Back in the mid 1970s, when I was a callow cadet reporter at the late, great Sun News-Pictorial, it was the best-selling newspaper in Australia, with the nation’s best journalists – a younger, slimmer Laurie Oakes, to name just one.
And then there was Lou.
Even Oakes would admit that one of the main reasons Melbourne’s Little Paper sold close to half a million copies each day was the smiling, nuggetty little ex-footballer.
Every Saturday, Monday and a couple of other days each week, Victorians would beat a path to their newsagents and milk bars to soak up Lou’s (never to be trusted) tips, match reports and other comic words of “wisdom” on our great game.
— Collingwood FC (@CollingwoodFC) May 8, 2017
Lou had been at Flinders Street nearly 20 years when I arrived. We cadets used to queue for desks in the often-vacant sports department (the scribblers were either out at training, interviews or the pub most of the day) and we were in awe of the greats, such as Bob Crimeen, Scotty Palmer and Jack Dunn.
And, of course, Louie and his hulking ghost writer, ex-boxer and police roundsman Tom Prior.
I was always a bit lippy and one night a scowling Prior leaned across and growled: “You’re a cheeky little c…, aren’t you?”
Well, yeah, I admitted. “Perfect,” he said. “You’ll make a good ghost writer for Lou. Interested?”
And so began three of the best years of my newspaper career, and a lasting love and admiration for the little bloke who was footy’s biggest personality – and a multimedia superstar when Eddie McGuire was kicking the dew off the grass in the Broady under-8s.
Each Friday morning we’d hunker down at one end of the sports subs’ table for the most important job of the week, Lou’s Tips, running each Saturday morning. Anyone who followed them was a mug or a non-Victorian.
Lou’s first lesson to me was it didn’t matter who could win. If it made the story better and funnier that’s who we’d tip.
What followed was a scattershot assembly of bad gags, poor puns, wacky nicknames and over-purpled prose – one big piece and five others for each game played that weekend.
It was pretty dire stuff: Struggling Footscray – the “gone-to-the-Dogs” – inevitably had as much luck as “the short-sighted snake making love to a buggy whip”. Some games promised less excitement than “going through the tunnel of love with your missus”. Carlton thought they could “push themselves into the grand final by patting themselves on the back”. Certain players were Guns – “low calibre and immense bore”.
One Monday match report, because it focused on Essendon’s Barry Grinter, a police constable in his day job, was 16 paragraphs of awful crime- and copper-themed puns and gags – i.e. the losing Hawks were “lucky not to be charged with obscenity, they kept getting caught with their pants down”.
During the week we’d do colour pieces on the players, coaches and umpires. We photographed Magpie Billy Picken in the dentist’s chair – the only place he’d shut up, reckoned Louie.
Once, because North Melbourne was promoting a rodeo, Lou reckoned it’d be fun to put Mick Nolan – “the Galloping Gasometer” – as a “rough-head rider” in a cowboy hat and (oops, runaway) horse at training. Coach Ron Barassi chased us from Arden Street.
Lou used to say he’d sometimes get an idea for a gag in the middle of the night and leap out of bed to write it down, but I can let you in on a secret now he’s not around to kick my bum: some of our best stuff was cribbed from our two reference books, 1001 Great Insults and 1001 More Great Insults.
It doesn’t matter; the punters loved Lou for his unaffected charm and Everyman nature. They knew he was the real deal across the media: writing for The Sun; calling games on Radio 3DB or Channel Seven; with Jack and Bob on Thursday’s League Teams or Sunday mornings on World Of Sport.
“Luv our sport, luv our sport,” bellowed Uncle Doug. “The all-in blue with Louie… the loud retort!”
Lou was simply a Melbourne institution. As was his pub, the Phoenix, on Flinders Street – the office away from the office for those of us at the Sun. I’d often sit down in the backroom for dinner with his family and a half-dozen other hangers-on.
Some drinkers there whinged that he was mean. The only things Lou gave away, claimed Captain Custard, Jack Dyer, were homing pigeons, boomerangs and handshakes.
I call bulldust on that one. Then and now I was known as a sloppy dresser and as my 21st birthday approached, Lou teased me that he was going to give me a suit. He didn’t, just an envelope with enough money to buy two.
One night, he and the love of his life Edna took me and my girlfriend to see David Williamson’s The Club with dinner beforehand at the Southern Cross Grill. I’ll never forget how Edna’s eyes rolled when he was asked how he’d like his steak.
“Just knock off its horns and wipe its arse,” he replied.
Bye Lou. You’re a true AFL – and Australian – legend.
Gary Tippet is an award-winning, Melbourne-based journalist whose work has appeared regularly in The Age, The Sunday Age and, before that, the Sun News-Pictorial.