'The Happy Land' - The Life and Times of John Winston Coward - Part 2 - His love of cricket

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Was John Howard's Australia the place admirers like Tony Abbott promote? 'The Happy Land' is Graham Jackson's satirical alternative reality. This challenging work, illustrated by Gee, consists of thirteen Papers written by the major players in a dark period in Australia's short history. Here Emeritus Professor Costello discusses the roots of John Coward's love of cricket.

The Life and Times of John Winston Coward

The Prime Minister who pushed Children Overboard in His Pursuit of Electoral Victory: A Reconstruction


1:    ‘His Scottish Ancestors’ – Emeritus Professor P. Costello
2:    ‘His Love of Cricket’ – Emeritus Professor P. Costello
3:    ‘My Mum and Dad’ – John Winston Coward
4:    ‘The Happy Land’ – Extracts from an Interview with ‘Opening Batsman’
5:    ‘The Coming of the Iraqis, Afghans and Fins’ – Emeritus Professor P. Costello
6:    ‘The Martyrdom of Minister Reith’ – Emeritus Professor P. Costello
7:    ‘My Dream’ – a Transcript of ‘Sea Captain’s’ Evidence before a Select Committee
8:    ‘An Address to the Australian People’ – John Winston Coward
9:    ‘Ruddock Replaces Reith’ – Emeritus Professor P. Costello
10:  ‘His Favourite Sayings’ – Emeritus Professor P. Costello
11:  ‘The Unveiling of the Scottish Thistle’ – John Winston Coward
12:  ‘The Death of a Conservative Leader’ – Emeritus Professor P. Costello
13:  ‘Postscript’ – ‘Wicketkeeper’
Paper 2:    ‘His Love of Cricket’ – Emeritus Professor P. Costello

For a time in his childhood, John Winston Coward was used as a cricket stump, as his brothers took advantage of his short height and love of the game. His passion for cricket was a lifetime affair. His childhood abuse – standing still at the end of the dusty pitch, bails balanced on his head – only seems to have deepened his affection.

Early one season, the Coward boys found their mother had mistaken the cricket stumps for kindling and used them to light a fire. It was an honest mistake. The stumps were small tree branches, cut roughly to size.

“What’ll we do, Mum?” they complained.

“Improvise,” she said.

After beating the meaning of this word out of their younger brother, they dug a hole where the stumps usually stood and told him to stand in it. There he was planted, back-filled and stamped down, thankful he hadn’t been hammered in place with a mallet.

They used a tennis ball in these games, which took some of the sting out of them. Only the oldest boy, who was developing skills as a fast bowler, was capable of inflicting anything more than a bruise. But he rarely hit the pitch, let alone the stump. What John Winston Coward took away from this experience was the art of remaining inactive until, if he was about to be hit, he had to sway left or right without anyone seeing him moving. His evasive technique would stand him in good stead in his political life – when, in the best interests of the People, he had to lie to them – as would his ability to remain motionless while wickets tumbled around him. Freakish catches would be taken, desperate lunges to the crease would fall short by inches, while John Winston Coward stood immobile in the midst of it all.

Reliable information about his early years has recently been released by one of his sisters. She claims the use of her brother’s body as a stump created some confusion in his mind and that for a time he took a twig to bed with him each night. Because there were so many in the family and because the farmhouse was so small, secrets were hard to keep. No doubt much could be made of this affair between a boy and his twig, but it needn’t detain us here. Suffice it to say that, according to his sister, the boy was toughened by the experience.

Their father neither condoned nor disapproved of these games. They were part of the rough and tumble of childhood. Their father was an enthusiast – of cricket and of life in general – and while he had no time to roll his arm over in the house paddock he’d cry Howzzat! as he passed by a game on his tractor and note the rigidity of his youngest son’s head. He approved of the boy’s determination. With the bails balanced on his head, the only moveable parts of his body were his eyes, and even they could only rove between point and square leg. At the extremities of this one hundred and eighty degree field of vision, his eyes became strained. In so far as he allowed himself to get involved in the game, he only got annoyed when the ball was played behind the wicket and he couldn’t see where it went.

Yet he still he loved the game and studied its statistical records. So it isn’t surprising that one of his early roles in government, before he became Prime Minister, was as the country’s Treasurer. In this capacity he could add up national accounts as he once compiled runs of Australian batsmen, particularly those who accumulated runs, or sniffed them out in the manner of Bill Lawry. Then there were the batsmen who failed to accumulate runs, whose scoreless defensive prods and pushes in the manner of Slasher Mackay could also be counted. John Winston Howard counted everything, as cricket statisticians do.

He even counted as he stood in as a stump. To forestall arguments about how many balls had been bowled in an over, his father suggested his youngest son stand in as the umpire. Behind his back he passed mouse droppings from one hand to the other, as counters. He had spare ones in his pocket, should those in use fall apart. But he had such experience of the pellets he rarely needed a replacement.

He also counted runs. This was child’s play, of course, and he performed the task to satisfy his own curiosity about how the numbers would fall, whether there were patterns he could detect in the scoring. He had no interest in the batsmen as people, only in the number of their runs. Just as, later, he had no interest in asylum-seekers as people, he was fascinated by their number — and whether they equalled the number of ripples emanating from any large object thrown off a sinking boat.

He often thought of the sea. Perhaps it was because of his sea-faring ancestors, or because so many Wimmera localities had watery connections — like Sea Lake, Rainbow, and Broken Bucket Tank. He could imagine chieftains bailing out their boats and throwing overboard anything that wasn’t bolted down. The ancestors’ times had been momentous; an age of adventure. But for all their trials and tribulations, most of them had landed safely and been welcomed by the Indigenous people.

At one point in his reflections a sharply rising delivery knocked the bails off his head. He hadn’t seen it coming. But such momentary lapses were rare and his powers of concentration allowed him to count and dodge balls at the same time, while quantifying the waves of the ocean.

“Wake up, halfwit!” one of his brothers shouted.

“Put the bail back on your head!”

Bastards, he thought, without any real emotion. He looked around. The sun was shining and there was a crow strung up on a barbed wire fence. The boys made traps for the crows, chicken wire enclosures with a hole at the top for the birds to get in to the bait. Once in and fed, they couldn’t fly out. In his later political life, John Winston Coward often enticed rivals into committee meetings and pulled the chairs out from under them.

Beyond the crow on the fence, and the rabbit or snake skin beside it, his father’s tractor could be seen in a faraway paddock. His mother was trudging out to it with afternoon tea wrapped in a towel. The sky was cloudless, everlastingly blue, and there was no chance of rain. Their games were rarely enlivened by sticky wickets, or washed out. They were always about endurance.

Endurance helped him achieve his later success in politics, like dogged runs sniffed out at the end of an innings that help teams hang on for a draw. Slasher Mackay once played such an innings, letting the ball hit his body in the final over so there was no chance of dismissal. A fast bowler delivered the last balls, smashing into Slasher’s chest. But when asked how he coped with the pain, he said it was nothing compared to the pain in his back, where he was thumped by well-wishers congratulating him on his innings. John Winston Coward idolised this image of Slasher Mackay. Like his hero, the future conservative Prime Minister learned how to take blows without flinching and how to maintain an impassive expression in all situations.

So a reporter might say: “Surely you agree the Opposition’s disclosures suggest you’ve been lying, and strike a blow at your credibility?”

And the Prime Minister would respond: “I don’t have to agree with anything. My credibility’s unaffected by these strikes, as you call them. They’re as ineffectual as the Opposition spokesman making them, who never hits the pitch.”

Throwing his head back in characteristic fashion, he would conclude with a cackle: “In fact I can’t remember any other Member being responsible for so many sundries.”

Then he’d laugh again — a barking release of the energies that sustained this remarkable man.

He developed a technique for holding on. There was no quick way to the toilet once the stump had been planted. Using yoga techniques of breathing and cleanliness, he held his breath for as long as he could, so that his body became confused about what it was holding and released the level of urgency in its excretory sector. He performed traditional cleaning rituals each day, such as rubbing his gums and tongue each morning and rinsing his mouth with soapy water, so he could pretend he never told lies. He also inhaled salted water through his nostrils – to clean the passages in that part of his body – and spat it out through his mouth. This so disgusted the rest of the family he was forbidden to perform this ritual indoors, but had to go outside, even when the weather was freezing. Once he tried to swallow a length of old cotton sheeting while holding on to one end, to soak up the impurities in his stomach. Discovered gagging on the bathroom floor, his mother told him never to do it again.

In addition to these rituals, which eventually led him to abandon the bunker, he practised breathing and non-breathing in all bodily positions. So that when he was planted as a stump, at the beginning of a long day’s play, he could stand confident in the knowledge of his ability to endure. He might have set records for holding on, had Wisden kept records for this as it did for every other facet of the game. But it is of the nature of conservatism that so many of its achievements pass unnoticed and are lost to history — which makes the recording of these distant events now so important.

John Winston Coward also developed the surrogate scratch, which is perhaps not a precise term, but should nevertheless convey the sense of the scratch one makes without physically scratching — like getting rid of the Governor General, or Bishop, or whoever’s been appointed or promoted who isn’t the genuine article. It could even be an Admiral or a Speaker of Parliament. How he came by this skill can only be guessed at, but his sister has suggested her brother acquired telekinetic powers during the long hours he spent with mice. No doubt her idea is fanciful, but she’s described how he would concentrate for hours on the body of mouse, mummified by Wimmera heat, until the tough, pointed tail broke away and rose into the air. From there, he seemed to be able to direct it at will. He could make it write in the sand, for instance, perhaps drawing the letter he was so keen on — the S that looked like a curving tail of a mouse. Or he could make it jab his brothers, to warn them off. Or he could make it scratch his nose, or his arse.

In concluding this paper it’s worth noting that, shortly before the era of the cricket games ended, one of the Coward brothers, the fast bowler, began to hit the wicket. Such were the speed of his deliveries the stump was often unable to sway out of the way. The thunderbolts hit him in all parts of the body, with the exception of his legs, which were buried. He withstood them all, showing neither fear nor pain. With a single-mindedness few leaders of any political party have possessed, he weathered this final barrage in the drought-stricken Wimmera and came away as tough as a mummified mouse, which he strangely resembled. Cricket enthusiasts have always made claims for the character-building qualities of their game, its need for determination and a willingness to plug on and on and on. In the political career of John Winston Coward, the conservative Prime Minister, the levels of these skills were raised to new heights.

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