VETERAN journalist Philip Williams, 64, has been a welcome and regular fixture in our living rooms for many years.
Throughout his long and distinguished career as a foreign correspondent with the ABC he’s reported on all manner of atrocities; wars, riots, natural disasters, murders – most significant world events in recent decades.
But one story he covered resonated more deeply than any other in his career, having a profound effect on him as a journalist and human being.
In 2004, 300 people, mostly children, were mercilessly murdered by Chechen separatists in a three-day siege at a Beslan school in Russia.
“[We were] there on the edges listening to the slaughter,” Williams said.
“When you are a father you are supposed to be able to help, but there was nothing we could do. It affected me deeply and I suffered from PTSD.
“The idea of the tough-guy, bullet-proof correspondent is ridiculous, it’s a complete myth.”
A self-described optimist, it is when humanity turns on itself, that Williams – a father of three children – found his job most distressing.
“Natural disasters are really just bad luck, but it’s the wars and the insurrections where people get killed, especially innocent people, that’s very upsetting,” Williams said.
“I’ve covered events like the Haiti tsunami and earthquake where tens of thousands of people died, but that doesn’t have the same impact because someone wasn’t responsible for that whereas Beslan was a direct terrorism attack.”
Since disappearing from in front of the camera lens, the newly retired reporter is focusing his energies on the band he helped form 27 years ago.
Willie and the Correspondents, a roots-country-folk band that calls Hall village home, started after a living-room conversation between Williams, who plays blues harp, and Hugh Watson, 71, a guitarist and former private secretary to the late Senator Susan Ryan.
“Philip and his wife Carol came to our house for dinner, it was the first time we had met,” said Watson.
“I had a guitar leaning on the wall and Philip asked if I played.
“Yes”, Watson replied, picking up his guitar to strum “Helpless” by Neil Young.
When Williams joined in with “impressive” vocal harmonies and a blues harp – kept in his pocket – his wife suggested: “You should start a band”.
Two decades later, the band – originally named West Texas Crude – has recorded two albums, performed about 150 gigs and raised more than $300,000 for charity.
“We have a lot of fun,” said Watson.
“We think some of our songs are as good as anything else going around, but we are not 16-year-olds.”
The band has been joined by a variety of interesting individuals over the years, including political movers and shakers and journalists such as Greg Turnball, 65, a drummer and former press secretary to Prime Minister Paul Keating and Opposition Leader Kim Beazley.
Successful Canberra real estate agent, Matthew Herbert, 63, is on vocals and lead guitar. Bass player Peter MacDonald, 65, manages IT for a government agency and has performed alongside musical royalty like The Seekers and John Farnham.
Keen to share their passion for music with others, the band – which has rehearsed every Tuesday night for more than 25 years – believes music has a way of “bringing people together”.
“It’s a men’s shed with music,” said Watson who credits the band’s longevity to the strong bonds of friendship formed between members.
“We might be a bunch of old rockers, but we talk about politics and international affairs, we talk about our kids, or something a band member might be going through at the time.”
Although the tyranny of distance meant that Williams, who was based in London as the ABC’s bureau chief, wasn’t a physical part of the band for a long time, he remained connected to his fellow musicians.
With intermittent trips back to Australia, which sometimes coincided with gigs and recording, the band has been a source of escape for Williams allowing him to focus on something other than human tragedies he reported on.
However, he admitted that in 2005 the personal toll his job extracted from him was so great he couldn’t bring himself to enjoy music or the company of friends.
“I loved music but I didn’t want to be with the band at that time, I didn’t want to talk or interact with anyone,” Williams said.
“It was a classic shutdown, but I got through it.”
The band has transitioned itself from a pub cover band to one that performs ballads.
Watson, the band’s lyricist who’s written at least 100 songs, draws inspiration from his own personal stories, as well as people he meets.
One of the band’s songs “Sons of the Somme” is an ode to lives lost on the battlefield, and was inspired by a relative’s World War I diary.
The idea for “We’re free, We’re rolling” came after Watson overheard a conversation between two ex-criminals on a train bound for Sydney.
“At Goulburn two parolees jumped on board. They were talking about their time inside so I wrote about it,” Watson said.
Despite getting a bit long in the tooth, like all aspiring musicians, Willie and the Correspondents are still waiting for their big break.
“We still expect we are going to make a breakthrough,” chuckled Watson.
“I’d say we will probably be carrying on until dementia sets in,” Williams said.
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