The following is an interview with Greg de Moore, author of Tom Wills: First Wild Man of Australian Sport. It took place on the 4th of May at the First & Last, a cultural hub of North Coburg, Greg’s old stomping ground. “Now we know what hell looks like,” said Greg as we walked past the pokies to a slightly less bleak corner of the pub. He had just arrived in Melbourne after giving a talk at the Bradman Museum in Bowral for the unveiling of an exhibit on Tom Wills, and was due to give another talk about Tom on the 5th. I hope his oratorical skills didn’t suffer that day because our chat lasted well into the night. (To be fair to the First & Last, Greg had no complaints about his grilled fish). I wanted to record a conversation with Greg – the ultimate authority on Tom Wills – not only for my own enjoyment, but to contribute something unique to Tom’s revival. Every other interview I can find is given to someone who is knowledgeable about the man and conducted by someone who is horrified for not having heard of the man. This, instead, is what happens when two Tom Wills obsessives sit down for a chat over a few schooners. Greg says at the end, “… the story’s richness is ultimately one of its great advantages. You can delve into one area until you get a bit tired of it, and then something else happens.” Accordingly, the transcript is in segments: FINDING TOM; OWNING TOM; (NOT) KNOWING TOM; A CAST OF CHARACTERS; THE TOM WILLS TOUR; FOOTBALL; EVANGELISING TOM.
Greg: There’s a back story to it all that I don’t tell very often. I came back from the United States and had this one burning idea to do something uniquely Australian. After coming across an article about Tom Wills, I went to the State Library and found his obituary.
TWW: Do you remember which newspaper this was?
Greg: I think it was The Argus. I looked at a few that night. My wife went with me. She wouldn’t have put me onto it if she knew what it would lead to. When I read the obituaries, the thing that struck me was that Tom Wills had been admitted to the Royal Melbourne Hospital. All those bloody years I did medicine there, bored out of my mind. Had I known about Tom Wills, it would have made it more interesting. It was clear from the obituaries that he had DTs, and he was hallucinating, but what I couldn’t work out was how the next day he’s dead. I wondered if he had committed suicide in hospital. The next week, in my office at the Westmead Hospital, I thought about the patients I look after with DTs. I realised people get so out of their mind, they usually try to abscond. It was like a globe went off. I bet the bastard absconded and killed himself. When I flew down here to look for his notes, that was my prediction. I was over the moon when I found his notes after hours of searching. It said he had absconded. I had predicted his clinical cause from what I had seen in patients in contemporary life. Afterwards, at Naughtons Pub, in Parkville, I was getting a bit pissed. Trams were going by and very attractive women from university were starting to swim before my eyes. I remember thinking, this is one of the best things I’ve done in years. That was a pivotal moment. My heart wanted to follow the story, but all my training and education said I shouldn’t. I had this tug of war for a while, but I thought, bugger it. It was too good an opportunity to pass up.
TWW: No one else thought to look for his notes? Where are they kept now?
Greg: At Royal Melbourne Hospital. It’s been digitised. You can find it from home. You can literally go into Royal Melbourne Hospital archives, type it in, and find a scan. A lot of people knew when he had died, and presumably people before me had read the obituary over the last century. But no one had gone and looked. No one. These notes had been sitting there since 1880. They hadn’t gone anywhere. No one looked.
TWW: It’s an obvious avenue to go down given your medical background.
Greg: It was my personal connection with the Royal Melbourne. I was a student there, and as a psychiatrist, I thought the notes might exist. Other people might have thought medical notes weren’t taken back then, or the notes had already been destroyed. It was definitely the medical aspect that allowed me to have the insight. Although I was driven by my passion for Aussie rules and cricket, I realised sitting in the pub that this was much more than just sport. I thought, let’s pursue it, but I remember thinking the medical notes might be the only thing that’s out there. I thought, well, even if there’s nothing, I’ll write this up as an essay. That was my original plan, to write an essay, not a book.
TWW: There were other people who tried to write his biography.
Greg: I found some of those. They were like carcasses.
TWW: Blazing Trails.
Greg: Martin Flanagan mentions that in his book, The Call.
TWW: Yeah, he quotes it a lot.
Greg: I thought initially that he had made that up. I came down here to the Victorian Cricket Association, which is a building right next to the MCG. That’s a classic case of neglected archives. I went to the desk and there was a blonde woman there – a flash of the teeth. I explained that I was doing this research, and she showed me to a chap who was an executive there, and he wasn’t the slightest bit interested. I said, “I just wanted to see if you have any minutes here.” In a very desultory way, he pointed down the hallway to a rusting old filing cabinet and said, “There might be something in there.” He didn’t know. I almost needed a crowbar to get this thing open. And all around me there’s the blitz of late 20th century technology, which is what modern sports is all about: money. They couldn’t give a stuff. Down at the bottom, in no order whatsoever, were these wonderful, very old minute books from the 1860s and 1870s. That’s where I found Blazing Trails. Martin had found that. I remember reading it and thinking, “That’s where the bastard got all this.” I photocopied it. I could have just walked out with all that. I remember at the end saying, “These are important. You ought to hold on to them.” I went back three years later and they were gone. They didn’t know where. I’m hoping the MCC picked them up. People in modern sports have a kind of marketing mentality. It’s all about branding. It’s an anathema to me. I don’t understand it. Apparently they don’t understand me. Sitting in Naughtons Pub, I thought, maybe I could do a masters on Australian history, but I didn’t know how to do that. I rang the MCC and someone told me about Robert Hess. He’s an academic at Victoria University. Fantastic guy.
TWW: You co-wrote with him, A National Game.
Greg: We’re about to do an update on that. I rang him and he invited me to come down. I think the day after I found the Wills document at Royal Melbourne, I met Rob at the State Library of Victoria. I showed it to him. He was quite intrigued by the story of how I found it, and said, “That’s fantastic. Why don’t you do a masters?” I enrolled and once I got involved I realised it was a lot more than a masters or a PhD. I thought, what are the parameters of his life? There was the mental health aspect. I knew nothing about Aboriginal history or colonial Australian history. I didn’t really know anything about the history of football and cricket, although I loved both games. It was intimidating. My expertise was in this one area of mental health, so I had to read an enormous amount and just throw myself in. In retrospect, that was a saving grace. If I had known what I was getting into, I would have been far more timid.
TWW: It was your own curiosity that drove you.
Greg: My own curiosity. In many ways, it’s an ideal form of learning. This is a buzz phrase: “self-directed learning”. This was self-directed learning at its best. I remember thinking, I’ve listened to too many lectures. I’m just going to do what I want to do and create something for myself. That was a personal breakthrough – not to be corralled by others’ expectations. I set off. In that first three or four years of research, I’d come down for stretches at a time, live with mum and dad in North Coburg, and catch a train to town first thing in the morning. I would live at the State Library of Victoria from 9am ’til 10pm. I remember leaving the library punch-drunk. At the station there’d be these feral kids running around, and there’d be me. I’d catch a train and come back here at maybe 10:40. I’d walk home in the middle of the night, in winter, in freezing rain, and I’d do the whole thing again the next day. I did that for many, many weeks, over many years. Sometimes, I would be at the machine pretty much the whole time, just going over old newspapers.
TWW: You would scan every line?
Greg: Yeah. There were times when I had existential crises. I would be sitting there thinking, what am I doing? I can’t do this. I’m going through all these newspapers, then I have to do all the Aboriginal stuff, cricket, football … I’m not going to do it. It’s going to kill me. I remember thinking my marriage might end. Heather and I had some pretty serious … She came up to me, we were sitting down at home, and I could just tell from her look that this was really starting to gnaw at her. She wasn’t happy at all. I’ve spoken to a few people since, even Martin Flanagan, who have been involved in projects like this, where they become obsessed. They tend to be males, married, and they’ve all gone through the same process. I am quite a driven individual. All that research was done looking at page after page. That’s another reason people didn’t do the biography: the volume of material. Geographically, it was too dispersed. It was like being Marie Curie trying to find a little bit of radium. With technology now, you can do it in a more compressed timeframe.
TWW: How much progress did you make? How many issues of, say, The Argus, would you go through each day?
Greg: I might only go through a couple of years in a day, or maybe one year. If it was a weekly newspaper, maybe the whole thing. I looked through every Victorian newspaper I thought was relevant, including country ones. I did as much as I humanly could to make sure that, if I said something, it wasn’t just a case of my fanciful opinion. The book is based on solid information. I’m sure I’ve missed bits and pieces. You’ve found some valuable pieces.
TWW: Have any other documents been discovered since the book was published?
Greg: There haven’t been too many, which has been really pleasing.
TWW: You mentioned a guy who came up to you after a talk with some of Tom’s private letters. Nothing new in those?
Greg: Nothing new. There was one thing, but it was basic. I think it was 1865 or ’66. Tom was meeting William Haynes, who was the Premier of Victoria, at a house in South Melbourne. It confirms something I knew anyhow, that the great sportsmen were in bed with politicians. I kind of knew that from other sources, so I wrote the book as though that was happening. What I’m looking for is anything important that I missed completely. Nothing’s come up.
TWW: You’re pleased. It shows how thorough you’ve been.
Greg: It’s a relief that nothing disastrous has turned up. “Oh God, I’ve just completely missed the point.” That’s one of my great fears. Something would be nice. It would add to the enjoyment of it all. When I get another chance to do – not a just another reprint, which is what they’re doing now – but a new edition, I can then add it in.
TWW: Who was the guy with the letters? How did he have them?
Greg: He was related to the Harrison family. That’s how he had them. He said he’s donated them to the State Library of Victoria. I don’t think there’s a lot out there. There might be something in England that I haven’t found.
TWW: Going through newspapers, it’s tempting to jump straight to the sports section, thinking that’s where the gold is.
Greg: The trouble is a lot of the best stuff isn’t there! The newspapers weren’t set out like modern newspapers with big headlines, and there weren’t photos. So you had to go through things like local news and international news. You found out all sorts of things, like the Siege of Sevastopol. There’s a plus in that. I developed a really detailed understanding of the context.
TWW: You understood the world in which Tom lived.
Greg: I think that helped enormously in understanding him, in coming to my conclusions, and writing the book. But it was a massive effort. When I started to structure the chronology, there were these great landscapes where there was nothing. I can’t have that. I’ve go to try and fill in these gaps.
TWW: Did you read Frank Clune’s Bound for Botany Bay?
Greg: I read it.
TWW: Frank relates how he sent a letter to Rugby School, asking about Tom’s time over there. The reply had just basic information. It’s all Frank had to work with.
Greg: Rex Harcourt, who was a librarian at the MCC, had written to the librarian at Rugby. Rex gave me a lot of stuff. So people had done exactly what I was doing, but it was that kind of anachronistic writing of these letters. I knew with my medical position, I could go over to England on the tab of a hospital and give a paper at a conference, which is what I did. I then spent the next two weeks on vacation just researching. Going to England was one of the highlights. Cambridge University is a glorious place. I looked at the archives there. But it was my time at Rugby that was just precious. I’d been preceded by a couple of Australians, and Rusty Maclean, who was the librarian, knew that. Gillian Hibbins had been there. Martin Flanagan went over as well. I think they went there for a short time, and had a walk around. I was over there for two weeks, every day at Rugby. Also by the time I got there it was quite possible that visits by Gil and Martin had primed Rugby to be more open about revealing what they had. I said to Rusty, “Bring out everything you’ve got”. I went through diaries, letters and books, and that’s how I was able to build this picture, because the other boys mention Tom. Hare and Hounds and …
TWW: Tom, the beautiful runner. It’s those snippets that really help.
Greg: Yeah, but [Hibbins and Flanagan] didn’t get it, because I think they just went there for an afternoon, and had a walk around.
TWW: To get an idea of where he was.
Greg: You had to really immerse yourself. Rugby was a wonderful place to walk around. I remember going around the grounds, and it’s always wet. That was the other thing. The ground was really soft and lush, and I remember thinking, gee, playing rugby here, it’s a different game, it’s a different feel altogether. The time at Rugby was a revelation. One quite emotional moment was during my last day there …
TWW: You head into the pavilion.
Greg: Yeah! I didn’t even know it was there. Rusty said, “You’ve got to go and see this”. It was all boarded up. They were about to refurbish it.
TWW: It’s been restored now.
Greg: All restored. We went in – broke a plank to get in – and, with torches, we walked around.
TWW: Did he know that Tom’s name was in there?
Greg: No. He said, “I think there are honour boards, let’s see if we can find them”. We had hard hats on. It’s like I was Harry Potter going through the wall in the station. I was going into another land. He showed me a couple of little repositories and said, “This is where the boys used to keep their bats”. I felt like I had gone back to the 1850s. When we found the honour boards, I first saw Thomas Hughes. That was 1844, from memory. And then I found Tom’s name, starting at the bottom …
TWW: Ascending …
Greg: That was a very emotional moment. That was just great. Being in England, on the other side of the world, and knowing Tom had been here. That meant a lot to me.
Greg: Very early in my studies, I realised that I can bring an understanding of human personality, of early family and development, and the kind of geological forces of expectation that were focused on Tom. The other people who have looked at it are almost all sports historians. When I was thinking about doing this, I was in Birkenhead Point, which was a shop in Drummoyne, in Sydney, and I came across a popular book on Australian rules. In the foreword, it had a throw away line about Tom Wills, that the reason he killed himself was because the game didn’t spread around the world.
TWW: You mention it near the end of your thesis. You go through and debunk all these myths.
Greg: Yeah. I remember thinking, if that’s the best they can do, I’ve got something to offer. Almost all the other sporting historians have an extremely unsophisticated assessment of him as a person. They don’t have much insight into Tom’s character at all. Almost negligible. I’m not saying that everything he did was good or bad. I don’t say that in the book. But, as a study in Australian history, he’s absorbing. For reasons which I don’t think have a basis in fact, there are a couple of people who really try to denigrate him. It’s almost like a personal mission.
TWW: Where do you think that comes from?
Greg: I spoke to Martin Flanagan about this. I reckon his book had something to do with it. I love his book, The Call. I like the way it’s written, and I like the way it brought out various themes. A lot of people have dismissed The Call because they say it’s fictitious. There are fictitious threads, but I think what they don’t realise is the amount of research Martin did for that book. It’s under-pinned by a massive amount of research.
TWW: This is before you unearthed a lot of those documents. Martin didn’t have much material to work with.
Greg: He says right at the beginning, something like, “This is not factual, line-for-line”. I was relieved in some ways because it meant I could do a proper biography. It forced me to look at it from a different angle. In many ways, I think of the books as complementary to one another. That’s how I see those two works in literature. Martin, I think, has a lot of insight into Tom’s character, and I think he’s spot on in almost everything he says about Tom’s character. I thought The Call really captured the essence of the man. But it got under the skin of a number of historians. They’ve told me that.
TWW: They think they’re the gatekeepers of the story.
Greg: It’s about being the gatekeeper.
TWW: And here was Martin, this creative mind …
Greg: Coming in, trumping them, doing it first, and not sticking to the rule of just putting down facts. I think that’s softened, but for a while it was pretty raw, and it festered. Some of the criticisms are just vile and wrong. I think what happened is that there was competition to write the biography of Tom Wills. That’s what I think it was.
TWW: Martin stamped his name.
Greg: He stamped his name before anyone else.
TWW: In the book itself, he intertwines his own personal life with Tom’s.
Greg: He does sort of intrude into the story itself. That’s another thing that rubbed people up the wrong way. In terms of the sports historians who have taken a very negative view, they probably found it a bit too laudatory, even though his description of Tom is of a very troubled character. Not necessarily the sort of person you’d want to be friends with. The book elevated Tom just by it coming out. You mentioned gatekeepers. That’s an interesting concept. I think all of us, at one stage, have felt a little bit like that. I didn’t use that word, but, even when I was writing, I started to think I was becoming a gatekeeper. That’s changed over the last few years. I’ve realised it’s an accumulative process, and I’m just one person in that process. I think I have a better perspective on what I’ve contributed. I see it as a kind of repository of factual information that all scholars can use. All the archives are at home, which I’ll probably donate to the MCC at some point. I’ve had a lot to do with them over time. Privately, many of them would be critical of some of the things that I’ve said. I’m proud of what I’ve contributed, but it’s not the only point of view, nor should it be. Martin took a point of view. Gillian Hibbins, all those people, have all led to where we are now, and there will be others in the future.
(NOT) KNOWING TOM
Greg: No, I don’t think I did. I struggled. Martin and I talked about this over a few beers. We discussed what it would be like if Tom joined us. Physically, I think, we would know he was a very striking individual. Pale eyes. Good looking. Slightly threatening, not in a nasty way, but someone who’s different. I don’t think he’d say a lot.
TWW: He was described as being taciturn. Quiet. Was he always like that, or did his experiences in Queensland lead to him being more and more withdrawn?
Greg: The impression I got was that was the way he generally was. But it’s so different to his letters, which are just bizarre. Of course, it might be that he was taciturn, in the sense that he was relatively uncommunicative. Didn’t say a great deal. We don’t have a lot of comments. I mean, he was very pithy in what he said. He would come up with these one-liners to make his point.
TWW: I love the explanation he gives for his stonewalling: “The ball can’t get through the bat.”
Greg: [laughs] Deadpan, infallible logic.
TWW: What’s the funniest thing he ever did? On or off the field. Something that really cracked you up.
Greg: He’s absurd, really. The letters he wrote in 1858, ’59. They were just hilarious. I thought they were the most marvellous letters.
TWW: Totally unhinged.
Greg: Unhinged. They’re not normal letters, really. They’re quite different to just about anything he wrote for the rest of his life. Something was happening there, that’s why I always wondered about his mental state at that time.
TWW: How do you explain it? He was at the peak of his popularity as a sportsman. Did his self-confidence expand to such a degree …
Greg: It could be, but those letters are really bizarre. They are what we would call in psychiatry, “thought-disordered”. When you see people who are manic, that’s what they’re like. It’s hard to imagine someone so exhilarated in a normal sense writing letters like that. I mean, there’s a thing called hypomania. Mania’s when you’re really manic, and you’re delusional, and you’re psychotic. But there’s a layer which we see in psychiatry called hypomania. It’s when someone’s not psychotic, they haven’t lost touch with reality, but they have an elevated mood and accelerated thoughts. Thoughts jump all over the place. When I read those letters, that’s what it looked like. It’s exactly the sort of thing you’d see. I mentioned this in the footnote because I didn’t want to over-psychiatrise the picture. It’s quite possible he had what we call bipolar illness, but instead of getting really high, he got to what we’d call hypomania. It’s well-recognised now.
TWW: Is it possible that he had Attention Deficit Disorder, or something like that?
Greg: I don’t know if you’re aware, but Attention Deficit Disorder can go together with bipolar illness.
TWW: Okay. The way he was described as being indefatigable. He just wouldn’t tire on the field. Had this boundless energy.
Greg: It could be that. The other thing about that is, if someone has Attention Deficit Disorder, they may struggle to have a certain wherewithal on the field.
TWW: Tom’s concentration during play was amazing.
Greg: He was astute. He knew exactly what he was doing.
TWW: What moments in his career do you wish you could have seen unfold and play out?
Greg: There are a few things. When he was 10, he was playing cricket. I’d like to have seen him as a kid, just to see what he was like.
TWW: You mean at Brickwood’s, when he first started playing?
Greg: Yeah, what was he like when he was playing cricket.
TWW: When Tom was at Brickwood’s, did he go back to Lexington often?
Greg: Yes, he went back in the holidays.
TWW: It’s been said that he stayed in Melbourne the whole time. The argument went something like, “He moved to Melbourne for his schooling, so he couldn’t have had much interaction with the Djabwurrung.”
Greg: That’s not true. We know that he went back and forth quite a lot and that’s very, very clear. I’d like to know more about his childhood. That’s what I’d really like to know. This is with my psychiatric hat on. What it was like growing up with his dad. If you strip it all back, this is really a story about a dad and a son. That’s the most important thing. I think part of the reason I relate to this is because it reminds me a bit of my own father. He obviously loved us a great deal, but he was, “You do this, you do that”. It was a generation where you didn’t speak back. So, what was it like surrounded by Djabwurrung? What was it like in the Grampians where – perhaps he didn’t know – his father murdered Aborigines?
TWW: I often think of Horatio returning home after a retaliatory attack, and there’s Tom. What was going on? What was the communication there? Did Tom have any idea?
Greg: He may not have known. One of the most important letters in the whole book is when Tom’s at Rugby and Horatio shows his daguerreotype to an old Djabwurrung man. That’s pregnant with all sorts of meaning about Tom’s closeness to some of the Djabwurrung. I don’t think there’s any doubt at all about that. Tom would have been a boy who grows up between the Djabwurrung in the Grampians and also Brickwood’s School in Melbourne. Brickwood is someone I’d like to interview. What did he make of Tom? Was he liked? Was he a loner?
TWW: At Rugby, Tom was clearly popular, right? He was the captain. You can take from that that he was always something of an alpha male.
Greg: Yeah, very much so. Certainly on the sporting field. That was the peak, to be captain of the cricket team. There wasn’t a school rugby team, it was only a school cricket team. So he obviously was at the peak. Also, to be there during the school matches. Other times I would have liked to have been there were times when he was struggling. When his engagement broke. In Cullin-la-Ringo, just to see how he would have managed. I want to know what he felt – the pressures – going up to Queensland. When he went there, the first English team was about to land in Melbourne.
TWW: Tom never showed any resentment towards his dad.
Greg: It’s interesting. He didn’t in any of the letters. As soon as he was on his way, there were some snippets in the newspapers that he was already making plans to come back. On the one hand, I think he was telling his dad, “I’m going to go along”, but I think he was also negotiating possibly coming back. So, it’s the times when he was struggling that I would’ve liked to have been with him. Maybe his dealings with the MCC, when they were really pushing him hard. When he was washed up in a sense, towards the end, at Heidelberg and South Melbourne. On the run a bit. He was close to destitution, really. I’d also like to ask him how aware he was of his times of deceit. Sometimes it could’ve been that he was aware of it, but other times, I think, it had just become a way of life.
TWW: It’s innate.
Greg: Yes, a narcissistic thread ran through him. He would see the world through his point of view. If there was a greatest fault in a psychological sense, I think it was that he just didn’t understand how what he did impacted on others. Someone might say, “He did, but he just didn’t care”. There might be times like that. I think his personality was such that he didn’t really understand, at times, what happened to others. He was so focused on what he was doing. A lot of great sportsmen are like that.
TWW: What do you think of Gillian Hibbins’ take on Tom?
Greg: I don’t agree with her.
TWW: Her assessment of Tom as a person …
Greg: It’s an unsophisticated assessment. Shallow. Some of the things she said about Tom, I thought, she just doesn’t understand him. She made a comment once that he was a dreadful person, which is a very crude and ham-fisted way of describing someone’s personality. I said to Gillian, “You’re saying all these things about him, but look at what he’s done.” She had no response to that. The fact that he survives the massacre – the biggest massacre in Australian history – and then he’s instrumental in creating an Aboriginal cricket team.
TWW: You can never take that away from the story. It’s a remarkable act, and yet, in the archives, there’s not much discussion about it. In the book, you quote a private letter from a spectator who says, “Tom Wills, whose father was killed by Aborigines, captaining and coaching them!” It’s a rare example.
Greg: That was a rare example. When I was looking through the newspapers, I thought they were going to be full of discussion about why he was doing this. I found it very disappointing that I found nothing.
TWW: I think you’re right in saying that it comes down to sensitivities surrounding Horatio’s murder. The Victorian age.
Greg: Newspapers were very different back then. They didn’t reach that level of discussion. I was so delighted when I found that comment. Again, this is the degree of research. I found those letters in the Royal Historical Society of Victoria, which is near Spencer Street from memory. Those handwritten letters were really important. They’re private letters, so they’re not censored like newspapers. If one person’s writing that, there’s probably a lot of people thinking that as well. That was a lucky discovery. It came down to being obsessive and comprehensive; trying to cover as much as possible.
TWW: I found another example of someone commenting on how strange it was. This was in The Maitland Mercury, 1883. It’s a sportswriter who says, “It was always a matter of wonder how Tom could be friendly with the blacks, considering that they murdered his father”. The fact that he says, “It was always a matter of wonder…”
Greg: I’m sure it was. It would’ve been the topic of conversation. That day, at the MCG, people would’ve been thinking, what’s going on here? They just wouldn’t have talked about a lot of those things. Anything to do with the Aboriginal team. There’s a few things. That little snippet I found when they were in Newcastle and they went to the opera wearing gloves. They all went on stage. Bouquets were thrown.
TWW: Did you come across the pantomime?
Greg: I can’t remember.
TWW: Tom and the Aborigines went to a Christmas show at the Princess Theatre in Melbourne. There’s a pantomime in which the actors dress up as the Aboriginal cricketers. You can imagine Tom and the Aborigines sitting up in a box or something, watching themselves be portrayed in this insane manner. And they were recorded as laughing more hysterically than anyone else. In fact, the rest of the crowd was like, “What’s this nonsense?”
Greg: [laughs] I didn’t see that. It’s great, some of the things that you’ve come up with, like the hotel. That was a beauty. On the way to Skipton, broken windows …
TWW: It confirms what you suspected anyway, that Tom was getting drunk with the Aborigines.
Greg: That’s right. I would’ve loved to have included that in the book. Yeah, that was a ripper.
TWW: Was Tom intelligent?
Greg: If you read his letters, he’s not unintelligent.
TWW: His private letters.
Greg: His private letters. I also like his public letters. He just lets loose in what he really thinks. He had a classical education, and that shows to a degree. He probably wasn’t an academic. I mean, you could see that William Hammersley and James Thompson were far more erudite, probably better read. I liked it when Tom had a go at Hammersley and Thompson. They were British, looking down their nose at him a bit, a colonial who’d been over to Rugby and thought he knew everything. I liked his attitude towards them a great deal. I always felt like I wanted to stand up and applaud him for having a go at them. Hammersley was a smartarse bastard, really. Very bright, and I liked his writing, and I like him as a character as well, but he didn’t play cricket with Aborigines.
TWW: He refused to? Or just never had the opportunity?
Greg: Perhaps never had the opportunity, but he was also quite derogatory towards some of the Aboriginal players and Tom’s involvement.
TWW: There’s a line from one of his pieces in The Australasian. This is before Gurnett was revealed as a fraud. Hammersley says something like, “I look forward to reading descriptions of Tom and the blacks walking arm-in-arm down Oxford Street.”
Greg: Incredibly sarcastic commentary. There were a lot of other very good cricketers around, but none of them were putting their hands up to help. Maybe they weren’t asked, but still, the commentary from other cricketers was generally of a sour, negative tone. When the Aboriginal players were being teased or heckled or maybe exploited, Tom came to their aid. In the newspapers, there’s a few times where he came up, clearly, in public, and supported them.
TWW: You point out that Tom was something of a folk hero.
Greg: He was a loved character. Partly that’s because, in the same way as Shane Warne, he was a great sportsman. There was that adulation. But I think it was more than that. There’s a very strong egalitarian thread that runs through his thinking, and of course his father inculcated that idea about Australianness and so on. That egalitarianism also came up when he was dealing with the MCC. When James Bryant was punched by Conway, I think. It was quite interesting, because Tom was torn. On one hand, he’s egalitarian, but he also desperately wants to be part of that as well. So he oscillates back and forward, plays that game a little bit.
TWW: There’s that time when he was called forward by the MCC to give evidence against Sam Cosstick. I love the description. He completely wastes their time.
Greg: [laughs] Yes, that’s great. What it shows you there, is that kind of… well, partly it’s the boy’s club, you know. You don’t complain about one of your colleagues. But here is Sam Cosstick, who’s a rough-and-ready professional bowler, and he’s hauled up before all these bloody amateurs and lawyers and bankers, and he just holds his own. Tom could have easily found a way to snivel his way up the pole. He could have just got one over a fellow cricketer, but he wouldn’t do it. I think that’s what the population liked about him. That’s what I liked about him. That endeared him to me enormously. I know that he would’ve been a bugger in a lot of ways, but I don’t think he set out to hurt too many people. He was an inept individual, really inept.
TWW: Did you ever struggle to sympathise with Tom?
Greg: That’s an interesting question.
TWW: In his letters, you found him to be a very likable person. He has an infectious personality. But were there points where you found him to be really quite repellent?
Greg: He’s such an enormous figure. It’s easy to be seduced by him, and the caricature of him. But in my more sober moments, I thought, he’d probably let you down at some point. Even though I understand the broader context of some of the reasons for that. I don’t think he’d do so in a necessarily malicious way, like people who let you down in a cunning, calculated, deceitful way. But I suspect he’d let you down in that slightly negligent, slightly reckless manner. He would try to explain it away. That would be his style. It would be very hard for him to maintain friends, and of course, he couldn’t. When you have the classic alcoholic lament of always needing to beg money off friends, which is what happened, I think you would be alienated. In some ways, it’s easier to deal with him as a figure from a distance than it would be having to feel the grime of day-to-day life.
TWW: There’s that quote from Emily. This is after the massacre, and Tom’s come back to live at Bellevue. She just really can’t stand his presence.
Greg: [laughs] Yes, he’s loafing about …
TWW: I think after a while you would get pretty aggravated.
Greg: You’d get very irritated. His sense of responsibility in terms of a conventional life, about how to make money, make a living, support himself, support the people around him. You could think of it as laziness, and it probably was. The other side of it is that you want some people to pursue a kind of selfish line of life, if you like. He’s pursuing sport, everything was about sport. It’s often those people who do great things, people who have that single-mindedness.
Greg: I’ve struggled with it at times. In the book, I was very mindful of portraying some of the more abrasiveness aspects. So, bringing up some of the quotes, and also some of the ways he dealt with various people. I also wanted to get across how he was treated, particularly by the MCC. The MCC hated him when he lived, and they still fucking hate him, because he represents something that’s not them. They sort of exploited him. It’s all very well and good when he’s winning for you, and he’s feted, and doors wills open, but as soon as he starts to crumble, they’re very keen to take a high-handed stance and spit him out. You see that all the time with modern sportsmen.
TWW: “Left out in the cold”.
Greg: That’s right. That’s when he was after the job at the MCC later in life. That’s a good example of finding the original archive. I found that letter in the MCC at the bottom of a box, completely away from everything else. It had been quoted before in another study, but they had only copied the front of it.
TWW: The postscript.
Greg: The postscript was on the other side, and it’s the best part! I remember holding it and thinking, the man’s got a heart. He understands where he is. I remember feeling the coldness myself that day, thinking of all that he’s done, and all the wrong things he’s done … give him something. A very proud man was reduced to being a beggar. I thought that was a very lonely time for him. Very lonely time.
TWW: I was reading about Keith Miller recently, and how his time as a pilot in World War II affected his outlook on sport. When asked about the lack of pressure he felt in the field of play, he said, “Pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse”. How did Tom’s experience of frontier violence in Queensland affect his sporting life?
Greg: I think it would be a very different situation for Tom, because he was essentially suffering a psychiatric disorder when he came back. We don’t have a lot of evidence, but putting the pieces together – the nightmares, the hypervigilance he describes. For a period of time, he would have had a post-trauma syndrome; maybe for the rest of his life. How would it have affected him? Of course, alcohol was there, which is essentially an analgesic. It makes you relaxed. It’s why people drink after a traumatic event like that. I don’t think [the massacre] would have necessarily put sport into perspective. There might have been an urgency to make up for lost time. Certainly later on, there was an urgency to earn money. I think, if anything, the trauma, and the alcohol, accelerated his decline on the sporting field. He was needing to scrap around for money in cricket, which is one of the motivating forces in him taking up the Aboriginal contract, I’m sure. I think that was his first transparently professional position as a cricketer. Although, like many of the amateurs, he clearly got under-the-table payments.
TWW: Grace is the famous example.
Greg: Yeah, Grace. Anything but grace.
A CAST OF CHARACTERS
TWW: Of all the people whose lives intersect with Tom’s, who’d you like to know more about?
Greg: Sarah, of course. She’s the mystery woman. I’m still not entirely confident I got all that right. I wanted a lot more.
TWW: Even just an image. There’s probably one somewhere. An anonymous face.
Greg: Oh, I looked. You would think a photo must have been taken at some point.
TWW: I wonder if they had a photo taken together. That was common in those times, right? To have a photo taken with your partner.
Greg: We don’t know the nature of their relationship, because there were some inconsistencies, and I had to put it together as best I could. I did a lot of research on her first marriage, and I tried looking through all the genealogical stuff, but I couldn’t really find anything. In the video documentary [a Tom Wills documentary, screened the day before at the Bradman Museum], they portray Sarah really well. She became an alcoholic. I’ve walked around the streets in East Melbourne where she lived. I wondered if she was a prostitute for a while. Not that I can really find anything at all.
TWW: She’s fairly articulate in her account of Tom’s suicide.
Greg: Yeah, that sort of chronological blow-by-blow. Sarah’s definitely someone who I wanted to know more about. There were these incredible gaps in the time sequence.
TWW: You mean when Tom first met her?
Greg: We don’t know when they met. My guess is they met probably around the early 1860s.
TWW: When Tom first came back from Cullin-la-Ringo.
Greg: Yeah, I think it was before New Zealand, when the engagement broke up with Julie Anderson. I reckon it was around about that time that they met. There are all these cryptic comments about his behaviour, so I suspect there might have been a few others.
TWW: He was a womaniser.
Greg: Well, he is in the oral history, which I got from the family.
TWW: There’s a woman named Penny Mackieson who wrote a novel from Sarah’s perspective, called Dreaming of Tommy Wills.
Greg: Yeah, Martin told me she was trying to get it published. He said it was a bit like 50 Shades of Grey! I’d love to speak to Penny. Another group of people who I wanted to get information on, of course, was the Aboriginal cricketers. That’s the voice …
TWW: What they would have to say about Tom …
Greg: Towards the end of one of the chapters, I say, “We never get to hear their voice.” And I looked, believe me, I bloody looked for just something. Just, I don’t know, an interview. Manuscripts. Nothing. Nothing at all.
TWW: What does that say?
Greg: It tells you everything about how they were regarded. That’s what I think it tells you.
TWW: Not even Mullagh.
Greg: Johhny Mullagh. Nothing. Nothing at all. Just to sit down and say, “What do you think about it?” Not even a journalist, but just someone to record something, and to keep that information. So, the Aboriginal cricketers and Sarah. They’re the voices, I think. We get to hear a lot from his mum. We get to hear a lot from his dad because we’ve got the diary and the letters. I would have liked to hear a little bit more from the brothers. In Martin’s book, there’s a line where it says, “Tom was never drunk on the field”. When I was up in Minerva Creek …
TWW: Egbert’s letter. [Egbert writes: “Tom got drunk the other day when he was playing in a match in Melbourne & he kept himself on bowling all the time with his slows, he had a short clay pipe in his mouth and was kicking up a fine to do and making the people laugh.”]
Greg: [laughs] I found Egbert, yeah. That was one of the great finds. I would have liked some more letters like that.
THE TOM WILLS TOUR
TWW: What was it like going to Lexington?
Greg: I never went to Lexington. I’ve been in contact with them recently.
TWW: Have you been to the Grampians?
Greg: I know that area well. I used to go there all the time, so I could write about it. I gave a talk late last year at the St Kilda Cricket Club. A man and woman came up afterwards and said, “We used to own Lexington”.
TWW: They knew about Tom?
Greg: Yeah, a little bit, but they didn’t know the whole story. They had lived there for years. Then, about six months ago, I heard that the Moyston Primary School was doing a fundraiser. I sent them an email, and it was actually a marketing firm I got in touch with, which said, “You want to get in touch with the daughter of the people who currently own Lexington.” The daughter was really wrapped to hear from me. She’s an events manager. I got in touch with her mother. They were trying to arrange a function this year, or next year, at Lexington, to raise money for the property, because parts of it are not in a great state. I asked her if all the kids’ heights were still there. That’s all still there. Tom, I don’t think his height’s there, because he was over in England.
TWW: Did he ever live in the homestead?
Greg: No. When they left, he was sort of in the rubble. Lexington was really in its pomp while he was at Rugby.
TWW: He grew up in a tent on the property, right?
Greg: Yes, not the house as such. I don’t know if you’ve googled the house. It’s really beautiful to see.
TWW: Yeah, there’s only a few pictures online, which is a shame. It’s a heritage-listed building.
Greg: They’re trying to get more publicity for it. I can’t remember why, but when I was doing the book, there was some indication the owners weren’t that keen to get involved. I think that’s all changed now.
TWW: Have you been to the Molonglo Plains?
Greg: I know the area. I walked around there. It’s a very dark landscape. Very harsh, grey landscape.
TWW: There’s some confusion over whether Tom was born on the Molonglo River or on the Murrumbidgee. Some people say that he was born in Sydney. When Tom calls himself a “Sydney Man”, is he referring to New South Wales generally?
Greg: I think so. His place of birth is still a bit of a mystery. There are a few possibilities. Terry Wills-Cooke [author of The Currency Lad] thinks Parramatta, but not for any good reason. The archives are almost absent. We know that Horatio was in and around Molonglo at that time, but you can’t necessarily make the assumption that his wife was there. She might have stayed in Sydney.
TWW: They stayed with Horatio’s brother, Thomas.
Greg: That’s right, in the Campbelltown area. The strongest bit of evidence has to be Hammersley’s retrospective in 1869. He had obviously spoken to Tom about it. So, in Tom’s mind, he was born on the Molonglo Plains. I think that’s the strongest evidence we have. In the early incarnation of the book, I had a lot more on the history of the family, and also a page on different interpretations. But when I gave it to Allen & Unwin, they said, “You’ve got to get into the story quicker”, because it’s such a complex story anyway. So I had to get rid of all that.
TWW: You delve into it in the footnotes.
Greg: I do, yeah. Molonglo is the best bet. For a long time, there was also a tremendous confusion about his birth date. If you go to the archives in the Mitchell Library, and look at the hand written stuff, there are two different versions. I think the letters when he was at school make it very clear that he was born on the 19th of August, 1835.
TWW: Tom’s birthday is coming up.
Greg: 180 years old.
TWW: Terry Wills-Cooke differs on the date.
Greg: Yeah, he does. I don’t agree with him. I think he’s got that wrong. Down in Geelong, he’s got some great stuff. He’s got Aboriginal weapons they had up in Cullin-la-Ringo.
TWW: These are weapons that Tom, Cedric and Horace kept?
TWW: Wow. Last week I sent you that letter by William Clarke. Had you encountered it before?
TWW: His description of Tom going out at night with the horses and hearing Aborigines in the creek …
Greg: It’s chilling.
TWW: You can imagine how Tom dealt with this on a regular basis.
Greg: He would have been fraught. He was ragged; a broken man, I reckon. The fact that he could do what he did, when he returned to Melbourne. We know he was still having nightmares a couple of years later.
TWW: It was Emily [Tom’s sister] who recounts his nightmares. She’s interesting [laughs].
Greg: She’s a hard woman. I think poor Harrison [Tom’s cousin] had a difficult time with her. I liked HCA. He was quite a gentleman; quite a gentle soul. My trip to Minerva Creek was a trip of a lifetime. I met Tom [grazier, descendent of the Wills family], who was an extraordinary man. An intelligent man. That night, when he showed me the box of letters, and I was up until 4 o’clock in the morning, drinking XXXX in this bloody shed in the middle of nowhere, in the outback, reading Tom Wills’s fucking letters …
TWW: This was the year 2000, right?
Greg: It was around the time the Olympics were on. I remember watching it on the TV.
TWW: On TV, you had Australian sport at its peak, and there’s you with Tom’s letters …
Greg: [laughs] That’s right! I remember coming back from that trip, sitting in the airport at Brisbane, and looking at the TV playing 24 hour-a-day crap, and thinking, what a strange life we live here. For a couple of weeks, I had been completely cut off. No internet, no mobile phone, no computers. That two-week block was so intense. I found sitting in the airport lounge disturbing and intrusive and grotesque. I hated it. I hated every minute of it. It was ghastly. It was grisly. The incessant noise and bright, luminescent glare.
Greg: Yeah, I saw his grave. It’s at Warringal Cemetery, in Heidelberg. I don’t know if you’ve visited the cricket oval there, but you can walk down the road to the hotel where Tom used to drink. The Old England Hotel.
TWW: It’s still standing?
Greg: Yeah. I walked around, worked out where the police station stood. I walked down to where they played cricket. It’s literally just a couple of hundred metres away. His whole life was very circumscribed in that final year. The first time I went to see his grave, I couldn’t find it. It’s not easy to find.
TWW: Yeah. At one of the entrances, there’s a monument for the first burial in the whole cemetery. So I figured, if it starts here, it must be vaguely chronological. I actually found Tom within a minute. Someone had left him a rose.
Greg: I think more people are visiting it now. I know people who have visited the grave. Half a dozen people have made the trouble to contact me over the last few years and say they want to go and visit. It’s a bit of a pilgrimage. In fact, someone said that they should put it on this sporting tour of Melbourne. I got an email a while ago from John Harms. He does The Footy Almanac. I don’t know him that well, but he sent me a link to an article by Phil Dimitriadis. It’s about his dad and Tom Wills. A number of people have read that. Got a few comments. John asked me if I knew of anyone who’s tending the grave. I gave him the names of Tom’s relatives, Terry Wills-Cooke and Lawton. I think they’re talking about trying to look after the grave a little bit better.
TWW: I think some people have taken off pieces as souvenirs. Around Tom’s grave there’s this wrought iron, and some of it appears to have been snapped off. There was a book released recently on Victorian cemeteries, In Memoriam. It’s online. Tom’s featured prominently in that.
Greg: I remember doing a Google search on Tom when I started this in the ’90s. There were a few things, and I mean literally, a few things. That was it. There’s all these little things coming out now, in all sorts of ways. If you’re a marketing person, that’s how you build a brand. I don’t know how that machine works, but obviously it helps push it up in some sort of way. Wills’s profile in the last 10 years has gone up.
TWW: There’s been a lot debate over the extent to which Tom influenced early Australian rules. Harrison, the sole survivor of the pioneers, was elevated to the position of the “Father of Football”. Subsequent generations have emphasised Tom to the point where, perhaps, Hammersley and Thompson were ignored.
TWW: And now some historians are downplaying Tom’s role. It’s been said that Hammersley and Thompson wouldn’t have considered Tom’s opinion highly because he wasn’t as intelligent.
Greg: I disagree. That’s just complete nonsense. This is an insight I had when I went to Rugby School. When you look at the boys’ letters in the archives, everything was decided on the field. It was on the field that decisions were made.
TWW: And that’s where Tom was more intelligent.
Greg: On the field of play, there’s no doubt. I have insight into that sort of intelligence, much closer to home. My younger brother is academically bright. He did psychology and science, and is an audiologist. I did medicine and all the rest. My older brother was captain of Fawkner High School at a time when it was really, pretty tough. He didn’t get through his matric the first time. He went to a place called Taylor’s College, which is a school in town somewhere, and he did primary school teaching. He, of the three of us, was the star batsman, star cricketer, star sportsman. He played first grade cricket for Carlton. He opened the batting. I think Keith Stackpole was one of their coaches at the time. Glenn was a very good cricketer. He was also a very good footy player. Much better than myself and my younger brother. But he wasn’t as academic as such. All those years, I sort of had an inflated opinion of myself, because I could do the academic stuff. 15 years ago, we were at a football match at the MCG, and my older brother says, “What needs to happen now is that Carlton needs to do X, Y and Z.” He did this throughout the match, and I realised he has an intelligence and understanding about what’s happening on the field that I don’t see. He sees things quickly. When he said it, I thought, yeah. Tom, without doubt, would have been like that par excellence. He would have had that kind of intelligence. So, in regards to Tom, that’s just an incorrect conclusion to come to. It’s so wrong, such a lack of understanding. I don’t even bother trying to rebuff that sort of comment now. I make it clear that no one person created the game, but I think Tom was clearly the most significant person. I’ve written an unpublished essay in which I really itemise each point. There’s about 30 of them, where I think he was the most significant person. There are others who feel that’s his position.
TWW: Rob Hess agrees with you?
Greg. Yes, Rob Hess. Certainly Martin Flanagan does. James Coventry, the ABC sports commentator, is writing a book about the evolution of tactics. He’s very keen on Tom’s role. Gillian Hibbins says a number of people deserve credit. I have no problem with that, and I think that’s pretty clear in most of the things I’ve written and said.
TWW: I’m fascinated by the historiography of football. There were certain journalists and writers in the newspapers who stand out to me as being the first to show an interest in the game’s origins, like Jack Worrall. He championed Tom.
Greg: I’m often asked what the early writing was like about the origins of the game. There’s not a lot in the archives. I think the primary reason for that is that a slab of time needs to have gone by before people start to look back. You’ve got to have something that’s of value before you start to think about where it came from. Come to the 1870s, when Tom’s writing his cricket annual in ’75, he talks about the beginnings of football. At that point, they’re starting to develop a sensibility of historical origins. Tom, rather bombastically, says, “I’m the one who introduced the game in 1857.” Which I think in itself is an interesting comment. People dismiss that and say, “Well, he’s got the year wrong.” I’m not as convinced. Tom Wills was loose and carefree and reckless in just about everything, but not in sport. Really, he wasn’t. He was a careful collector of statistics. If I had to put money on it, I’d say he’s right when he said 1857, and we just don’t have the archives or records.
TWW: He says that he tried to introduce football that year but it wasn’t taken to.
Greg: That’s right.
TWW: You can imagine him setting up a scratch match and it didn’t really pan out.
Greg: I think that’s quite a reasonable commentary. I wouldn’t dismiss it at all. I think Hammersley also says 1857 in his 1883 articles. But no one’s ever found anything, and I looked through every newspaper from 1857.
TWW: Tom comes back to Australia in late 1856, and then there’s this whole winter where he’s not doing anything? You’d think he would try something.
Greg: You would think he would. What he really does is resurrect Rugby life. That school life. So there’s a pretty good chance he tried to do that. I would have loved to have found more written about the early days. George Glencross Smith writes about early football in Geelong. I found some of his letters up in Minerva Creek.
TWW: 1923 was a bit of a comeback year for Tom. There was a conversation about him in The Australasian. George chimes in a couple of times. He remembers Tom.
Greg: I think that’s when he talks about Tom captaining one of the Geelong teams in the Botanical Gardens, in the first remembered game in Geelong.
TWW: Historians have generally discounted that, right? Tom as a sort of catalyst for the Geelong football scene. Doesn’t George say that there were six Geelong clubs in operation?
Greg: In one of his letters, in the early 1860s, several clubs were already in operation. The thing about Geelong … I don’t know if you’ve read Russell Stephens’ book?
TWW: It’s called Wills’ Way, right? I read about it. It came off as more mythmaking.
Greg: Yeah. This was a case where I think overplaying Tom’s hand has not helped. I looked at that and I realised there were a lot of factual errors. He was saying that Wills did things for which we didn’t have evidence. When I looked at the Geelong end of things, not only could I not find much about Tom, I could not find much about anyone. At all. But, there were a few things that really did stick out for me. I think that letter from Glenncross Smith is clearly very important. He was right there at the beginning in Geelong. He played football with Tom and his brothers. As an older man, he’s saying, “This is how it began, and this is where it began.”
TWW: And you quote it as such. You say, “This is how George remembered it.” You’re not saying it’s definitive.
Greg: At the moment, that’s really the best evidence we have. There’s no one else that I’ve seen in any archive, or any letter, who even touches upon that. I don’t think Tom necessarily created the club. He was mainly in Melbourne at the time. What I think almost certainly happened is that he went down to Geelong, and, like he did in Melbourne, called a scratch match, and that was the first game. There’s no reason for Glencross Smith, sixty years later, to lie about it. That’s something that would perhaps stick in your mind.
TWW: Some historians have used newspaper clippings to discount Tom in Geelong.
Greg: I’ve gone through all that. There’s a couple of comments in newspapers about when it began, but they don’t really give any details. Some people say that Tom did nothing. Well, Tom was there, his family was there, he was the key figure in Melbourne, and one of his best mates, a contemporaneous person, who was there, playing there, right in the thick of it, says he was the one who started it. To me, that’s a very powerful piece of evidence.
TWW: What kind of character was George? He was one of Tom’s best friends, right?
Greg: He was probably closer friends with one of Tom’s brothers, Cedric. I think he was in awe of Tom. That was the impression I got. He was the younger neighbour. Tom’s the great cricketer, great footballer. He knew Tom well. He went up to Queensland on a boat with Tom.
TWW: Playing quoits on the deck.
Greg: I’ve been asked to write a blurb for a wonderful book that’s about to come out on the history of football in Queensland, written by Murray Bird. He’s a wonderful chap, really perceptive man. Glencross Smith is mentioned, and there are links to the Wills family. When Cedric and Horace went up to Cullin-la-Ringo, they played football in Queensland. He’s tracked all of it down. One of Tom’s best friends, Tom Broad, went up from Geelong. He’s one of the people who started the game in Brisbane, 1866.
TWW: Aussie rules does go back a long way in Queensland.
Greg: Murray’s done all this wonderful research. It’s opened up a connection to Geelong, Tom and the rest. There’s another chap who’s doing research into football played by Aborigines in Queensland, I think in the early 1860s. One of the things that has emerged from this flourishing research over the last 15, 20 years, on the origins of football, has been the discovery that there was Aboriginal football. This image emerged from Museum Victoria. It was found, I think, in Germany, and there’s another image at Cambridge, from a scientific expedition up to the Wentworth area. That’s a magical illustration. There’s three kids kicking a ball.
TWW: It’s a general scene of all this different stuff going on and in the centre there’s a game of football.
Greg: A good observation for them to pick up. We used that in A National Game. We have established that there were various forms of Aboriginal football played around the country. We know that Tom grew up in an area where it was played. I do have a fantasy about this. That’s the missing letter. I often sat in a basement somewhere, or the State Library, and that’s what I was looking for. If I could find one line …
TWW: Just mentioned casually. You can imagine that.
Greg: I do. If it existed, it would be in a family letter, and in passing it would be, “Tom’s out playing football with them.” In fact, not that long ago, maybe last week, I had a dream about finding it and I was going to get on the phone to Martin and say, “I’ve found it.” It’s the holy grail. It would be on the front page of newspapers around the country. That would be such a fantastic thing, and even though I have said there’s no hard evidence or link, I, more than anyone, would love to find that.
TWW: You can approach it from many different angles. He may have played the game. It’s possible.
Greg. I’d say that’s possible.
TWW: It may have been like training, in a sense. Developing those coordination skills.
Greg: Oh, yeah. Even if he just played it, that’s a link. That’s all you’d need. That’s a strong link in terms of the origins of the game.
TWW: It may have influenced how he played at Rugby. Who knows. Did it influence the laws of the Melbourne Football Club, 1859? Probably not.
Greg: I never got a sense from reading the archives that it was even a goer. I suspect it didn’t play on his mind at all.
TWW: Some people say that it was enacted by Tom on some kind of unconscious level.
Greg: You’ve got to actually have that evidence. So, the way I answer it now, is the factual information is that, we know it was played in that area, we know he lived in that area, but whether he saw or played it, we don’t know.
TWW: Are you sick of talking about it? It must come up in every interview.
Greg: It did for a while. It came up yesterday, but most people are happy to accept that. I don’t overplay the connection at all, but I’m not dismissive of the potential of it. Around that time, I got a bit dismissive of people who were pushing it too hard. I said, “Come on, you’ve got to show some evidence.” Martin argued strongly for it in his book. Martin stretched the facts there, but I think he was trying to get at something. I’m sympathetic to the idea.
TWW: There was a period there when Martin was really pushing it.
Greg: I think he’s softened a bit now. That’s what happens. I think it’s better to just say, “This is a possibility.” That’s all you’ve got to do, because you plant that speculation. The story is just as strong with that, in some ways. Then you don’t get the heat from people who really want to be hard-nosed about it.
TWW: What would Tom make of modern Aussie rules?
Greg: I’ll tell you one thing, he would say that it wasn’t as good as anything he did.
TWW: [laughs] Of course.
Greg: Parts of it would be almost unrecognisable.
TWW: Aspects of modern Aussie rules are perhaps the closest thing we have to those early games. The size of the field, the number of the players …
Greg: There’s a lot more following the ball now, unlike, say, the ’40s and ’50s when it was stop-start, taking the mark. There was less scramble. It’s more like scrimmages now, so it’s quite similar. I think he’d be incredibly proud. He would definitely take the credit. He’d make sure of that.
TWW: How do audiences generally react to your talks?
Greg: It’s been overwhelmingly positive. I know that because there’s an undeniable barometer of selling books. People don’t come up and buy books just to be nice. I sell a lot of books doing talks.
TWW: What are some of the more interesting places where you’ve given talks?
Greg: I’ve spoken to all sorts of groups: Lions, Rotary, Probus. I spoke to 550 people at Southport. Sam Kekovich was the act before me.
TWW: [laughs] What did he think of the story?
Greg: Sam had actually heard the story once before. He really liked it. We got on quite well. I turn up to Southport and it’s wall to wall men drinking, and I’m thinking, I’m going to be killed tonight. Sam gets up and they have smoke machines going off. It’s like a bloody strip club. They have a juggler, a magician, some comedians. I get up to talk about a guy who kills himself. For the story to be told properly, I need at least half an hour. They gave me that time, and it went extremely well. They were quiet and listened for 40 minutes. I sold a lot of books. If you surveyed the crowd, there would have been people who didn’t like it. That’s not what they wanted from a day like that. It toughens you up. You’re pretty naked up there. There’s no entertainment to distract from what you’re saying or doing. There’s no music, no video. It’s just your words that you produce on the day. I’ve had to work at my craft, and that’s gotten better.
TWW: I just have that image of the smoke machines.
Greg: [laughs] I was expecting dancing girls to jump out in bikinis! I did a Grand Final breakfast in Melbourne. That was 500 people. It’s funny when you speak to that many people. It’s almost too many because you can’t really connect with the audience. I think the best number to speak to is about 80.
TWW: When you can still see their faces.
Greg: Yeah. Once you get to 300, 500, it’s just tables receding into the distance. It’s alright, but I don’t think it works as well as performance.
TWW: Maybe you should take some tips from a Christian evangelist or something.
Greg: [laughs] That’s right, a bit of action. “You will walk!” I spoke once at a high school in Wodonga. They had this huge placard out front that said, “Come and listen to Greg de Moore: Activist.”
TWW: [laughs] Australian history activist.
Greg: But it was great. I’ve spoken at a dozen schools. Some of Sydney’s big private schools have an event called “Books, Blokes and Breakfast”. It’s teachers, the kids and often their parents or grandparents. That went extremely well. I spoke at the biggest rugby school in Australia, Joeys. At the end of the talk, the principal came up …
TWW: “You’ve converted us.”
Greg: He said, “The boys won’t know this, but when this school was founded in 1881 …”
TWW: They played Aussie rules.
Greg: That was the game. It was only with the English migration …
TWW: British headmasters …
Greg: That’s what happened. That was a revelation.
TWW: Have you given talks overseas?
Greg: I haven’t, but I’d love to. I’d love to do a UK tour. I would couch it differently with more about Rugby, the Aboriginal tour of England, and W. G. Grace. I think they would respond well.
TWW: Does the story translate well to non-Australians?
Greg: Yeah, definitely. Many people from the UK have bought the book. They love it.
TWW: What about the US?
Greg: I gave a talk last week and someone from Milwaukee came up and bought a book. Also, I haven’t really thought about this before, but I get a lot of comments from people of non-English speaking backgrounds. Germany, Holland, a lot of continental people, and some Asian people. I had a long conversation with a woman from Malaysia who bought the book and told me what she liked about it. So it’s not just Australians.
TWW: Have people come up to you with any crazy theories about Tom? Stories that are beyond belief?
Greg: The only crazy things said about him have been some of the very derogatory comments we talked about before, which I think completely miss the mark. There was one woman from Collingwood who rang up and said her neighbour was related to Tom. I was thinking, oh God, it’s another bloody wacky one. But she was quite nice over the phone. She’d seen my book in a bookstore, and she said this guy always talked about Tom. She sent me this photo, and I thought, bloody hell. It looked just like him!
TWW: Do you still have the photo?
Greg: I do! I’ve got it! He’s sitting in a kitchen. He has a checked shirt on. Slightly rockabilly hairstyle. Tom had a little bit of that when he was younger, too.
TWW: Okay, so, how do we look into this? Can we do a DNA test or something?
Greg: [laughs] Well, I tried to contact her a couple of years after this.
TWW: It would open a whole new … the fact that Tom …
Greg: I wouldn’t be a surprised if there’s a couple of Tom Wills’s amongst us.
TWW: There’s one running around on the MCG.
Greg: [laughs] That would be a story. There was also a pop group called The Holy Sea. They read the book. The lead singer is in America at the moment. He’s an academic from Perth. A really interesting guy.
TWW: The Holy Sea did a song about Tom.
Greg: I recognised the phrases that I had written in the song. I was on such a high.
TWW: “To bowl with the gods”.
Greg: [laughs] That’s right! The first time I heard that was the day I was invited to speak at the Female Orphans’ School. I told the audience from the University of Western Sydney that this is where Tom’s mother grew up. That was a very meaningful time. The Greater Western Sydney Football Club was involved.
TWW: What’s your role at the club?
Greg: It was originally called a community group, an advisory group, in the early days. Now I’m more interested in the historical aspect of it. I’m interviewing quite a few people. I know a few of the board members. What I’ve noticed is that people come and go from clubs pretty quickly. I’ve got over 40 hours of interviews. It’s a basis for an oral history on what it’s like to start an AFL club. I don’t think it’s ever been done before. It’s great fun.
TWW: You’ve drawn that connection between Tom’s origins and Western Sydney.
Greg: Yeah. I spoke to Tony Shepherd, the chairman of the board, some years ago, and gave him a copy of the book. He loved it. About six of seven months later, he rang me up and said, “Greg, we’re going to call the oval the Tom Wills Oval.” There’s a few lessons I learnt from that. It’s not just about writing a book. It’s about going out and trying to make connections. There will soon be two plaques unveiled at the oval. I wrote the words. There will be one at one goalpost about the origins of Australian rules. The other goalpost will have one about Tom and the Aboriginal cricket team. The Bradman Museum told me yesterday that they’d like to link up with Greater Western Sydney. Simon Katich, the Test cricketer, works for GWS. They’ve got this idea of having a Tom Wills Cup cricket match played between teams from Bowral and Western Sydney. I thought that’s a great marrying of ideas. I’ve also heard from someone at the Geelong Football Club, just a few weeks ago, about possibly doing a statue. I don’t know if that’s true, but it would be great.
TWW: Have you heard from anyone regarding a feature film about Tom?
Greg: The only time someone has contacted me about a feature film was soon after the book came about. It was someone who was associated with a film called Creation. It was about Charles Darwin. It came out about five or six years ago. They had heard about Tom, and they contacted me and said, “It’s a great story.” They were very hard-nosed about it. They said, “The difficulty in this is …”
Greg: Yeah, it’s all about money. She said the only way to get something like this up and running would be to write it in a way that encompasses England as well as Australia. Instead of 24 million, the market becomes 80 million. She said, “You’re probably going to get interest from documentary makers.” She was right. I’ve had half a dozen people contact me about documentaries. I pass all of it on to Allen & Unwin. The other thing would be a four-part miniseries, because one hour just doesn’t even begin to touch on it. Martin and I were having a talk about this.
TWW: Is it true that Martin wrote a film script?
Greg: He may have. When I first started this in 1998, I went to the MCG. This is actually the trip when I found the medical notes. I spoke to Gil Hibbins and a few people at the MCC library. I think The Call might have just come out, and Hibbins said that they had a visit from a scriptwriter, who I think was Bob Hawke’s son. Stephen Hawke? Could be right. I’m sure Martin was involved. I don’t know if Gil was just being negative about it, but she made a comment that this chap had said, “It’s hard to make a film about someone who commits suicide.” I don’t believe that. Watching the documentary yesterday, you could feel the emotion in the audience. The snippet they have of him taking his life is really quite powerful especially on the big screen.
TWW: Does the documentary cover a lot of the story?
Greg: Yeah. The night they showed it down here, I was on stage with Martin and a couple of the people who made it. We just wish we had more money to do more recreations. Some of the recreations are really good, though. I think they’ve done a pretty good job, but in terms of telling the story, if there was a real weakness, I think it’s that they didn’t explain clearly enough the Aboriginal cricket team. So, back in ’98, and even before that, in the 1970s or ’80s, there was an American out here. He was scouting around and looking at possibly doing a film on Tom Wills.
TWW: An American?
Greg: Yeah. I get a call once or twice a year from someone saying, “What’s the go with this?” The last call I had, only three months ago, was from a guy called Tom Thompson. I don’t know if he’s on radio down here, but he’s into collectibles and so on. He wants to buy the rights for an audio book.
TWW: For the biography?
Greg: Yeah. He’s turned some of his own works into audiobooks. He would also like to buy movie rights. A feature film is one of those fantasies. I’d love that.
TWW: Who would you like to play Tom? You can choose any actor in their prime.
Greg: Russell Crowe’s got the right slightly renegade, off-centre, fighting-the-world mentality, that I think would go well.
TWW: Maybe he can direct.
Greg: It would have to be on the scale of Gallipoli. The task would be choosing what to leave out.
TWW: I think it would have to be episodic and sort of leap around.
Greg: You could almost start at the end, like Titanic. It starts off with the old woman finding the remnant that reminds her of when she was a young girl with Leonardo DiCaprio.
TWW: I’ll just say I hope it doesn’t turn out like Titanic, but I know what you mean.
Greg: [laughs] It could start off with someone like Tom’s brother when he’s an old man, or one of the Aboriginal men or women up in Cullin-la-Ringo, looking back at the massacre. It would take a huge amount of work.
TWW: Since the book was published, has it generated as much publicity as you expected?
Greg: I didn’t understand publicity beforehand, but I now know it’s not a case of writing a book and things just happen. The book is the kind of tangible evidence of the story, but it’s been going all over the country and evangelising, really. It’s been extremely tough, but very rewarding. I’ve been overwhelmed by the response over the years, and the number of contacts and letters and people coming up and speaking to me during these sessions. It’s been gripping, watching them nod and drink in the story. I love it. It’s really enriched my life enormously. You can always be accused of hyperbole, but I defy anyone to find a more meaningful Australian sports story than this one. I defy them.
TWW: Or in world sports generally.
Greg: Is there someone in baseball, or American football, who’s been there from the beginning, who has influenced more than one sport in a pivotal way, and is also at the core of that country’s identity in terms of race relations.
TWW: And, of course, it goes right back to the convicts. We didn’t touch on that.
Greg: That’s the difficulty. It’s too much. Trying to explain it to Allen & Unwin, the publisher, was the hardest thing. I could see in my mind what it would be, but they could never see that. They wanted to hone in on something. It’s an ongoing struggle, but the story’s richness is ultimately one of its great advantages. You can delve into one area until you get a bit tired of it, and then something else happens. If it wasn’t like that, I would have tired of it. Yesterday, when I was watching the video documentary, I felt a well of pride rise in me. I thought, I’ve been part of this. I almost had tears in my eyes watching it. It’s been far more than I could have imagined.