Monday musings on Australian literature: Aussie Rules football in Australian literature

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.

Anna Krien, Night Games

Courtesy: Black Inc

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?

36 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Aussie Rules football in Australian literature

  1. I saw about ten minutes of the Fremantle-Richmond game last Friday. Which is about five minutes more than all the football I watched during the last two seasons. And I only saw that game because my parents turned it on while I was visiting them!

    So no – footy doesn’t exactly figure in my reading! Even though I’m very familiar with “The Club.”

    But I would like to add another worthy example to your list – Bruce Dawe’s “Life Cycle”. Here’s a bit of it:

    “Hot pies and potato-crisps they will eat,
    they will forswear the Demons, cling to the Saints
    and behold their team going up the ladder into Heaven….

    They will not grow old as those from more northern States
    grow old,
    for them it will always be three-quarter time,
    with the scores level and the wind-advantage in the final term.”

    • Haha, thanks Glen. The Demons were in fact one of the two teams we saw play yesterday. I noticed that Wikipedia listed a lot of poets who’ve written about football but I didn’t have time to explore them. Love that you spread some of Dawes’ poem. Now I’ll have to read it all, I can see.

  2. I am an AFL fan, go pies. I do go to the football and love the atmosphere and the team spirit both on and off the field. Though I know it can also be ugly. I don’t scan the bookshops for books on sport but I do read them. In the past I read crime racing stories by Dick Francis. I have read Night Games about the AFL, and William McInnes wrote a good story about cricket. I have also read Lance Armstrong’s auto biography. Christos Tsiolkas novel, Barracuda about swimming is also a good read.

    • Good for you Meg. I enjoy certain sports too and many moons ago watched football and cricket. But, like you, I do like reading novels and other books dealing with sport. Barracuda is a great example, and so is Tim Winton’s Breath (though it isn’t so much about organised sport). I’ve read some autobiographies too, but I can’t recollect them now.

      The ugliness was one of the things I noticed yesterday. Sitting in front of us were two fathers with their sons – around 10 years old I’d say – and the aggro, swearing, the rude gestures, and poor sportsmanship they were modelling and their kids were copying was really sad to see. My son, who likes to go to the football, hates this aspect and says this is what he is trying to mitigate in his classroom when he tries to teach good sportsmanship. What chance has he got though? One mother was there too, but she was silent. I think she probably didn’t like it a lot.

  3. Oh, Mrs Gums ! – you have overlooked my favourite author !!!
    Peter Temple writes of footy like no-one else, I promise. He fell in love with it when he arrived in Oz all those years ago, and has incorporated it ravishingly not only into his Jack Ireland novels but others, as well.
    Peter Temple is the best thing since sliced bread. Which is a misnomer or whatever, inasmuch as now that I make my own sourdough, sliced bread is simply UGH !

    • Ah MR, I have edited your post and removed your correcting comment. All now looks hunky dory. Thanks for the Temple recommendation. If I’d read any of those, or even knew about them, I would have mentioned them because I have liked the two Temple novels I’ve read. Neither of those focused on football in any way – that I recollect anyhow.

  4. M-R you got there before me! Peter Temple is not only a fantastic writer as you said but he also “gets” footy in a way that very few other writers have. I married into a fanatical Port Adelaide supporting family – Gums, you have obviously never been to South Australia in footy season either! We love our footy – it’s theatre, opera, drama all rolled into one game. Often a great force for good – the high profile of the game’s superb indigenous players has been a major force in highlighting indigenous issues of recognition, respect, racism and changing the narrative.
    So, pick a team, join the tribe and enjoy the ride!

    • Ah thanks, Jude. No, I haven’t been to Adelaide in footy season I think, though I will be there on a Saturday, very briefly, in July. Love your description of footy. I think sport in general is about drama, in that sport, and individual games themselves, are “stories” in many ways, aren’t they? Plot, character, drama, colour, etc. It’s no surprise that sport makes for good stories for writers too.

      Two recommendations for Temple. I’ll try to remember those.

  5. I’m an AFL fan and at the occasional live matches we have attended in Canberra and Melbourne I shout for my team like the rest of them. I agree about the individual games being “stories” and the season and the passing of the seasons are as well. It is a men’s game and it is played for keeps (and big money) but I think AFL tries to be more female-friendly than other football codes and I have never felt uncomfortable at a match. Girls are encouraged to play in junior teams and a national competition for women’s AFL is due to start in 2020.

    • Well you learn something new every day Judith! I didn’t! Know your interest in AFL. I must say I did like the fact that it’s not about tackling, about grabbing the man to get the ball. At half time they had lots of little games with kids going on all around the oval, and I did notice several girls playing. There may have been more than I could see, because it was mostly the long hair that gave them away. There could have been many more playing with sensible short hair!!

  6. I am fanatical about my footy and my reading, though I try to keep them separate,
    It is interesting that despite the absolute centrality of football to (southern) Australian culture that it appears only fleetingly in our literature. For instance, Tim Winton’s experience of country towns must be very different to mine as I don’t remember any of his young male protagonists ever going through the angst of being selected (or more often not selected) for and playing footy.
    The earliest mention of the game I have seen is in Furphy’s Rigby’s Romance (1905) – a spin off of Such is Life – where five or six hundred people were gathered at the Denniliquin football ground for the first match of the season.

    • Thanks for that bit of history Bill, re early literature. As for Winton, you’re right, I don’t recollect any either. Perhaps he was so focused on the sea when growing up that’s all he really noticed?

  7. The only sport I follow is horse racing, about which I am passionate as it has given me an abiding interest all my life. I really enjoyed Les Carlyon’s collection of his racing journalism “True Grit”. He captures the thrills and spills of the Australian horse racing scene including both equine and human personalities in his dry and witty prose style. I have it on my Kindle and read a chapter or two over again when I’m travelling to and from the races, to set the mood. I of course also enjoyed the Black Caviar biography.

    • Haha Anne, yes I know your predilection for horse racing. Your photos are always lovely. I thought of you as we drove up the Hume this am and saw a big sign, with her colours, announcing Black Caviar country. I now know where she comes from.

    • Oh, I didn’t know that one Anne. She’s written more than I realised.

      Getting back to horses, you have I’m sure read Seabiscuit. I did love that book. Great sports stories – true or imagined – can have such drama and heart, such honesty and such corruption. (Not always all at once, of course!) Oh, and now I remember the novel Foal’s bread too.

  8. Actually I haven’t read Seabiscuit. I’ve always been fascinated by Australian Racing. I have downloaded a book on Berborough but have yet to load it on the Kindle and read it. It’s written by an employee of Gai Waterhouse.

    • Aussie rules….summer football pools over here. Interesting to read about the game presented in literature. I am not that into sports but sports writing is at its best so very good. The best sports book? Perhaps CLR James’ classic book on West Indian cricket Beyond A Boundary.

      • I love Ian that readers not interested in sports, or specific sports, can still enjoy reading about it. I’ll never forget Tim Winton’s novel Breath and what he taught me about surfing. I hadn’t heard of that cricket book. Might look out for it for my father.

        • Other cool sports books…. The Bugatti Queen by Miranda Seymour (1920s/30s motor racing) and The Ball Is Round, David Goldblatt’s very fine global history of soccer.

  9. I’m not going to be of any help here – Im partial to watching the odd game of tennis but thats as far as it goes. I can’t think of a single book I read which had a sporting theme.

  10. We live in Victoria and my kids refuse to go to the footy as they hate the language, bad sportsmanship and drinking (not necessarily in that order). We haven’t gone for years for that reason, which is a bit disappointing as it is such a huge part of Vic-culture. I agree with your comments about Barracuda and if you are looking for a book about the early years of horse racing, I can recommend Foal’s Bread by Gillian Mears.

    • Thanks Sharkell. I don’t blame your kids for not liking that. Good for them, really, eh? And yes, thanks re Foal’s bread. I thought of that too, and mentioned it in my response to Anne on horse books. In my review of it, I commented that it did the same think for me for horse high jumping that Winton’s Breath did for me for surfing. They are things I’ll never forget I think.

  11. I don’t generally read literature with sport as the theme. The only book about sport I can recall reading is Lance Armstrong’s memoir It’s Not About the Bike. I read it long before his fall from grace and he was so insistent in it that he didn’t do anything illegal when it came to doping I believed him. Ha!

      • I was just starting to become interested in cycling and Armstrong was huge and controversial and I thought maybe if I got the story from the horse’s mouth. His persona in the book is so honest and sincere it is sometimes hard to believe but I mostly believed him.

        • Ah of course, your interest in cycling. I can understand believing him. So many people who knew him better than you, believed him. He was convincing, wasn’t he.

    • Oh, thanks Judith. I did link to that in my post. It’s not obvious – it’s in the second para under “Wikipedia tells us”. It’s pretty extensive isn’t it? I was surprised.

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