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The Lawson long shot

corporate stakes day at flemington, flickr image by doublebugOn the first Tuesday in November 1964, a sublime intuition guided me to favour Polo Prince but, worrying that Elkayel might be a threat, I covered my back with an each way bet. Logic suggested a Polo Prince/Elkayel quinella, but the Flemington crowds were daunting so I didn't bother. Needless to say, Polo Prince scored, just holding off Elkayel.

Some Melbourne Cup days are like that, etched into the memory for one reason or another. Tuesday 5 November 1996 was one of those for me. I was working at London University, saddling up (sorry!) to give the annual Sir Robert Menzies Lecture. Through the mists of the years it all comes back to me.

On the preceding Thursday, at morning tea I mention to an English colleague that I'm giving a lecture on Tuesday, 5 November, in London University's Chancellors Hall. The ensuing conversation is dispiriting.

'The lecture's on Henry Lawson and Manning Clark', I tell him in answer to his polite enquiry.

'Henry Law — I'm afraid I —'

'No, you wouldn't have heard of him. Great Australian writer.'

'And Manfred —?'

'Manning,' I tell him patiently. 'It's Manning Clark. Famous historian.'

'I don't think I —'

'Monumental six volume history of Australia. The lecture's on Melbourne Cup Day. Could be an omen.'

'Melbourne Cup?'

'I'm backing Grey Shot', I flounder on desperately. 'English horse. Foreign raider as they say at home. Front runner. They send the English horses over Business Class on British Airways. Don't worry about it.'

Brooding on this demoralising conversation the following day, I start to fret. What if everybody's like my colleague? Suddenly I realise that, apart from a few stray Aussies, no one will know anything — anything — about Lawson or Clark. The lecture will be a disaster.

Meanwhile, Grey Shot blows out to 50s and my Melbourne collaborator prepares to move.

On Saturday, I'm up at 5.00am to help my wife set off to a conference in Amsterdam. This leaves me an uninterrupted weekend to prune and tune the lecture. I begin with a large breakfast heavy on eggy, fatty and greasy items that my wife does not normally consider essential to starting the day. Then a purposeful stroll, thinking always of Lawson and Clark, brings me to the Panton street cinema where I take in Fargo.

After Fargo, a brisk walk punctuated by a swift pint gets me back in front of the TV to catch up on the day's scores. I think about Lawson and Clark but it's been a long day and my concentration soon wavers. I've still got Sunday, after all.

On Sunday morning, after heavy overnight rain, nine hundred thousand tons of autumn leaves in Mecklenburg square have acquired a banana peel slipperiness which is visibly sapping the sabbatarian resolve of the churchgoers whom I am distractedly watching from my upstairs window while reflecting on Lawson, Clark, Grey Shot and, appropriately enough as I watch the procession of the faithful, Saintly, that year's Cox Plate winner looming dangerously in the betting. He couldn't get the double though. Could he?

Today, I resolve to knock the lecture over but after several unproductive hours opt for some channel surfing and fluke the end of Gunfight at OK Corral. The Clantons lose again. Why does everybody in London know who Wyatt Earp was and no one knows about Lawson or Clark?

My wife rings from Amsterdam. She is pleased to hear I've had a good working weekend and that the lecture's ready to go. I'm pleased to hear this too, if it comes to that. In fact I'm stunned.

By Monday, Grey Shot has tightened to 33s but still represents excellent value. Lawson and Clark, on the other hand, have blown out to 500/1 as they move up to the Menzies Memorial Lecture starting gates in my aching head. My man in Melbourne, however, is losing heart. The money's on but he fears disaster. He fancies Sky Beau. Still, the lecture's looking better by Monday night when my wife returns and we revert to healthy eating.

On the Tuesday in Melbourne, Grey Shot hits the front from the stalls and leads the field into the straight. He's still in the money with 150 m to go but is overrun in a crowded finish. Seventh. 'A luckless conveyance' as the caller remarks. Saintly salutes, with Count Chivas and Sky Beau taking the minors.

In London, conversely, my lecture is, according to all the punters, a winner. As we leave the Hall, someone next to me remarks, 'I must admit I hadn't really heard of Lawson and Clark before tonight'. I smile enigmatically. 'And Sir Robert Menzies,' he goes on, 'wasn't he — ?'

'Prime Minister', I explain helpfully. 'Of Australia. You know? Australia? Veer left at Singapore ...'

Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is the award winning author of A Fine and Private Place and The Temple down the road: the life and times of the MCG.

Topic tags: Brian Matthews, robert menzies lecture, cup day, henry lawson, manning clark, parochialism



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Existing comments

Nice one, Brian. Good luck today too. Murray's handling the investments, and favouring nags with a kiwi touch or two. I'm just a bit confused about veering left at Sinkers. Wouldn't that take you up to the fleshpots of Penang?

Rick Hosking | 04 November 2008  

I love it. It reminds me of my own attempts to get a presentation together - always better if the deadline precludes engaging the brain.

Cecily McNeill | 04 November 2008  

Just back from a few days camping in the bush: soul-piercing Mountain Ashes, etc, and torrential rain at 3.00 a.m., leaving us sloshing around in the annexe for breakfast.

We got back just one hour before the start of the Cup. And yet to put anything on the Cup. Took my own advice - and a bit of form - into my considerations and went French (came third). But had I got back two hours before the Cup and had had time to read Matthews enormous omen (Saintly, aka Bart), I would have gone for Viewed. After all, its form was non-existent (last in the McKinnon - blocked for a run, they now say - and an indiscriminate 10th in the Caulfield Cup.

Anyway, my wife is smarter than I am. She took Moatize - a commendable 5th. Oh, and trained by Bart. However, she is not happy.

herbie | 04 November 2008  

The fine art of procrastination - surely a skill to be acquired!

Pat Treston | 05 November 2008  

That's hilarious. The more so because I just finished Lawson's JOE WILSON'S MATES and am rather in awe of the writer, who seems to me to be rather the Australian version of our Mark Twain -- honest, funny, real, alert to real grace and guts, and maybe the first Really Great Writer as the new country was born.

Brian Doyle | 05 November 2008  

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