Me and John Harms

About 150 students waited in the amphitheatre.  There was a lot of chatter.  John Harms was grinning and talking to the lecturer.  Harms, as the guest star, was about to offer his career to the students.


The lecturer, a woman who wrote a novel about infanticide, gave Harms a solid introduction.


‘For those who don’t know,’ the lecturer said, ‘John Harms is the most successful sports writer in Australia.  He is the sports writer that all others aspire to.  He has sold more books than dozens of writers including me.


‘For decades he has been the most knowledgeable commentator in the business.  He reminds me of Peter Landy crossed with Peter Russo and Russell Morris, the footballer, not the singer.  He is prominent on ABC radio and television.


‘There is much you can learn from him.’


Two young women sitting near me asked each other who he was.  The women, wannabe television journalists, looked at each other and shrugged, then they started chatting.  I asked them to shush.  They glared at me but kept quiet.


I knew who Harms was.  I wanted to listen and hopefully learn something.  He wrote about footy for The Australian.  He’d published books.  I thought he took his writing seriously, but didn’t take footy seriously.


Harms said hello with a big grin, big hair and a pleasant, steady voice.  The class shut up.  He wore the expression of a man about to laugh at his own joke.  It seemed clear that he didn’t take himself too seriously.


He was a natural at talking.


It was 2004.  The class, Creative Writing, was one I enjoyed.  After finishing uni, I wanted to write, creatively, for a living.


Harms asked for a show of hands, wanting to know how many students wrote regularly outside of assessment.  He nodded at the show of hands then asked how many students liked sport.


He grinned at the number of hands in the air.  ‘I like writing about sport,’ he said.  ‘I’m not saying you need to write about sport to be successful but it will help.’  He laughed.


The class was silent.  Harms asked if anyone had read his books.  The class was silent.  I was too timid to say I’d read his column in the Australian.


‘Writing about sport doesn’t have to be serious,’ he said.  ‘There are enough serious journalists out there.  Often it’s the people in the outer who are more interesting than what happens on the field.’


Harms asked the class if we thought sport writing was formulaic.  He was pleased that the show of hands was increasing.


‘You will get paid for writing if you can make people laugh,’ Harms said.  ‘If you can do that you will be successful.’


There were people in the class, not limited to women, who weren’t paying attention.  They were reading or texting or chatting softly.  Creative Writing might’ve been an elective they weren’t interested in.  Certainly they had no interest in sport.  They probably still don’t.  I can’t imagine a life so empty.


Someone down the front asked Harms how he got his break.  Those who were chatting stopped to listen.  Everyone student wanted a break.


Harms took a breath then explained how he’d been writing academic stuff for a few years.  It was another writer, Gideon Haigh, who inadvertently helped him become a professional story-teller.


Haigh, for those who don’t know, is a very serious man.  He doesn’t laugh for free.  He is an excellent writer, particularly about cricket.  None of the students seemed to know who Haigh was, but I had read his book, The Cricket War, a few times.


One day, while Haigh was waiting for a meeting with his publisher, he was apparently laughing in reception.  It was a rare sound, one the publisher had not often heard emanate from Haigh.


The publisher asked Haigh why he was laughing.


Haigh gave the publisher a story written by Harms.  The publisher commissioned Harms to write a book.  If Harms could make Haigh laugh, he could make everyone laugh.


And that was Harms’s mantra during the lecture, make people laugh.


It was simple advice, yet I wrote those three words into my exercise book, then put the pen down as Harms described his method.


‘When I go to the footy, I write three or four sentences on a ticket or footy record or a bit f cardboard from a Weet-Bix box and base my story on that,’ Harms said.  ‘I like to sit in the crowd, among the punters and listen to the banter.’


I had been doing something similar but preferred the Bon Scott method, carrying a small notebook and pen with me everywhere I go, so I won’t lose the record.


‘I have the story in my mind before I sit down to write,’ Harms said.


At the end of the lecture, Harms held up a prop, a paperback version of his books, Loose Men Everywhere, Confessions of a Thirteenth Man, and Memoirs of a Mug Punter.


‘I just happen to have a box of these with me,’ Harms said.  ‘If I’ve inspired you, come and buy a book for $20 bucks.’  He grinned.  ‘I’ll even autograph it for you.’


I’m not sure how many books Harms sold, but I bought one.  We had a chat about Geelong.  I offered sympathy for all those grand final defeats, and confessed my pain at the 1998 grand final.


‘No woman ever hurt me like North Melbourne did,’ I said.


‘Oh, they will,’ Harms said.


We laughed.


A few days later, I was chatting to Stevo, a mate who follows Carlton.  I told him John Harms had been a guest lecturer and I bought his book.


‘John Harms,’ Stevo said.  ‘That would’ve been awesome.  He played in three premierships for Carlton.’


A couple of years later, another mate paid me a neat compliment after I actually wrote something that made him smirk.


‘Have you ever heard of John Harms?’ he asked.


‘I have, and he didn’t play in three premierships for Carlton,’ I said.


‘You write like a poor man’s John Harms.’


My mate was just being kind.


Years later, Harms would be a key figure in the development of the footy almanac, a website for the fans.  The Footy Almanac is one of the best footy blogs in the country.  It’s the type of blog that accepts anything, from anyone, including people like me.


You can find the website here




John, I hope this story is an accurate reflection of the lecture you gave.  It is based purely on my memory. My memory apologises if any of the information contained in this story is incorrect.  I might’ve made up the lecturer’s introduction.



About Matt Watson

My name is Matt Watson, avid AFL, cricket and boxing fan. Since 2005 I’ve been employed as a journalist, but I’ve been writing about sport for more than a decade. In that time I’ve interviewed legends of sport and the unsung heroes who so often don’t command the headlines. The Ramble, as you will find among the pages of this website, is an exhaustive, unbiased, non-commercial analysis of sport and life. I believe there is always more to the story. If you love sport like I do, you will love the Ramble…


  1. But was he wearing Dunlop Volleys?

    No shame in writing like a poor man’s John Harms.

  2. Sean Gorman says

    Bit haighgiographic Matt eh? No very good. Harms is indeed generous and erudite.

  3. Too kind Matt. But like everyone I’m just trying to make sense of it all.

    I didn’t realise I went so heavily on the laughing! My usual line is to suggest students include history, politics, literature in their degree if they can – or read widely and deeply in those areas. Builds an important foundation. Reflects an approach which suggests we are forever searching for better understandings.

    Thanks for this piece.

    And, I still like the laughing.

  4. I bet John Harms would like to write like a rich man’s John Harms.
    Top piece Matt.
    Given the dire state of publishing I reckon one of the great joys of the Almanac is that you get 50% of the buzz of being a writer, with 10% of the work, and 1% of the financial risk.

  5. Wish I’d sold more books.

  6. David Zampatti says

    Admit it, Harms. The pill was a good couple of feet over the line when you knocked it back to Sheldon.

  7. JTH – I bet any cash from the book sales went over the bar afterwards?

  8. matt watson says

    Hi John,
    No worries about the story. I’m just glad I got some of it right…
    You probably mentioned history, politics and literature, but unless they apply directly to sport, my memory tends to blot them out…

    A mate of mine called me today and asked what position you played for Carlton…


  9. sean gorman says

    Very good DZ.

  10. Steve Hodder says

    Listening to Mr Harms on 3RRR, some years ago, I learn’t of a thing called the Newell Highway. I once told students in my Geography class that. I asked for a show of hands of those that had driven along it. No one had.

Leave a Comment