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Monday musings on Australian literature: It’s all about sport, or is it?

July 30, 2012
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I’ve written previous Monday Musings on themes and motifs in Aussie literature – like the lost child, the beach, mountains and even sheep – so, with the Olympics now on, it seemed appropriate to add sport to this list.

Whether we all like it or not, Australia has somewhat of a reputation for being a sports-focused country. We’ve had our moments in the sun as a cricketing nation, a tennis nation, a swimming nation, a golfing nation, and so on. We’ve even won the Tour de France and the America’s Cup! Given all this, I started to wonder last weekend about how sport has been presented in our literature … and I must say I struggled to come up with many examples (from my own reading anyhow). This will be a short post, methinks, but it has to be done!

My first encounter with sport in Aussie literature was in my childhood, through ballads. My two favourite examples are Thomas E Spencer’s “How McDougall topped the score” (1898) and Banjo Paterson‘s “The Geebung Polo Club” (1893). The former is a comic poem about a country cricket match between two towns. It celebrates the triumph of the underdog (a popular Aussie theme) through (bush) cunning. While Spencer’s poem is about one of Australia’s most popular sports, “The Geebung Polo Club” is about a far less widespread sport, polo (of course). Polo works as an effective vehicle for depicting another common theme in Australian culture, the ordinary man versus the toff (which, in this poem, is compounded by the country versus the city conflict). The ballad also celebrates the “never say die” spirit, and is what I’d call a tragicomedy. I can’t resist giving you a flavour:

Here are the Geebungs:

But their style of playing polo was irregular and rash –
They had mighty little science, but a mighty lot of dash:
And they played on mountain ponies that were muscular and strong,
Though their coats were quite unpolished, and their manes and tails were long.

And here is a description of their opponents, the Cuff and Collar team:

For the members were distinguished by exclusiveness and dress.
They had natty little ponies that were nice, and smooth, and sleek,
For their cultivated owners only rode ’em once a week.
So they started up the country in pursuit of sport and fame,
For they meant to show the Geebungs how they ought to play the game;

You get the drift, I’m sure.

The next work dealing with sport that comes to my mind is a play (later made into a film) by Australia’s best known contemporary playwright, David Williamson. Much of his work is satirical and his play The club (1977) is a great example. The sport in question is a particular type of football, Australian Rules, and the play explores the tensions between commercialism and traditional club loyalties, which, reminding me of “The Geebung Polo Club”, also translates into an exploration of class conflict. More broadly, though, it is about the struggle for power, something Williamson explores in other settings besides sport.

Okay, so I’ve discussed a couple of poems (ballads) and a play, but when I turn to literary fiction my mind goes pretty blank. There is Tim Winton‘s Miles Franklin Award winning novel Breath (2009). It’s about surfing, and is primarily about masculinity and risk-taking. Winton’s interest is more psychological than the socio-political explorations of the other works I’ve mentioned. And there’s Gillian Mears‘ recent novel, Foal’s bread, about horse high jumping. As I wrote in my review, I loved the way it, like Breath, introduced me in the most visceral way to a sport I have never experienced. It draws on some of the themes from those 19th century ballads – in particular the hardship of country life – but while they tend to romanticise the lives they depict, Mears’ work, while having an element of the heroic about it, also deals with the struggle to survive, psychologically as well as physically.

There are many novels in which sport appears (like say, Craig Silvey’s Jasper Jones) but not many, that I can dredge up, for which sport provides the principal setting. Is this because sportspeople and writers tend to be diametrically opposed? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, and whether you have any favourite novels in which sport is centre stage.

31 Comments leave one →
  1. July 30, 2012 9:11 pm

    I’m trying but I can’t really come up with a sport-themed book I’ve loved. Is this an aversion in my reading? I’ve written several stories that touch upon sailing and the love of water, but not sport-filled at all. Odd as I consider myself pretty sporty – hang on I’ve just remembered a story about reckless snowboarders (which I am not!) but this probably reflects an interest in mountain landscapes!

    • July 30, 2012 10:47 pm

      Oh thank you Catherine … I bet some will come up with something I’ve missed but I’m so glad I’m not way off beat. I clicked PUBLISH in trepidation that my blank mind was leading me astray!

      Reckless snowboarders sounds exciting?

  2. Diane Harper permalink
    July 30, 2012 10:08 pm

    A River Runs Through It (fly fishing), Norman Maclean; Seabiscuit (derby horse), Laura Hillenbrand; The Natural (boxing), Malamud; The Black Stallion (horse racing series for children), can’t remember the author; Into Thin Air (climbing Mt. Everest) Krakauer; The Great American Novel (weird/satirical baseball team), Philip Roth; those are the ones I can remember that were pretty good.

    • July 30, 2012 10:53 pm

      Oh good ones, Diane, thanks … sounds like the US is more of a sporting nation than we are! A river runs through it kept running though my mind as I was trying to think of Aussie novels.

      I probably wouldn’t include Seabiscuit – a book I absolutely loved – because it’s nonfiction and I was focusing here on fictional portrayals. We have many, many sporting biographies, autobiographies, and histories over here – I’m not sure we have one to match Seabiscuit though.

  3. Matthew Todd permalink
    July 30, 2012 10:51 pm

    Paul D Carter’s Vogel winner this year was the most in-depth novel about AFL I’ve ever read. It almost made me want to learn more about the sport.

    Almost. I’m from Sydney, after all… 😉

    • July 30, 2012 10:55 pm

      Ah Matthew … I think I had read about that novel, but not having actually read it, and its being new, I completely forgot it. Thanks for telling me.

      Must be a good book too !

  4. July 31, 2012 1:11 am

    You mentioned Breath, which reminds me of Puberty Blues — would you call that a sports novel? And Deadly Unna is a book about footy, and Bruce Dawe’s poem Life Cycle is one that I love — the dying Victorian croaking, “Carn, carn …” Isn’t there a series of kids’ books about a footy player? Specky … (I look it up) … Specky Magee. “Simon “Specky” Magee is the titular character of the novels. … He is incredibly skilled at Aussie Rules footy, mainly as a full-forward, but also occasionally as a wingman, centre-half forward or even centre-half back,” says Wikipedia.

    • July 31, 2012 8:20 am

      Thanks DKS … I considered Puberty Blues … I think it’s borderline but it’s setting is surfing culture isn’t it which I think does qualify. But, I decided in the end to not go down the youth/children’s path … perhaps I should have. I’ve heard of Deadly Unna … Is it good do you know? I must check out Dawes’ poem.

      • Matthew Todd permalink
        July 31, 2012 8:05 pm

        Deadly, Unna? is a great novel – I loved it as a teenager. And it was turned into a quite good film called Australian Rules.

  5. carolyn Ikuta permalink
    July 31, 2012 6:14 am

    This was a hard task Sue—especially since I assumed that you were looking for the sports theme only in Australian literature. Regardless of country, I was pulling a blank. However, the first poem that came to mind was Casey at the Bat with its theme of hubris and disappointment. There is also the football themed Friday Night Lights. I haven’t read the book upon which it is based,…but it was a great football themed movie and show.

    • July 31, 2012 8:25 am

      Thanks Carolyn … Yes, because this Monday series is Australian lit, that was my goal … But I love commenters to look st my topic from their own angle. I think I’ve heard Casey at the bat … Good sporting themes, hubris and disappointment.

      There’s a lot of sporting movies here but most of the ones I could think of were based on biographies and histories rather than fiction… Made me wonder whether sporting stories can be so incredible that fiction feels it can’t compete, that no one would believe them!

  6. July 31, 2012 12:47 pm

    Interesting and timely post. I seldom look to lit. with a sports theme, so all the titles you mentioned here are new to me. As I watched the Opening Ceremony, I was thrilled to see Danny Boyle pay tribute to English literature and Children’s lit. in particular, incorporating those content into an Olympic Opening seen by the whole world.

    • July 31, 2012 4:14 pm

      Oh yes, good point Arti … it was wonderful (though I didn’t see JA mentioned!). It certainly reminded me what an amazing contribution the Brits have made to children’s literature as you say.

  7. Sharkell permalink
    July 31, 2012 2:41 pm

    I just finished reading Gold by Chis Cleave, written about cyclists training and competing for the Olympics. That’s about the only one that comes to mind.

    • July 31, 2012 4:16 pm

      Thanks Sharkell – and welcome! It’s great having another added to the list. Did you enjoy the book?

  8. Annette permalink
    July 31, 2012 6:12 pm

    This year’s Vogel award winner Paul Carter’s Eleven Seasons focuses on AFL – Hawthorn and is a great read, even though I’m not into AFL at all. Malcolm Knox has also written one about surfing, but haven’t read it and can’t remember the title…

    • August 1, 2012 12:00 am

      Thanks Annette – and welcome to WG! I do like to read Vogel Award Winners but I haven’t read this year’s. AFL is not something I’m into. Then again, I’m not into surfing either and I loved Breath so that wouldn’t put me off.

  9. July 31, 2012 6:15 pm

    Strangely, I cannot think of a single story or novel I’ve read themed around sports, at least in English. In Bengali, my language, I’ve read a famous book called Koni, about the struggles of a young swimmer, but that’s it.

    • July 31, 2012 11:09 pm

      Strange isn’t it Amritorupa, given the wonderful drama and narratives that are intrinsic to sport.

  10. Sarah permalink
    July 31, 2012 8:08 pm

    I remember enjoying Life Cycle at school, with thanks to Pykk I will have to revisit it.

    I enjoyed The Gift of Speed by Steven Carroll, in which the adolescent main character Michael is obsessed with the Windies cricket tour one summer.

    Miriam Sved has written some involving AFL themed stories in Overland & Meanjin- Matter for example is highly recommended.

    My childhood idol Morris Gleitzman made my cry with Boy overboard, the story of soccer-obsessed Jamal and Bibi.

    I haven’t read Malcolm Knox yet, but I know his novels are big on sport- The Life has surfing, Jamaica swimming and A Private Man cricket.

    And boxing is central to Power of One.

    • July 31, 2012 11:13 pm

      Thanks Sarah, a great haul … I know pretty well all those authors but not the particular novels you list.

      I nearly included The power of one in my list … So I was waiting for someone to suggest it.

  11. July 31, 2012 9:14 pm

    Not a lot of fiction, no. My favourite non-fiction sports book featuring Australia would have to be ‘Bodyline Autopsy’ by David Frith.

    Then again, I am English… 😉

  12. July 31, 2012 9:15 pm

    Oh, just read Sarah’s comment – The Gift of Speed, The Gift of Speed, the Gift of Speed!!!

  13. July 31, 2012 11:45 pm

    The only Australian book I can think of that involves sport is that childhood favourite of mine, Peeling the Onion, where the main character had been a karate champion! Sport clearly isn’t a thematic I’m drawn to 😉

    • July 31, 2012 11:58 pm

      Karate … now that’s one I hadn’t really thought of … love the title, and I do remember it being in your bookcase. I’m not naturally drawn to sport as a fiction setting and yet sport – like war, really – can provide a great setting for exploration of drama and human behaviour can’t it?

  14. August 2, 2012 1:41 am

    Seems like I read more novels that featured sports when I was a kid. As a grown up, not so much interested. Though US writers seems to be fascinated by baseball I’ve never been interested enough to read any of them.

    • August 2, 2012 6:49 am

      That’s interesting Stefanie … I don’t recollect sports based novels when I was a kid, unless you call ballet a sport! My daughter, Hannah, who commented here had a favourite though.

  15. August 24, 2012 6:12 pm

    While not an Australian novel, I really enjoyed the way Joseph O’Neill’s ‘Netherland’, uses cricket as a means to frame larger discussions around post colonialism and immigration.

    • August 24, 2012 6:57 pm

      Welcome Lee … non-Australian novels are more than welcome in the responses to my Aussie posts. I don’t know Netherland, but it sounds like an intriguing book – cricket would work well for that purpose I imagine.

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