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December 29th 2012 print

Roger Underwood

Memories of Lang

The tycoon's daughter, Gina Rinehart, knows what she wants and how to get it, as the board of Fairfax Media has come to learn. The fruit does not fall far from the tree


The Hancock family is in the news again, mostly Gina, but it has reminded me of the two times in which Gina’s father Lang Hancock and I crossed paths … although he didn’t realise it on either occasion.


The first occurred one day many years ago when I was stopped at the lights at Christchurch on Stirling Highway. It was a throbbing mid-summer’s day, the temperature in the mid-40s. I used to drive a 1969 model VW Beetle in those days, and it had no air-conditioning. As I waited for the lights to turn green, I glanced casually around and saw that the car next to me was a huge silver Rolls Royce, a uniformed chauffeur at the wheel. Sitting in the back was the instantly-recognisable figure of mining magnate and billionaire Lang Hancock. He was wrapped in a heavy blanket to keep the chill of the Rolls’ air-conditioning at bay, and was smoking a large cigar. I remember thinking that this vision  epitomised wealth.

But I did see another example. My brother was a member of the Kings Park Tennis Club in the early 1980s, and he and I would occasionally have a game there on a weekday. On one such occasion I became aware of an unusual game of doubles across on the centre court, and after I while I could not help but stop to watch. Three of the players were young, athletic and very stylish players; the fourth was in his 60s, stocky, with horn-rim spectacles and wearing long white ‘creams’ in the style of the 1930s champion Big Bill Tilden. The tennis was interesting, with lots of sharp volleys and neat winners.

My brother explained: this was Lang Hancock and it was one of his regular weekly games, always on the centre court. Lang loved his tennis and was a member at Kings Park, but having become a billionaire he no longer favoured the ragbag standard of ‘social tennis’ on a Saturday afternoon, or playing on the back courts. So he arranged his own games. This he did by hiring three professional tennis players to make up the four and paying for the centre court to be prepared for his exclusive use. Lang would pay the young pros to play with him once a week for a two hour session.

I talked about this to a friend who had been a club pro back in those days, and he knew all about the Hancock gig. Among themselves, the pros had a pact about how to play: they would keep the rallies going, bringing Lang into things and subtly making him look good, right up until the moment when they got a really easy put-away. Then they would put it away … always remembering, of course, not to drill the man with the cheque book.

Lang was a better than everage tennis player, although no longer very active, and was a pleasant partner and fair sportsman. To the club pros of the day it was an easy dollar, but it was also fun, and they enjoyed the games. Lang no doubt knew they were indulging him, but did not let this affect his enjoyment.

There is an old saying that money cannot buy happiness. On the other hand, I can confirm that it can buy a nice car and a challenging game of tennis. Both of these might be considered by people who have everything else, to be a hallmark of happiness.

Roger Underwood is a former firefighter and a district and regional manager with the Forests Department in WA