|Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: November 27, 1998
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project. Each transcript page covers one videotape (approximately 35 minutes). There is also QuickTime video of the full interview available. To play the video, click on the icon in the right hand column. In addition, each question in the transcript is linked to the video. Clicking on a question will play the video from that point. (Help with this feature.) Optionally, you can download the video file for offline viewing (approx. 10MB).
The interview has been left it in its original state so that you can get a sense of how the conversation developed. The repetition of some questions, or a question followed by another question, is often due to the end of a particular tape or some other interruption, and has been indicated at the appropriate place in the text. There has been minimal tidying up of the text so that the flavour of the encounter has been kept.
So Bill, when they got you to hospital, and they assessed what was wrong with you, what did they say was broken? What had actually happened to you?
Well I don't know whether they ever said - I suppose they did you know, I can't remember exactly now what the...
But what had happened to you? What was broken?
Ah, I see. Well my collar-bone was dislocated. You see, if you look at my shoulder, the collar-bone's still sticking up on top here, but I don't wear a strapless frock, so what the hell, you know, doesn't matter. And their worry was my head, I think, the concussion. And you know by morning I was okay, I was thinking alright, don't worry about that. And I think after I'd - when I was knocked out by the horse and I was lying there, I remember back that I sat up when the horse got off me, and thought, Christ if I've ever been close to being killed, I have been this time. And that's when I flaked out. I then did go unconscious then. Now, I've upset my story now...
Now what I want you to do is to just summarise what your injuries were, and then go on to say how you got out of bed and went back.
I'm sorry, telling my damn stories I do get a bit mixed up...
That's okay, you're absolutely fine. You're doing jolly well.
I had to go back and say about that... So I was determined to get out of that place, and the doctor saw me in the morning and he did - he could speak a little bit of English. I don't think he understood it, but he could speak a bit. And I think he understood that I wanted to get out, when I said "I want to get out of here". And he said to me, "You will not ride. You should be here for three or four days. But you will not ride". And I did say to him - I don't know whether it was to him or one of them - "I will ride. You watch television this afternoon". But then you see, a priest come in. I think it was a priest, it was a minister anyhow, and said, spoke, and I spoke back "Good morning". And he said "You are English". And I said "No, I am an Australian". And he said "But you do speak English". Now they probably thought that the Australians spoke some other language, I don't know, but that's what he said to me, this minister. So I said "I want my clothes back". I'd already told them that I would walk out, so they took my clothes. And I said "Well I will walk out in my underpants". So they went and got a form and filled in - to be signed by me - that I left the hospital at my own risk. You know, I didn't - no liability to the hospital for letting me go. So I signed that thing, and Mavis and the secretary I've told you about, arrived to pick me up. They brought my clothes back when I signed that document and I dressed as well as I could and away we went. We went back to the - to the hotel where Mavis was booked in. And there the doctor gave me an injection in the shoulder, which I didn't really want anyway, because I hate needles. I would rather put up with a bit of pain than rahter have needles stuck in me. I think it was done a bit early, you know, because that had worn off by the time I got on the horse.
How did you get on the horse?
They - well I put my foot in the stirrup and they bunked me up. I don't know whether they - they possibly had worked the horse and got the horse a bit - you know, because the horse, after what he'd done the day before, would be a bit stiff. And by the time I got in, you know, there were a lot - so many had fallen by the way in the cross-country, a lot of the teams didn't even have a team to compete over the show jumping, the final phase. So I probably was pretty close to first going in that show jumping. But I had walked the course before I got on the horse with Neale Lavis. And he was terribly worried about whether I'd remember where to go, because you walk your course and you've got to remember which fence as you go round. And make sure you jump from one up to the amount of fences. They're all numbered, the fences. But on that particular course they went past fences to get to a fence to make up the distance we had to do. See if they had 400 yards or 500 yards the distance was needed. On that particular spot they had to bypass two fences to make the distance. And Neale, as we walked that course, kept saying "Bill, do you know where you're going?" I said "Yes, Neale I know where I'm going". And it was okay. I did jump a clean round on that course. And two, two of the people there did jump the wrong fence and were eliminated, Harry Freeman-Jackson. He was captain of the Irish team, and one other from one other country were eliminated there.
Now you know horses, Bill, you know horses. Do you think Our Solo had some kind of glimmering of an idea of what was going on?
Now being a realist, no I don't think so you know. No. If I was a romantic, I would say yes. Well I'd like to be a bit of a romantic. But no, no. He was a beautiful little horse that did what I - but how the hell - you know, when I tell you about doing those last fences after being knocked unconscious there at that fence, that little horse, you know, without being steered or helped, would gallop anywhere. So you'd have to be a real romantic to think this bloody horse took me home, yes. I think so. It would be nice to think that, but no.
It's more likely that you were just on automatic pilot.
Yes. I'd been there, I'd been there and walked the damn thing and I was just following the track that I'd walked, yes. I think that mile run in, that mile run in, I think that chap on that red and white flag, I think he - you know, when I said to Clive Cochrane at that last fence, "Where do I go?", when I jumped that last fence I was heading up that valley. I was heading up that gully. Now the horse would be galloping straight ahead and he'd arrive at that chap at that red and white flag, because up there you run into bush, it was the finish and we turned down another gully. Now that fellow I stopped talking there obviously pointed me, you go that ways here. So if they could have found out that I got unauthorised assistance, they could have eliminated me. But anyhow they tell me I galloped into the yard, then they had to stop the horse, otherwise I would have gone, galloped straight through the damn thing, you know.
Bill, what do you think of dressage?
Well I suppose dressage - what I think about it is damn boring stuff to watch, you know, unless you see one or two then you don't want to see any more. It's not exciting, because it's something done nice and smoothly and quietly. See we like the excitement of going fast and jumping these things quick. But I think it's great, I think dressage - perhaps I'm answering your question in the wrong way. What do I think about dressage? Bloody boring. But yes, to see the movements done perfectly, yes, a few times, marvellous the way they can get a horse to do these movements. I think it's brilliant how they get a horse to do, and it's brilliant of the horse to do those movements. They say it's a horse running free. You'll see them in the paddock. Something upsets them and you'll see all these movements. But that's not quite true, you know, those movements where they dance and do that, it's not what they - you're doing passage and piaffe and all those things, and cantering pirouettes. That is, it's rather brilliant you know. And I don't blame people for thinking it's marvellous and watch a hell of a lot of it. But to me, you know, watch two and think yeah, that's great what they're doing. But that's it, you know. I can't sit there all day and watch the damn thing like thousands of them do. I think it's bloody boring. And I didn't, I couldn't - I could have - one horse - with one horse probably gone on and done a couple more, because this, The Liberator was the horse with all the movements for it. And my old trainer that I'd trained with for a while in the early days, said "Bill, take it up, because you could do it". And I thought perhaps I could too. But after a bloke saying "Bill, Christ you look like a woolly woofter" I thought I'd better give it away.
You got into a bit of trouble about the top hat you wear for it sometimes too, didn't you?
Yes, I didn't get into trouble, but I heard... Wayne and Jimmy Scanlon were two youths. They turned 21, both of them turned 21 at Montreal - at Mexico, Mexico. They were two youngsters, you know. And these yobbos saw them with their dress hats on, you know, the top hats, and they started saying a few things that I didn't particularly like. So I just walked into the bar and clouted a few of them. And Wayne and Scanlon came in and said "Why didn't you leave it to us?" I didn't bother, you know I thought I'd just - and they nearly broke their hips getting out of the place, those fellas. They were only young blokes, but they shouldn't have been yahooing. And I said to the hotel-keeper, "I'm sorry I buggered your trade for the night". All he said to me was "Bill, you should have used that right hand a bit more, you know, you would have hit them harder". [laughs]
Did you get into trouble with the cops over it?
No, no, they didn't know. They would have been in trouble for - they went away to another hotel and I heard the story, they said "God, there's a cranky old bugger up in that pub up there". [laughs] You see, what was that before Mexico? I was 48 then I think. No, I was 52, I was 52 then, and I had a bit of grey hair then. That's what made them say cranky old bugger, I suppose.
Can I ask you what you think has been the secret of your success? There are all these stories of you performing in difficulty, in pain, with the odds against you. What do you think has been the secret of the way in which you've been able to deal with these challenges?
I don't know, I don't know about that. You know, yeah, I suppose I do know about that. Going back years ago, the brother and I, the oldest brother and I, I think somewhere along I told you how we milked cows and share farmed, milked 50 cows by hand. And I was keen on riding and riding something rough. And we'd got in some young cattle, steers, and somehow, I don't know, we must have roped these. So I was riding these steers and I got a bad fall off one and broke some ribs. I broke - because I'd landed on my elbow, against my side and broke two ribs. Now, they were badly broken those ribs, but we were milking 50 cows and we were some fifty mile - the nearest place we could have gone to a doctor, and the only place, way we could have got to that doctor was on a horse. So I just put up with those ribs. Now, we milked cows and we separated. We had to separate the milk into cream, which was then into cans and then it was carted away to Eskdale to a factory. Now I was in quite a bit of pain with those damn ribs, because whatever you did - I don't know whether you've ever had broken ribs, but you move, you breath, and these damn things, they're a bit awkward. And I had a bad cold and I'd cough, you know. If you ever cough with broken ribs, and those broken ribs were underneath this arm. So you go through that pain you know, and there's nothing else you do about it, and there was other falls that I got off a horse. We didn't go rushing off to the doctor. And it still happens today. The horse nearly tore my ear off. It would have been fine for me to patch it up, just stick it up with plaster or something. I wouldn't have bothered going to the doctor unless there's something else going on at the moment, and Mavis said "Well, why the hell don't you go to the doctor?" "Bugger the doctor, I'm okay". Now most - a lot of people they spend their damn life at a doctor. But if the doctor was - oh well they may do a bit better now, I think it's $27 each time you see a doctor. I don't believe in that. There's - one of the Rantle family, they're a bit inclined to - off to the doctor, off to the doctor. I had a rotten cold, I come back with that rotten cold from Italy. And Mavis said "You should go to the doctor, get that fixed up that cold". But no damn way was I going to the doctor. Because I knew it was time, you know, a fortnight or three weeks I'll be rid of this cold.
So is there any virtue that you value above endurance? Is endurance the most important thing to you? Do you think that the capacity to endure things and see them through to the end without help, alone and unassisted, is important?
[laughs] Alone and unassisted he brought them back. No, no no that's - I don't think I do it, I don't do it to be brave or anything like that. No, I don't think so. I don't think so.
But you do respect people who can endure.
I suppose I do. I suppose I do. You know I think a lot of our footballers, playing Australian Rules football, God, you see, a lot of those fellas they must go through a lot of damn pain, because they come up next Saturday and play football. Or if they get hurt in the first quarter of playing football, the ones that say oh to hell, that's only a - in a few minutes time I'm back into it again. I think they're pretty good. But then you get the bloke limps off. Oh, if you watch soccer...
But we're going to talk about equestrian events... [INTERRUPTION] Let me ask you this - what are you looking - are you looking forward to the Olympics in Sydney?
[laughs] Yes, yes, yes I am. I'm looking forward to the - yes of course of I am. I look forward to all sport. I like sport of all sorts, you know. Not only equestrian, I like it all. And you see, I don't particularly like cricket, because I find cricket's rather boring, particularly when - but when we're playing England, yes I watch it and I enjoy watching it, yeah.
You've always looked for challenges, for something that was going to be difficult to do. What are you looking forward to at the moment? What do you see as the next thing for you to do, Bill?
It's rather difficult. What the hell can you look forward to much, only staying healthy and staying healthy and just living on. There's nothing particular that I could do. You know, I'd love to go back on a horse and do the things that I - and possibly could do, but with the balance that I've got now, I can't do it. You know, I'm fit enough, I'm fit enough to do it, but unless they can fix my balance, and I don't know whether they can or not. They say it's the inner ear or the outer ear. Ear. You got to be careful how you say this, haven't you? [laughs] I can't do it, you know, and I would like to play golf, too, I'd like to play golf. But damn it, you get to 83, and I don't walk terribly well, because you know, my balance, I wobble all over the damn place, although I can get about no worries.
What happened to your balance?
I don't know whether - I've suggested to doctors perhaps it's my brain, that I've so many concussions that it could be something to do with my brain... Perhaps it's my eyesight, I don't know.
You were kicked in the ear too, weren't you, by a horse?
Didn't you have a problem with your ear, too, with a horse?
Well, I had that bit torn off, but that was just the lobe, that was just the lobe, yeah.
During the course of your career, the issue of age kept coming up didn't it, Bill?
What - you were in some ways a victim or what they call now ageism, that there was a view that there was a problem about you doing things because of your age. Could you tell me about that and about your reaction to it?
Well, I don't think I reacted much to it, only to them, by saying "What the hell do you want?" you know. "If I'm winning, what do you want? What the hell does it matter how old. I'm still doing it and doing it all right. What do you want?" And well, they didn't have any answer to that, you know. But it did still coming up. And I suppose it does with cricketers, footballers, you know, your age.
What was the problem if you were winning, that the selectors felt that you shouldn't be allowed to represent your country, when you were winning? Could you tell me what was in their minds?
Well I suppose in their mind would be, he can't be as good, he cannot be as good at his age. And we're sending a team to the Olympic Games, you know. Oh, it's got to be in their mind I guess. I can't tell you why they think, but they're not the only ones thinking that, are they? All sports think it. And I suppose if you look back they are right. Your reflexes, as you grow older, your reflexes slow down. And they get very slow, although you throw a ball to me, there's not much wrong with my reflexes as far as catching that ball. But in normal life, I go along a bit better I suppose and a bit luckier than most men have. But I can't do much about my balance anymore, because I walk through a doorway, I got to be damn careful that I don't bump into either side as I go. And that's not good for sitting on a horse swaying all over the damn place, because your balance is not good.
Back then, when you were being selected and there was a question about your age, and they were saying that you're too old at 45, then you're too old in your fifties, and then you're too old at 60, and you were still winning, did that make you very angry? Did you get annoyed at the time?
No, I didn't. No, I didn't. Because I suppose I thought possibly they are right, you know. But I'm lucky to be doing it, but they possibly were damn right, you know.
But was there a value - even though your reflexes might be slow, how important was experience and knowledge?
Yeah, well that was pretty important, yes. The knowledge and how it had to be done and be done. Yes, yes. Yes, you can look at it that way.
Could I ask you that another way and get you to answer it. What were the advantages of being older?
Well, I suppose there was some advantages, but more disadvantages.
I was wanting you to tell me that experience gives you some advantage, instead of me telling you that. So I'm going to ask you that again, and get you to talk about the value of experience. Okay. What were the advantages of being older, do you think?
Well the advantage in me being older was that I'd had a hell of a lot of experience in that time. Getting up to the age that I was when I was competing, and you know, I knew where a fence had to be jumped, and I knew if there was better parts of that fence to be jumped, and I knew about speed. I knew about speed. Today - in my day I used to do it without a watch, a stop-watch on my wrist, watching as I went my speed. And I never had the course all marked out to tell me where I was and where I had to be at a certain speed. My age and my time doing it told me in steeplechasing you had to do it in a certain time. And my roads and tracks was all done at a certain time. I never had those things written down. It was all in my head, and that's where I worked from, my head and through my experience with my age, I had learnt all those damn things and didn't need a stop-watch to tell me.
Bill, are you religious at all?
Am I what?
No, I suppose I'm not. My religion, my religion is how I treat people, how people treat me. I love to do things for people, I like people to like me, and I know the things that I've done wrong. I think I live by the way I think people should live. And I think religion - mind you religion for some people must be a marvellous thing. It gives them something you know. But religion had gone too far in my opinion, they were taken over people, priests had taken over, they were thinking for the people, instead of the people thinking for themselves. And that's not only priests, that's ministers and anybody else you like. I think a person - if you go back in the outbacks of Queensland where they never see a priest, they never see a minister, they're marvellous people you know. They'll travel hundreds of miles to help somebody, and religion's not telling them yes or no. I went through the war, I went through the war and I saw all those bodies lying out there as skeletons, you know, for God's sake... [INTERRUPTION] And a lot of them would have been religious people. Those boys lying out there. God didn't help them for God's sake while those blokes were bayoneting them there... [INTERRUPTION]
So you don't believe in God?
No, I don't. No, I don't believe in God. I think I've told you quite a bit, and I think going back my war days, New Guinea, New Britain, Tol Plantation, New Britain, where we found the 2nd 22nd Infantry boys' skeletons lying out in the jungle there, all cleaned up, only their bones left. Eaten up by green ants. You know, my thoughts then were where was God when the Japanese were bayoneting these boys? You know, probably a lot of those boys were probably very religious boys. Probably good Catholics that went to church, and Protestants, you name it they were there being killed by the Japanese. And you know, it wasn't - if you go through the days when the Japanese made them dig their graves, and lean over that grave and then chop their head off with a sword, just to make them a man, the Japanese. Make him a man because he beheaded that bloke. But he made him dig his grave to fall into. For God's sake, let's think about it, where was God when these fellas were being done, you know. That's me. I believe in the way you live, the way you treat your - I know a very religious boy that was very cruel to his animals, rings in bull's nose. Now that didn't worry him about piercing, or being cruel to an animal. For God's sake, and he was in church every Sunday. Now that worries me. But apart from that, okay, you know, I was married in a church, okay, and I've been to the Catholic Church to some of my good friends that have died, and they've had a service, yes. I've gone and sat through their service. But it doesn't make me believe. I'm just a believer in doing good and being, trying to be good, and bugger it all, I don't suppose - see I told you about putting that old fella in the dam. Well that wasn't a very damn godly thing to do, was it? When I think back over that, as a boy I should have been given a damn good kick in the arse for putting that bloke in the dam, okay. [laughs]
Is there anything, looking back over what's been an extraordinarily successful life, is there anything you would have changed?
Yes. Yes, I would have. I would change where I made the mistakes in Munich, for God's sake, sitting on a champion horse and I was capable, all the big fences I jumped no worries. And leaving those boys down, and leaving my gold medal behind, just through being blasé and poor riding. Yes, those things will worry me until I die.
And of all the things you've done, what do you feel proudest of?
I suppose there is a few things I was proud of doing. Mavis is not about, I suppose I was proud about marrying her, and she's been terribly damn good for me, although we still argue, as you know. And if I say it's going to rain, she'll say it's not. And I think she loves doing that to me. Yes, there is some great things I've done, I suppose. But I don't think that's very important. I suppose it was, but I don't think it was. I think it's just try and be a good bloke rather than do things that are not right, you know. Bit hard to do at times. [laughs] Yes, on some of those things that, you know, I suppose I should be able to answer them better but...
You've been given an OBE and you've won medals. Of all the things you've won, which honours mean most to you?
Well I was given an OBE by the Queen. I suppose that was really something. And I suppose I'm a - you'd call me a royalist, I suppose because I've met them and I've dined with them. I think they're a nice family. Just the family, but I think they're too big. I think, I think they make too much of too many. And I think it's probably a good thing for the country and probably the world, they, the English you know, most of them, do think she's marvellous. Because if you go to Badminton and she's there, she brings the crowd, she brings the damn people there. And they probably think about her. I don't think anybody you can - well I suppose if you go religion you've got the Pope and he takes the place with the Pope. A lot of the people say oh well we should have the Queen in Italy and the Pope in England, you know. So what the hell. I don't know.
What does it mean to you to be Australian?
Well, you know, if you travel around the world - or you do the bits that I did - then it makes you feel proud to be an Australian, you know. And it's such a marvellous country. Well it was. I must say, it was a marvellous country until we have had so many restrictions. Because I believe, I believe that we, I, well me alone, spent some five years of my best part of my life fighting Japanese to keep this country free. Free, a free country. But you know it's not a free country any more. It's a police - it's a police state. [VISION ENDS] You get in your car, you don't put that damn seat belt on... you are fined. You ride a push bike, you don't have a helmet on, you're fined. Lots of things today, if you give in a motor and you're over a certain speed you're bloody well fined. And you tell me this is a free country any more, you are a damn liar.
[end of interview]