A letter from Martin Flanagan

M Flanagan, D Wilson, 2013 Footy Almanac launch, All Nations Hotel, Richmond.


When Martin Flanagan left The Age a week ago, David Wilson penned ‘An open letter of humble thanks to Martin Flanagan.’ Martin has written a reply:


Dear David


Since announcing my departure from The Age two weeks ago, I have received a number of letters like yours and, to be frank, I am struggling to answer them. They are serious statements, all of them deeply individual, and each requires a serious, individual response.


Years ago, I read a quote attributed to a 16th century cleric, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, that to find God you have to lose God. That’s how story-telling is with me. You find the story by losing yourself, by immersing yourself in an experience, getting thrown about by it until eventually you find a story which makes some sense of it, or enough to give you some sort of grip. And each story becomes like a footstep that tells you, not only the journey you’ve been on, but the direction you’re headed, not only where you’ve come from, but where you’re going. And that’s about as much as I know or have ever known. Would I keep writing if no-one published me? Yes. I’d write letters. Story-telling is my way. I have no other. But the companionship offered by readers such as yourself is like an intimate friendship with a stranger, one who says, “You’re not alone. I’m going your way, too”.


In my final period at The Age, I endeavoured each week to produce two authentic columns. Why did they have to be authentic? One answer is because I wanted readers like you. I wanted the respect of people I respected. Not having the respect of people I don’t respect has long since ceased to bother me.  A few years ago, I had a difference with a Herald-Sun columnist which resulted in me getting dozens, possibly hundreds, of abusive text messages. It quickly became apparent that they hadn’t read the article that was the source of our dispute. It was like playing for St Kilda on the wing against Collingwood at Victoria Park in the old days. The mere fact that you were identified as the opposition made you a target for abuse. But, beyond the sheer volume of it and the fact that ignorance on this scale is now being harnessed for political purposes, it didn’t actually mean anything. Respect is life’s hard currency. To have the respect of people you respect is the ultimate empowerment; to lose the respect of someone you respect is a loss you feel forever. Or that’s how it is for me.


So, David, I want to thank you for the largeness of feeling in your letter. Your letter is a gift to me but the largeness of feeling it contains is yours. I am currently writing a book on the Bulldogs and if there was one person who would get what I’m trying to say right now it would be Easton Wood, a young man who is brave in a new way – brave in expressing his feelings. I think that bravery may be demanded of us in the chaotic new world we’re plunging into. There is no formula for meaningful communications – you just know when they happen, just as you know when they don’t. I’ve long relied on a statement of Gandhi’s I came across years ago that if you do the right thing for the right reason, you’ll generally be protected.  So, when it comes to telling stories, to human communications, I ask myself two questions. Am I doing the right thing? Am I doing it for the right reason? If, having examined myself to the best of my ability, I answer those two questions in the affirmative, I proceed for better or worse – but usually, in my experience, for the better, for the happier outcome.


In your letter, David, you asked, “Where is my moral compass now?” I ask myself the same question. I do believe there is such a thing as the wisdom of the ages. Two and a half thousand years ago, a Greek philosopher called Democritus devised an atomic theory of the universe. Democritus said, “Nothing exists except atoms and empty space; everything else is opinion.”  How cool, how thoroughly contemporary, is that?! Earlier this year, I gave a speech at Government House as part of a multi-faith event to mark the opening of the Legal Year in which I talked about some of the places I have found the wisdom that stuck with me – in the Chinese book of wisdom, the Tao: “Those who know do not say; those who say do not know” – in the Hindu book of wisdom, the Upanishads: “Action pursued for its own sake leads to darkness; intellect pursued for its own sake leads to greater darkness”. Then there are the great lessons I learnt from Aboriginal Australia, and the lessons I learnt from my father. He was in his late 90s when he died; he resisted going into an aged care facility until the very end. For a time, I was spending one week a month in Hobart looking after my parents. During the spells when Mum was in hospital, Dad and I could spend whole days hardly speaking, both of us at ease with the silence. I had finally accepted there were questions for which he had no answers. That was his final lesson to me – there are human questions for which there are no answers. In that knowledge, or absence of knowledge, we live and we die.


And so we proceed with something approximating to what religious people call “faith”. In the old Australian working class culture, a rugged affair born in part of the brutalities of the convict experience, there was still a character called the good bloke. Basically, a good bloke was someone who treated others as he wished to be treated himself (it goes without saying that there are women who are good blokes, too). Being regarded as a good bloke was a status won only by your actions, and with it came this invisible aura called respect. Footy clubs understand respect; they’re built on it. Indigenous culture understands respect intimately. The same elementary truth can be found in this quote from the New Testament:  “By the fruit of their actions ye shall know them”. There is still out there in the world a spirit for goodness to which we can appeal. The great mistake, I think, is to put a name on it because once you do you get arguments about naming rights. For this very reason, Archbishop Cranmer, whom I mentioned earlier, was burnt at the stake in 1556.


In my third last Saturday Reflection for The Age, I endeavoured to thank my readers. In my last sports column, I endeavoured to thank the game of Australian football for giving me so much. Since leaving The Age, I keep being asked what I’m going to do next. I don’t know, but then I’ve never known. I’ve just waited for that light in my head to appear which says, “Here is a story that excites me”, or the other one that says, “Here is a place where I could plant a story that might live”.  My first story after leaving The Age is scheduled to appear in the Northern Midlands Courier, which operates from my home town of Longford in northern Tasmania. I have known its editor, Ali Andrews, all my life. One of the true believers in newspapers, she has gone home to revive the local paper. She wrote to me about leaving the Launceston Examiner after a long and prominent career, “You lose your voice and your ability to talk directly and regularly with your community of readers which is a powerful thing”. Sure is. The Northern Midlands Courier is not yet in a position to pay contributors – what it offers is the joy of participation.  One of the best compliments I ever received was from a man who described me as a worm working in the mulch of local culture. Well, what better place for a worm to turn than the mulch from which he originally sprang? The other thing I have done since leaving The Age is write this letter.


And so, David Wilson, you and I must both be brave.  We are being led into a world of greed and instability and galloping inequality that is being glued together with crude versions of religion and patriotism that make it inherently belligerent. In the midst of all this I find myself writing a book on the Bulldogs and, in that context, I note this contradiction:  Bulldogs coach Luke Beveridge is not a man who seeks or needs praise. He’s what my Dad would have called “a manly fellow”. Compare that to the juvenile antics of the most powerful man on the planet, American president Donald Trump. There’s something fundamentally out of balance here, out of whack, something that goes beyond and possibly beneath politics to the sanity of the whole human enterprise.


What can you and I do about that? Possibly not a lot, but we can look after each other like we would if we were playing footy together. Trite as it sounds, there is a simple truth here. We have little or no strength standing alone. Two of us together are stronger than one. Twenty of us together are twenty times stronger. I can feel sceptics switching off, saying people aren’t like that, they don’t let you in. Well, all I know is that when I came back to Australia in 1980 and started walking towards Aboriginal people I expected to get speared but I found, to my immense surprise, that if I was humble and respectful I was admitted. A famous AFL footballer once asked to meet me, then asked me the question: “How do you know who to trust?”.  I said, “See that woman over there cleaning the tables. She may be the person who has the knowledge I need to negotiate the next step in my life”. That’s what I learnt from my father that he learnt during World War 2 on the Burma Railway where so many died but some, through the compassion of others, were saved – the person you look down on today may be the person who saves you tomorrow, who teaches you what is best in humanity.


In 1993, when I was writing my first book on the Dogs, I used to watch training with Ian Corlett, the club chaplain. We’d discuss metaphysics as the boys went past running laps. One night I said to him, “There’s no lack of goodness in the world – it’s just not organised”. To which he replied unforgettably, “And the other side always is”. Using the same techniques as those who report on calamity and crime, with the same awareness of the rough broken nature of human experience, I devoted my life in newspapers to honouring ordinary goodness as I discovered it in the world; I believe such stories are some sort of antidote to media sensationalism and its addictive reliance on fear to capture mass attention.


On a couple of occasions, I have been criticised for writing myself into my stories too much. But I only know what I know, what I experience. If I interview you, I’m not interested in your opinions about things you don’t really know about any more than I’m interested in my opinions about things I don’t really know about. I want to know what you know. You are a unique creature in this infinitely curious reality that we call the world. I want to know what you have witnessed. Give me your testimony! Here’s mine. I went looking for good people and I found them. Not here and there but everywhere, under every human rock I lifted. My father and his mates emerged from a war crime believing in compassion. Then, incredibly, I encountered similar views among Aboriginal elders, not the odd one here and there but again and again so that in the end I concluded it was a characteristic of their culture which, notwithstanding all the injuries and insults to which it has been subjected, is still at work in this land. And all the time, for light relief, I’ve been watching this game, this game which just happens to be ours, which still attracts young men, and now young women, who fly for the ball with no fear in their eyes.


Take the game on, old mate,
Martin Flanagan


PS  In my Saturday Reflection thanking the readers of The Age, I made an error. I said the reader with whom I had corresponded the longest – since 1985 – was a former school librarian. She is still a school librarian; now at University High School in Carlton.  Her name is Kate Marquard.


Editor’s note: We thank Martin Flanagan for this, his first piece on www.footyalmanac.com.au and welcome him. Many of you will be visiting this site for the first time. We are a community of readers and writers. All welcome. We began as a sports writing site but our contributors address many subjects in what we hope is a spirit of generosity. Martin’s wonderful letter certainly does that. We have a large archive of pieces. Please return to the home page and have a look around.







  1. What a unique privilege to wake early on a Saturday to read this. A somber reflection but containing much joy and hope. Well played all – particularly ER.
    I just found myself nodding as I read. Footy (and sport) is a joyous diversion. But much more than that. Its a common human experience. The most universal and unifying force in our community today. Another Almanacker wrote a few years ago “footy is a skeleton around which I can hang the stories of my life experience”. As Martin says – that shared human connection in doing the right thing for the right reason – the raison d’etre of the Almanac – is shaking a fist and shining a light.
    Aphaelites together.
    “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” (LCohen decd)
    Thanks MF, ER, JTH and all the contributors to this community.

  2. Chris Daley says

    You blokes are good blokes.

  3. Terrific read Martin. “The joy of participation”. Indeed. Thats what the Footy Almanac gives us. This is a perfect example.

  4. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    Thank you Martin and David.
    Reflecting on the connections one makes and the decisions in life that follow is revealing. I met you at the 2013 FA Launch and I realised that Tom Wills is buried a few metres from my dad. I wrote a piece, since deleted from this site due to sponsorship conflicts. That’s okay. It happens. Finding and helping to repair Tom Wills’ grave saved my life. Epiphany and a fork in the road. You, Tom Wills and the Footy Almanac were my teammates on that journey where self-destruction morphs into redemption. For that I will always be grateful.

  5. I endorse what Chris said – this community is full of great ordinary people and Martin’s writing is perfectly at home here. Hopefully we see some more of it in the future.

  6. Thanks so much, Martin.
    You have made my Saturday morning.
    Once again.

  7. John Butler says

    Martin, I reckon a fair percentage of the people who have ever written for this site had you as one of their prime inspirations.

    I know I’m one.

    Thank you.

  8. Neil Anderson says

    Couldn’t agree more with John above. Martin and JTH have encouraged us all to write from the heart. After Martin’s reference to Luke Beveridge, I can’t wait to read his next book about the 2016 Bulldogs.

  9. unreal. so much to ponder on. i came here to rip and rant about last night, but:

    He went like one that hath been stunned,
    And is of sense forlorn:
    A sadder and a wiser man,
    He rose the morrow morn.

  10. Cat from the Country says

    Thanks Martin. As Smokie says. Your column has made my day. Have a good one

  11. Keiran Croker says

    Thanks Martin. And thanks Dave. A couple of good blokes!

  12. As a writer I’ve lapsed. These two have fired me up. Thanks fellas.

  13. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    The best thing I’ve done for myself in a long long time was get involved with the Almanac.

    This helps explain why, even if I couldn’t summon the words myself.

    Thanks David. Thanks Martin. Thanks everyone.

  14. haiku bob says

    It’s good to be with you people.

  15. I love this a lot. Thank you for sharing your passion with us for so many years, Martin.

  16. Brin Paulsen says

    Just brilliant.

  17. DBalassone says

    Great to read you words here Martin. Hope there’s many more…

  18. Yes, Martin, good advice for us to take the game on. So much in both letters – yours and David’s. I can sense the moment of pause, to take in what has happened.

    Seems to me you have just caressed one through extra cover off the third new ball to reach 200. And you’re taking guard again.

    Two legs.

    And I see you’ve scratched your mark six inches in front of the popping crease.

    I’m hanging around for this next session.

  19. Paul Young says

    The Almanac is like an Aladdin’s cave of writing treasures and I reckon JTH and David have just rubbed the magic lamp.

  20. David Zampatti says

    That was quite something. Well played Messrs Flanagan and Wilson.

    None for ninety-two at (long) Lunch – and the ball is doing a bit, too.

  21. In this challenging era of faction and infotainment, which daily chucks out the window all that is good and runs with the crap that remains, wordsmithing has risen again to be our most important craft. MF is a beacon on the information highway.

  22. Nick Toovey says

    With thanks Martin for every word you have written and thanks in anticipation of the words you will write in the future. Your piece was what I always turned to first every Saturday morning. You writing captured and nourished what I believe to be Australian values- being a good bloke- both men and women. Like being a ‘good stick’. You’re a good stick Martin. I know that, although we have never met. I know that from your fierce honesty and utter authenticity. Go well into your post Age life.

  23. This Flanagan chap seems as though he can spin a yarn and knows his way around a sentence. JTH, you are always generous to a young writer looking for a break, I reckon we give him a go if he wants to scribe a bit on these pages.

    John Butler and Swish, I’m drinking what you’re pouring


  24. Thanks to both David and Martin for these wonderful words.

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