Martin Flanagan likes being close to the action.
The feted Tasmanian-born writer, who made his name through his football journalism, doesn’t like sitting in the press box when he’s covering games.
“I always sit on the boundary,” he says. “I’ve got to feel the pace of the game and the power of the collisions to start appreciating the skill of the players.”
And where on the boundary does he gravitate towards?
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“I sort of liked the forward pocket,” Flanagan says.
He goes on to recount some of the moments of brilliance he’s witnessed from that part of the ground.
Getting up out of his seat, Flanagan, 65, mimics Brownlow medallist Jason Akermanis making a preternatural pass under pressure during his time at the Western Bulldogs. He then recounts a singular play by Eddie Betts for the Adelaide Crows, where the supremely talented small forward flung himself at then Hawthorn captain Luke Hodge, bringing two fists down upon the ball – here Flanagan mimes the action – and striking it from Hodge’s normally iron grip.
Flanagan’s friends and family describe him as a gentle and honest man. Above all, they say he’s a good listener.
Talking to him, one is struck by his almost serene patience. At the same time, he appears to course with restless energy, fidgeting in his seat, springing out of it intermittently to consult his bookshelf or point out some detail in a picture hanging on the wall.
And in he and his wife Polly’s Launceston home, there are a great many pictures.
There’s a caricature of former West Coast Eagles midfielder Chris Lewis, a friend of Flanagan’s; there’s paintings and photographs of Tom Wills, the godfather of Australian rules football; there’s Flanagan’s grandkids, a sketch of his younger brother Richard, the famous author, and a picture of him with his older brother Tim and their late father.
After 32 years working for The Age in Melbourne, Flanagan – who spent the early years of his life at Longford and was a journalist for The Examiner in the early 1980s – has returned to live in the North of Tasmania.
He’s just had a new book published, this one on the life and work of Comic Relief founder Jane Tewson. It’s called The Art of Pollination.
“It’s a portrait of an individual through their actions and what they do,” Flanagan says.
“But as someone says earlier in the book, ‘[Tewson is] like a film director. She’s never the lead actor in any scene she sets up’.”
Tewson, 62, originally from the village of Ickford in Buckinghamshire, England, but now based in Melbourne, also started Red Nose Day. Among her famous friends are Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, former British prime minister Gordon Brown and the late Diana, Princess of Wales. She now runs the charity Igniting Change, which has an office in Balaclava in Melbourne’s south-east.
But Tewson is no name-dropper. She prefers to fly under the radar. And she says Flanagan managed to capture that side of her personality perfectly.
“He was just great to have around,” she says. “A wonderful spirit, knowledgeable.”
“He was very quiet and just watched and listened.
“Martin put so much time into the book, in getting the flow right. I know it was painful for him at times and he was painstaking about it.”
Flanagan tailed Tewson to prisons and hospices to see how she worked. Just like when covering a game of footy, he had to see things up close.
“I had to believe in my heart that what she was doing was real and it worked,” he says. “And I did.”
“And that’s what the book is, really. It’s just an account of watching a person do good.”
One of six children, the patriarch of the Flanagan clan was Arch, a school teacher and a survivor of the Burma Death Railway, which he was forced to work on as a prisoner of war.
In those dark years and upon his return to Tasmania, Arch was faced with the choice of surrendering to hopelessness or overcoming it. He chose the latter.
Perhaps that’s why his son is so drawn to stories of perseverance, to stories of people like Tewson. People who “do good”.
“The thing that really interests me is how do people get through the daily grind of living,” Flanagan says. “And I think those stories are incredibly important.”
“This is a really difficult time, particularly now in Victoria, and there is so much bad news. And so I’ve always seen it as my responsibility to try and tell good news.
“In all cultures, there have to be stories about how you endure and how you don’t get crushed and how you don’t get defeated. What is it that gets you up to go again?”
Tim Flanagan, 68, is a GP at Longford and says his brother’s precise writing is similar to their father’s.
The thing that really interests me is how do people get through the daily grind of living. And I think those stories are incredibly important.
“[Dad] just didn’t waste words,” he says.
“He just hit every time with his words and I think Martin learnt that.”
Tim says his younger brother’s economic use of language was further honed writing poetry.
“I think Martin did himself a real service in that he wrote poetry for a while,” he says.
“I know a lot of people write poetry about unrequited love and all these things but they taught him a discipline.
“I think he got that from poetry and then distilled it down.”
Aside from its pithy quality, what is it about Flanagan’s writing that has attracted him so many loyal followers, among them famous names like the singer-songwriter Paul Kelly, ex-Essendon coach Kevin Sheedy and former Western Bulldogs captain Bob Murphy?
Peter Schwab, who won premierships playing for Hawthorn in the 1980s and who went on to coach the club in the early 2000s, offers a simple explanation.
“What makes it great, really, is the fact that he writes it,” he says.
Thanks to Rodney Eade, the Tasmanian who played 229 games for the Hawks as a wingman, Schwab met Flanagan after a match in the mid-’80s.
“[Eade] said, ‘Hey, Schwabby, I want to introduce you to Martin Flanagan, the guy whose writing you like’,” Schwab says.
“It started a really good friendship.”
“I always enjoyed his writing on football at the time because I just thought he had a different way than anybody else at the time of writing about it.”
Then a budding writer himself, Schwab would go on to work alongside Flanagan at The Age during the final two years of his playing career (1989-91). As a cadet journalist, he worked the police round for a time, and as a subeditor.
“Martin was extraordinarily generous and helpful to me in what I was trying to do with my writing at that stage,” he says.
“I think he understands what’s a good story. Once he finds it, he’s got a great ability to get to the essence of that story and, particularly, the people. He’s very drawn to the person.
“He has a strong commitment to that story and doing that person justice in what he writes.”
And for Flanagan, the stories that appeal to him are not unlike a ripping game of footy – they make you see the good in the world.
I think he understands what’s a good story. Once he finds it, he’s got a great ability to get to the essence of that story and, particularly, the people.
“My test of a great game is when it takes me somewhere else and I stop thinking about Donald Trump, I stop thinking about the environment, I stop thinking about Putin, I stop thinking about COVID,” he says.
Flanagan’s latest book is dedicated to his 11-year-old granddaughter, Annie. “I want her to know there is an obstinate force for good in the world, and here is an example of it,” the dedication reads.
Flanagan tells me: “There’s now this epidemic of anxiety amongst young people.”
“We’re overwhelmed by images of the human capacity for wrongdoing and falseness and greed and corruption.
“But there is a human capacity for goodness.
“And the evidence of it is all around us.”
Reading the work of Flanagan, it’s hard to argue otherwise.
- The Art of Pollination, published by Hardie Grant, is available now.
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