All the el­e­ments of a war game

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Gideon Haigh

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.

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