If you live in Melbourne I’ve heard, you must have an AFL (Australian Football League or Aussie Rules) football team. There are those who tell me they survive without it, but if you are new to Melbourne it probably helps your integration to take an interest. Consequently, when Son Gums chose Melbourne for his home in 2009, he decided he’d better choose a team. He did. I, though, had managed to remain an AFL-virgin until this weekend when Mr Gums and I agreed to accompany him to a game. (After all, I dragged him along to lots of “experiences” when he was young. It’s only fair, I thought, that I should give him the same respect I demanded of him!) I’m glad I did, not just because it is part of local culture but because I found it more interesting (for several reasons) than I expected … And, anyhow, now I can tick it off my list.
It also got me thinking about representations of the game in Aussie literature. There are a lot of references to AFL in Aussie popular culture, as Wikipedia tells us, but I thought I’d just list a few that I’ve experienced. Here goes:
- Barry Oakley’s A salute to the great Macarthy (1970). I was young when I read this novel so I remember little, but it did also become a movie, in 1975, during the 1970s Australian film renaissance. It’s about the “kidnapping” of a young local footballer, Macarthy, by the South Melbourne Football Club.
- David Williamson’s The club (1977) is more memorable. A play by one of Australia’s best-known and most popular playwrights, it deals with politics in the administration of a club. Collingwood was apparently its inspiration, though it is not named in the play. It too was made into a movie – in 1980. The plot commences with a coach contracting a young player who does not, initially anyhow, perform well. Cracks and jealousies start to show …
- Mike Brady’s “Up there Cazaly” (1979) is a popular song. Perhaps a stretch for inclusion here but I think there’s an argument for allowing song, as a form of verse or poetry, to be discussed in this forum. Whether you like football or not, whether you are into popular song or not, chances are you’ve heard this song if you’re Australia. According to Wikipedia, it’s named for an Australian rules football catchphrase that was used by St Kilda teammates when they wanted early 20th century St Kilda and South Melbourne great Roy Cazaly to hit the ball clear. Long before it became a song it was used by Aussie soldiers during World War II. I didn’t know that before!
- Paul D. Carter’s Eleven Seasons (2012) won The Australian/Vogel Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript by an author under 35 years old. It’s a coming-of-age story about a teenager and the role football and family play in his development in 1980s-90s Melbourne. Tensions develop when the teenager’s mother doesn’t share his obsession with the game! (I’ve lied somewhat in including this one. I haven’t read it, but I remember its winning the award. It intrigued me.)
- Anna Krien’s Night games (2013) is the only work I’ve reviewed here. Best described as narrative-non-fiction it explores football culture in relation to sex, power and women via the actual trial of a young footballer accused of rape. A powerful book, it resonates wider than football in terms of its analysis of celebrity, sex and the meaning of consent, but AFL football and the way it deals with gender is its core.
What is interesting about these works is the light they shine on Australian masculinity. Except for the rah-rah nature of “Up there Cazaly”, which was intended as a promotional song, the works I’ve named pose questions about masculinity as depicted in the world of football. There is a lot that is good about team sport, and football (all codes, I suspect) can provide a supportive network for (sometimes vulnerable) young men. Michael Sollis and the Griffyns showed this for Rugby League in their Dirty Red Digger performance, and the American TV series Friday Night Lights showed something similar for American football. But what bothers me is that, handled poorly, football can also bring out the worst in men. It can over-emphasise competitiveness to the point that winning overrides being fair and just, and it can value, and consequently promote, machismo over sensitivity and empathy. As a topic for literature, then, it has plenty of meat. I’m not surprised that writers have chosen to write about it. Do you read literature with sport as its theme? If so, do you have favourites?