleries and universities, the military, intelligence organisations, and increasingly politics – is language that cannot describe or convey any human emotion, including the most basic ones like happiness, sympathy, greed, envy, love or lust.

In sum, it is dead language, vague and vapid.

One thing that can be said of Don Watson is that he is grounded. Grounded by growing up on a Gippsland dairy farm in the 1950s, expanded maybe through reading and work as an academic historian, but grounded again in different ways as a satirist, then working in the Prime Minister’s Office as Paul Keating’s speech writer, and in his writing life beyond.

Whatever he writes, Watson certainly has an acute ear. Take this example from The Bush extract in this collection:

The mental images have not faded. The subject cannot be separated from the settings in which he worked: the hills and the trees and the fences and wooden sheds and yards and the cattle and crops and the back porches with their boots and coats, the smell of mud and manure, and the rush of the westerly in the pines. In a dry spell he would tap the tank beside the kitchen window. He tapped the barometer just about every day of his life. In the evening the wind moaned in the Chinese cedars, the calves bawled, the bulls roared their lust. At night the possums rattled their throats in the trees, fighting for territory, discouraging owls and dogs. The dogs barked, howled sometimes. Magpies welcomed the mornings with a warble, the thrush with its thrill of a song.

Or this from ‘Aussie Icons’:

Two or three days after Steve Irwin died, while standing in airport queue I heard a man say to his companion that Germaine Greer had ‘tried to gut an Aussie icon’. His companion was astounded to hear that anyone should be so insensitive. ‘I mean,’ said the man, ‘I wasn’t a big wrap for the bloke, but he was an icon and you have to respect that. You don’t go round gutting an icon.’

Or this from ‘War on Terror’:

It’s the word ‘war’. From the moment ‘war on terror’ was declared everything went fuzzy. Australians persuaded themselves that refugees from terror might be agents of terror. American soldiers went to fight in Iraq believing they were avenging 9/11. The whole world was conned into believing Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

An icon was originally an image of a saint or hero but it has now come to mean the actual person. Watson is not a pedant opposed to the evolution of language, merely the confusion that sometimes attends it. War is generally regarded as armed conflict between nations but terror is a state of mind which may be prompted by terrorist acts. Imprecision regarding a definition of war allows atrocities to be committed in its name

Don Watson disdains being described as a public intellectual and tells us that even after he’d been earning a living as a writer for 20 years he found it difficult to describe himself as such. Real writers were the Tolstoys, Prousts, Hemingways of the world, not scribblers like himself. He has no need for such modesty.

Tom Keneally has employed a pithy phrase – ‘dazzlingly elegant and perceptive’ – to describe Watson’s writing and that is a deserved testimonial. I have read virtually all of Watson’s books and many of these articles when they originally appeared in The Monthly. Even so, it is an enormous pleasure to have these pieces gathered together between two covers. Don Watson is a wonderful recorder and prophet of our times. Long may he be so.

Don Watson There It Is Again: Collected writings Vintage Books 2017 PB 352pp $34.99.

Bernard Whimpress is a historian who usually writes on sport. His most recent book is The Official MCC Ashes Story.

Fabulous Phil

MATT WATSON Fabulous Phil: The Phil Carman Story. Reviewed by BernardWhimpress


A rivetingly flawed biography of one of the most talented Australian Rules footballers to ever pull on a boot.

Let’s begin with the flaws.

This is a book with 55 chapters and books with so many chapters usually see me casting them aside – they’re just too bitty. It draws on interviews with many people and normally I don’t like excessive quoting. It has me questioning the whereabouts of the author’s voice.

Yet the bits mostly work, for the book is a compulsive page-turner. So too does the chorus of voices. They convey contrary messages, but then ‘Fabulous Phil’ Carman was a contrary man: introvert and extrovert, social but not sociable, liked but essentially a loner, an independent free spirit tied to a team game.

‘If’ is a little big word.

  • if Collingwood hadn’t engaged in such bastardry in keeping him out of football between 1970 and 1972;
  • if Collingwood hadn’t been such a basket-case of a club when he arrived in 1975;
  • if he hadn’t broken a bone in his foot and missed seven matches, he would have won the Brownlow Medal in his first season instead of finishing fourth;
  • if he’d had a mentor like Norwood coach Robert Oatey during his VFL career;
  • if he’d had a coach worth listening to in his Collingwood years – Murray Weideman and Tom Hafey bored him with their approach to the game;
  • if boundary umpire Graham Carberry hadn’t invaded his personal space in 1980, leading to the head butt that saw him suspended for 20 matches;
  • if he hadn’t been his own worst enemy …

… things might have been different.

The trouble was he was his own worst enemy.

If ever there was a couldabeen champion it was Phil Carman. A champion wins Brownlow and Magarey Medals, a champion dominates major matches and plays in premiership sides, a champion wins multiple club best and fairest trophies, and (barring injuries) plays 300 league games in his career.

Carman played 58 games in five interrupted seasons for Norwood in South Australia and 100 games with four Victorian Football League clubs (Collingwood, Melbourne, Essendon and North Melbourne). He shoulda played in a Collingwood premiership in 1977 but got himself suspended in the preliminary final and coach Hafey forever blamed him for the lost title. He shoulda won a Brownlow, and while he did win the Copeland Trophy (Collingwood’s best and fairest award) in his first season, that was his solitary club award. At an age when he might have been ending a glorious playing career to much applause, he was turning out in bum leagues with Kangaroo Flat and Sandhurst and as captain-coach of Eastlake in Canberra. Finally, when as coach he lifted Sturt from the pits of despair in 1995 to take them to the 1998 SANFL grand final, he had the disappointment of losing narrowly to Port Adelaide.

Phil Carman had talent to burn and he burnt it. Only at Norwood did he express anything like his true ability and then his career was interrupted. At Collingwood under Weideman and Hafey he was cut too much slack because of his talent. At Melbourne he didn’t give Carl Ditterich a chance as coach. At Essendon he was excited to play under Barry Davis but then came the suspension. At North Melbourne he might have worked well with Ron Barassi but injuries were taking their toll.

Without doubt he was the fittest player of his era, a dazzling excitement machine who stands out in the memory two generations since he began. As the first professional footballer he possessed an extraordinary range of skills and especially the seeming ability to hang in the air when flying for a high mark. For half of my life I have argued that Carman was the second-most talented footballer I have seen (behind Barrie Robran). As a South Australian I have placed him ahead of Russell Ebert, Malcolm Blight, Paul Bagshaw and Rick Davies, and in Victoria ahead of Gary Ablett Senior and Wayne Carey.

Talent, of course, doesn’t necessarily translate to achievement and a lot of people have probably considered me a lunatic. One reason I enjoyed Matt Watson’s book is that the testimony of others – Graham Cornes, Peter Moore, Robert Oatey, Ross Dillon, Barry Cable, and Lou Richards – supports my view.

If I have a criticism of the book it is probably that at 420 pages it is too long. Carman’s suspension from the 1977 VFL grand final is laboured and two key questions are not fully explored. We know that Collingwood struck a hard bargain and that if he played VFL he would play with them but was there never a chance of him beginning with another club? Carman’s individualist streak, his love of running and training by himself also points to a wrong choice of sport. Perhaps he was the great Olympian we never had.

Fabulous Phil is a warts-and-all biography (as it needs to be) and a well-rounded portrait of its subject, containing elements of pathos as Carman’s life (and football) begins to unravel in Victorian country leagues before a welcome recovery coaching in Adelaide where his major football began.

Matt Watson Fabulous Phil: The Phil Carman Story Brolga Publishing PB 420pp $34.99

Bernard Whimpress is a historian whose most recent book is Adelaide Oval: A Photo-Document 2009.