Almanac Life: Footy and Fortune.

Melbourne is fluttering under a slight Spring breeze this morning. The sort of breeze that might shift a butterfly off course but would hardly affect a football in flight.


Its 10.15am and I’m still sitting up in bed. This is most unusual, but it is Fathers’ Day after all. I’ve been lavished with breakfast in bed including two steaming hot mugs of tea and I am contemplating the football witnessed over the weekend.


Last night’s game was a beauty. The Dogs keep forgetting that there are other teams superior to them in the competition and find themselves in a Preliminary Final. They outlasted a somewhat depleted Lions outfit which had the hammer hovering over the nail in the third quarter but couldn’t strike the required blow. In a semi-final a point may as well be 100 points.


The Cats, on the other hand, didn’t need the big hammer blow to end the Giants’ year. It was a drawn-out punishment for the Giants; inevitable even. But they keep producing classy kids. Remember the name Conor Stone. If they can keep a quality core together surely a flag must follow?


Even though Melbourne city is devoid of football at the moment (devoid of most things actually) the excited sting of finals still permeates the very fibres of this town. Melbourne footy club supporters are as nervous as a worm in a fisherman’s kit.


Footy is still a thing that binds. This game of ours, this indigenous game, born out of our own imagination and loved because it describes us, is quite simply a marvel. It’s a marvel that it exists. It’s a marvel that it persists.


Why do we love it? I think because it’s a game of chance; a 360 degree game where restitution or retribution can come from anywhere. It turns on a bit. Chaos is only a second away. Fate, or what we call the footy Gods, play with our emotions. I am those men in the guernsey. Glory and gain are in a mud pit with downfall and defeat. Flip the coin and see which way it all goes.



I’m currently reading Botany Bay and the First Fleet, by Alan Frost. Frost argues very convincingly that the first fleet was not a ramshackle, disorganized, unfettered disaster that we’ve been encouraged to believe, but was very considered, strategic and even an inspired decision by a forward-thinking British government under William Pitt. That may be true but the stories of some of those who made the journey are tales of hardship, misfortune, and destiny. The Gods smiled on some and smote others.


In this book we read the extraordinary story of Susanna Holmes and Henry Cabell. You may or may not have heard of Susanna and Henry. It reads like a Dickens novel.


Cabell was convicted of burglary in February 1783 and sentenced to death. This was reduced to 14 years transportation to America. Susanna Holmes was sentenced to death in March 1784 for theft of clothing. This was also reduced to 14 years transportation. They met in Norwich Castle whereupon a biblical union took place. The Americans had a little dispute with the English at the time (called the War of Independence) which meant transportation to the Americas was no longer an option. Botany Bay became their destination.


Susanna was separated from Cabell and we assume she had no belief they would ever meet again. She was put on board a hulk in Plymouth as she awaited her trip to Botany Bay having given birth 5 months earlier to a child fathered by Henry Cabell. However, the captain of the hulk, a heartless and cruel man, refused to take the baby on the ship. Susanna had the baby forcibly removed from her care whereupon it fell into the care of a man called John Simpson, who was Susanna’s jailer at Norwich. Simpson described the ‘agonies of the poor wretch’ when he discovered Susanna Holmes in the hulks.


Fortunately for mother and child Simpson was a very decent man and after witnessing the distress of Susanna (who vowed to end her own life if her child was not returned ‘as soon as she could obtain the means’) resolved to rectify the situation and reunite not just mother and child but mother, child and father. This is astonishing given Simpson’s role as a jailer, given the harsh and unforgiving times, and given the lengths he had to go to. But as the story was told at the time ‘…humanity will not be restrained by forms. Acting under the influence of a superior power, it moves forward unchecked by the fear of offending any earthly one.’


Someone was smiling upon Susanna.


Simpson begged one of the secretaries of Lord Sydney to prepare an order of restoration to reunite mother and child and then resolved to wait in the hallway ‘in the chance of seeing his Lordship’ to have the order signed. Sydney did pass by Simpson (after several days) who approached him with the petition. Sydney initially rejected the confrontation but Simpson obviously convinced Sydney to lend him his ear. He portrayed the ‘exquisite misery he had lately been witness to’ and the ‘wilderness of her despair’ when describing the situation of Holmes.


Sydney not only agreed in favour of the restoration order but also ordered the reunification of mother, child, and Henry Cabell, the father. In addition he directed ‘that they should be married before they went on board’ and added ‘that he would himself pay the fees’.


Even in desolation there is light.


Simpson himself wrote: ‘….but it would take another pen than mine to describe the joy that the mother received her infant and her intended husband with’. And he went on to write, ‘Suffice to say……that the tears which flowed from their eyes, with the innocent smiles of the babe, on the sight of the mother……. drew tears likewise from my eyes.’


Frost writes that before they sailed their plight was made public and a sum of twenty pounds was raised to buy them goods for the transport and for what lay beyond. Susanna and Henry arrived on the First Fleet and prospered in the new land. Unlike in England where they were considered ‘atteint’ (dead from the point of view of legal rights) in the scrub around Botany Bay they were builders of second chances.


I put the book down after reading this momentous tale and felt immensely insignificant. My own story has no such grandeur and adventure and twists of fate. I’m not building a new nation or on the brink of a hangman’s noose. I can’t fathom the six-month trek across the oceans from England to the bush of Botany Bay, chained and locked up as a convict in the hulk of a ship, with a six-month old baby and sea sickness to boot. What smallness surrounds me.


Our game came out of stories like this. Stories of destitution, wretchedness and integrity. Its foundations lie in a pool of hope; the good bounce of the ball, open spaces, opportunities.


Go Cats.


The Tigers (Covid) Almanac 2020 will be published in the coming weeks. It will have all the usual features – a game by game account of the Tigers season – and will also include some of the best Almanac writing from the Covid winter.  Pre-order right now HERE


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About Damian O'Donnell

I'm passionate about breathing. And you should always chase your passions. If I read one more thing about what defines leadership I think I'll go crazy. Go Cats.


  1. Wonderful stuff Dips. Adversity makes us – or breaks us. We were up in Kalgoorle last week and the highlight (other than the golf course) is the excellent Goldfields Museum. Kalgoorlie is like Mt Isa or Broken Hill – a remote mining town that has no other sustaining industry or purpose. Bendigo or Bathurst can be gentrified and serve surrounding farming communities. But Kalgoorlie retains all its rough edges. Blokes spill messily out of pubs on weekends because what else is there to do?
    The photo that struck me in the Museum was a bloke with a wooden wheelbarrow that contained all his earthly possessions and a gallon water bag. In the 1890’s he took a chance and the train from Perth to the end of the line at the last farming outpost of Southern Cross. He then walked the 225 kilometres to Kalgoorlie (which took me 2 hours) in search of fortune – or more likely a few flecks and a labouring job that kept him fed.
    When the Avenging Eagle’s dad migrated to Australia from Croatia in 1958 his first job was “on the wood line” in the Goldfields. I never knew what this meant until I read the amount of scrub timber felled to feed the steam engines that then powered mine shafts and processing plants. More sturdy timber was required for the hundred of miles of mine supports that held up the honeycombed earth under the region.
    Jeez this lockdown, and wearing masks and getting vaccinated is an impossible burden isn’t it?

  2. Lovely ramblings, Dips. Cheers

  3. Kevin Densley says

    Like this a lot, Dips – parts of it certainly make one pause and reflect.

  4. Great stories PB. I think everyone has a story. The stories of Australian migration are usually ones of hardship as many didn’t and don’t get here the easy way. Think post war, post Vietnam, post Tiananmen Square, colonial days etc etc.. But then again, hardship is relative. We usually only know what we experience. This hardship with covid may not seem hard compared to many other human experiences but its really hard for those going through it. Particularly young ones.

    Cheers Smoke and Kevin.

  5. Luke Reynolds says

    Thanks for sharing this Dips, I’m totally fascinated by what you’ve shared and will be buying this book.

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