Tom Wills, Weddos and the scorn of the village

 

Maybe you caught his dream as it disappeared from sight.

This is my favourite line from Mick Thomas’s song about Tom Wills.

If the Footy Almanac was a band I reckon it would be Weddings, Parties, Anything.

The Weddos sang about drinkers, thinkers, slackers, whackers, addicts, romantics, feelers and wounded healers.

What drew me most to their music was the reflections and stories about the feelings of men whether it be about work, footy, doomed relationships and adapting to place. I reckon there would be a Weddo’s line for just about everything I‘ve experienced in this life accompanied by a wistful chord from SqueezeBox Wally’s piano accordion.

Dina and I got married in mum’s village Tsamantas Filiates in the north west of Greece The highlight was getting the relos to dance a Greek three step to ‘Roaring Days’ and ‘Under the Clocks’. Me and my brother Tim led the way and most of the village just joined in. The ‘Weddos’ were echoing across the Albanian border on the night of the 31st of August 1997.

The world was oh so very wide

Poets were people still” (Roaring Days)

I didn’t know much about Tom Wills’ life. In fact I learned more about his death before I read of his extensive adventures. In July 2004 I attended a Sports History conference at Victoria University. Dr Greg de Moore was one of the presenters and was just about to release his book: Tom Wills: His Spectacular Rise and Tragic Fall

Greg spoke about Tom’s life and the events that led to his tragic death. It struck a chord with me because I had suffered or allowed myself to suffer from delirium tremens through the abuse of alcohol. In June that year I’d started drinking again after being sober for almost seven years. Perhaps I should have paid more attention to Greg’s presentation as it would have saved me and my family a lot of horror.

I was pretty much constantly sozzled from the ages of 18 to 23. One highlight was nailing a distinction on a Sociology exam on Marxism after warming up with eight pots at the Glenferrie Hotel. What one knows about Marxism is not worth knowing when you’re sober anyway. Especially if you’re 21 with your life ahead of you and the possibility of knocking over a few batsmen on Saturday.

Drinking harder every night

He made himself keep searching

Till he found he could not rise to greet the day” (Big River)

People drink for different reasons. I was 10 when I first got drunk. 1979: The International year of the Child. My mum used to say to me: “You have the black snake inside you”. This was a popular term from her region which described those that were self-destructive; drinkers, gamblers, adulterers, heretics and the possessed. In the village, suicide was a strong taboo. People and their entire families were ostracised and not allowed burial in the cemetery next to the church. Graves of the few suicides that occurred were often desecrated, sometimes with human excrement. It was a message that you and yours are cursed, unwanted and not worthy to be remembered.

You know I can’t resist your shout

You know full well I’m broke

So I stay here I drink your beer

And I laugh at all your stupid jokes (By Tomorrow)

I had my first delirium tremor in early 1993. The night before I’d polished off a six pack and two bottles of port. I woke up in the obligatorily haze which would usually clear by early afternoon. Not this day. I started to shake, my heart was palpitating and I was having visions that made The Exorcist look like a kindergarten story. Death by the possession of a thousand demons would appear to be my fate. Dad called an ambulance and after a few doses of valium the visions and the shakes dissipated. It was to be the first of many visits to the PANCH emergency ward until I finally got clean when I moved to Greece in 1997.

Luckiest man in the country

Luckiest man in the world” (Luckiest Man)

A year spent teaching English and being married to my beloved Dina while living in Corfu saved my life. Her tears of sadness moved me to change. I started to count my sober days as a cricket innings. I got 50, then 100 then 150 and resolved never to touch the booze again. In 1998 when I returned to Melbourne I went to pubs and happily drank orange juice. I thought I’d finally exorcised the demon. Got a couple of Post-grad degrees, resumed teaching, wrote a master’s thesis on Collingwood, built a house and became a father to Anastasia. Better days.

I’ve got one who calls me Dad” (Father’s Day)

In 2004, I started drinking because I got cocky. Thought I could control it and handle it. If I could control the dose of my poison it would mean I had power over it or some other bullshit Platonic philosophy. It didn’t work. A couple of years later the 000 calls and visits to emergency became all too regular again. Was I cursed? Maybe Mum was right about the black snake after all.

Did you see Tom Wills punishing his liver

Maybe you bought Tom Wills a drink or two one night

After speaking to Martin Flanagan at the 2013 Footy Almanac Launch I realised that Tom Wills was buried in the same cemetery as my dad Anastasios who his Aussie mates and customers also used to call Tom.

In early 2015 I found Tom Wills’ grave. In a drunken stupor I started a conversation about ending it like he did. Good old fashioned knife or scissors to the heart to end the misery once and for all. I started crying and it was as if his tears were running down my face. I saw the world as a burden and I saw myself as a burden to the world. We were better off without each other.

It is a dance that is bizarre

It is a dance that’s wearing thin” (Step In, Step Out)

I staggered home and wrote a piece for the Footy Almanac that helped kick start the grave restoration project. I was disgusted at the state of his grave after reading the inscription that described him as “The Father of Australian Football”. To me it was like “Here lies the King of the Jews”. The state of the grave and the inscription virtually mocked Australia’s first sporting icon.

Writing that piece titled: ‘Tom Wills’ Tears’ was the beginning of finally confronting my relationship with the demon drink. The time had come to end this toxic relationship. I got help for my anxiety and depression and have been sober now for almost six months. It has been the happiest and most productive six months of my life. I even painted my mum’s house after 35 years and we joked about finally slaying that black snake.

I want to die sober. I don’t fear death, but I’ve feared life for far too long. Get busy living.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Tom Wills and the Footy Almanac saved me from mortal harm.

I know that themed rounds are not that popular among the Almanac community, but I reckon that a Tom Wills Memorial Round could be an exception as it would help people get to know his story and raise awareness for those battling addiction and mental illness.

I learned about Berthold Brecht through the Weddos.

And you I beg make not your anger manifest

For all that lives needs help

From all the rest”

(The Infanticide of Marie Farrar)

 

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About Phillip Dimitriadis

Carer/Teacher/Writer. Author of Fandemic: Travels in Footy Mythology. World view influenced by Johnny Cash, Krishnamurti, Larry David, Toni Morrison and Billy Picken.

Comments

  1. Brilliant and honest. Very happy for your dry spell. Well done, and all strength to you.

    Hope your sober days get to Brian Lara-type scores.

    Sean

  2. Brutal and raw, Phil.
    I read and re-read this piece to let it sink in.
    I am moved by your honesty.
    Thanks.

    I lost count of the number of times I saw the Weddos in my early 20’s.
    But my favourite gig was when I took my wife and three (then) teenaged sons
    to see them in a matinee gig at the Corner Hotel on their farewell tour.
    It was the boys’ first concert – I can still recall the look of wonder on their faces.

  3. Wow. This is just brilliant, Phll. Always here for you mate. I’ll organise that coffee next week!

  4. Fellow travellers Phil. You imbibed the black snake of the grog, while I was “on the bite” from the brown snake of the punt. Only the details are changed to protect (mostly the guilty). While I drank too much too often I could always choose (with some effort) to put down the glass after a couple. But with the punt I could never stop until financially, physically or emotionally exhausted (or all three).
    The larger truth that I found and try to impart to the clients I work with and those I come across in 12 Step groups, is that Abstinence and Recovery are 2 very different things. Abstinence is an act of will. Its the foundation for the house of Recovery. But no one can abstain for long periods based solely on willpower. Recovery is finding purpose and joy in life that diminishes the pain or fear we were running away from. In that, like you, finding the Almanac was a key piece in fleshing out my recovery. Fellow wanderers and wonderers.
    As for Tom Wills I bought a second hand copy of Greg de Moore’s book today before your piece went up. Intending to read the concluding chapters only. I know enough of the broad story of his life, his trauma and his role in early cricket and football. I don’t care much for the fine details of history wars, only the broad sweep of deeper truths. I wanted to read the parts about his mental illness, alcoholism and death for what I might learn about the limits we all reach if we roll the dice enough times.
    When the Alamanac pieces on the Wills memorial went up I read them but hesitated to donate, because I struggled with the ending of his life. But the more I reflected on the context of the depth of his trauma and the lack of support and understanding of these issues until the 1960’s, the more I came to seem him as heroic. Not a hero. Americans like heroes. Australia has heroic figures like Whitlam, Simpson, Lawson who battled and achieved great things but came up short in the end. Truth over myth.
    When I’m in Melbourne next I’ll buy you a lotto ticket, and you can buy me a beer.
    My cheque for the Wills memorial is in the mail (what else would you expect a reforming punt drunk to say?)

  5. Really gutsy piece Phil. I wish you all the best. I have also really enjoyed learning more about Tom Wills via the Almanac all thanks to you.

  6. Matt Watson says

    Excellent work Phil.
    Such a good story of self discovery and recovery.
    I read the book about Tom Wills and fully support your project for greater recognition for him.
    Cheers

  7. Luke Reynolds says

    Wonderfully honest. Brilliantly written. This piece has moved me a lot.
    The few occasions I’ve met you Phil have given no inclination to me of the demons you’ve faced.
    Working in the alcohol industry myself, the thoughts of how much is enough, how many alcohol free days have I had this week and knowing when to stop are always on my mind. I’ve seen others affected in the industry. I like to think I’ve achieved a good balance. Can see how that can easily be changed with poor decisions, trying circumstances etc.
    I’m sure the Almanac community is right behind you, and hope we see plenty more of your work on this fantastic site. Maybe even a follow-up to the wonderful “Fandemic”!
    Great choice with the Weddo’s for this story. The perfect Almanac band. Though I like to think there is a bit of TISM in the Almanac as well.
    Go well Phil. And Go Pies!!

  8. Yvette Wroby says

    Hi Phil,
    my thoughts and wishes for strength, health and happiness are with you and yours. Well done on this thoughtful piece, the fixing of the grave and your well-being into the future.

    x

    Yvette

  9. E.regnans says

    G’day Phil,
    Reading your fine work above has been a confronting and thought-provoking and humbling experience.
    I hope many read it.
    And think about it.

    Your own journey, its intersection with that of Tom Wills, the ups, the downs, the waves in between…

    I’m very glad to know of your story.
    Thank you.
    I’m very glad to read of your thoughts and memories.
    Thank you.

    None of us knows what’s coming tomorrow.
    But we can be thankful for bits & pieces we’ve managed to put together, however haphazardly.

    “…I kicked a footy into the Arafura Sea…”

  10. Yep, proud to have read that. Keep up the great work.

    Marie Farrar – always the best Weddoes song. and Industrial Town.

    you’ve got me thinking back to the day they played a quickie near the Opera House in 93, Tiges had just traded out Hoggy and Lambert (skipper and B/F winner.) Mick thought it madness, I was convinced it was the beginning, we were both sort of right, which is really the feeling of many of Mick’s songs.

  11. Paul Spinks says

    Amazing account, Phil. The 17 – 23 age bracket was my danger zone too. Loved my mates, but going overseas broke the cycle. I wouldn’t have called myself an alcoholic, but the blackouts were the worst – waking up in the morning and not being able to remember where I parked the car etc. Of course, we laughed about those things then – different times.
    Tom Wills – a tragic death, but what a life!
    About a year ago I did a little research on Tom Wills and came across this Sydney perspective – if you haven’t already read it.
    http://sydney.edu.au/alumni/sam/july2010/sport.shtml

  12. Steve Hodder says

    Good piece Phil, the braiding of your story, with Tom Wills’ and W.P.A makes it compellingly very MelbourneI; yet there are some universal themes in there. I wonder how hard it was to write? Or did the words just flow like the Yarra? I’ve always thought of Mick Thomas as more of a story teller rather than a song writer and I think you’ve told your story just as well as he might. It’s courageous and well written too. All the best.

    onya

  13. bob.speechley says

    Very illuminating and touching writing. The tragedy of Tom Wills life and the attitude of Authority towards him, given the significance of his ongoing contributions to Australian sport, is a story we all need to try and understand. You’ve bravely opened your soul for us to appreciate some of the demons that possessed Tom. The reconstruction of his resting place will go some way towards further acknowledgement of the positive legacies he left behind for us to appreciate.

    Thank you Phil and best wishes for your ongoing success.

    Thanks also to The Footy Almanac for the crutch you provide to those of us seeking other perspectives.

  14. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Brave Phil.

    But you’ve overlooked the impact on your early years in Queenstown that Wills’ descendants WD & HO had

    Keats and Yeats (and plenty of others) are on your side.

  15. Rick Kane says

    Wow Phil, I don’t know what to say or where to start.

    I don’t want to appear trite in regard to you and what you have obviously already engaged to help you understand and contest re “the black snake” but The Resilience Project essayed by David Wilson has a lot going for it. And a cuppa, anytime.

    On a literary note, the Wills story is one of the more fascinating since western colonization of Australia. More’s the pity his story isn’t better known and understood. There were parallels with Christos Tsiolkas stories in your own.

    Cheers

  16. DBalassone says

    Bravo Phil. Keep on chooglin’ mate. Look forward to that coffee very soon (I haven’t forgotten).

  17. Phil, I have nothing to add to the comments already here except to say thank you for this. I reflect on my own early 20s every now and again and am thankful that I never quite crossed over to that side.

    Brave and touching.

  18. MA on Collingwood Phil ; the mind boggles.

    Tom Wills, drinking, suicide all of this comes together, Unfortunately all too prevalent.

    Co morbidity of AOD and MH issues are common in our world. no point trying to work on the aietology of what comes first, they co-exist. Every person has different experiences, we all have triggers, hopefully we all have some coping skills. Being a human, a health worker, i feel i have a good understanding of the area.

    You obviously have some coping strategies, you have good skills, maintain them, maintain the rage. Though i’m unsure if barracking for collingwood is a panacea.

    Keep up the great work on Tom Wills, and i’ll watch/support this with great interest.

    Glen!

  19. Sean Gorman says

    Nice job Phil – really resonated with me.

  20. Matt Quartermaine says

    Phil, your guts just spilled all over my laptop. Superb. OJ in Depreston sometime soon.

  21. Thanks for sharing Phil. Gave me much to consider. Go well.

  22. G’day Phil,
    Have you forwarded this piece to Mick Thomas himself? I’m sure he’d be very interested.
    Take care
    Vin.

  23. Hi Phil beautifully crafted and an amazing story. Wills probably needed to fight his demons in the way that he took on the world. Depression and its depths can be part of the price you have to pay for reaching so high. Yin and yang working together. Wouldn’t we loved to have met him? I would have. I suspect we wouldnt have discussed the numbers on interchange or rotations. He was a big picture man. He would have underlings to come in and clean up behind him.
    Stay happy and healthy mate.

    Gareth

  24. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    Just want to say a huge thank you to all who commented and offered your support. Never underestimate how much this means to me. The Footy Almanac Community is a power for the good, the honest the romance and the realism of life, sport, music and so much more.

    I just hope that we get Tom Wills’ grave restored. Visited yesterday and placed a white rose and a cutting of basil on his resting place. Mum reckons it will help his soul find some peace. I hope she’s right.

    Mick Thomas emailed me and thanked me for posting the piece. He did say that he felt ambivalent about the ‘Weddos big drinking ethic” and the effect it could have on some. However, there are plenty of cautionary tales in their wonderful body of work to offset any romanticism associated with booze. Didn’t Henry Lawson do something similar?
    If my story can help one person to make a change and get help, whether it be for anxiety, depression or any other addiction it would have been worth it. I don’t like the term “dry” as it implies thirst, aridity , lifelessness. Much prefer the word ‘CLEAR’.
    “I got the sun in my eyes
    I got the wind in my face
    I got the rain in my heart
    But I’m falling in line”
    Not falling apart”
    (The Rain in My Heart from ‘King Tide’ 1993)
    Bless

  25. Keiran Croker says

    Phil, thanks for sharing your story. Very brave and honest.
    I have fond memories of so many WPA gigs. I attended one of their farewell gigs at the Central Club only days after release from hospital after peritonitis/burst appendix. I think Mick has a lyric for all occasions.
    I was fortunate to attend a Sydney footy function hosted by jth a few years ago where Greg de Moore was a guest speaker. I bought his wonderful book on Tom Wills. A great mix of sport and history, two of my favourite subjects, plus his insight into the human condition.
    After we had an exchange on the merits or otherwise of the COLA a few years back, I think I invited you to have a beer when we caught up at a lunch. Let me change that to an OJ.
    Cheers and all the best on the Tom Wills project.

  26. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    Cheers Kieran,
    Looks like your Swannies might need a few more concessions after last night (joke..sorta) You really missed Kennedy. One of the Weddos early songs was ‘The Swans Return’ about a fan who vows to spend his life waiting for South Melbourne to come back home. Look forward to that chat one day.

    Mick and Mark ‘Squeezebox Wally’ Wallace have contributed to the Footy Almanac through their devotion to the Saints and North respectively. Here is a link to Mick’s website if you want to catch up with his latest news: http://www.mickthomas.com/weddings-parties-anything/#
    Would love to see and hear them play a GF.

  27. Thanks, Phil, for sharing your story. Your honesty sears the page. It’s a challenge to all of us. It takes a lot of courage to face your demons. Most of us don’t do it. All of us should. Especially blokes. Booze, gambling, violence towards women and towards each other. I think our demons have a lot to do with self-esteem. We live in an extremely competitive world, where it’s the winners who get all the kudos. Too bad if you find yourself with all the rest in the pile of losers, the nobodies. You know the story of my father. His aggression towards others was a (pathological) way of saying ‘I’m somebody’. It’s hard to ignore aggression. His gambling was all about the big win, and again, ‘Look at me, I’m a winner. I’m somebody,’ when all other avenues to self-esteem were blocked. A sense of community, of mutual support, hardly exists any more. We’re on our own. I guess that’s one of the good things about footy – it’s a way of belonging to a community, although I took my blood pressure in the middle of watching a game with my team, the Ds, who were losing badly, and it was 220/199, so I’m not sure it’s good for the health.

  28. Mulcaster says

    It always amazes me when I hear a similar story.
    A life time ago I was trying to work out why others could drink to excess and not suffer the remorse and pain that I did.
    I spoke with a bloke who told me “It’s in you, not in the bottle”.
    Your mother is right.
    Acceptance that it is in me not in the bottle has helped me for quite a time now.
    I wish you well Phil.

  29. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    Thanks Graeme,
    Your Dad’s story is revealing in the way that mental illness, addiction, trauma and loss can impact on a family, work and communities. Your empathy and need to understand why shines through the book. Stay away from the Dees if you want to maintain good health!

    Thanks Mulcaster,
    Thought I understood that it was in me back in ’97. Really felt that I never needed to touch the stuff again. Hubris and complacency got the better of me, but I’m determined to learn again, anew, afresh. Cheers

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