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How Phillip Hughes' death moved the nation


Mourning Michael Clarke on cover of The Advertiser

V Line is Victoria’s country rail service and nearly twenty years ago I was a regular customer travelling into the city from the then rural outpost of Little River. In those days, with its rickety carriages and freelance attitude to the niceties of timetables, the V Line service was often the butt of some unkind humour to which, on occasions, I would contribute. 

Much has changed in the new century. The carriages are comfortable; the locomotives sleekly try – but don’t manage – to imitate the dashing look of European fast trains, and the general ambience is pleasant. Timetabling remains contentious partly because some of the rails are dodgy and partly because every now and then there are ‘delays’ for this or that inscrutable reason.

There was no delay on Thursday last week, however, when my wife and I sprinted the length of Southern Cross Station’s Platform 3A to get a fingernail on the last carriage on 3B before it eased out into the sun bound for distant hinterlands and coasts and, as far as we were concerned, home. 

Well, when I say ‘sprinted’ – I doggedly jogged dragging the case on wheels bulging with the things my wife regarded as essential for what had been an overnight stay, while she followed with a relentless metre-devouring pace uninfluenced by repeated announcements that the train was about to leave. When I reached the doorway to the last carriage, I stood with one foot on the step, as if pinning the whole massive caravanserai to the spot, and waved gratefully to the guard a train’s length away, who must have convinced the driver not to shut the doors until my wife arrived – which, breathless, she duly did, and we tumbled aboard.

We collapsed into the first available seats gasping and smiling, as you do when trying to look as if this last-second arrival was all part of your normal train-catching routine and didn’t merit the briefly curious glances of the other, settled and ensconced travellers. Doors beeped and slid noisily shut. The train rocked, shuddered and rolled out into the sunlight.  

For a while we both silently watched the passing scenery – graffiti-scrawled brick walls, rusty-roofed factories, abandoned boilers, overgrown rails going nowhere, all giving way slowly to backyards with their fleetingly glimpsed tomato bushes, half-dismantled cars, sagging, corrugated-iron chook pens, hills hoists flying flags of shirts, underwear and towels, luxuriant broad-leafed marrow plants with green tendrils snaking everywhere, occasional squares of flower fringed lawn …  My wife meanwhile was using her iPhone to check the latest news. I heard her gasp and wordlessly she passed the phone to me. ‘Phillip Hughes dead at 25.’

I have looked back on that moment often in the few days since. I know that much has been said and written about Phillip Hughes’s sudden and untimely death. And, if I admit to a sudden, inexplicable and powerful grief that overwhelmed me then, has recurred since and swept through me when I read of, and watched, the funeral. 

I don’t suppose I’m adding much to what is now a clearly identifiable national reaction. It’s true, as many have protested, that 25-year-olds die uselessly and violently on the roads, and that young men of similar age and aspiration have fallen in Afghanistan and in many of the other distant wars to which our governments have been so drawn in the past few decades. 

But by virtue of an unpredictable atavism, all the accumulated but repressed suffering and sorrow of such events sometimes becomes concentrated on one sudden, individual tragedy, one ‘insupportable and touching loss’. That Phillip Hughes was richly talented, engaging, flawed, stoic in adversity and modest in triumph only exacerbated the needless, random and crushing nature of the blow.

It’s not a new phenomenon, this atavistic trigger that moves a whole nation. Greg Chappell has already made the comparison with the response to Princess Diana’s death, but it goes back further than that, to John Donne, for example, in 1624: ‘No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.’ 

Or to Sir Walter Raleigh, awaiting execution in the Tower of London in 1603: ‘It is death alone that suddenly can make man to know himself … Oh eloquent, just and mighty death, whom none could advise, thou hast persuaded; what none hath dared thou hast done …’

Eloquent? Certainly – Death haunts the newspapers and the airwaves. Just? Not at all. Mighty? Unfortunately, yes – and every now and then, such as during the past week, we cower and weep before Death’s undiscriminating might.

Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is honorary professor of English at Flinders University and an award winning columnist and biographer.

Topic tags: Brian Matthews, death, grief, cricket, sport, Phillip Hughes, John Donne, V Line, transport



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Existing comments

THANK YOU BRIAN. THIS IS GENTLY AND APPPROPRIATELY POWERFUL especially in a culture that is often death denying.

Marie Biddle rsj | 05 December 2014  

I remember "as well as any manner of thy friends" as having the word "manor" which seems to make more sense. Is my memory wrong, or is it Brian's?

Michael Grounds | 05 December 2014  

There are degrees in our reactions to the news of any death. Even that of a homeless nameless person brings us the message of 'Memento mori'. An old tombstone carries a similar promise. 'As you are now, so once was I. As I am now, so will you be'. But with the unexpected death of admired celebrities there is an added dimension. We tend to idealise those who inspire us, and with their passing a guiding light in our life is extinguished. We need ideals to lighten our lives, and without them our lives are diminished. A caution perhaps to ensure that we secure our fundamental adherence to the Constant and Universal Creator who awaits us all.

Robert Liddy | 05 December 2014  

Thank you, Brian. Always a great pleasure to read you, but today (after the Sydney siege deaths), a very pointed pleasure. I shall now always think of you both as on a train, moving, I hope, into light.

Morag Fraser | 16 December 2014  

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