August 2007

The Nation Reviewed

Trunk call

By Gideon Haigh
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

A story is told of the young Tom Stoppard applying for a job in Fleet Street. "It says here you're interested in politics," said the interviewer. "OK. Who's the home secretary?" Stoppard blandly returned his gaze. "I said I was interested," he answered. "Not obsessed."

For the past six or so years, I have been interested in, rather than obsessed by, a former Lord Mayor of Sydney, William P McElhone. Until that time, I would scarcely have recognised his name. Then I began researching the early history of Australian cricket administration, and this tough, smart, insouciant Sydney lawyer stood out from all the other fob-watched, massively moustached men of means influential in such circles a century ago.

In the pioneering days of Australian cricket, the star players were at the centre, aided and abetted by the Melbourne Cricket Club, whose role was very similar to that occupied in England by the Marylebone Cricket Club. Australian cricket might have developed along lines quite similar to England's but for McElhone, then only in his early thirties. In debate, it was said, McElhone "pranced like a warhorse". Pursuing a line of enquiry, he was "as tenacious as a terrier after a rat". As the inaugural secretary of the Australian Board of Control, he more or less invented the federal governance structure of Australian cricket that survives to this day, marginalising both the Melbourne Club and the players.

Yet when McElhone disappeared into the shadows of municipal politics, he left little to remember him by, dying without issue in 1933. All that survives at Cricket Australia are the minute books he kept, in a superb copperplate hand; when I searched high and low six years ago, I could find just one small portrait of him on his own. Otherwise, he stared out of a handful of group shots, wearing an inscrutable half-smile and his trademark round spectacles, looking for all the world like a Dickensian beadle.

Like I said, this wasn't an obsession; just an interest. I moved on. But it ate at me. Australia is full of such figures: hugely important in ways now only dimly understood, yet perplexingly difficult to research. So from time to time, I'd go back to him. One day, I decided to order his birth and death certificates; another, I trawled through newspapers to locate as many obituaries as possible. Then last year, on the spur of the moment, I rang the Sydney law firm that still bears his name. As I suspected, the receptionist apologised: "I'm sorry. We've no connection with the family. In fact, I'm not even sure there is a family." Oh well ... But a couple of days later, she rang back. She'd been talking to some people in the office. There was this old partner who'd retired some years back: he might be able to help. I'll call him Mr Smith.

Mr Smith was quite difficult to reach. I rang him weekly for a couple of months; no answer. I checked that I had the right number; it was, so I persisted. Then one day, he answered. Sorry, he'd been overseas. Billy McElhone? Why, yes. Yes indeed. About 30 years ago, when the firm had been moving premises, various of Billy McElhone's effects had been earmarked for disposal. Hmm, Mr Smith had thought: "One day, somebody may want these." He had put them in a trunk. He had put the trunk ... well, somewhere. He promised to look.

Frabjous day - if not quite Calloo-Callay. Patience was needed. Months passed, then more months. In my diary, I pencilled "Mr Smith" at eight-weekly intervals. Had he had a chance to look? No, he'd been away. No, he would need to search his farm. Mr Smith's manners were always impeccable - he always called me Mr Haigh - but I didn't want it to seem like I was importuning him. I beat down my expectations. The trunk would be lost. The contents would be junk. It didn't matter anyway. Because, just to reiterate, this was only an interest; not an obsession. Finally, nearly a year after our first contact, Mr Smith advised that he had found the trunk, and retrieved it. We arranged to meet next time I was in Sydney.

So it was that in May this year I knocked at an apartment in a big Sydney block. Mr Smith, a soft-spoken, silver-haired gentleman in his seventies, admitted me to rooms accoutred in immaculate taste. The furniture and ornamentation bore their expense lightly; the walls were lined with Old Masters, his lifetime passion. What were they worth? Hundreds of thousands? Easily. Millions? Very probably. But I wasn't there for art. My consuming interest lay in the kitchen.

The trunk wasn't big, nor was it full. But what had survived was more than enough to gratify any interest. Letters, postcards, diaries, legal files, newspaper clippings, invitations and menus for official dinners of the kind popular at the time, featuring such exotic marvels as "Les Cotelettes d'Agneau aux Petit Pots" and old favourites like "Assorted Wine Jellies". There were his little books of spiritual solace, Catholic Piety and Garden of the Soul: one of nine children, McElhone was a rock-ribbed Roman Catholic.

Suddenly there were more pictures of McElhone than anyone could need, including a framed photograph in full mayoral regalia which apparently hung in the reception of his chambers. There was a signed photograph, too, of a young soldier. He was, Mr Smith explained, McElhone's articled clerk, who had enlisted in the AIF and been killed in France: the picture had reposed on his boss's desk ever after. Finally, from a book of old cricket scores, slid a small, hard, rectangular case in age-stiffened leather. I opened it. There they were: the spectacles, ownership corroborated by the handwritten inscription inside the lid, "W. P. McElhone".

Glasses are the most intimate of items: they suit only the wearer, and not merely their eyesight but the frame of their face. McElhone's have arms of the sort that hook round the ears; putting them on would have been quite a deliberate act. They are small, flat, not quite symmetrical, and might almost have been designed for staring through severely or glancing over dubiously; removed, they would naturally conduce to thoughtful fiddling or animated gesturing. And through these glasses, it was heady to realise, were overseen the decisive meetings in the management of this country's most popular game. They're sitting uppermost on my desk right now, Mr Smith having been kind enough to pass the trunk's contents on in the name of research. And you're right. I confess it. This was an interest; now it's an obsession.

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