(Edited extracts from a memoire still in preparation).
If we are busy in a profession or business, or in raising a family or running a farm, we will most probably just get it badly wrong if we allow that fact to dominate our lives to the exclusion of other things we might do not just to enjoy life but to justify our existence and have something to leave to those who come after us. Some things in life have been fundamental to me. I regard them as essential. What might be classified as ‘diversions’ can be dealt with later.
People like me are so fortunate to have been born when and where we were. People who happen to get on in a profession or business, and make something of their lives while making a living, are even more fortunate. It does I think help if you have got your hands dirty or had your nose rubbed into it on the way up. That way, you are better placed to recall just how supremely lucky and blessed you are – preferably every day.
The great German scholar and historian, Mommsen, knew this well, but the remark may be surprising coming from someone of such profound scholarship.
When man no longer finds enjoyment in work, and works merely in order to attain enjoyment as quickly as possible, it is a mere accident that he does not become a criminal.
As ever, we don’t need to get bogged down in or misled by labels. Like ‘leisure’. Or ‘drama’. Sometimes we revel in drama.’ Other times it’s the last thing we need. For ‘drama’, the Compact Oxford English Dictionary offers the ultra-prosaic ‘an exciting series of events.’ We might hope for drama in a World Cup Final. In giving birth or burying a member of the family, it’s the last thing that we look for. We might enjoy the drama – the excitement – of pulling something tricky off in our profession or business, but the theatre is not the only place where we go for drama outside of working hours. Put differently, we might experience ‘theatre’ in a different arena to a building in the West End or Broadway. We might feel some sense of drama if not theatre in a sporting arena, a concert hall, an epic poem, a classic of historical writing, a lecture theatre, a law court, a restaurant, a surgery, or a mountain top at dawn or dusk – or the Iguazzu Falls, the Grand Canyon or the Bungle Bungles – or a loved one – a dog, say – getting close. We don’t need or want to be imprisoned behind the bars of categories made by other people which can look arbitrary, or petty, if not downright perverse.
We especially don’t need to get put off by labels like ‘highbrow’ or ‘lowbrow.’ If you prefer dogs to cats, Elvis to Mozart, footy to opera, that’s fine. Whether you are either a player or spectator, sport can offer high drama in a form of theatre. The difference between football and cricket and Hamlet and La Traviata, is that the sport is played for real, no one knows how it might end, and it involves, for better or worse, a more active form of communion from people in the community.
It is fine leaving the opera house after a wonderful performance of Figaro. It is altogether a different thing to leave the MCG after Collingwood has beaten Melbourne in the footy or Australia has been England in the Ashes. We are speaking of different worlds that do not bear any comparison. You might as well ask if Jonas Kaufman is as good as Pat Cummins, or if Ash Barty is as good as Ann Sophie Mutter.
For people who know neither God nor the traditional theatre, sport may be the only version of theatre in town. And when it is put on as well as it is in the city of Melbourne, it defines the sense of community in that great city. You can just about taste it in the air on Boxing Day, the Grand Prix, Grand Final Day, or Melbourne Cup Day. It is hard to think of any other city that comes close. And it is vital for any city to foster that sense of community and belonging across the city. A city is just community writ large.
We might reflect further on the ‘drama’ involved in the arena and in the theatre. Humanity has sought release or relief in each from before the beginning of written history. Our fascination with the sporting arena goes back well beyond the ancients. They went in for all sorts of games. In introducing the subject of racing, Edward Gibbon invited his readers to go back to Homer – about, say, 800BCE. ‘Read and feel the twenty-third book of the Iliad, a living picture of manners, passions, and the whole form and spirit of the chariot race.’ (The Greeks did take racing seriously. Menelaus, who had form for sulking, told a competitor ‘You’re the most appalling driver in the world’. Well, that is the prosaic Penguin translation.)
If we move forward about 1200 years to Constantinople under Justinian, there is one big change – the Greeks drove their own chariots; the Romans were spectators, while professionals drove for them. It is rather like the distinction between gentlemen and players in English cricket – or the Mille Miglia in Italy (which sported lady drivers about a century ahead of its time.). And the infamous tribal conflict between the ‘blues’ and the ‘greens’ in Byzantine Constantinople created civil strife that bordered on civil war.
Every law, either human or divine, was trampled underfoot; and as long as the party was successful, its deluded followers appeared careless of private distress or public calamity. The licence, without the freedom, of democracy, was revived at Antioch and Constantinople, and the support of faction became necessary to every candidate for civil or ecclesiastical honours.
It all makes our Blues v Maroons or the UEFA Cup Final look very tame, indeed.
It is sad that some people on either side of the divide between theatre and sport look askance at the others. Both involve people in the community coming together in pursuit of happiness and an element of ritual that each side finds pleasing. It is at best idle and at worst presumptuous to purport to measure the talent or skill or courage involved in the several forms of endeavour. Each has its own champions, myths and lore. And each serves purposes far above what Marx sniffily called the ‘opium of the masses.’ It is hard to avoid the notion of snobbery when looking at how those going to hear Wagner turn their noses up at those going to the footy – which is also the case when rugby followers are candid in their views about rugby league. For that matter, there is little other than snobbery involved in those who go to hear Cosi fan tutte looking down on those who prefer Phantom of the Opera.
So, I will start with a field where snobbery is more muted.
Writing and history
The philosophy of football (and some other sports)
For most people, professional football is a form of entertainment. The Oxford English Dictionary says that entertainment is ‘the action of occupying attention agreeably; that which affords interest or amusement.’
These are my criteria for entertainment by football – what I find entertaining in football.
As a general rule, I take a certain level of character and courage as given, and I look to be entertained by demonstrations of physical skill and aggression.
I have about an equal interest in seeing those skills shown in the cohesion and mutual loyalty of the members of the team, and in the supreme skills of better players and champions, and in freak outbursts of either.
I prefer more scoring to less. Generally, I prefer watching attack to defence. The act of scoring is likely to be the most exciting part of the game. (You do not need to be a disciple of Freud to know the impact of a climax.)
You need a scoring system that acts as a fair barometer of the relevant skills and efforts on each side, and that cannot be unduly swayed by the officials, or just luck.
You also want a system where the fans of the loser, especially the perennial loser, get some part of the excitement on the day and a vindication of their faith and their decision to go through the gate. As in the courts, the loser may be the most important person there.
I prefer to see the game flowing and to have as little interference from officialdom and as few stoppages as possible.
I prefer to watch a game where the players have to show many and varied skills across the team in ball handling and in giving and taking physical aggression. The entertainment will be at its best when you are watching superbly fit athletes with uncommon skills and raw courage and endurance.
In a big game, my priority changes – the emphasis now is on character and courage first, with the skills taken as a given. Big games are the AFL Grand Final, NRL Origin and Australia v NZ Rugby League Tests, and Australia Rugby Tests or the World Cup in Rugby. Big games are for big people. That sounds very old fashioned now, but it shows the importance of physical aggression and courage (which is one reason I am a little hesitant about following women in sports that I associate with physical aggression and confrontation).
It is good to be able to see the football played at various levels, and to see footballers represent their country internationally, or provincially.
A game that does not flow, but that is marred by stoppages, or undue emphasis on defence, or that just becomes a rolling maul, or where there is not enough scoring, is a game that does not occupy my attention agreeably and that does not afford me interest or amusement This is, therefore, a game that is, by definition, not entertaining. Boring football is therefore bad football, and we should have the right to ask for our money back.
You can test how those sorts of criteria may or may not apply to other forms of entertainment. Take opera and Formula I. Some criteria may appeal to you; some are not appropriate – you may perhaps wish to substitute drama or sex for physical aggression in opera, but not Formula I. But you can immediately see one underlying truth. After all the hype, all the back-up, all the ballyhoo, all the bullshit, and all of the science and technology, some dudes have to go out there and front the crowd and lay themselves on the line. When it comes off, they and we are better off. When it does not, we are all embarrassed.
The following are the main reasons for a decline of my interest in AFL.
They stopped playing most games on Saturday afternoon. When you followed the Demons for fifty years, you did not go to watch the football. You went for lunch and society, and to enjoy an earned and protected space. It was a bubble of therapy and peace where the football was almost incidental.
They got too defensive and they started kicking the ball backwards. This is boring and therefore bad. I was genuinely enthralled by the first two AFL games one year, but wise commentators forecast that they would go back to their bad old ways – and they did. There was just too much scrappiness broken by occasional rays of light.
Melbourne suffered from the curse of Norm Smith after the MCC fired the most successful coach in VFL history in 1965. It is not just that they kept losing – for the most part they were just not in the race. After about two generations, the dead horse factor really gets to you.
The old tribalism has been weakened, and the new one is not the same for people of my generation.
There is too much money, too little loyalty and respect for the jumper, and too much ballyhoo and bullshit. TV is supreme, and the people who run TV tend to be neither admired nor respected. A recent survey of power-brokers in sport was dominated by TV moguls.
Victoria gets routinely ransacked to help the game go national (and we get precious little thanks for both inventing the game and then exporting it).
They stopped playing Origin games. Old-timers like me who follow weak clubs liked those games – so did their players. One of my fondest memories is that of watching Robert Flower put on an exhibition of pure grace when playing for Victoria (out at Death Valley); I also liked the needle that Whitten brought to those games, and the way that Dempsey saved us in defence, and how Skilton found out what it was like to have leading forwards. Skilton passing to Whitten for some of us would be like watching Kippax and McCabe.
By and large the commentators on air are good, but the press is awful. They might do to AFL what they have done to our politics. It looks like there are more journalists than players. Some are psychotic; some are merely feral. They are all awful in the other codes (although I enjoy the Kiwi and Springbok callers, and Stevo and the team from the north of England are a regular scream as the poor Poms take yet another predictable hiding from the Kangaroos.)
I prefer a game that does not take so long.
Collingwood gets better looked after in the AFL than Ferrari does in Formula I – and that is not a comparison that the AFL should like. (Among other things, Bernie Ecclestone was neither respected nor liked.)
If you declare an interest in NRL outside its Mick working class breeding ground, you will be met with a diverting form of snobbery; but if you get to go into the satellite burbs, you may see that this goes both ways. (You have to resort to a kind of code on these issues or you could get into serious strife.) The NRL tends to be scruffy. (I’m sorry to say that, boys, but it is true.)
The Melbourne Storm look to me to be as well managed as any franchise in the country. Their leadership on and off the field is unsurpassed. They recruit well and they hold on to their stars. They have ‘the cattle,’ therefore. Their fans are loyal. The inanity of Sydney officialdom locked the people of Victoria in right behind them, especially in the bush. They are almost embarrassingly superior to the rest of the NRL in every way – it is embarrassing because it does not reflect well on how the code has been managed.
You can get to see your players wear the colours of your country; it is sad that New Zealand are the only real competition – for the most part, the Poms are not up to it. The NRL representative and general showpiece is State of Origin which has no equal anywhere. They are definitive big games that bring the best out of the best in the players.
Those views are subject to revision after 2021. Melbourne broke the curse, and the AFL has moved to make the game more entertaining.
Before trying to apply those criteria to three codes, let me say why two others do not attract me
Gridiron (American football) is too violent and it takes too long. It does not flow. It is full of stoppages. It is so stratified that most of its players get by with very few of the skills. Only one player gets to pass to direct play – and he is almost never a black man – and the one player who can kick – in a game of football – is brought on for that purpose, and sometimes imported. This division of labour suggests that the game is played by wind-up morons. It is as provincial as AFL. It has no chance here.
Soccer was once seen to be a threat, because it is the one truly international code, but it is not taking on in this country. It is the least manly of the codes. For most Australians, except perhaps anxious mothers of small boys, it falls at every hurdle. There is not enough physical aggression or scoring, and not enough skills on show. Its fans like the drama of low scores; we like the scoreboard to be a more accurate and reliable marker of the contest, one that is less open to officialdom. A recent Grand Final was won 2:1 on a penalty given in response to what looked to be an air shot followed by a dive. Whether or not it was a dive – and the diver’s teammates admitted as much before they were gagged – it is revolting that a whole season should hang on such a call. Players in other codes ‘milk’ penalties, but the diving in soccer is as appalling as it is unmanly. The clubs appear to have put in the magnate model for the ethnic model, with shocking results at both ends. Either way, their management has been at best inept. FIFA is seen as the most corrupt and reviled body beside the IOOC, with notions of governance taken straight from Central African Casting. The Emergency Wards and Women’s Shelters in England must brace themselves for casualties when they suffer a nil-all draw in their region. English soccer is the most over-rated entertainment in the world. They have no right to call it English, but at least the pursuit of this soft, defensive, unmanly, and low scoring game keeps them week in cricket against men who play the real thing. And for that relief, much thanks. (Did Manchester City have one Englishman playing for it when it won the EPL at a cost of three billion?)
Now, let us see how the three codes left stand up against one fan’s criteria – mine.
AFL has by far the best levels of skill and the best spread of skills – by the length of the straight. It has the best blend of skill, athleticism, aggression, and courage. People who think it is a ballet for girls – typical NRL fans who want to demonstrate their inanity – have not been under a ball and not knowing where ‘God’ is, or hearing footsteps, and not knowing where Leigh Matthews was; you had a right to be afraid when the hardest hitter on the other side was their shortest and best player. It has the right level of scoring even for the loser; it is rare for the umpire to be seen as determinative – even by one-eyed fans. For some time now, the game has been expertly managed and developed – just look at their inter-state expansion beside the debacles of all the other codes. They have been brilliant in involving women, and they maintain their brand throughout the bush where it is, if anything, more closely followed than in town. It crosses the class divide like no other. Looked at objectively, it is so far ahead of the other codes as entertainment that it is embarrassing. It might be a little Australian success story.
But it is just Australian. There is no representative football – national or provincial. The game takes too long for me. It has become too clogged, stop-start and defensive. It is the captive of TV, money, and bullshit – but so is everyone else, and we will not wind the clock back. It is a tragedy – a very Australian tragedy – that the game is doomed to remain provincial, and that some of the best footballers – most of the best footballers in the country – never get to wear an Australian jumper (although the same is nearly true of the NRL).
There is a good mix of skill and aggression, although the skills are not as high or as well spread across the board. Front-on contact is more emphasized in NRL than in AFL or Rugby, but the risk of head injuries has lessened the difference. Most of the scoring comes from tries, and there are generally a few on either side. The representative games are its strength, although their mismanagement debases home and away games, and there is no real international game.
The forwards are generally hopeless as ballplayers and there are not enough play-makers – this is changing, especially in Victoria. The scrums are as much use as appendices. The video replays slow the game down without settling arguments and should be banned. (One of the reasons that you get kids to play footy is that they learn to ride the punches, and accept reverses. Videos encourage bush lawyers.) The clubs and administration behave as if only the western suburbs matter. There is a strong Neanderthal motif. They are the worst captives of class, and sex – you do not see many white women on the terraces. The commentators do not help. The administration has been spitefully inbred and inept – they have got an independent commission about 30 years after the AFL, and have been sinking all the time. The players do not behave in a way that would lead parents to send their kids their way rather than Rugby. Coaches come on to TV looking like something that the cat just brought in and they bleat – yes, bleat – about the umpire. This is just one example of why the AFL brand is so much stronger. And the threat of lasting injury is worse in this code. For all its simple, visceral attraction, NRL has marks of possible extinction. I have trouble seeing how it can be played lawfully – by taking proper care for the welfare of the players – under the rules as they now are. But the more they limit big hits, the more vulnerable they become to the AFL.
It is truly international, and it is better for boys because it is so much easier to play. Even slow tubby boys have a place.
Too many of its backers and writers are seriously up themselves. There is hardly any football skill required for most of the team. The forwards could not get a kick in a stable. There are two few play-makers and too many dopes and thugs. There are not enough tries. There is not enough excitement from continuous play. Too much scoring comes from penalties. The referee has far too much to say, and generally on grounds that we cannot see. The scoring system is awful. The game stops all the time. They even stop for injuries. How much football, if that is what it is, do you get in one game? The TMO could kill the game cold. There is too much of a premium on kicking, where only one player in a side may be able to kick. Scrums and line-outs are a sad boring joke for people who play the real thing, and could anything be more boring than watching scrums being put down – repeatedly? In the result, some Rugby World Cup games are just boring. Yet the snobbery on display is unbelievable. This code is even more over-rated than soccer – and that is a very large statement.
Now, all this is subjective – emotive even – and obviously raises issues of taste. We come to footy the same way that we come to God. It just depends on how you are brought up – it depends on where and when you were born. The most devout Melbourne supporter would be a most devout Collingwood supporter if he had been born north of the river to true believers, just as the most devout Catholic would be a most devout Muslim if he had been born in Mecca. But the fact that either faith is purely an accident of history does not prevent its adherents hanging on to it – as indeed an article of faith – and with passionate intensity – and a profound moral conviction. The more irrational is the inception of the adherence, the more passionate is the faith – more so now for footy than for God for most people – for better or for worse.
And as Loyola and Freud have taught us, they are locked in forever by about the age of eight. Very few people in Australia ever swap codes – we in Australia are a deeply conservative lot who are scared of change – and no sane person ever admits to changing teams. So, I may as well be speaking Greek to someone brought up in Rugby – especially if he got his indoctrination at one of those sad colonial relics that generationally locks its young men away from women as well as at home in one of our better leafy suburbs. The outlook of that kind of chap on life will be worlds apart from that of some unreconstructed blue-collar Mick from the backblocks way out West who is not too bright, and not unknown to the Wallopers, and who was brought up on gruesome tales of League mayhem in smelly tiled boozers where there wasn’t one bloody sheilah in sight.
But some things can be measured. We can measure the energy expended, the distance travelled, and the hits given and taken, of each player. We can count the time that one team is in possession. Can we measure the energy spent by the team defending as against energy spent in attack? We cannot measure grace or courage, but there is one thing that we can measure – just how much time the game is stopped for, and how much time the buggers out there actually get to play what they call footy. One recent report said that an AFL match runs for two hours and the ball is in play the whole time; NRL is eighty minutes and the game is in play for sixty; in rugby you get little more thirty minutes. That is death if you are competing for spectators. As I follow it, Australian Rugby has to toe the line from up North – where there is no real challenge in the oval ball sphere.
And we can make a start on measuring skills. We could give a skill-loading – like degrees of difficulty in diving – to marking, kicking, passing and so on, and see what codes show more skill on the afternoon and show what players have hardly any skills at all to show. (If players were paid by their skill loading, rugby forwards could not afford the bus fare home.) But first, we could get the stats from major games, and see how many points came from tries and how many from penalties – and then repeat the exercise for other competitions and other codes.
It would be good to do it on small scale. Take three champions from each code. Then just track as best you can their various contributions from week to week. An element of subjectivity would come into it over hits and ‘speccies’ – the things that the crowd live in hope for – and game-changers, but it should even out.
For the AFL, I would like to see a ban on kicking backwards, and consideration given to looking at the kind of rule in Gridiron or League that says that if you have not promoted the ball beyond a certain distance after a given number of phases, you have to give it up. By their various natures, NRL and Rugby have been resistant to change – although the threat of extinction is leading to some movement.
In the 1980’s I did a lot of legal work for the VFL with the late Neil McPhee. The late Jack Hamilton was one of the most astute managers I have ever met. He told us that he thought four clubs would go to the wall. Two have – from Victoria – and my guess is that we will shed another two. I believe that the AFL will catch on in the Gold Coast and Western Suburbs – although more effort is needed.
If the nation cannot afford two rugbies, I would rather not lose the public school version. It is truly international, and is not pointing its followers in a downward direction. Not many businesses thrive by offering to take their customers down market.
The NRL needs to grow up. It will take more than one generation. The truly appalling mind-set of NRL was shown by an idiot writing that the AFL would surely fail in the western suburbs where it is known as Gay FL.
There is one complaint I have equally against the AFL and NRL. Umpires should be seen and not heard. They should be impartial judges, and not screaming fascist drill instructors who give me another reason to turn the sound off. (It is different, of course, in rugger. There Mr Fortescue politely corrects Smyth Minor on his Latin grammar.) And what bloody genius thought that it was a good idea to send out NRL refs in fairy pink and AFL umpires in bilious chartreuse? Send them out in virginal white and not looking like they have been bought or are sponsored. We do not buy or sponsor judges here.
My impression is that the big failing of the AFL is that it is legally responsible for putting on the entertainment, but it is allowing too much power to the coaches to run the game so as to detract from the entertainment. We then get this awful rolling maul that I just switch off on. The business has to be run by the governing body, not the warring clubs, as was the case in the bad old days. My guess is that we have lost AFL Origin games for much the same reason, and we have given the NRL the best free kick ever, and we have denied our best players the honour and recognition that they have earned.
For the rest – for those of us who are left to grow old – we have the memory of those afternoons when the autumn leaves were falling and this of itself brought out the smell of eucalypt and liniment – and the smell of white paint on freshly cut grass – and the sight of those stocky fifties’ men breaking through the streamers, spitting on their hands, and waiting to play their part in this great celebration of ritual at this peculiar and monstrous temple of theirs that some call the Shrine. Real Anzacs – Brylcream, basin-cuts, and all – but less tats back then.
You could just about smell the bloody game – and the Foster’s and the Four ‘n Twenties and the Rosella tomato sauce. You wore black nicks at home and white away; both had buckles, and the boots had stops and ankle covers; anyone who suggested that you could change the colours of the jumper was a dangerous lunatic and possibly a communist or otherwise most dubiously pink. All men and boys on both sides of the fence were equal for the cherished time allowed to them in that heaving, manly bubble. The boys would grow to manhood in the shadow of their heroes, a Saturday arvo rite of passage.
It was a time when every second kid at the Glen Iris State School wore an Essendon jumper with number 10 on his back, and when enlightened parents took their kids to the Lightning Premiership so that they could tell their grandchildren that they had seen the great John Coleman. (He is not now celebrated enough – he kicked twelve goals on debut.) My folks took me one year – about 1953, I suppose – and Coleman marked about forty yards from me. Kids don’t forget that kind of thing. Coleman was up there with Phar Lap.
It was a time – 1956? – when a ten-year-old kid at a Grand Final with more than 100,000 there would be terrified by being carried off his feet under the parapet at the old scoreboard, and a big, kind man would lean over, and reach down, and just reef the poor little bugger (me) out.
It was a time when you got used to being hoarse after the first couple of matches, but when number 31 for the Redlegs (Barassi) obviously sat on the right-hand side of God, or at least was proof positive that God exists. And even the down sides had champions – like Peter Box at Footscray or Freddie Goldsmith at South.
You kicked a paper footy where immortal giants had just been, and you went home knowing that God was in his heaven to listen to Chicken, Butch and the Baron on the Pelaco Inquest and the London Stores show. And if you had won, you might just shout yourself a Pink Comic (the Sporting Globe) to celebrate. And on the Monday, you could start getting ready for the next round.
And then there was TV and then there was World of Sport – and the Sunday roast after the lawns were mowed. Bliss, pure bliss. And then there was the VFA of the day, and you would ring up at half time demanding to know when the fights would start. (And on a bad day, the Channel 7 switchboard lady might query your sobriety.)
And in spring, you would climb those same stairs in the old Southern Stand, and gaze on a completely different arena – a vast see of green peopled only by thirteen men in cream. A different crowd in a different ground – but Boxing Day would bring the grudge match against the convicts – and when Gordon Rorke bowled the first ball, the bloke who had brought you, a mate of your old man, stood up and informed the whole bloody crowd: ‘That bloody Irish bastard throws the bloody ball.’ (For a lay preacher and a judge’s associate, his language was very rough.)
And could anything ever compete with Lillee and Thompson serving it right up to the Poms at Melbourne’s other shrine?
All these vast public displays form part of the character – the fibre if you like – of the City of Melbourne.
And outside of cricket and footy, you had Laver, Landy, Thompson, Rose, Brabham, and Carruthers. You took it for granted that God’s country would give the world the best – and you felt desperately sorry for all those poor bastards overseas who would never even get to see Barassi.
And what about those dreary days at Kardinia Park with the flat hats; and those days at Arden Street or the Junction Oval, when you bent your heads backwards all day to watch bombs from Glendinning or Super-boot fly over? Or that day at Coburg – Coburg! – the end of the world was nigh! – when Phil Gibbs asked you on camera about the sacking of Norm Smith – and you were still getting over the Grand Final and the Frog’s response to Gabo’s two goals that had nearly landed in your lap? And even the Zog – my mum, Norma – was stressed, although more decent than you or Wally Burns had been in the standing area leading up the 1964 Grand Final.
Or that day in the fifties when you went to Windy Hill – that thrice blasted heath – with a mate, whose eye will fall on this note, and his dad. Close game. Beckwith, as was his wont, kicked the ball out all day with impunity. Right on the bell, a Bomber does the same – probably by accident. Brrrrrring! A portly little Hitler-bludger scurries in bumptiously and points to the spot in an imperious Baptist kind of way. Athol Webb, number 15 – decoy full forward – goes back and coolly slots it from the boundary line about 55 yards out. Demons home by two points. Dies irae. Dies bloody irae! ‘Stow that bloody Demon scarf, Son, keep your eyes to the front, don’t make eye-contact – this could get very bloody ugly’. I still recall the train trip south. Fraught. Tricky. Tense.
Or that day about thirty years later at Windy Hill with another mate, whose eye will not fall on this note, when it was so cold out there that you could only survive death from exposure by drinking more beer, and when you are querying your sanity for even turning up for this Arctic agony, and the Bombers have a player whose name causes an underground Hottentot rumble whenever he goes near the ball, and you know that you are mad, stark raving crackers. And you go home and turn on Churchill, or music for great things beaten – Jussi Björling and another in the duet Au fond du temple saint – and your mate – your Anglo-Saxon mate who was a rower – is just bawling his bloody eyes out.
Or that sacred day of days at the Western Oval. 1987. Oh, blessed time! Hawthorn has to beat Geelong and the Dees have to beat the Doggies in the last game for us to be in the finals for the first time in 23 years. We are losing both, and we are begging the Dogs to end it quickly – like a vet giving a dog the green dream. Then number 2 (Flower) rose again; Dunstall put the Hawks up, and after an agony we are crying in our beer at Young and Jackson’s. You take your girls to training, and they ask why are you crying again? It has been a bloody long time between drinks, Girls, a bloody long time.
And then we hand out lacings to North and South. And then nemesis strikes! We have beaten Hawthorn in a brutally tough Prelim at that human graveyard near Woop Woop. Then the late Jim Stynes walks over the mark, and one of those inane crypto-fascist clowns commits the greatest war crime of all, and he hands the cherry to the only bastard on the planet who could slot it from there. Condign revenge for that sausage roll so long ago by Athol Webb, the decoy full forward, out there on the blasted heath occupied by the flying Baptists.
Ah, yes – what was the word for it all? Innocence, the lost innocence of a found boyhood, a little mirror of life held up before our shining schoolboy faces.
And then at last came the final series in 2021. A mate from school, Ross, and a mate from the Bar, Chris, had shared with me various parts of the agony since 1964. We had seen Melbourne lose more games than some people have had hot dinners. Chris was Christopher Dane, QC – the rower who had bawled over Jussi Björling. He had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. This would be his last Grand Final – if we made it. The pandemic meant that the finals, including the Grand Final, were not played at the MCG. Chris could have made it there – but not to Perth for the Grand Final. Ross and I would have attended all finals here, but we could not bring ourselves to watch the games live on TV – if someone else emailed a score, we could discuss it by that medium, and return to our Trappist cell to suffer alone and in silence. We knew Dane watched it live. The three of us watched the Grand Final live on TV and kept in touch by the ether. Dane died not long afterwards.
Well, Mate, they did it for you – and you made it to see them do it. This one is for you, Chris, and all our unshed tears.
Your testament might be in the email you sent Ross and me during the second semi-final – ‘You may be safe to turn the TV on now – they’re ten goals up in the last quarter.’
Theatre and music
Shakespeare is by now part of my fabric. I have all the plays on video and audio cassette – often multiple versions of the same play. At the start of the lock-down for Covid, I bought the full set of 38 plays on CD put out by Arkangel. It’s ridiculous. You get the plays performed in front of you by the best Shakespearian actors in the world – by far the best – and all with perfect sound – for about $10 a play. I went through them all gain – at random.
For example, the last three plays I finished were Titus Andronicus, Two Gentlemen of Verona, and Pericles (with an ageing Gielgud as Gower). None of those is in the top shelf of this playwright, but there is something that gets me in each one, and in spite of its wanton brutality, I have had a morbid fascination with Titus ever since I saw that marvellous film of it by Julie Taymor (1999). Otherwise, you can just sit there and let the sound wash over you – as you might with the Goldberg Variations of Bach – even if I sit there with my mutilated Everyman volume of the text – with pencil in hand, like a conductor. I am always struck again with the wonder of it, and I now find the musical accompaniment surprisingly important and engaging.
One night I played the first half of Midsummer Night’s Dream. I saw the famous 1970 RSC production in Melbourne, and I have seen the play in our Botanical Gardens and in the gardens of at least two Oxford Colleges. And I enjoyed the Hollywood version. This is not easy to put on film, but I thought Kevin Kline was very good as a mysteriously tragic Bottom – backed by some of the big hits of Italian opera. And I and my older daughter nearly died laughing when we saw the mechanicals, as the yokels are called, in the Australian Opera production of the Britten opera in rehearsal about thirty years ago. The Arkangel version sounds flawless to me. The range of the voices over four different levels of characters is something of wonder. They speak the lines as they breathe the air. And it is hilarious. We do not know if Chaplin, or the Marx Brothers, or the Goons saw this great comedy, but we do know that it was and is part of their and our heritage.
Opera is a different kind of theatre and entertainment – it is usually very Italian, and a great night out, or source of comfort from the Marantz.
(The rest on opera omitted.)
Enjoy the weekend – and the footy.
Theatre – drama – sport – cricket – footy – codes – snobbery.