Radio National Transcripts:
The Sports
        12 March, 1999
Football and Poetry

Amanda Smith: Today, the poetry of football. Lyrical odes about big, boofy blokes.


Amanda Smith: The National Rugby League season got under way last weekend, and attracted a world-record rugby league crowd of 104,000 or so people at the new Stadium Australia at Homebush last Saturday.

Meanwhile the Australian Football League pre-season Grand Final is on tomorrow night, with the AFL season proper kicking off in a fortnight's time.

And on The Sports Factor we're going to focus on what might seem to be an unlikely pairing: how football, and the culture surrounding football, has been used in poetry, to tell us a little of what lies in the human heart.

Tom Keneally: We go to the cupboard, we take out club colours And the air sings, the season's close Our boys are running up sandhills, their legs pump This season, this season, this is our season This year we all start equal.

Amanda Smith: That's the celebrated Australian writer, Thomas Keneally, from a television commercial for the National Rugby League.

It's a million miles away from the way this game has been promoted in the past: thumping rock-'n'-roll and aggressive-looking players. So why the new poetic approach, and is it working? Mark Wallace is the marketing manager for the National Rugby League.

Mark Wallace: The ad came about as the result of a piece of research that was conducted in the last quarter of 1998, which told us that fans were feeling that they had been somewhat left behind by the changes within the game of rugby league. And I guess they felt detached from the game and less important.

Amanda Smith: And the NRL commissioned Tom Keneally to write this poem specifically for the job, is that right?

Mark Wallace: We did. We asked him to write it, and we liked it so much that we asked him to actually deliver it to camera. So I guess in the first instance we were asking for Thomas just to put down his thoughts about the game, and then it was so impressive that we asked him to deliver it.

Amanda Smith: Well this is a pretty radical departure from the more usual blood and guts approach for rugby league, Mark. What's behind the idea of this particular approach?

Mark Wallace: Well it is very different, and I guess certainly in the markets where rugby league is a successful code, and a well-developed code of football, it has created a lot of comment, both good and bad.

Amanda Smith: You mentioned that you'd done some research last year that has brought you to this particular campaign. Tell me more about what the research revealed.

Mark Wallace: What we found was the game was robust, it was well-liked. A number of the attributes of the game were latent, and therefore they're just waiting for us to light a match and get the game fired up again. So fans, to a large extent, are in a wait-and-see mode with the game, and therefore the opportunities are significant for rugby league. We also found that the players and fans don't have the same emotional attachment they once had in the past. And obviously we're looking at that as an issue as well, and trying to, I guess, bridge the gape between, or to rebuild the bond that players and fans should have.

Amanda Smith: Well with this more lyrical approach, Mark, are you trying to reinvent, to in fact soften, the image of rugby league?

Mark Wallace: No, not at all. Not at all. I mean there is a couple of hundred minutes of great football played out every week on television, so the last thing we need to do is to go back in and give the fans another replay of football. What we need to be doing, and what we clearly found from the research, is that we need to be dealing with the issues that fans have with the game. There's no suggestion at all within the context of this campaign that we're trying to soften the game, indeed it's quite the opposite; this is merely a different approach to communicating with fans.

Amanda Smith: And are you finding that you need to talk to those people, communicate with those people through this campaign on a different level to the past, simply because you can't assume their support in the way you would have once done?

Mark Wallace: It may be that if we had have gone out with the traditional anthemic approach, it would have been trying to pump the fans up, and not addressing the issues or giving them a voice in the game of rugby league. And I'm not sure that would have been successful. And certainly would have ignored the research, and that was not a position that we were prepared to take, so we've adopted a different approach for this season, to endeavour to give fans that voice and allow the issues to be dealt with.

Amanda Smith: So how does this Thomas Keneally ad deal with the fan issues you talk about?

Mark Wallace: Well Thomas talks within his ad about the excitement that is the feeling in the anticipation of the start of the season. So he's just recalling those memories that are tradition, or history of the game of rugby league. And we knew through the research that the history and the traditions are important to fans, and to a large extent they've been washed out of the game. So we're trying in the first instance, to bring some of those back.

The other one is that if you look through the commercial there are a lot of images of, and a lot of what Thomas talks about, of the aspiration and admiration that he has for the heroes and stars of rugby league. And then finally we see, in a very unique way, the sort of gladiatorial or physical nature of rugby league being shown without actually having people on a football field crunching their bodies together.

Amanda Smith: Now you mentioned some criticisms and the diversity of responses to this ad Mark. I think that Rex Mossop speaking on Sydney radio recently described it as 'a bit poofy' and that the NRL has lost the plot.

Mark Wallace: Yes. it's also been referred to as World Series Chess as well. But I think all that sort of debate is very healthy for the game. I've travelled a lot in the last week or so and spoken to a lot of people about it, and universally there is certainly a lot of discussion about the campaign. Therefore we're creating the debate about the game of rugby league. So irrespective of whether you like it or not, it's certainly got rugby league back on the agenda, so I think that's great for the game.

Amanda Smith: Now I've noticed that in referring to the words that Tom Keneally is delivering in this ad, you've carefully avoided calling it a poem throughout this interview. Tell me why.

Mike Wallace: Well I think once you start saying the word 'poetry' it leads to us suggesting that we're trying to soften the game or appeal to a more academic audience, and that's certainly not the case. I mean whilst Thomas is a literary identity, by no means are we trying to disenfranchise core fans of the game, or to appeal to one audience over another. The words that he is speaking are universally accepted by all fans of rugby league, and that's been clearly found through the work that we've done in the off-season. So I guess Thomas' involvement and his account of the game is a result of those findings. But it's certainly not to be seen as poetry, it's simply an account or a story by a fan of the game.

Thomas Keneally: Kids paint signs, and I'm seven again I know I'll see heroes soon I feel the excitement, I have hope in March And I might share in the glory of September Blow that whistle, ref, send that ball soaring Blow that whistle, ref.

Amanda Smith: Thomas Keneally and his Ode to Rugby League for the National Rugby League's current advertising campaign. And before that, Mark Wallace who's in charge of marketing for the NRL.

Now a while ago, I read a marvellous article in the Journal of Australian Studies, about Australian Rules football and poetry, which unlike in rugby league, there's lots of. The person who wrote the article is John Harms, who's a Brisbane-based sports historian. John also writes about sport and other cultural matters for The Australian newspaper. So I wondered what he thought about the National Rugby League ad with Thomas Keneally, whether the NRL chooses to call it a poem or not.

John Harms: Well first of all I think quite clearly it's a poem. And I think he's captured some of the most important aspects of why football appeals to people. It's a very emotive poem of course, but he sort of goes through some of the main things that Australian football writers have been pushing as well: things like loyalty and hope and renewal, a return to childhood, the importance of excitement and action in all of it. And I think it's interesting that they've gone with Tom Kenneally to do this.

Amanda Smith: So do you see it as trying to centre rugby league in a wider cultural sphere in the way that Australian football really always has been in its home states?

John Harms: Well it's interesting in that it might be an attempt to do that. I think the thing about Australian football is that there has always been a significant writing culture which surrounds it, and perhaps this is because there are not traditionally two codes of football in Australian Rules football cities. Everyone across the classes follows Australian football, so even the readers are interested in Australian football. So if you want to call them the reading classes rather than giving them a socio-economic label,p erhaps those who read are interested in reading about football. Whereas in rugby league there doesn't seem to have been that same depth of writing culture which surrounds Australian football.

Amanda Smith: Well are these poems that you're talking about around Australian football, are they more than just a bit of doggerel verse?

John Harms: Oh very much so. In fact when I first started looking into what sort of poems have been written about Australian football, yes I did find quite a few of those terrible rhyming doggerel verses. But I also found what I would call capital-P Poetry, by capital-P Poets. And it was interesting that people like Colin Thiele, Philip Hodgins, Bruce Dawe, Mark O'Connor, and the list goes on, were attracted to football, because they saw in it something, some truth or something that they could express. And they also saw in it I think the fact that people become very passionate about it, and people find that meaning in it, and I don't think people are attracted necessarily to the trivial all of the time. They won't continue to pursue activities which are completely meaningless, and if you look at the support that exists for Australian football, the passion for Australian football, that sort of suggests to me that there must be something in that game which connects people to it, which is meaningful for people. And those poets I think, like the ones I've mentioned, certainly pick up on some of those themes.

Amanda Smith: OK, well give us a couple of examples of those capital-P Poets you mentioned.

John Harms: Well I think everyone would know Bruce Dawe's 'Life Cycle' probably because it's been quoted quite a bit. But Bruce Dawe in 'Life Cycle' takes the life of a child born in Victoria and goes through each of the stages of existence: childhood, adolescence, through to old age, and uses poetic images to describe at what stage of life in relation to football these people are.


Commentator: Cometh the hour, cometh the man, and Gary Ablett delivers --

Bruce Dawe: When children are born in Victoria they are wrapped in the club-colours, laid in beribboned cots, having already begun a lifetime's barracking.

Carn, they cry, Carn ... feebly at first while parents playfully tussle with them for possession of a rusk: Ah, he's a little Tiger! (And they are...)

Hoisted shoulder-high at their first League game they are like innocent monsters who have been years swimming towards the daylight's roaring empyrean

Until, now, hearts shrapnelled with rapture, they break surface and are forever lost, their minds rippling out like streamers

In the pure flood of sound, they are scarfed with light, a voice like the voice of God booms from the stands Oooohh you bludger and the covenant is sealed.

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,

And the tides of life will be the tides of the home-team's fortunes - the reckless proposal after the one-point win, the wedding and honeymoon after the grand-final ...

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,

That passion persisting, like a race-memory, through the welter of seasons, enabling old-timers by boundary-fences to dream of resurgent lions and centaur-figures from the past to replenish continually the present,

So that mythology may be perpetually renewed and Chicken Smallhorn return like the maize-god in a thousand shapes, the dancers changing

But the dance forever the same - the elderly still loyally crying Carn ... Carn ... (if feebly) unto the very end, having seen in the six-foot recruit from Eaglehawk their hope of salvation.


John Harms: Ongoing hope in the face of, even at death, I suppose, is one of the themes that emerges there, but you still cling to it, cling to it and cling to it.

Philip Hodgins is another poet who's written a lot about football. Perhaps one of his better - well, they're all terrific poems, but 'Country Football' in particular is one that appeals to me. In it he establishes the image of the country football ground where of a Saturday afternoon all the cars come in through the main gates and they park themselves around the ground, nose-in to the oval.

Amanda Smith: And toot their horns when a goal is scored.

Bruce Dawe: Of course, and there's a real crescendo of motor horns as the ball is bounced for the start of the match and of course after each goal. But I love his image of that where he says, 'The ellipse' (that being the ground) 'Hindu symbol of fertility is flanked by crowded cars, nosing up to the rails, it suckles like a sow'. As if there is a very sustaining force or sustaining element to people going to the football in the country each Saturday.


Philip Hodgins: Country Football The ellipse, Hindu symbol of fertility, is flanked by crowded cars nosing up to the rails. It suckles like a sow.

Inside the cars voices report from significant, never been there places - Kardinia, Moorabbin, Windy Hill.

Reflecting each other from the cusps rise two-dimensional white cathedrals. Today they will be temples to apostasy twice. Their entrances are guarded by clones whose torches blaze pure white.

From corrugated iron purgatory many men feed out in lines like parachutists. limbs varnished with an intoxicating wake of eucalyptus oil.

Landing near afflatus they disperse into pairs of cryptic numerical combinations.

But one without a number,

as resolutely white as the cue ball, omnipotent in a classical pose, holds aloft the red ellipse and whistles up a terrible trumpeting of car-horns for this afternoon's do-or-die.


Amanda Smith: Well it seems to me that Australian football, well probably any sport really, is a mix of raw, down-to-earth stuff, as well as the possibility of a kind of airy transcendence. Has that been used in this kind of poetry, John, literally or metaphorically?

John Harms: That idea comes out very clearly in probably my favourite poem by Bruce Dawe, 'The High Mark', where he talks about the transcendent in the high mark. Where he invites you to consider the image of a player as the ball is sailing towards the pack, wriggling his fingers in preparation, taking those strides and climbing up the back of the player in front of him, reaching upwards, clawing upwards, extending his arms to try and grab the ball. But of course the symbol is of him attempting to seek heaven, or perfection, or whatever you want to call that. The reality of human existence is, though, that he falls back to earth, a 'guernseyed Icarus', as Bruce Dawe calls him.

But that again is a very clever poem which addresses far more than just the image of the high mark; it's about a lot more than that, and that's the sort of thing I think poets have done very well in using Australian football. They've seen the meanings which are over and above just the mundane, or just the literal, or just the earthy, as I think you called it.


Bruce Dawe: The High Mark begins with a nod of head or flicker signal of fingers and a run that gathers in the green day and the grey crowd that rolls on its great humble tides and the run is a thinking to the ball's end-over-end parabola that has sinews, tough - tensioning for the upward leap. hands now eagle-claws. god's hooks, hungering for the leather dove, the run among mere mortal men in time, in place, become the leap into heaven, into fame, into legend - then the fall back to earth (guernseyed Icarus) to the whistle's shrill tweet.


Amanda Smith: Do you think any of these poems about football get anywhere near nailing what is actually ultimately ineffable, or indescribable about the game? I know describing the ineffable is a bit of an oxymoron, but you know what I mean John. After all poets are trying to put into words things that otherwise defy explanation, aren't they?

John Harms: That's exactly right. And yet you still get the expression that football is like poetry, or football has its own truth, and football does these things without us knowing what they're actually doing, which is perhaps why then poets will say --. OK, to give you an example, 'Gary Ablett runs round onto his left foot and kicks a goal from 55 metres' and it contains all of these meanings, but how do you write about that? You actually have to see it. Although a poet can then use that as a simile or a metaphor and say 'Like a Gary Ablett snapshot' or 'Like a Wayne Carey mark' or whatever it might be, because contained in that activity is something special.

Amanda Smith: Well finally John, do you think that you have to be a fan of the game, of Australian football, to appreciate the poetry that's written about it?

John Harms: I think it helps, but I don't think you have to be. I think the poets, certainly the poets I've read, suggest that they've got a terrific knowledge of football. Bruce Dawe especially, I mean he's lived it, he knows it and I think that emerges in his poetry. And so the appeal, or the connection is made with the readers, because if you've been to the football you know what they're talking about, you can feel it, you can smell it, you can hear it, the images really work. But I think the nature of poetry is that you don't have to have had the experience. The nature of good writing is if you haven't had the experience, the writer might still be able to make it work for you. So I don't think you have to have a great knowledge of football, but I think it helps a lot.

Amanda Smith: John Harms, and his take on the poetic appeal of Australian football.

And that was also Bruce Dawe, with his poems 'The High Mark', and 'Life-Cycle'; and Philip Hodgins, reading his poem 'Country Football'. Philip Hodgins actually died in 1995, at a terribly young age. I made that recording with him not long before he died.


Amanda Smith: Well now, from poetry and football, to theatre and swimming. A new play opens in Sydney tonight that's called 'Dive Divas', and it's the story of two pioneering Australian female swimmers, Fanny Durack and Annette Kellerman. Both were born in the 1880s, both were Sydneysiders, although they didn't actually know each other. Fanny Durack was the first Australian woman to win an Olympic gold medal, in Stockholm in 1912. Annette Kellerman was more of your showbiz-type swimmer, the prototype synchronised swimmer, who made her name in the United States. Ultimately she became much more famous than Fanny Durack, the Olympic gold medallist. But both women, like Dawn Fraser a long time later, sparked controversy. Fanny Durack had long battles with swimming's officialdom, while Annette Kellerman was arrested in the United States for appearing in a one-piece bathing suit.

Chris McQuade is one of the performers in this play 'Dive Divas', and the writer is Mary Hare. So, why a play about a couple of swimmers?

Mary Hare: I think they both were absolutely extraordinary women. What they did in their time was amazing, considering how women were dressed, those hobble-skirts, these two women were out battling the elements, the water, and also their own society, just to be allowed to get in that water. And, still not very well known.

Amanda Smith: Chris, you're playing Fanny Durack in this show; and in her day she was a pretty controversial figure. Tell us the story leading up to and during the 1912 Stockholm Olympic Games, where Fanny won that gold medal for the 100-metres freestyle.

Chris McQuade: Right. Well, the thing was that in 1904, women were banned from swimming in front of men. And this had a lot to do with the woman who ran the New South Wales Amateur Swimming Association, who was Rose Scott, who was known as the Mother of Suffrage, she was a top suffragette, and a non-swimmer. And she thought it was very immodest for women to be swimming publicly, exposing themselves. So she got a bit angry about things and stopped the girls from swimming in front of men. And the irony was, Fanny said 'Well how do we actually get the Olympic Committee to assess us for the Games, if they're not even able to watch us?' Because of course, they were all men on the Committee. And Rose didn't want to know about it, and so Fanny just kept training and campaigning, her and Mina Wylie, and finally they changed their minds and said, 'OK, you can swim in front of men'. And Rose Scott resigned.

Amanda Smith: It's a bit of a paradox, isn't it, that Rose Scott, the president of the New South Wales Swimming Association, was a suffragette and yet opposed to those women swimming in public.

Chris McQuade: Yes, well Mary and I have only just been discussing it, because the point was, Rose Scott was a much older woman, and so even though she was fighting for women's rights, I think it was just a little bit too much for her to have women exposing their bodies.

Mary Hare: Yes, as in the play when you quote her, Chris, when she talks about women 'exposing themselves to men and causing immodesty'. So it was very much about that.

Amanda Smith: Mary, this play is being performed not in a theatre, but in two different swimming pools, this weekend at Enmore and next weekend at Petersham, both in inner-west Sydney. But you're actually performing it in the children's wading pools aren't you? Why is that?

Mary Hare: I've set this play in purgatory Amanda. My concept of purgatory for swimmers is the toddlers' pools, six inches deep, where they can't do a single stroke. I had an idea that they meet in the after-life, and their purgatory is each other until they recognise themselves in each other. It's a hypothesis, it was just a way of perhaps having them meet and talk about their lives in a theatrical way. And they're in, on, and around the water, literally.

Amanda Smith: And their idea of heaven is what? to get into the big swimming pool?

Mary Hare: The adult pool. That's the goal.

Amanda Smith: So, Chris, how do things unfold in this play? A lot of people listening aren't going to have an opportunity to see 'Dive Divas', so you can spill the beans.

Chris McQuade: Well, I've been wading in purgatory for 19 years, because I died in 1956.

Amanda Smith: This is you being Fanny Durack?

Chris McQuade: Yes. Fanny was one of the biggest lobbyists for the '56 Olympic Games, and unfortunately she died a couple of months before it all happened. So she died in '56 and ironically that's when Annette Kellerman sort of came back to retire in Australia with her husband, and she took Fanny's place in a way. She went to the opening of the Olympic Games, and she sat next to Bob Menzies, and she said, 'Gosh, it was if I were the Olympian'. And that gets right up Fanny's nose, it's the one thing Fanny was that she wasn't. And she says, 'But you weren't, I was the Olympian.'

Amanda Smith: This is this imagining with them both in purgatory, with their having this conversation.

Chris McQuade: Yes. I've been waiting 19 years for Annette to drop dead and arrive, but Annette lives to the age of 89 and doesn't die until 1975, so I've been waiting all this time for her to come along so we can discuss these things, and be friends, you know. And so we finally decide maybe while we're waiting to get to heaven, we could talk our way through our lives. So Annette chooses to go through our lives through the Seven Deadly Sins. And that's how the story unfolds; it seems that Fanny's main sin was Wrath, and Annette's was Pride. So it's quite comical, the whole thing, of really how to give a history lesson to the audience and make it interesting and entertaining in a hypothetical situation, because these women really didn't meet.

Mary Hare: And of course, Amanda, what really interests Fanny is Annette's underwater banana-swallowing act, which was the one thing Annette invented and still has a record in. In other words, no-one else has ever worked out how to do it, or probably wanted to.

Amanda Smith: Yes, I was going to say, who'd want to!

Mary Hare: I saw it in a book of records recently, and it was you know, 'Annette Kellerman holds this record', and I thought, well, who else would want to? But the interesting thing is that she really could hold her breath under water for over three minutes, which is a freakish thing to do when you think about it. It was something she developed and my idea in the play is that whenever they start to get on, Fanny just says, 'Well how about the act, show us now' and of course Annette gets all uppity then, because that's the one thing she doesn't want to share with anybody.

Amanda Smith: So what's your interest, Mary, in putting sport and art together if you like, in this play about two swimmers? I mean for you, is it more than simply jumping on the Olympic bandwagon?

Mary Hare: Oh, I've never jumped on that, Amanda. I grew up with sport in Western Australia. I've always had a passion about sport, and it probably almost equals my passion for the arts. And I've always found it a little bit frustrating that, in Australia, those two areas are so divergent. I've had a bit of an idea of trying to link them up a bit, and perhaps this play is a small step that way.

Amanda Smith: That's Mary Hare, the writer of 'Dive Divas', which opens in Sydney tonight (weather permitting); and with her, Chris McQuade, who is Fanny Durack in the play. And it'd be nice if that one could tour swimming pools around the country.

And that's The Sports Factor for this week. I'm Amanda Smith, thanks for your company this morning, and I hope you'll be able to join me again next Friday for The Sports Factor.

The Sports Factor can be heard on Radio National, 8.30am Fridays (Repeated Friday evenings at 8.30pm).

© 1999 Australian Broadcasting Corporation