All the elements of a war game
Over the past 20 years, the AFL has shrewdly placed its corporate watermark on Anzac Day with blockbuster matches and a backdrop of patriotic martial ritual. Part of that is driven by the propensity of the sports-industrial complex for turning games into ‘‘events’’, appropriating whatever other potent symbols happen to be lying around, however tackily. After his team’s Anzac round clash with Port Adelaide this year degenerated into a melee, Geelong player Joel Selwood obediently told an interviewer: ‘‘The Anzac spirit was really on the line out there.’’
Part of it continues something older. George Orwell’s oft-quoted description of sport as ‘‘war minus the shooting’’ isn’t one of his better lines, but it finds an echo in a tendency to see war as a kind of sport plus shooting, originating in the ancient public school notion of athletic pursuits as a form of preparation for armed conflict.
Sports reserve a hallowed corner for those gifted sons, from Australian cricketer Tibby Cotter to American football star Pat Tillman, who sacrificed lives brimming with athletic promise for their countries. Aussie rules is no exception: a lavish 2002 volume, Fallen, celebrated ‘‘the ultimate heroes: footballers who never returned from war’’. No equivalent volume has appeared about accountants or dentists.
Journalist and author Nick Richardson shies from this in The Game of Their Lives. He has no illusions about war’s waste and grisliness, no barrow to push about football having made a special contribution to World War I. Indeed, as he notes, the Victorian Football League courted militarists’ displeasure by continuing through 1914-18, as cricket and rugby union did not.
His chief subject is a game of Australian rules played at London’s Queen’s Club between one team from General John Monash’s 3rd Division and another chosen from five training units, featuring several well-known footballers, within a year of which six of the participants had been killed in action. Richardson expresses scepticism about claims that sporting prowess enriched Australian soldiering, offering reasonably that ‘‘football talent didn’t offer any protection from a bullet or a shell’’.
The strength of The Game of Their Lives lies in Richardson’s industry as a researcher. He has pursued descendants and obtained priceless primary sources; he has delved into archives, military and civilian; he has disinterred some fascinating characters and moving stories. Similar diligence pervaded his previous book The Silk Express, an excellent life of the Australian fast bowler Ted McDonald.
Unfortunately, his fingers here are too sticky. He strives to tell us everything, and sometimes rather circuitously. The Game of Their Lives begins with a prologue that could have been sacrificed with little lost. The first chapter then opens out a series of stories only loosely related, which becomes a pattern, of many characters, interesting enough in their ways, but not always advancing the narrative at an involving pace.
Early on, for example, we abruptly meet football umpire George Barry, facing a Perth court in September 1913 on a false pretences charge, who it then takes nine pages to get as far as a ship to Sydney in July 1914. Barry isn’t reintroduced until page 115, when he ships for England, disappears again until page 156, when he is an umpire in the Queen’s Club match without doing anything in particular, and is finally allocated one further paragraph on page 298.
The book grows baggy with such stories. There are jerky changes of focus between scenes, individuals and issues. It feels like every time the story is threatening to develop momentum, we’re tugged in another direction, while long stretches set the scene for drama that doesn’t quite eventuate: seven pages are allotted to the organising of an AIF sports carnival that is then disposed of in a paragraph.
The Queen’s Club match itself lasts only seven pages, and seems more in the nature of a historical curio. Richardson struggles to support his claims for it as ‘‘a showpiece of the Australian game’’ and ‘‘a piece of proud nationalism, built on the Australians’ growing confidence of their role in the empire’s war’’. Indeed it appears to have engendered cursory media interest.
Richardson cannot be faulted on his commitment or his thoroughness. The sources for The Game of Their Lives are wonderfully rich and varied. His problem has been a reluctance to exclude. Significantly condensing material about the VFL’s lacklustre wartime seasons and the familiar argy-bargy of conscription could have considerably shortened and tautened the narrative. Alternatively a single family, such as the Slosses, would have made a worthy concentrated study.
The book’s most memorable passages are where Richardson studies fragmentary newsreel footage from the game, alights on each of the figures, and brings them flickeringly to life. There is pathos to the stories of individual casualty, although no more than in any other Anzac book pulled from that bulging shelf.
As for what might be considered the Anzac question — the peculiar nobility and dash of the Australian warrior — Richardson ends up having a bob each way. He dismisses a journalist’s claim that England was ‘‘burnishing Australians not merely with the most thorough training but also the keen air of the country’’ as ‘‘mistyeyed’’ and ‘‘soppy’’, but over the page describes a clergyman’s gush about the Australian soldier’s ‘‘well-knit, muscular frame, cheerful, free-fromcare disposition and love of clean sport’’ as evincing Monash’s ‘‘understanding of what was important to Australian soldiers’’. He derides a ‘‘fiction about footballers’ physical prowess as the ideal qualification for soldiering’’, but approvingly quotes Monash citing ‘‘the influence of sport’’ on the AIF’s unique ‘‘gift for keen work’’ and ‘‘capacity for collective effort’’.
A final point might also have been made about remembrance. For decades after the first Anzac Day, the VFL expressed reverence by not playing on that day. When it tentatively began to in 1960, crowds were small and subdued.
Today’s Anzac Day football juggernaut is among the most visible manifestations of the transformation of a pause for solemn mourning into an opportunity for self-celebration, by a people almost as naive about war and celebratory of warrior culture as we were in 1914. is an author and critic.