AFL Round 6 – Collingwood v Essendon: 99 Luft Balloons

From the constant torrent of one-sided abuse masquerading as barracking from the Bourbon-infused Pie supporter behind us, you’d think Anzac Day was a commemoration of umpire injustice. We’re deep in the Magpies members, city end amongst the solemnity of the pre-game Anzac ceremonies, New Zealand and Australian national anthems and the chilling “Last Post” from a lone uniformed bugle player.

anzacday1916Llew, Eric, Rhyll and Leo Gwyther were brothers who all went to the Great War (1914-1918) from their lives in South Gippsland. Their local specialty being their horse back jump over the closed railway gates as steam trains approached Leongatha station. Fearless, proud, cocky, ordinary. Untold numbers of families in that same predicament across Australia sent off their kin to an unknown fate for an unspecified time to an ambiguous destination.

We’re reminded anew of how sorrow drenched Australia has been through most of the last 100 years in the harrowing words from the Ode of Remembrance “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old” and the chilling, less ingrained last stanza:

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England’s foam

Leo, my unknown Grandfather, returned with a military cross and the shattered remains of his binoculars that spared his life from the journey of a German sniper’s bullet. Eric became a detective, known as the “last bowler hat in the force” upon his 1950’s retirement. Rhyll moved to the city. And Llew returned to his dairy farm, lost his girl and lived alone for the next 50 years. He died when I was about 14, our farm divided from his by the now defunct Great Southern Railway upon which he and his brothers went separately to war.

What part did war play in how his life, and many others, was lived?

As a child, I knew him as the oldest person I’d experienced, and came to recognise him as another example of a life time loner who’d slowly slipped from society’s grasp. In the early 50’s a power pole fell on his property cutting electricity to his milking machines and home. When confronted with the State Electricity Commission’s fiscal demands for a replacement, he told em to go to hell. Unruffled, they did, and Llew lived the reminder of his life by candlelight, heated by the warmth of a kitchen combustion stove. His cows and cattle were left to breed without attention over the years becoming man shy. His fences collapsed and the night his cows finally broke free they were hit by a fully laden goods train to be capitulated and thrown into the massive cypress trees that once bore witness to the commerce conducted at the small siding beneath their crowns. Blackberries overcame the soft green pastures of the rich river flat. Llew was still proud however, atop his horse at full gallop to confront the duck shooters who populated the swamp named after the family. In later years posses of friends and families would attempt to drive his cattle from his untamed farm to ours for market and bit of spare coin for Llew. After two days fruitless herding, when about to finally drive them into the fenced confines of my father’s farm, Llew appeared from nowhere brandishing his walking stick to send them to the four corners from where they’d been corralled.

poppy-01-800He lived in the kitchen and in a small bedroom in his Victorian timber house where he’d grown up as a boy. I was often “told” to visit him and would make the long trek up the railway line to his gardenless house surrounded by a tribe of ancient golden cypress trees and pines. The abandoned dairy a twisted rusting galvanized relic. Greeted by cats, not tamed to human touch, a knock at the door was met with silence before a veteran key turned in an ancient lock. Greeted by a burst of humidity, I’m confronted with a myriad of unknown dank aged scents underlaid by the perennial waft of burning coals. Llew would make you a cocoa in the cup that you’d last drunk from, retrieving it from the spot on the table you’d left it. It would always taste divine. You’d sit before the combustion stove that sizzled from Llew’s endless spitting as you talked. A lone battered saucepan’s canned casserole contents gently coddled atop the stove awaiting the intermittent portions Llew would spoon through the course of the dawn, day and evening. A long spent Melbourne Bitter long neck stood like an unknown soldier upon his bench.

It wasn’t easy to get to his house by car. My mother would take him shopping every week, spraying her legs with Aeroguard to avoid the tenacious attack of fleas who’d laid hostage to the house.

When he died in 1973, he left no will that wanted to be found. The House revealed riches hitherto not for eyes beyond Llew’s. The front room trapped as a 1920’s parlor undisturbed in that time, adorned with the magnificence of the curios, couches, lamps and paintings of his parents with curtains drawn post war. Another bedroom boasted a ceiling to floor bee hive, a metre wide. Pristine silk sheets lay folded and unlaid in the linen cupboard. Llew’s presumed bedroom characterised by a simple bed and pulled down blind. A massive Estate sale drew collectors and antique hunters for miles netting the immediate family a tidy share of the inheritance. Dad’s share went on a new boat for fishing and skiing – for celebrating LLew’s life by expressing a kind of freedom he’d somehow lost yet retained in his arrogant independence.

How the war affected him on his return to the farm can never be ascertained, yet he stands as an example of the impact of an unspoken post war life of unhappiness and missed opportunities for many after the ravages of both world wars, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and now Afghanistan.

Today’s football game is a million miles from that despite the usual cliches of Anzac spirit and warrior determination annually attached to players from both Collingwood and Essendon in the build up to this day. To me, now it celebrates our freedom born of others sacrifice. When that celebration is to cease, as the nation moves on and the living connection is slowly severed, is the rhetorical question. Yes, even the freedom to both call Steele Sidebottom a dickhead to be sacked in the first quarter before screaming in joy as he kicks 3 goals in a frenzied second quarter to bring the Pies back into todays contest. This is the freedom that bourbon brings for supporter friend behind us that impacts on our own.

Essendon open the first quarter with 5 goals to nothing and nab the first of the second. Suddenly Collingwood find some run and begin to break the defensive lines, taking a quicker more direct to goal to generate panic and chaos. Sidebottom kicks three in close and the Pies draw level at half time. The third is a stalemate until the Pies kick clear, the Dons unable to secure a major. The Dons fate is sealed in the last as Dale Swann kicks two fabulous running goals and takes out the Anzac Day medal. Essendon becomes too reliant on its young full forward Joe Daniher missing the presentation of now Dog Stuart Crameri and is pressured constantly into turnover, Chapman lacks his usual crumbing danger and Jobe Watson is largely nullified by Brent McCaffer. Malcontents Courtney Dempsey back after discipline is not quite match fit; and born again forward Jake Carlisle just cant penetrate the tempo of the new position in his own mind.

The 20th anniversary of the Anzac day clash is over, the 100th centenary of ANZAC Day awaits.

2014-04-25 13.56.57

Collingwood 12 11 83 defeated 8 12 60

This post was originally posted on Mick’s Footy Blog.

About Mick Gwyther

Greying slowing wannabe tragic player/writer/raconteur whose only claim to footy cred is a goal from the dot at the death in a final 35 years ago. Down hill from there but with passion. Hawk jester. Author of @micksfootyblog


  1. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Well done , Mick a fascinating read of the reality of life after war very well written
    Thanks Mick

  2. Good on you Malcolm, a sad and lonely live for many ex soldiers and civilians who’ve been through war. Take care Malcolm. Cheers, Mick

  3. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Thanks Mick for keeping Llew’s memory alive.

    My wife’s grandfather came back, his brother didn’t …

  4. G’day Mick,
    Thanks for laying that out there.
    Beautifully done.
    I guess we’ll never know what goes on inside another’s mind.
    But the things those soldiers did and saw must have been horrific.
    Well played.

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