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How writers, artists, politicians and others feel about the Australian game

22 April 2016 209 views No Comment

Review of ‘Heartfelt Moments in Australian Rules Football’, edited by Ross Fitzgerald, Connor Court, $32.95 & ‘From the Outer’, edited by Alicia Sometimes & Nicole Hayes, Black Inc, $27.99.

It may seem surprising – given that internet blogging and self-publishing have afforded anyone who feels they have something to say about football – that, for a long time, there was not a lot of published fan-writing on the game. Even on Australian football, which has held many people in its grip for generations.

One of the mottos of Australian football has been Populo ludus populi, the game of the people, and it’s not as if the footy mad had nothing to say about the game and why it’s theirs, it’s that they weren’t saying it in print. There may have been a lot of beret-ed Ben Ean chat about it at Jimmy Watson’s winebar but that wasn’t reaching a larger audience. Godard? A Saint?

In those days, newspapers ran occasional pieces by fans and there were columns by writers and journalists who loved the game , or thought it worth writing about , notably Garrie Hutchinson in the early 1980s, Barry Dickins for many years in ‘The Melbourne Times’, and Brian Matthews, who wrote about following footy from the Adelaide Hills. Martin Flanagan, since he began writing in the mid-1980s in ‘The Age’, has straddled a number of worlds: footy fan and footy lover, sportswriter, and cultural and political analyst. Flanagan’s genius has been to help us think about why sport, especially footy, means so much to so many.

In 1988, historian, social commentator and mad Collingwood supporter Ross Fitzgerald teamed up with writer and academic Ken Spillman to publish a collection of footballia by well-known writers, poets, journalists, academics and others. Called ‘The Greatest Game’, it was manna from heaven for the contemplative footy lover. It was entertaining, engaging , and encouraging.

As I read it, I was punching the air. My obsession was being justified and explained. There were people on the planet , whose life calling had been to think and to create , who took footy seriously. I was reassured. Even Manning Clark weighed in. At the football, he wrote, “there is a chance we can learn a little bit about what goes on in the human heart”.

Two new collections of football writing add to the tradition cultivated by ‘The Greatest Game’ and those early scribes; a tradition that has been developed by many writers and academics since. (There is now a Football Studies Unit at Victoria University and a Football Research Collective).

The first, ‘Heartfelt Moments in Australian Rules Football’, is edited by Ross Fitzgerald. It is close in spirit to his original collection but essays come from a squad of new writers. (Barry Dickins is in there again, a permanent resting rover in the forward pocket of life , I am a fan of his whimsy). Many of the pieces feature memoir, the narratives providing a lens into footy’s significance. In some cases, whether the writer intended it or not! They represent an older world, where meaning and understanding are central to life, where history and philosophy matter, and some pieces will resonate powerfully with those still trying to make sense of the twin influences of church and varsity.

There are essays by Phillippa Power on the Swans, family and hope; by footy folk such as John Birt, Peggy O’Neal, Mickey O’Loughlin, Frank DiMattina, Brian Dixon and Andrew Ireland; by footy-loving politicians, including Jeff Kennett, Chris Bowen (on Greater Western Sydney), Julie Bishop, Josh Frydenberg and John Elliot; and by thinkers and commentators such as Michael Gordon, Gerard Henderson, Geraldine Doogue, and Robert Pascoe. James Gilchrist and Matt Zurbo add flavour. George Pell gets a run.

The second is ‘From the Outer: Footy Like You’ve Never Heard It’ edited by arts all-rounder Alicia Sometimes and writer Nicole Hayes. The stories come from a diverse range of (mainly) younger writers. Some are written, as the editors explain in the introduction, “from the perspective of those who love the game even when the game hasn’t always loved them”.

When Miriam Sved fell in love with a woman who adores Collingwood, she wondered how she could ever be involved with footy. But she started to get it. “As soon as I was inside the story , as soon as I cared , the game became hypnotic.”

Jason Tuazon-McCheyne’s experience is illustrative. After some deeply saddening and troubling experiences, he proposed an LGBTI supporters’ club and helped to establish the Purple Bombers.

There are many wonderful pieces: Tony Birch on the death of Fitzroy; Demet Divaroren on the footy experience of a child of Turkish migrants; Van Badham on the intersection of life and footy; Anna Spargo-Ryan’s piece, so delightfully Adelaide; Christos Tsiolkas’ powerful memoir; Stephanie Holt’s story of family life; the inside-the-game reflections of umpire Chelsea Roffey, former Melbourne board member Bev O’Connor, communications professional Erin Riley, and current assistant coach Peta Searle.

Both books include writers who have something to say. The pieces may have their look-at-me moments but they are outshone by the gems. They start in different places (or do they?) but arrive at a similar place: that footy has captured hearts for good reason.

If I were Professor Torp of the Football Research Collective, I’d give these two collections to a prospective honours student and ask them to come up with the points of intersection, and the points of difference. These books reflect their generations. Both have their place.

John Harms is co-writer of Michelle Payne, published by MUP at $32.99

The Age & SMH, 23 April 2016

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