17 October, 2000, Moonee Valley Racecourse, Melbourne, Australia
Ladies and gentleman, graduating students, PEGs staff, and last but not least, Moonee Valley punters who have stumbled into the function by accident and have no idea what’s going on
On my last day at school, I became the second person in the history of Camberwell Grammar to be sent home for an inappropriate costume. The first instance occurred in 1988 when a guy arrived wearing Rambo style fatigues, a semi automatic and live ammunition. He didn’t actually fire any rounds, and I’m not sure anyone could find a specific school rule dealing with semi-automatics, but the police were nevertheless called, and he was sent on his way.
When I was giving my marching orders two years later, it was for the lesser offense of smelling of rotten fish. My mother, who has a nasty habit of over-enthusing in the task of dressing up any of her children, decided that the costume for me was the polar bear suit. So while half the year was out enjoying a big night on the town, Mum and I sat at home together, drawing claws on my ug boots, sowing my sister’s old 'lambie' to the front of Dad’s white pyjamas, and attaching a dead thirteen pound cod to the end of a homemade fishing rod.
In the cool of the morning, my cod was an enormous hit, accompanying me in all the flour throwing and water fights. But as the day warmed up, both me and the fish started to smell worse and worse, until I was told at lunchtime that I should make a trip home to de-fish.
The dressing up era at my old school has now ended, the headmaster obviously deciding that if the day was generating problems as diverse as live ammunition and dead fish, it was time to reassess. Actually, the official reason that was given when they banned dressing up was said to be that too many Camberwell Grammar boys were dressing up as women, a fact that no doubt confirms a lot of suspicions you all might harbour about my old school.
Today, it’s been your turn to dress up for a last day at school, and I’m sure there will be some aspect of it that stays with you always. Just as everyone should have a memory of their first day of school (mine is that my red-haired prep teacher who was called Mrs Wolf introduced herself via a game of ‘What’s the Time Mrs Wolf’) well we should similarly have a memory of the day it all comes to an end. As for everything that has been learned in the days in between, it’s helpful to have some retention there too. Particularly when it comes to the small matter of the exams that are now just nine days and fourteen hours away.
I’m tempted to just start counting the minutes and seconds down as well to see if those of you who are a bit edgy make a panicked bolt for the library. The fact is that of all the countdowns you’ve no doubt been conducting over the last weeks and months, the exam one is the most important of all. When you go home tonight, you’ll be in the nightmare they call swot-vac, and I’m sure you all can’t wait to grab your alarm clocks, set them to 6.58, and bang out that first practice exam before breakfast tomorrow.
The trick with swot-vac is to have a realistic study timetable that you stick to, no matter what other temptations beckon. Actually one of the first temptations you’ll discover is to spend so much time on the timetable that you waste half of swot-vac drawing it up. Colour coding each subject. Drawing and re-drawing the lines to make sure that they’re straight. My timetable was a work of art, but it was also very important in keeping me to my targets of 10-hour study days.
As a freelance writer, I also face the procrastination demons on a daily basis. A basic guide is that if you find yourself watching any two of Totally Wild, Fresh Prince of Bel Air or Mrs Mangle era Neighbours, you’ve got yourself a problem. You don’t want to be sitting there in an Australian history exam, laboring over the names of our wartime prime ministers but knowing the Fresh Prince’s pick up lines word for word.
In year twelve and at uni, another great procrastination device for me was taking showers. Sometimes I’d have 5-6 showers a day and when I wasn’t taking showers I’d be brushing my teeth. After all, can’t be too clean. Wouldn’t want my practice exam paper to think that I’ve got body odour or bad breath.
It is worth a bit of pain now though. Just think, a few weeks of hard work, and then you get to do bugger all for months. And every time a parent tells you to go out and do something, you can just say, ‘But Muuuum, Daaaaad, for months I didn’t go out. I didn’t watch the Fresh Prince -- can’t I have a rest noooow?’
Those of you with soft parents can probably get away with this for several months. Those of you with tough parents, you’ve probably still got a couple of weeks, and then you can start crashing at the houses of your friends who have soft parents. The trick is to get the hard work part out of the way now, so you’ve got a few bargaining chips up your sleeve when heaven descends, sometime in November.
There is a temptation to look at the upcoming exams and regard them as either life making or life breaking in their outcome. Of course they’re important. If you get a TER high enough to gain entry to the course you want, it’s a terrific advantage. But for those who are worriedthey’ll become instant and permanent failures on results day in December, it’s just not the case.
The fact is that you can’t be a failure at eighteen, because there’s just so much time and opportunity left to find something at which you can be a success. Ten years after leaving Camberwell, I look around my group of friends from school and see one who dropped out in year eleven who is now doing well in golf course management on the Gold Coast. Another wanted to be a lawyer, but now runs a successful billboard business in India. Another tried for years to be accepted into vet science, only to last year find a position in Cameroon as the head of a wildlife park.
As for myself, at school, I had only two goals in life. One was to represent Australia in basically any sport that would have me, and the other was to play league football for Hawthorn in the AFL. It quickly emerged that football was probably my best chance, and I became fanatically obsessed with it. At the age of fifteen, when some classmates were embarking upon romantic relationships, I was still sleeping with a Sherrin. When they were out on their dates, I’d stay home listening to the radio, writing down the kicks, marks and handballs for every player in the Hawthorn side.
Actually the last time I was at PEGS was in 1990 -- one of the memorable days of my football career, when I captained the Camberwell First XVIII to a five point win over your team. I’m pretty sure we haven’t beaten you since that day and we may never beat you again, so what I thought I’d do from here is give you a twenty minute, kick by kick summary of the game as it unfolded. I might even insert the odd detail that didn’t actually happen, like that moment late in the last quarter when I took a big hanger on Dustin Fletcher’s head. Or was it Scott West’s, I can’t remember. Although I did have 26 marks that day. I'm worried you think I'm joking. Stop laughing please. Damn that boastful hyperbole from earlier on! I need my credibility back! If you take nothing else away from this -- 26 marks.
Eventually, I made it through to the under 19s, then I captained the under 19s, and then finally in 1992, I was drafted onto the Hawthorn senior list.
The first inkling I had as to the fact that I was pursuing the wrong career came after the players’ skit night. I’d played five pretty uninspiring reserves games to that time, and when fan mail was being handed out, it rarely made it to ‘hack corner’ which is what the good players called the lockers numbered higher than 40 (John Platten was our union rep). But the week after the skit night, to the amazement of the entire club, I received some fan mail. I’ve still got it, and I’ll read it to you now.
Dear Tony Wilson
I’ve never seen you play or heard of you, but I thought that Colliwobbles song you sung with Austin McCrabb on Saturday was excellent. Not your singing so much, but the words - which reminded how much I hate Collingwood. Keep up the good work.
P.S. Can you send me a signed copy
It was my fifth ever autograph, the first four coming one night when I was talking in the car park next to Dermott Brereton, and he made some kids get my autograph as well. As for the song, I wrote it in 1990 during Year 12 swot-vac and it’s a lament for the fact that Collingwood finally won a Grand Final. Given tonight is the tenth anniversary of its existence, and it’s proof of the wonderful achievements you can pull off when you’re avoiding doing old maths exams, I thought I’d sing a verse to you guys. Actually the real reason I’m singing it is that one day, you guys might be running entertainment venues, and if you’re ever looking for a guy who can’t sing, and can’t play guitar … well here it goes:
A long long time ago I can still remember;
How the Magpies used to make me smile
And Dad and I would sing and dance
As the Pies stuffed up each finals chance
And lost each shot at glory with such style
But 1990 made me shiver, with every victory they delivered
Bad news on the doorstep, the woodsman had much more pep
I can’t remember if I cried, when I heard that they had made the five
But something kicked me deep inside, the day the Wobbles died.
... It goes for another 11 and a half minutes ...
Can you believe that when Madonna covered ‘American Pie’ this year, she went with Don McLean’s version and not mine?
But although I’d made history at the skit night by being the first footballer who didn’t dress up as a woman, things weren’t going quite so well on the field. In fact a few weeks later, reserves coach Des Meagher pulled me up in front of my teammates, pointed a finger into my chest and gave me the following piece of encouragement,
‘Willo, you can’t kick, you can’t handball, you can’t run … you can mark but you’re not even doing that at the moment.’
So it wasn’t that surprising when I was sacked, me vowing to Allan Joyce as I walked out the door that I would make him regret the decision for the rest of his life.
Fortunately, I had university to fall back on, a time of my life that was absolutely brilliant. My parents had always told me really boring, long-winded anecdotes about uni being 'the best days of your life’ -- but until I got there, I didn’t really listen. Unlike school, it was relaxed -- no uniforms or disciplinarian teachers or kids in the tuckshop line who make a living out of asking everyone for 20 cents. At uni, I had just nudged into what should be known as my post-sleeping-with-a-Sherrin era, and I had my first real girlfriends. I even got to go to Montreal in Canada for six months as an exchange student. In fact, so good were my five years as a student that I’m currently preparing a set of long-winded, boring anecdotes of my own to ram down the throats of any children I might have in the future.
It is however, possible to love being a uni student, but hate just about everything you’re studying. Unfortunately, that’s how it was with my course, which was law. If I had any guts, I would have quit to do a course that I actually liked. I didn’t though, and when I graduated in 1996, I blindly followed the other graduates into working at a law firm.
My time as a lawyer was just miserable. I joined Minter Ellison in 1996, and from my first day on the job, discovered that the glamorous life they painted in LA Law and A Few Good Men did not match the reality of leafing through 310 boxes of documents in a warehouse in Sunshine. Don’t be fooled by the way young lawyers are portrayed on television and in the movies. If they made a film about young lawyers at my firm they would have called it A Few Good Shit-kickers.
But despite my inexperience some big jobs did start coming my way. Like the day that a partner in my department arrived at my corral carrying a belt and a pair of gumboots. Yes, I was to be Santa Claus at the firm picnic, and you can imagine the pride I felt when he came back the following Monday and said I was ‘the best goddamn Father Christmas in the history of the firm.’
Then there was the articled clerks’ revue, performed for the firm at the mid-year ball. I was co-writer and director of the production, and even made my debut with a video camera, filming a piece we titled Twelve Angry Articled Clerks. This was a work of enormous emotional depth culminating in us all painting our faces blue, making a Braveheart style charge on photocopier, and smashing it with a sledgehammer. In another scene we stormed a rival law firm in chicken suits. In another, we pranced around the firm’s library naked, save for a strategically placed ‘Hot Stocks’ edition of the BRW.
By the middle of my second year at Minters, I was struggling with the fact that I’d never really found a goal to replace the league footy one. I toyed with the idea of doing some writing or amateur film-making, but didn’t really get off my backside. In fact I turned into one of those very annoying ‘guuna’ people. I was gunna write a screenplay, gunna write a book, gunna travel, gunna go to the bar, gunna leave to provide opportunities for younger, fresher Santas coming up through the ranks. I talked to people about my plans, until those people banned me from talking to them, at which point I found new people. Eventually, my father took me out for breakfast one morning at the Nudl Bar, and quietly suggested that if I was to consider myself a good writer, at some stage I should consider actually writing something. In fact we made a deal that morning -- he said he would help me with financing a travel writing trip, if I gave him a 25,000 word sample within 4 weeks of what he could expect. I took annual leave the next week, and started on my 25,000 words. They weren’t brilliant, but finally I was going for something that I actually enjoyed.
And then came the RMIT information evening that changed my life. In October 1997, a friend who knew about the travel book idea told me that the executive producer of RATW was holding a seminar. For those who don’t know the show, it was a program on ABC that sent 8 people to 10 countries around the world over 100 days, with each person travelling alone and having to produce a four minute documentary for broadcast on the ABC. John Safran had made the show famous the year before by taking his clothes off and running through Jerusalem to the tune of Up There Cazaly. I loved the show and loved the seminar, and when he said, ‘Imagine you’re one of the thirteen selected finalists in Sydney’, I decided that I owed it to myself to apply. After all I’d paid $22 bucks to attend the lecture, and I wanted to get my money’s worth.
The greatest miracle of my life is that my application actually came off. The application video I sent in was about an Italian soccer coach called Paolo who coached the Essendon under sevens just down the road here with the zeal of a man who has his sights set on the World Cup. He gave them diets, he gave them tactics sessions, he abused them for not going to bed early enough. And all this was done through a translator, because Paulo himself couldn’t speak a word of English. Not only that but that translator was a mother of one of the boys, so Paulo would say something like ‘you’re all hopeless, it’s pointless coaching you’ and the translator would soften it to something like, ‘keep going, you’re doing really well.’ Basically, the topic was so good that I couldn’t really muck up the film, and after two months of interviews, and a 4 week documentary course at AFTRS in Sydney, I was selected for the show.
When I was attending my Year 12 dinner at the Malvern town hall in 1990, I could never have known that I’d be travelling to 10 countries in 100 days and making stories that would be shown on national television. A story on children in prison with their father in Bolivia, a cowboy poet in Idaho, the Italian version of Wheel of Fortune in Italy, the soccer World Cup in Paris, a laughing club in India. Perhaps my favorite story was about a wheat farmer in Lebanon called Faeez, who couldn’t shoot pigs that were eating his crop because he was only 800 metres from the Israeli border, and the border guards would blow his head off if he went out in the fields with a gun. Indeed, as bombs thundered in the hills around us, Faeez told me to hide my camera tripod under my jumper, 'because Hazballah use tripods to launch rockets'. That was one of the truly exhilarating nights of my life. A sunset, a full moon, a tripod under my jumper, and a five kilometre walk down to the village, thinking all the while that I’d finally found the perfect career.
Not only that, but Race Around the World allowed me to achieve a childhood dream that I thought had passed me by. As I said before, I always fantasized about representing my country in international sport, and then, during my fourth story in Italy, it finally happened. I had the opportunity to lift this beautiful bronzed arm wrestling trophy above my head at the 1998 European Arm Wrestling championships. The tournament took place in Brescia, and as I understand it, I remain the only Australian to have ever competed. This is not good news for people trying to enhance Australia’s international reputation as an arm-wrestling power. My scorecard at the end of the tournament was four bouts in the 95 kilogram division for four, complete, motherless jelly-armed shellackings. One of my opponents from the Ukraine told me that I was the weakest opponent he had encountered in five years on the world tour. Still I had a professional arm-warming sock, and for a few brilliant seconds before each bout, I experienced the mad stare and scream that was so central to the Sylvester Stallone arm wrestling film, ‘Over the Top’. Not only that, despite my beatings the organisers handed out participation trophies to competitors from each of the countries represented at the championships. And so today, I am now the proud owner of one of these.
If I could give a single piece of advice on pursuing happiness, it would be to make sure you actually do pursue it. The unhappiest times I’ve had over the last ten years have been when I’ve let things drift, and not taken any positive steps. My success in getting to make stories around the world only came because I put four months into doing the best application I could at the end of 1997. Other friends of mine said they were going to do one, but in the end, the amount of work involved in finding and editing a story meant none of them did. I later found out that 18,000 people downloaded application forms for Race but didn’t send in applications. Again, the only reason I got to write articles at the Olympics was that I went into the Age offices and asked the Olympics editor if I could. Apply, apply, apply. You might think you don’t stand a chance, I certainly thought that with Race, but you definitely don’t stand a chance if you don’t apply.
That was my advice on happiness, so here’s my advice on misery. Endure swot-vac and work as hard as you can. Hard work does bring its rewards. As fun as my Race Around the World trip sounds, it was unbelievably stressful. In each place you had to find a story (which would take 2-3 days, film a story another 3 or so) and then write down all your shots and every word of every interview, so you could do an edit script, which was then sent back to Australia with the tapes. I reckon on average I worked about 14 hours a day, travelling alone and spending about as much on international phone calls as Paul Reith and his housemates. But throughout the hard times, there was always the knowledge that there was an end point, and I didn’t want to look back when I finished and think I didn’t do my best.
Despite what your parents or grandparents might say along the lines of ‘if you don’t know it now, you’ll never know it’, there are thousands of degrees hanging on walls around Australia that have been earned entirely in the month of October. The three magic words to remember now are these – ‘short term memory’. It’s amazing what you can stuff into the human brain for a few weeks, even if most of it will inevitably seep onto the beaches of Byron Bay or the Gold Coast in the months to come.
But while scientific formulae and English quotes and Keynesian economics all fight for their places in your short term memories, I’m sure there will be elements of this place, Penleigh and Essendon Grammar School that will be deeply embedded in your long term memories. Maybe you’ll remember a certain teacher. Maybe a sporting occasion (26 marks I tell ya). Or maybe some lines you had to write out at a Friday detention, and I say that because fourteen years after I stood up to leave an English class early in year nine, I can still remember having to write out fifty times.
‘The period does not end when the ophacleide hoots. It ends when the master in charge, or mistress, says as of how, it has.’
I don’t even think that ‘as of how, it has’ makes sense, but I’ve remember it all the same.
Most of your long term memories will no doubt relate to the people who are celebrating with you here tonight. And amid the celebration of finishing, there’s also the sadness that in almost every case, you will not see as much of each other from now on. Of course you can always catch up at that English exam that’s on in, what is it, now, nine days, thirteen hours and fifty minutes, but you might have other things on your mind then. So enjoy the night, enjoy each other’s company, which will be a lot easier to do if I sit down and shut up.
Thank you for having me; best of luck for the next few weeks, and for the rest of your lives.
Tony Wilson's most recent book is Emo the Emu (Scholastic, 2015), a rhyming ballad about a grumpy bird cheering himself up by visiting every state of Australia. Good tourist book. You can buy it here.