Touching chronicle in a league of its own
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