Game rules writ­ers’ hearts

Aus­tralia’s Game: Sto­ries, Es­says, Verse & Drama In­spired by the Aus­tralian Game of Football Footy Town: Sto­ries of Aus­tralia’s Game

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Gary Smith Gary Smith

Edited by Ross Fitzger­ald and Ken Spill­man Slat­tery Me­dia, 327pp, $34.95 Edited by Paul Daf­fey and John Harms Malarkey Pub­li­ca­tions, 390pp, $34.95

IN the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math of the Syd­ney Swans tri­umph­ing in an epic AFL grand fi­nal last year, pun­dits and pun­ters alike asked if it was the best de­cider in the 115-year his­tory of ‘‘ our game’’. Cer­tainly, this far from fa­nat­i­cal Aussie rules fol­lower, like many oth­ers, was trans­fixed by the late un­fold­ing drama that day.

And with Syd­ney tak­ing out the premier­ship by 10 points over Hawthorn, the emer­ald city was awash with red-and-white-clad sup­port­ers cel­e­brat­ing a mem­o­rable sea­son, along with not a few out-of-the-wood­work hang­er­son who will climb aboard the band­wagon at the least smell of suc­cess.

With this year’s fi­nals sea­son start­ing this week­end, it’s timely to con­sider the two an­tholo­gies un­der re­view, which with es­says, ar­ti­cles, verse and ex­cerpts from stage drama shine a light on the game, one that is in the main far re­moved from big-pic­ture oc­ca­sions such as that MCG clas­sic.

In Aus­tralia’s Game, edi­tors Ross Fitzger­ald and Ken Spill­man re­visit many of the ar­ti­cles they pub­lished in the oft-reprinted The Great­est Game in the late 1980s, with its man­i­festo to ‘‘ cel­e­brate Aussie rules as a form of art through our na­tion’s great­est ex­po­nents of lit­er­a­ture’’. Con­trib­u­tors in­clude his­to­rian Man­ning Clark, play­wright David Wil­liamson, poet Bruce Dawe, crime writer Peter Cor­ris and song­writer Paul Kelly.

This is sportswrit­ing at its finest, shorn of the cliches so preva­lent in the genre and ar­tic­u­lat­ing in some style the game as a mi­cro­cosm of life’s big­ger is­sues. Need­less to say, the au­thors are unashamedly pas­sion­ate about their sport­ing first love, and their ob­vi­ous en­thu­si­asm had me want­ing to hand­ball with a mate on a big pad­dock, just for the sheer joy of it.

This is a vol­ume you can dip into at ran­dom, per­haps dur­ing the half-time break, for gems such as broad­caster and some­time cler­gy­man Terry Lane’s hi­lar­i­ous story about his the­o­log­i­cal col­lege prin­ci­pal, who ev­ery Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon changed from ‘‘ gen­tle Chris­tian paci­fist’’ to ‘‘ a fas­cist, a tyrant. The Franco of the football field. Genghis Khan. Hitler. Ivan The Ter­ri­ble’’ and so on. In Drop­ping the Ball: The Orig­i­nal Sin, Lane as­serts football is the metaphor for life: cruel, hu­mil­i­at­ing and sav­age. You just get the feel­ing, though, de­spite those uned­i­fy­ing in­sights, that he loves it.

In Sic Tran­sit Glo­ria Mundi (Thus passes the glory of the world), Melbourne Demons fan Paul Kelly (never to be con­fused with the for­mer Swans cap­tain of the same name) takes a sin­gle mo­ment from a match at the MCG and turns it into a heart-rend­ing eu­logy for age­ing stars who can never re­gain their heights. Af­ter un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally hes­i­tat­ing with a clear goal in front of him, Rob­bie Flower’s golden chance goes beg­ging as he is tack­led.

‘‘ It was a weird, sick­en­ing feel­ing watch­ing Flower be­come in­evitable meat in a football sand­wich,’’ Kelly writes: an other-worldly sen­sa­tion, like watch­ing rain fall up­wards. Flower, aged 30, picked him­self up. He dusted him­self down and trot­ted non­cha­lantly back to his po­si­tion. The sud­den rent on re­al­ity closed over as quickly as it had ap­peared. The fab­ric of the af­ter­noon re­mained un­changed . . . But some­where, up in the stands, a man thought of time and age and death and di­min­ish­ment while, on the fence, two young boys in red and blue scarves and bean­ies were cheer­ing younger, fresh­er­faced heroes.

In The Sher­rin, Vin Maskell traces the evo­lu­tion of the ball it­self and his re­la­tion­ship with old and new ver­sions. Jour­nal­ist Bill Can­non teeters on the edge of a fully fledged football ca­reer in The One-Gamer. And a scene from David Wil­liamson’s play, The Club, shows that some­times the tac­ti­cal strate­gies on the field are noth­ing amid the po­lit­i­cal and busi­ness machi­na­tions of the board­room.

Footy Town, edited by Paul Daf­fey and John Harms, is a var­ied col­lec­tion of in­sights into Aussie rules at the grass­roots, and if some of the lit­er­ary as­pects are a touch blander at times, that does not de­tract from the ob­vi­ous pas­sion for the game of the 48 writ­ers rep­re­sented here. As the edi­tors note, the au­thors’ love of sto­ry­telling is ‘‘ like hav­ing three first XVIIIs for the Camp­fire Yarns Football League’’.

In­deed, many of th­ese yarns are en­dear­ing and fas­ci­nat­ing, pre­sent­ing up-close-and­per­sonal views of the game at its purest.

David En­ti­cott’s A Sea­son with Strip­per is one of sev­eral sto­ries that com­bine hu­mour with a ten­der poignancy for the vi­cis­si­tudes of our in­volve­ment in the game. En­ti­cott, a Bap­tist min­is­ter, gets lit­tle sym­pa­thy from his footy coach, Strip­per, when his church ser­vices over­lap kick-off time. ‘‘ Can’t you get mass to go faster?’’ says Strip­per. ‘‘ You’re the priest, leave out a cou­ple of prayers. No one will ever know.’’ En­ti­cott also fears he may have trou­ble ex­plain­ing to his wife the Strip­per list­ing among his phone con­tacts.

In Syd­ney Con­fi­den­tial, Ian Gran­land re­counts his ap­point­ment as chief ex­ec­u­tive of the NSW AFL days be­fore the or­gan­i­sa­tion was threat­ened by bankruptcy, and his ef­forts to turn around the league’s for­tunes. He re­alised some ‘‘ tra­di­tions’’ had to change, such as fans gain­ing free ad­mis­sion to fi­nals matches by slid­ing through a bro­ken fence. Gran­land fixes the fence, to the cha­grin of one of­fi­cial, who throws a punch at him.

In Age and Rea­son, David Bruce busts a lit­tle fin­ger that de­stroys his con­fi­dence and signals the end of his short-lived come­back to the game in mid­dle age. In The Swine, Mur­ray Bird re­calls his um­pir­ing days along­side his good mate af­ter whom the piece is ti­tled, who trains bare­foot and in­tro­duces him­self with: ‘‘ I’m The Swine and no­body likes me.’’

Footy Town is a meaty col­lec­tion of heart­felt, funny and in­spir­ing sto­ries that por­trays the game and its char­ac­ters, not only the play­ers, with af­fec­tion.

Syd­ney Swans cap­tain Jar­rad McVeigh, left, and GWS Gi­ants cap­tain Cal­lan Ward in March last year with the 2012 premier­ship tro­phy and the cap­tains from all 18 AFL clubs

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