Punter’s curse: a drinking and gambling habit of biblical proportions
WITH the horse race that stops a nation, indeed the race that now captivates the world, happening on Tuesday, I’m reminded of a time, many years ago, when I was a prodigious punter.
While I was on the booze, one of the worst questions to ask me was, “Who are you? What do you do?”
If I was playing Aussie rules football I’d say I was a philosopher; if I was with philosophers I’d say I was a footballer; with straights, I’d be gay; with gays, I’d be straight. But deep down I thought I was a writer.
In my early days in Alcoholics Anonymous, I could barely read a newspaper, let alone manage to write. I was so restless and anxious that it was years before I could sit through a movie, or go to the races, or even watch the footy and see Collingwood play.
Having subjected my body, brain, mind and spirit to such an assault, it took a long, long time to heal.
In my first few months back in Melbourne in 1969, even though I was an atheist, I taught biblical studies at Brighton High School, which was within walking distance of my parents’ home.
I’d hit on the idea in the plane in which I’d been sent back home from Cleveland, Ohio.
Biblical studies wasn’t religious instruction but an academic subject.
The afternoon I arrived to introduce myself at the school was a Wednesday. I was wearing an iridescent orange suit I’d bought in a Cleveland ghetto sale, a purple jerkin, an Isadora Duncan scarf, a heavy beard and very long hair, and riding boots.
I was bombed out on barbiturates and had been to the TAB and taken a daily double. It was a midweek race meeting at Werribee.
I asked the men in the junior male staffroom (there was strict segregation in those days) at Brighton High, “Do you mind if I listen to a race?”
I showed them my tickets. An outsider – No 12, called The Gannet, blitzed the first leg at 33 to 1. Then No 13, Gold Belle, after a breathtaking run from the back of the field, won the second leg at 15 to 1 – by a short half head.
As it happens, 12 and 13 were, and are, my lucky numbers.
In front of the men, many of them heavily in debt and with punishing mortgages, the new biblical studies master had won close to $3000.
Those who believed in God thought she had sent me.
The next week we organised a staff gambling syndicate with a direct line to the TAB.
Instead of teaching biblical studies I set myself up in the sickroom – betting on horses and trotters and greyhound dogs.
My classes were often taken by the phys ed instructor, Gordon Frank, who liked a beer or two on a hot day and who was universally known as Noddy.
Eventually we lost all our initial money, and much more besides.
While I was the biblical studies master a highly talented fellow teacher, Howard Green, who became a lifelong friend, constructed a mobile of me as a huge open mouth with a hand constantly feeding it, and a sign saying: “More. Give me more!”
Howie had hit on an element in my personality that is what some psychoanalysts call oral incorporation; that is, the attempt to devour missing goodness through the mouth.
While it may seem cruel and Freudian, or cruelly Freudian, I’ve often wondered if it was a sign of my difficulties with my mother, Edna, and my later addiction to alcohol and other drugs that, as an infant, I had been allergic to Edna’s breast milk and had to be fed goat’s milk instead.
During one lunch break at Brighton High, the deputy principal memorably said to Howie, “Oh, Mr Green, if you only put your mind to it you could be such a force in the corridors.”
When I recall my biblical studies and heady horse racing days, connected now in my mind is Henry Drummond’s ‘The Greatest Thing in the World’ – an exegesis on St Paul’s eulogy on faith, hope and love.
Even as a resolute non-believer, I was moved by the metaphor of Paul (then known as Saul of Tarsus) being struck blind on the road to Damascus.
After hearing a voice, that he acknowledged to be the word of God, he became fledgling Christianity’s greatest proselytiser.
It was in Sydney, while listening to my AA friend “Steve from Gordon”, that I first heard Paul’s letter to Corinthians 1.13 spoken with passion and meaning.
“Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love, I am nothing. Though I give all my possessions to the poor and my body to be burnt, and have the gift of all prophecy and understanding all mystery, but have not love, I am nothing. Now we see through a glass darkly; soon we shall see face to face.”
At the end of 1969 I moved from Brighton High to study for a PhD in political theory at the University of NSW, where on Australia Day 1970 I managed not just to stop drinking but to be free of all other drugs as well.
Since then I’ve had nothing in my blood but blood.
At my farewell party at Brighton Noddy proposed a toast, in lemonade: “May The Gannet strike again.”
Although I moved on to greener pastures, as far as I know The Gannet never did.
Ross Fitzgerald is contributing co-editor of ‘Australia’s Game’, a collection of writings about Aussie rules football. This article is adapted from his memoir, ‘My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey’, now available as an e-book and a talking book read by the author.
The Weekend Australian, November 2-3, 2013, Inquirer p 22