by Liam Ferney

galibier1998

Marco Pantani conquering the Galibier

It was our first visit to a wedding venue. We’d done the tour. Have you got a date in mind, the manager asked? Anytime but the last weekend in September, I replied quickly. Sarah looked surprised. We hadn’t really discussed dates. It’s the AFL Grand Final I explained. They both shook their heads.

Before this year I never really thought I’d get married but I always knew that if I ever did I’d steer clear of September. There are plenty of other Saturdays in the year and what if, just what if, our 50th anniversary coincides with a once-in-two-generations tilt at the Big Dance? It doesn’t matter that the Brisbane Lions have been abysmal for as long as I can remember or that their good-natured Twitter bonhomie, a world apart from their on- and off-field debacles, sends me into paroxysms of rage; one day the draft picks will align, a crop of talls will come good and a recruiter will unearth the kind of in-and-under ball winner you can’t inoculate against leather poisoning. One day.

These are the thing that go through a fan’s mind. Sounds absurd. Sarah and the wedding venue guy thought so. But for me, and millions of co-travellers, being a fan helps give shape to a life.  Legendary baseball writer Roger Angell hypothesised that sport is important because it creates opportunities to care deeply and passionately about something in a world where occasions to feel these sentiments were diminishing:

It is foolish and childish, on the face of it, to affiliate ourselves with anything so insignificant and patently contrived and commercially exploitative as a professional sports team, and the amused superiority and icy scorn that the non-fan directs at the sports nut (I know this look – I know it by heart) is understandable and almost unanswerable. Almost. What is left out of this calculation, it seems to me, is the business of caring – deeply and passionately, really caring – which is a capacity or an emotion that has almost gone out of our lives. And so it seems possible that we have come to a time when it no longer matters so much what the caring is about, how frail or foolish is the object of that concern, as long as the feeling itself can be saved. Naïveté — the infantile and ignoble joy that sends a grown man or woman to dancing and shouting with joy in the middle of the night over a haphazard flight of a distant ball – seems a small price to pay for such a gift.

For fans sport creates moments to care “deeply and passionately” about  that are unburdened by life’s responsibilities. It is probably no surprise I rekindled my love affair with aussie rules in the late ‘90s when Jeff Farmer’s skills and Spida Everitt’s dreads were a distraction from the Howard Government’s assaults on higher education, unions and refugees. If the front pages depress you, why not try your luck at the back of the book where you can find all of the drama and none of the actual tragedy?

Regardless of how high the stakes seem, sport isn’t life or death. That’s why Angell calls it “frail and foolish”. Even at the business end of a season, ‘do or die’ is egregious hyperbole. Next season is always another shot at redemption. Even for Richmond fans. The cliché of sport as war is often trotted out, but most fans are self-reflexive enough to recognise it as folly. This is the reason why so many of us made teary eye contact during the peak hour commute the afternoon Phil Hughes died. We know it’s just a game. Real tragedy should never interfere. Players aren’t soldiers. They’re all expected to come home after battle. As legendary Australian all-rounder and former RAAF pilot Keith Miller famously answered a question about the pressure of Test cricket: “Pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse.” Sport doesn’t saddle future generations with reconstruction’s levies, no matter how rousing the Bledisloe Cup. The rowdiest flare branding Red and Black Bloc-er isn’t a terrorist, regardless of the Tele’s hysteria. Productivity is scarcely hindered, except if Hawkey is involved.

bobby thomson

Bobby Thomson slugging ‘The Shot Heard Round the World’

But fans get exhilaration with all the texture of life and none of the cost. For instance there is the opportunity to see history created. Don DeLillo, in the opening chapter of Underworld, which depicts the pennant game in the Giants-Dodgers National League subway series in 1951, writes: “When you see a thing like that, a thing that becomes a newsreel, you begin to feel you are a carrier of some solemn scrap of history” (16). Sport specialises in creating moments like this. I was four when Australia won the America’s Cup and I can still remember sitting in Mum’s yellow Leyland Mini when the news came over the radio. A couple of weeks ago I let the battery in my Corolla run flat on my lunch hour listening to New Zealand batsman Ross Taylor score more runs in an inning than any touring player in Test cricket’s 138 year history.  Some of my most treasured memories include my first public beer (still in school uniform) as the Queensland Bulls broke their Sheffield Shield drought; Shaun Hart slotting one from 50 to put their first flag beyond doubt as the Lions dominated the seemingly indomitable Bombers; and Tim Cahill’s spectacular double to sink the Japanese at the ’06 World Cup. Just like my father told me stories of boxer Johnny Famechon, I’ll be able to tell my niece, in the unlikely chance she cares, how I jumped off the couch in my Brixton flat, still groggy with nightshift’s day sleep, as Timmy smartly set up then smashed his shot into the inside of the goalpost to help the Socceroos claim their first World Cup points.

These days, as we move from the Bataclan to San Bernardino, a Spotify playlist shuffling from Tay Tay to Drake, it seems like we tweet historic moments every other week, but you have to ask yourself would you rather be front row for 9/11 or Cathy Freeman’s 400? 9/11 was a profound – perhaps epoch defining – disruption, and it is our social duty to consider its origins, ramifications and cost. And yet, in the face of not only routine atrocities but the general banality of life’s routine, it’s distracting and comforting to be exhilarated by something that means everything and costs nothing.

I’m not alone in my fandom. In fact, you can argue sport is Australia’s leading obsession. (That or the cash rate.) At times our national mood tracks the performances of the Olympic team. Our politicians must supplicate to it.  I remember sitting up late one night writing a Minister’s breakfast radio talking points on a State of Origin game that I hadn’t bothered to watch and she couldn’t because Parliament was sitting. The idea that she wouldn’t be up to speed was unthinkable. Waleed Aly, on a recent episode of The Minefield, put it like this:

Probably more than any other country I can think of, we package our national identity, our culture, our presentation of ourself to the world, in sport, far more than anything else. We don’t do it through military history, we don’t do it through the arts. That’s why our Olympic team seems to be three times the size of our army (ABC).

There are good reasons for this. As a young country, at least in the Anglo vision of ourselves we are most comfortable with, it weaves a history we aren’t prepared to contemplate. When we succeed we attract the international attention we crave. Lit by sport’s glow our nation seems more important, less isolated. “Punching above our weight”, as the pundits say, bulks us up as a nation.

todd-carney

Todd Carney

Unfortunately our obsession is frequently indecorous and, at its worst, openly racist. It often comes draped not so much in the Australian flag as in the Cronulla cape. Is anyone surprised Reclaim Australia protestors chant Ozzie Ozzie Ozzie? Despite the Betty Cuthberts, Cathy Freemans, Alex Jesaulenkos and Michael Longs, its face is overwhelmingly white, Anglo even, and male.  Our mania for sport overshadows and obscures the contributions people make in other professions. There is nothing laudable in the way we valorise punt returners over peacemakers. In fact, for some players, their notoriety off the field eclipses their considerable grace on it. The guy on the left is famous for bubbling, a party trick where you piss in your own mouth, and winning the Dally M Award for NRL player of the year. I haven’t  even touched the sport-commercial complex to memorabilia-ise every memorable moment. These are all good reasons not to be a fan. But for me they are not enough to trump the unpredictable and un-scriptable moments of transcendent excitement that even art can’t provide.

I’m not a Foxtel subscriber or even, at the moment, the obsessive fan watching every minute of every match. I care deeply about the teams I follow, I watch far too much professional cycling and take a keen interest in any given year’s myths and miracles. It means sport is never far from my mind and therefore never far from my poetry. I think the music and film references are more important, but reviewers more frequently remark on the use of sport in my work. In fact, the two critical essays, not reviews, which have discussed my work were pieces in the United Kingdom and New Zealand examining the nexus of poetry and cricket. I don’t consider myself a cricket poet[1] or a sports poet. The interest, I imagine, stems from the novelty of the references.[2] There simply aren’t that many poets writing about cricket, though from my perspective I’m just picking up what is ready-to-hand.

The poem, ‘!!!’, from my next collection, Content, is a Frank O’Hara inspired riff on the difficulty of finding time to write, a common problem for anyone. It references a specific, though ultimately insignificant, crash in Stage 9 of the 2012 Giro d’Italia:

So,
what if
writing a poem
gets in the way
of Buster Keaton’s
Steamboat Bill Jnr.
& that Matt Goss inspired
Pippo Pozzatto crash?

The crash features because during cycling season I spend far too much time watching riders grasp heroically and fail valiantly and I was trying to finish a poem, any poem, before I sat down to watch that night’s stage.[3] “Choice’s Velocity”, written ahead of Brisbane Roar’s 2014 twilight semi-final against the Melbourne Victory, begins: “It could be Berisha’s last” (Unpublished). Our star striker had recently signed for the Victory and if we lost he’d be off. He netted the winner and then the following week, in the last two minutes of regulation time, he bagged the equaliser to take the game into added time and help the Roar claim a third Premiership. The poem is actually about a friend moving to Prince Edward Island in Canada for a guy.[4] The game features because it was on my mind.  Before I sat down to write the poem I was wondering what time I had to catch the bus to Lang Park and I couldn’t help wondering if we’d be waving goodbye to our beloved Albanian and bundled out of the A-League before the end of the day.

Being a fan is as much a part of my life as poetry is. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me. As a poet, my love of sport regularly makes me feel like an outlier. Of course, you can choose not to follow sport. You can choose to deride it for its fundamental frailty and foolishness. You can be turned off by its crass materialism, its co-option by racist nationalism or its often entitled and offensive stars. You can simply believe there is more to life. But you’ll be missing out. Missing out on heroes to cheer, villains to boo, myths to believe in, superstitions to abide by and, above all, the fleeting and giddy exhilaration of victory, the kind of elation one can seek but never guarantee. It is not that sport is everything but, as Nick Hornby writes in High Fidelity, “it is just that real life is paler, duller, and contains less potential for unexpected delirium” (27).

Socceroo Tim Cahill (middle) scores Australia's first goal against Japan in Kaiserslautern during the 2006 World Cup.

Socceroo Tim Cahill (middle) scores Australia’s first goal against Japan in Kaiserslautern during the 2006 World Cup.

Bibliography

ABC. ‘Sport And The Australian Psyche’. The Minefield. N.p., 2015. Web. 3 Nov. 2015.
Angell, Roger. ‘Agincourt And After’. New Yorker 2015: 146. Web. 2 Dec. 2015.
DeLillo, Don. Underworld. London: Picador, 1999. Print.
Ferney, Liam. Content. Melbourne: Hunter Publishing. Forthcoming. Print.
Hornby, Nick. High Fidelity. London: Penguin, 1998. Print.

[1] If anyone deserves that title it is the Bard of Bannerman, Bevan, Bishen Bedi, Beopup, Bill Brown, Baptiste, Brian Lara, Bob Woolmer and Bing Lee… Nick ‘Bich the Quick’ Whittock.
[2] Pam Brown, when she was launching my second book Boom, remarked how she’d read the first eleven poems in my early chapbook Career. Pam assumed that the number, eleven poems, must have been intentional in the work of someone who loved cricket as much as I did. It was pure coincidence but I really wish it wasn’t.
[3] As an aside that poem also highlights the moment-in-time snapshot qualities in the intersection of poetry and sport. It wonders whether or not then largely unheralded Canadian rider Ryder Hjedesal would go on to win the race because “surely a rider named Ryder can’t last.” The nominative determinism too much to ignore. Hjedesal would indeed triumph in a seesawing battle with Spanish rider Joaquim Rodriguez that would see the pair swap the pink leader’s jersey swap four times over 14 of the race’s 21 stages.
[4] They’re engaged. I’ll pass on your congratulations.

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