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.