Touching chron­i­cle in a league of its own

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Greg Tru­man

If you hap­pen to be in­ter­ested in in­ter­na­tional rugby league minu­tiae such as the state of the game in the French vil­lage of Vil­le­gail­henc, or crave snip­pets of scan­dal from the hair-metal mu­sic world, Syd­ney writer Steve Mas­cord is your go-to guy.

Your fel­low 24 mil­lion Aus­tralians may be for­given for ex­pect­ing Mas­cord’s mem­oir to be too niche for their tastes, but that would be a mis­cal­cu­la­tion as prej­u­di­cial as ref­eree Greg Hart­ley award­ing Manly a try on the sev­enth tackle against Par­ra­matta in 1978.

Mas­cord, a vet­eran league jour­nal­ist and some­time heavy-metal mu­sic scribe, qual­i­fies as a ver­i­ta­ble trainspot­ter when it comes to his spe­cial in­ter­ests. In­deed, in Touch­stones he churns out more juicy anec­dotes than a con­ven­tion of liars.

How­ever, it’s not all mu­sic groupies and league play­ers be­hav­ing badly. At the heart of this sur­pris­ingly af­fect­ing book is Mas­cord’s dis­cov­ery in mid­dle age of the iden­tity of his birth mother and the name she had given him be­fore he was sent to live with the cou­ple who would be­come his adop­tive par­ents.

I have been friends with the au­thor, a work­ing-class boy from Win­dang in Wol­lon­gong, for more than a quar­ter of a cen­tury. As a fel­low jour­nal­ist, I have wit­nessed his evo­lu­tion into a rare, au­then­tic and con­sis­tently thought­ful voice in rugby league.

So I did not doubt ever-ebul­lient Mas­cord’s abil­ity to cob­ble to­gether a lively “life on the road” book when he first con­tem­plated this project a few years ago. He has fash­ioned an un­usual glo­be­trot­ting life­style, fol­low­ing league to cor­ners of the world where it barely ex­ists and hunt­ing down his favourite bands in ex­an­i­mate Amer­i­can towns, at Swedish mu­sic fes­ti­vals, on cruise ships and in the bars of Old Blighty. To cap­ture the tone of the tale he wanted to tell, he em­ploys a quirky nar­ra­tive tool, re­count­ing the re­sults of an un­der­tak­ing to at­tend a league game and a mu­sic con­cert ev­ery week for a year, re­gard­less of where he was at the time.

How­ever, much to his friends’ and per­haps his own sur­prise, Mas­cord’s mash of rib-tick­ling, thought­ful opin­ion on the state of sports jour­nal­ism and self-ef­fac­ing re­call of a long mis­spent youth, be­came in­creas­ingly in­formed by re­cent ge­nealog­i­cal rev­e­la­tions.

The spine of Touch­stones is the au­thor grap­pling with the mer­its of a pur­pose-built, in-the­mo­ment ex­is­tence that al­lowed him to en­gage with his he­roes, gen­er­ate friend­ships around the world and amass a stor­age-con­tainer worth of league and mu­sic mem­o­ra­bilia — and $50,000 in credit card debt.

That was the Mas­cord we knew, an eter­nal man-child will­ing to sacri­fice con­ven­tion and crea­ture com­forts for a some­what per­verted and grossly ex­tended Boy’s Own ad­ven­ture. How­ever, af­ter learn­ing de­tails of his blood rel­a­tives, An­drew John Lan­g­ley, as he was named by his birth mum, as­sertively veered from ob­ses­sively gush­ing thoughts on Guns n’ Roses, Kiss and sets of six tack­les to con­spic­u­ously con­sid­er­ing what could have been.

There is no great lament, but he makes the stir­ring ad­mis­sion that Sarah Ryan, now his wife and the woman who helped him un­cover de­tails of his bi­o­log­i­cal fam­ily, got to him just in time. They mar­ried in Ire­land last year, when Mas­cord was 47.

“I was at an end … from which she ap­peared to save me,” he con­cedes.

It doesn’t mat­ter whether you con­sider rugby league a brute’s game and heavy metal a non­sense. Mas­cord is, if noth­ing else, a no­table ex­am­ple of an un­com­pro­mis­ingly prin­ci­pled sports re­porter and writer. The broad ap­peal of his mus­ings is not the re­count of pop-cul­ture tit­bits, but wit­ness­ing his un­abashed de­sire to run at life while car­ry­ing a torch. He is a ro­man­tic in the truest sense, from his for­lorn de­sire to make league a global game to his un­likely con­tention that hair metal has played a dis­tinct role in mak­ing the world a bet­ter place.

And sand­wiched be­tween the ut­ter­ances of leaguies and re­views of vain­glo­ri­ous men play­ing loud mu­sic is a gem of a story — too briefly ex­plored — of ro­man­tic love and self-dis­cov­ery.

While Touch­stones is struc­turally jagged at times, Mas­cord writes in the best tra­di­tion of mem­oir, hon­estly lay­ing out what he thinks in or­der to bet­ter un­der­stand it. He even sum­mons the voice of his al­ter ego, An­drew John Lan­g­ley, to cri­tique his ex­cesses and short­com­ings.

Lan­g­ley, the man Mas­cord imag­ines he may have be­come had he stayed with his blood fam­ily, prob­a­bly would have gone to a pri­vate school, played the toffs’ game of rugby union, de­vel­oped a hanker­ing for in­die rock and, later as a suc­cess­ful and sta­ble adult, en­joyed Aus­tralian rules foot­ball.

“There is still time for me to be An­drew John Lan­g­ley,” he pon­ders.

Don’t do it, Stephen. The world is al­ready awash with com­pli­ant, com­pro­mised men. And be­sides, who else can we turn to for news of rugby league ex­pan­sion ef­forts in Es­to­nia? is a New York-based Aus­tralian jour­nal­ist and au­thor.

Steve Mas­cord with his sis­ter Tam­mie in the early 1970s

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