The Best Things Ever Seen

An indulgent look at life through one man’s eyes 16 January 2020

THE SKY BAR AT STATE TOWER, BANGKOK

BANGKOK’S SKY BAR: CANTILEVERED 250 METRES ABOVE CITY STREETS

There have been two times in my life where I have been gob-smacked by a man-made structure. The first was in the mid-2000s when I alighted from a lift on the top floor of the State Tower in Bangkok.

In front of us (six travel companions who had just come from Phuket on the coast) was a scene that I likened to a James Bond film set. To our right, upstairs, was the restaurant in which we were going to dine but straight ahead was the Sky Bar.

Tables were set for alfresco dining or having cocktails but cantilevered off the building was a circular bar at which you could stand with less than armpit-high, glass and railing wall between you and Bangkok. It was breathtaking.

I enjoyed the moment for as long as we stood there and then, regretfully, on reflection, cynicism kicked in.

“If they allowed something like this in Australia, some idiot would accidentally push his friend over the edge or, worse, someone would go over the top during a fight and the whole place would end up encased in chicken wire so it couldn’t happen again.”

I cannot recall what I drank or what I ate at the restaurant but I can recall the space – the architectural space and that rarified space beyond it. To be 820 feet (250 metres) above the ground, standing on a bread-and-butter plate, looking at a major city was magnificent.

HOMER’S THE ILIAD

HOMER: FACT OR FICTION?

My recall failed me when I thought I had seen a film as a boy called The Face that Launched a Thousand Ships. IMDb corrects me that no such film exists so it must have been the line I remember? Anyway, this line is associated with Helen, wife of Menelaus, spirited away from her home by Paris, son of Priam, King of Troy.

The young prince’s selfishness caused the eventual destruction of his father’s kingdom when Agamemnon, brother of Menelaus, raised a mighty Achaean (Greek) fleet to attack Troy and get Helen back.

At one point Hector, older brother to Paris, fights one-on-one with Achilles, the world’s mightiest warrior.

Whether The Iliad, Homer’s verse account of this invasion, is fact or fiction is still debated. I do know that the prose translation I read provided me the best book I have yet to read and invaluable historic reference. Literature abounds with Homeric references from The Iliad. Having read it has allowed me to enjoy these references and see their connections.

The story has the involvement of the gods as characters and even assailants. Zeus is on the side of the Trojans and, when Achilles refuses to fight because of a disagreement with Agamemnon over a woman, the Achaeans suffer huge losses.

Achilles brother figure and lover Patroclus is convinced to take Achilles’ armour and raise the morale of his fellows by having them think the champion is back in the fray. He is killed by Hector.

Achilles grieves, reconciles with Agamemnon and returns to battle. The momentum shifts. Having given bad tactical advice, Hector watches his men desert back to the palace. Feeling guilty, he stands firm but is no match for Achilles, who ties the dead Hector to his chariot and drags the body behind him for days.

Priam, filled with grief over his favourite son’s death and defilement of his corpse, is escorted by the god Hermes into the Achaean camp and pleads with Achilles to be allowed to bury Hector with dignity.

The warrior, still bitter and hate filled at Patroclus’s death, is eventually moved by the old man’s tearful plea and relents.

I loved it.

SIDEBAR: The movie Troy starred Brad Pitt as Achilles and Eric Bana was Hector. Peter O’Toole played King Priam. In a smaller role, Tyler Mane played the great warrior Ajax. I first watched Troy on a pirated Bali DVD. English subtitles had been added to the Indonesian copy. As the Achaeans settle after landing their ships, Ajax calls to Achilles. The subtitles read:

AJAX: “Achilles, good to see you here.”

ACHILLES: “Hey Jack.”

SOMETHING by George Harrison

NO. 3? GEORGE HARRISON WROTE SOMETHING

The Beatles (John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison & Ringo Starr) were the best-known pop music group of the 1960s. Arguably, the best-known of all time.

Lennon & McCartney wrote hit after monstrous hit, album after successful album. Their musical influence spread to other artists who were provided original works which turned into hit records in an era where a 45 revolutions per minute black disc called a single was played on a record player. This flat, circular disc was sold in a paper sleeve. The price from memory was $1 (after the 14 February 1966 when Australia’s currency turned from pounds, shillings and pence to dollars and cents).

The dominance of the song-writing duo was slightly altered in 1969 when Harrison, the group’s lead guitarist, wrote Something which appeared on the album Abbey Road. It was also released on a double-A sided single with Come Together.

For all their talent and influence, no Beatles song has had more impact on me than Something. I felt buoyed when I later read that Frank Sinatra said it was “the best love song ever written.”

Something in the way she moves
Attracts me like no other lover
Something in the way she woos me

I don’t want to leave her now
You know I believe her now

Somewhere in her smile she knows
That I don’t need no other lover
Something in her style that shows me

Don’t want to leave her now
You know I believe her now

You’re asking me will my love grow
I don’t know, I don’t know
You stick around now it may show
I don’t know, I don’t know

Something in the way she knows
And all I have to do is think of her
Something in the things she shows me

Don’t want to leave her now
You know I believe her now

Looking today at the lyrics on the page it doesn’t seem like much but it was the combination of the music and the lyrics, which after all is what a song is, that made it somehow special. Something special.

WALK THE TALK: CUBA’S FIDEL CASTRO

FIDEL CASTRO’S SURVIVAL

In my lifetime (1955-?) no country has been even remotely as powerful as the United States of America. Even when the USSR played out the opposition in the Cold War it was eventually proved that their might was a ruse.

They were never as strong as the US, who fought wars on several fronts in every decade after World War II (1939-45). The USA became involved in the conflicts or their perceived idea of wrong administrations in many other countries – most notably Vietnam (1965-73) – and played policeman to the world. My reading of history is they messed up in nearly all of these pursuits.

However, right or wrong, they were the country you did not cross or you got the might of their military in your face.

In 1961 Cuba, an arguable 100 statute miles from Miami, Florida, had diplomatic ties severed by the USA. Isolation policies were put in place. Cuba, which had chosen the USSR as an ally, effectively became an enemy of the USA.

Fidel Castro had been in power as Prime Minister for two years when the sanctions were introduced. He held power until 2008. For 50 years Castro survived invasion, assassination attempts, economic blockade and attempts at counter revolution from the most powerful force in history before dying in 2016. Only a few years earlier he had retired and his brother Raul took the reins.

It is the most extraordinary performance of any leader I have read of with the possible exception of Alexander III of Macedon. It is certainly the most durable leadership of any 20th century country with so little defence against a giant of a foe.  

The back story is even better. In 1956 Fidel Castro led a group of 82 men on a stormy sea voyage from Mexico to Cuba and three years later forced corrupt President Batista to flee. This magnificent “invasion” has been likened to a shipwreck.

Their boat, the Granma, ran aground on Cuban soil and the original 82 became less than 30 after mortal attacks, betrayal and arrests before they had even got their guerrilla campaign started. Castro, with Raul and the future highest profile revolutionary of any era, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, among his invaders, gathered support and more infantry volunteers as they crossed Cuba to the capital city Havana.

ARMED: CASTRO AND HIS GUERRILA FORCE TAKE HAVANA

You may argue with his politics, the persecution of dissenters in Cuba, the impoverished lifestyle of the island but I believe no one can argue that Fidel Castro remains the greatest political survivor against the greatest military odds from an enemy only 100 miles from his home.

“I SHOOK THE WORLD”: ALI, THEN CLAY, BEAT LISTON

MUHAMMAD ALI – THE GREATEST

The boxer Cassius Marcellus Clay jun. won an Olympic Game boxing gold medal at Rome in 1960. The apocryphal story is that Clay threw his medal into the Tevere.

In February 1964 he earned the right to fight Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship of the world. Not much print and air space is given to boxing these days but in 1964 it was huge news. Clay was a rank outsider in a two-cornered contest. Liston terrorised and brutalised opponents and every man in the world was scared of him.

Refusing to be bowed, Clay talked himself up, taunted the champion before getting into the ring and beat him fair and square when they boxed. Liston did not get up from his stool to begin the seventh round. “Fix!” they cried.

In May 1965, Clay (now Muhammad Ali after joining the Black Muslim group Nation of Islam in 1964) had his re-match with Liston. This had been delayed when Ali had to go to hospital with a hernia. The re-match lasted 2 minutes 12 seconds as the young champion dispatched his opponent. “Fix!” they cried.

The best-known boxer in history had won his first two major events in suspicious circumstances.

Looking back after Ali’s ensuing achievements, sports writers and pundits agreed this was unfair criticism but in 1964-65 it was unthinkable that this loud-mouthed tall kid, who danced in the ring could whup a fighter like Sonny Liston.

What these writers had not considered was they were watching a changing of the times in America and ultimately the world. Michael Carbet in Boxiana summed it up more than 50 years later: 

 “What the hell is going on? And the answer is the Good Ol’ U.S. of A. is changing. Big time. It’s 1964. Some odd music act called “The Beatles” is on the radio all day, and the Soviets are putting rockets into space, while shameless “Ya-Ya girls” are going around in miniskirts, and there’s all this talk about desegregating schools, and just a few months ago the President of the United States was shot and killed in broad daylight. And now this: some big mouth freak who can’t shut up and calls himself “The Greatest” is the heavyweight champion of the world.”

But the greatest was still to come. Muhammad Ali would lose his title for political reasons and regain it; lose to another great, Joe Frazier, and then regain it fighting another fearsome champion, George Foreman.

He also became the greatest symbol of America’s changing face when he defied his government and helped turn public opinion against the Vietnam War (1965-73 –US troop involvement).

“No Viet Cong ever called me nigger” he said outside court when he gave up some of the best sporting years of his life, his title and high-dollar purses to prefer jail to fighting for his country. It split the nation because the older generation believed in service due to their time in World War II (1942-45 – US troop involvement) and their ancestors’ sacrifice in the Great War (1917-18 – US troop involvement).

Many of the younger generation thought their country was involved in a war they had no right to be part of. Government policy was being challenged by youth and the highest-profile sporting youth in the country was willing to go to prison for his belief.

To me, that is Ali’s greatest legacy. He felt the winds of change, hell, he may even have blown them, and he became a leader from that moment.

It took an 11th hour rewriting of a Supreme Court justice decision to clear Ali of wrong doing. His career though magnificent took its toll physically. Though seriously afflicted with Parkinson’s disease, he was selected to light the Olympic Games flame in Los Angeles in 1984. Shaking visibly it was a poignant moment and one not lost on those who had watched his life unfold.

When he beat Liston in 1964, the young fighter ran at the ropes to the side of the ring where the press sat. “I am the greatest,” he shouted at them. “I shook up the world.”

For me: he was and he did.

KINGSTON TOWN’S THIRD W.S. COX PLATE

In 1979 Ron Wilson and I went to Randwick racecourse in Sydney and, while he bet in tens of thousands with runners putting his money on, I found a nook in the Champagne Bar of the members’ grandstand.

BEST SEEN LIVE: KINGSTON TOWN’S THIRD COX PLATE

I was mad keen on the racing and watched everything I could live or on television but the moments in between, entertaining beautifully groomed ladies, were just as much fun.

In the Spring Champion Stakes, a 2000 metre race for three-year-olds at Group I, the winner caught my eye. It was his sixth straight win.

Recalling the day’s events with Ron and others that night, I said this horse would never get beaten again. Ron then verbally took me apart saying I was used to Perth racing and that in Melbourne and Sydney horses win with such authority all the time. There were so many of these that my statement was ridiculous.

A month later we were in our room at the London Hilton on an overseas trip of a lifetime with The West Australian football writer Geoff Christian and West Perth league coach Graham Campbell. Ron played for West Perth.

The kid was so big then that he wanted to bet on the Melbourne spring carnival races so (pre-internet) late at night, he would ring Australia write down the field, do the form and then bet on that race before repeating the process.

When he wrote the field down for the Caulfield Guineas, I saw my horse and told him don’t bother to do the form, it would win. He ran third. A fourth and a second followed on similar nights while in Europe and the USA. Granted they were in the Caulfield Cup and the Victoria Derby but I bowed to my friend with the greater knowledge. But I was right.

The horse resumed in his home town of Sydney in February of 1980. He won that day, the first of 19 wins at his next 21 starts. He was Kingston Town.

This fabulous gelding won the 1980 and 1981 W.S. Cox Plate, a 2050 metre weight-for-age event at Moonee Valley regarded as the championship of Australian racing. In 1982, Kingston Town returned to try to win it for a third time.

I sat in a top level of Moonee Valley’s members’ section (memory said it had no roof but I may have that wrong). At the turn, caller Bill Collins, one of the legendary race broadcasters, was going back through the field and uttered the line that made him infamous: “Kingston Town can’t win.”

Hard under the whip and going nowhere, Collins in that second was right. One second later he could be wrong. Kingston Town came wide and began to come. The three-year-old Grosvenor had shot clear but Kingston Town was storming home.

What happened next I have never felt at a sporting event before or since. The crowd rose as one to cheer him home. The connections of Grosvenor notwithstanding, it felt like every man, woman and child was cheering Kingston Town no matter what they owned, what they had backed, what their favourites were.

At the finish he won clearly and we thought we would never see its like again. Then Winx won four of them and put that idea to bed.

Kingston Town won 30 times from 41 starts.

It’s the only Cox Plate I’ve seen live and, certainly until Winx won her four in a row, the most famous.

His final race was a month later in Perth, the Western Mail Classic. He won. I was working for Yosse Goldberg and was at trackwork at the now-defunct Helena Vale racecourse just outside Midland. We had lots of stalls occupied because we had lots of horses to work and I was standing in the last available vacant stall talking to Yosse’s trainer, Bill Fell.

A man led a horse past our string and said “Excuse me” so he could use the stall I was in. I ducked under the rail and kept talking to Bill, who then nodded at the new horse over my shoulder.

“Doesn’t look like much, does he?” I looked at the horse and then back at Bill with a query written on my face. “Kingston Town,” he said.

I may not have known him without the jockey silks on but Kingston Town remains the best horse I have ever seen live.

DERMOTT BRERETON’S COURAGE 1989 GRAND FINAL

CRUNCHED BUT UNBOWED: BRERETON REFUSED TO GO OFF

In 1989 Geelong played Hawthorn in the VFL/AFL Grand Final at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

Domestic airline strikes had curtailed plans to get from Perth to the match. This was fixed by taking an international flight to Bali, spending an afternoon by the pool at a hotel where we had booked a room and then catching another international the same day to Sydney and eventually Melbourne. We (Kim Hunter, Steve Bow and Bomber Wylie) travelled Business Class and drank Tattinger.

At the match our seats were about mid height on the members’ wing. The seat in front of me was filled by  Alan Joyce, Hawthorn’s caretaker coach of 1988. He had taken them to a flag while Allan Jeans recovered from illness. It was then I realised just how good our seats were among the 94,796 others.

The ball was bounced and Geelong defender Mark Yeates ran through the centre circle and shirt-fronted Hawthorn centre half-forward Dermott Brereton, eyes fixed on the ball, advancing in another direction. The champion went down. He had a lacerated kidney, was in shock and vomiting. Trainers and the doctor said his colour was grey. He had to leave the ground.

Brereton refused.

Guided by trainers and sucking in air while wincing with the pain, he went to the forward pocket. His staying on the ground and what happened next remains the bravest moment I have ever seen in sport.

Hawthorn kicked a goal and players were being flattened in hellish contests of strength and sometimes thuggery.  Minutes later the ball was again heading towards the Hawthorn forward line. Hawthorn wingman Robert Dipierdomenico was wrestling three Geelong players on his wing, the ball long gone.

Brereton, guarded by an opponent, advanced, saw the ball was going over his head and began backing into no man’s land. He marked about 30 metres from goal.

He kicked it.

In front of us, Joyce, one of the dourest men ever to coach football, leapt from his seat and punched the air. We had all witnessed heroism, ability and a game-changing moment but Joyce’s reaction underlined for me its supreme greatness.

From that moment, Hawthorn, the previous year’s grand final winners by 16 goals, took hold of the match. They led by more than six goals at each of the three breaks.

With more injured players than Geelong, the tide turned. The tide was called Gary Ablett. Years before he had started his career at Hawthorn and Jeans, observing a lazy yokel from rural Victoria, told him to leave. He may even have said: “Piss off.”

Ablett went to Geelong and his individual performances are still marveled at. They nicknamed him “God” because he was that good.

With Ablett at his zenith in the last quarter, and he had only played well in short bursts until then, Geelong got within six points at the siren. Everyone knows if the game had gone another three minutes, perhaps even 30 seconds, the Cats would have won.

Ablett finished with nine goals.

It is still called the greatest-ever Grand Final. It is the only one I have seen live and the privilege I feel is deep.

But it is the image of Brereton refusing to accept the magnitude of his pain; refusing to give the Trojans the mental edge that Achilles had been slain that I still feel  deepest.

REAL CULTURE: IL DUOMO DI MILANO BEGUN IN 1387

THE SPIRES OF IL DUOMO DI MILANO

Milano is not one of my favourite Italian cities but it is the gateway to Lago di Como so must be embraced.

Its duomo or cathedral was begun in 1387 and the nave consecrated in 1418. Its spires have more statues upon them than any other like building in the world.

It was these spires that attracted me. More than 300 feet (91.4 metres) from ground level they appear as needles standing without any visible support save at their footing. The “needles” support statues and it was here that my awe took over.

INSPIRING: SPIRES OF IL DUOMO DI MILANO

How, in the 14th century, could anyone build something so fragile, so far from the ground and so resilient as to last seven centuries? Where did the human race develop such skills in architecture, engineering, mathematics and construction to do this? Oh, it was also beautiful.

I thought of other races who are deemed to have a culture and their efforts are risible against such beauty and achievement.

It is the second-only man-made structure to affect me this way.

KNOWING J.J. MILLER

HARD HELD: GALILEE (J.J. MILLER)

I have met many famous people in my life, perhaps only shaken hands with some, but dined with others. I’ve stood at a bar and drunk one-on-one with legends.

I was privileged to meet John James (J.J) Miller when I was 17 years old. A photograph of him winning the 1966 Melbourne Cup on Galilee had been in a frame on my bedroom wall since I was 12. My great uncle Leo Hooper was an Adelaide bookmaker and friends of the great horse’s owner, Max Bailey.

How thrilled I was to receive in the post a colour photograph of Gallilee winning, inscribed “To Francis Wright from Mr and Mrs Max Bailey.”

When I met J.J it was through my friend Lee Burkett, who idolised the man. At the time, John was wasting hard to ride and, when we’d leave 56 Burke Drive, Attadale to drive to the races, he was often very cranky.

One night during the halcyon years when Bart Cummings, T.J. Smith and Colin Hayes would bring horses to Perth for the Australian Derby and Perth Cup (for a brief time the Perth Cup had more prize money than the Melbourne Cup), Bart was dining at J J’s. Having eaten a roast dinner served by Lee’s mum Phyl we weren’t hungry when Kay Miller asked us to join them at the table.

What 17-year-old racing tragic was going to pass that offer up. Lee and I sat and ate our second meal within half an hour. Kay was a good cook and John said: “If any one in Perth is eating better than me, I want to know about it.” Phyl’s meal was better but I wasn’t saying anything.

In that period of time, J.J made the Australian Derby his own. He won it six times, sometimes on champions, sometimes on just good horses.

In 1983 he rode the even money favourite Bounty Hawk which won by more than three lengths. It probably didn’t need Miller’s miracle ride but it remains the single best ride I’ve ever seen because I have never seen it happen before or since.

Bounty Hawk was well back in the field at the 1200m mark at Ascot. Horses gain inside runs (think Pinker Pinker’s Cox Plate) and horses make three-wide runs often getting pushed wider but still winning. J.J didn’t do either, he went through them.”

Bounty Hawk improved in the one-out line from near last to straighten with only a leader to go around. It seemed every horse in the one-out line peeled out as Bounty Hawk came up behind it. These horses made their runs in a sort of staggered sequence and Miller didn’t go anywhere but forward.

I would love to see a replay to prove I am right but I was there. I saw what I saw.

In 1986 Kay had a trainer’s licence and J.J won the Perth Cup for her on Ullyatt. He had to waste hard to ride it.

He was a seasoned veteran but seemed to be getting lighter if it was worth it. What his diet was to ride the winner Rocket Racer at 48kg in the 1987 Perth Cup would stagger any eater. A far cry from the cranky J.J of the early 1970s struggling to ride 54kg.

My favourite memories of John were in the latter stages of his riding career. He developed a magnificent bit of showmanship combined with professionalism.

GENIUS: CUMMINGS

He nearly always put horses into the box seat and would pounce on the leaders into the home straight. About halfway down the straight and satisfied he had the horses on his inside beaten, J.J would raise his right elbow about 15cm, turn his neck to the right and look between arm and body to ensure no horse was finishing down the outside.

When he did it and you had backed the horse, there was no greater feeling. It was like bottled adrenaline permitted to course through your body.

J.J took out a trainer’s licence and won another Perth Cup with King of Saxony in 1999. The gelding had not had a race for eight months and the cup is at 3200 metres, the longest distance on the flat in any major Australian race. It has never been done before or since and it was no easy cup. The horse he beat, Rogan Josh, went on to win a Melbourne Cup

My father Jim Wright told me that when J.J was invited to the WA Turf Club committee room that afternoon to celebrate, the first person to see him enter was Bart Cummings. The man who trained 12 Melbourne Cup winners thrust his race book and a pen at his old friend. “Can I have your autograph?,” he said.

Quite a compliment. A genius reaching out to a legend.

VIEW FROM A HOTEL ROOM

Lago di Como is to my mind one of the most beautiful places on earth and it was encapsulated by my “Room With a View” moment when I opened the windows of my hotel room in Bellagio.

In the foreground boats near shore, then the lake, another town opposite rising up a hill (as did Bellagio behind me). Further a snow-topped mountain (the Swiss Alps to the right?) and then a perfect azure sky.

LAGO OF A MORNING: BELLAGIO HOTEL ROOM VIEW

I sat on the bed and looked past shutters, window and the view, far better than that of Firenze in Forster’s book and thought for the first time “This is where I belong. I AM Italian.”

Sadly, I’m not. Ancestry.com dna testing has proven it but I’m hanging on to that feeling of looking through that window and the week I spent in that stunning place.

I have been back twice and will go again.

RAVISHING: VARENNA ON LAGO DI COMO, ITALY

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