Death of a Moomba king

It’s a fact of life that the older you get the more frequent comes the news that a notable figure from memory has passed away. Often times it’s no more than a curiosity. People die, even faded movie stars. It becomes more pointed when you know, or have met the person, but for me – outside of family – no-one closer than a forgotten acquaintance has died. Occasionally the news will come of someone dying that strikes home a little harder than the rest. They’re the figures that have resonated with you in a personal sense. They evoke a time or a slice of life. Or else they were someone you admired, even idolised, now gone forever. Sometimes it’s someone whose death seems incomprehensible, as if they always seemed outside of mortal laws – the irrepressible force of nature, the larger than life personality, the dominating character.

Lots of people die. It’s good for a news bulletin and a bit of kitchen conversation. Cheeseboy and I used to have a crass competition whereby we would nominate who we thought might die in the next 12 months. Extra points for the unlikely candidate. Sad, but true, even the deaths of notable figures from culture and history are soon accepted and forgotten. A person living yesterday is dead today. After the tributes life goes on, and next week they are of the past.

Who and what we remember is largely up to us – our individuality, our memories, our personal response. There have been some big name deaths in recent times, and some of them quite shocking. For me, personally, the deaths – and lives – that linger in me are that of David Bowie, who I admired greatly as both man and artist, and I suspect John Clarke, as I wrote of just a week or two ago. This was another death this week the long term impact of I don’t know yet; it’s immediate impact was significant, not just for me, but for all of Melbourne.

The death of Lou Richards shouldn’t have been a surprise for anyone. He was 95, and having lived a celebrated life his death is not the tragedy that it often is for others. Still, it became headline news here in Melbourne, and was subject to immediate and ongoing comment and tribute. He was such a Melbourne icon, and so well loved, that he is to be given a state funeral. He would love that.

Lou Richards, or Louie the Lip as he became known, is a legend in Melbourne. He was an ex-footballer who moved into media when it was still pretty primitive. Short, cheeky, generous natured and very funny Lou became a favourite quickly. He transcended eras. He started in the black and white days and ended his TV career just a few years ago. He was ever present, a football personality who had a much broader appeal. He was much loved because everyone could see what an utterly good bloke he was, no airs and graces, no pretensions, no real ego. Part of his shtick was to put himself in humiliating circumstances. He earned his nick-name by making outrageous promises – if so and so win this week I’ll eat my hat sort of thing. Except he didn’t eat any hats. Upon losing one such bet he had to piggy-bank an oversized VFL footballer down the street. On another occasion he had to cut the lawn of one with a pair of nail scissors. He had spaghetti poured over him, pizza rubbed into his head, buckets of icy water tipped on him, and so on. He became famous for it. Everyone laughed, and everyone loved him for it.

As a diehard footy fan I grew up with his face on my TV screen, his voice coming out of the TV, and his column in the Sun. He would commentate the match of the day for years and years – I’ll forever associate him with the game in that era, and unforgettable for me is his call of the 1984 GF when my team fought back dramatically in the last quarter to win, and Lou’s excited voice calling it.

Back in the day when the AFL was just the VFL it was a smaller, cosier thing. Games were played on Saturday afternoon and that was it. Saturday night you’d come home to watch the replay – a quarter each of the best games. On Sunday it was all about World of Sport.

My particular memories of this are after my parents split. My mum had moved out and I went with her. On Sunday I would go to dad’s for lunch. More often than not it would be a roast, and on the TV would be WOS.

I was having a laugh about it yesterday with a colleague. We recalled the woodchop competition, the handball, the cyclists riding off. It was a homely, almost amateur affair, but that was much of its appeal. Most of the presenters were ex-footy players, some dating from the forties, and others more recently and flamboyantly retired in the seventies. The coaches would come in from the games previously and be questioned about what had occurred on the field. Later the football panel would convene and amid much laughter and jibes would discuss the games.

Lou Richards was a central part of that cracking jokes and teasing his sparring partners. ‘Captain Blood’ Jack Dyer was his main combatant. I loved Jack. He was a famous and fearsome Richmond ruckman from the thirties and forties. A great player, he was also notoriously tough. He had become an irascible and outspoken football commentator with a unique way with words. He was another central figure of that time – I would listen to the ‘Captain and the Major’ on 3KZ to and from the footy on the car radio with dad. Such strong memories. Probably the third of that lot was Bobby Davis, who was an ex-Geelong player and coach. The three would host League Teams, another institution.

For years and years I watched WOS and the footy telecasts with Lou commentating. Later he switched to channel 9 where he would feature on the news, and on the weekends sporting programs. At some point through this he was named King of Moomba. You know you’ve made it as a Melburnian when that happens.

Lou was a feature on our TV screens for 50 years. Before that he was captain of Collingwood. He led a full, momentous life. Like so many others of my generation I witnessed a good part of it – and in that strange way he stood witness to my life. He was a decent, lovable, irrepressible character and with his death something ends. For a Collingwood man he was a great bloke, and I can’t say better than that.

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