The other Saturday afternoon the sun was streaming through the front window; I was stretched out, head back with my eyes closed, listening to Way With Words on National Public Radio. When Martha and Grant were giving the closing, could not have made this program possible without spiel, it sprung to mind that I had just spent an hour doing nothing else but listening to the wireless. I tried to make a mental list of other times I had just listened to the wireless; driving all day, brisk exercise walking, sitting in a dentists waiting room, and long haul air plane flights don’t count.
I would head straight for the dining room as soon as I got home from school, and sit glued to the wireless listening to the Air Adventures of Biggles, Superman, Adventures of the Sea Hound, Tarzan, Hopalong Cassidy, Robin Hood and Hop Harrigan. Mum would bring my tea into the dining room so I could listen to the cliff-hanging end of the last serial. Back then the only vegetables I would eat were peas and potatoes so she would carry a plate with a couple of grilled lamb chops or cutlets, boiled peas, and mashed potatoes from the kitchen into my world of mystical adventures and danger.
But there came a time when I was no longer distracted by the Air Adventures of Biggles and the Sea Hound, or Hopalong Cassidy. Perhaps I was just growing up; or maybe I lost interest in the serials because a His Master’s Voice television became part of our lounge room furniture. But I didn’t desert the wireless. The kitchen wireless was my retreat from the cold and rainy Saturday afternoons for the next couple of Melbourne winters.
The city would come to a stop on Saturday afternoons. All Victorian Football League football games were played on Saturday afternoon and supporters invaded the six sacred grounds where the twelve teams were playing; North Melbourne’s home ground was Arden Street, Carlton’s Princes Park, Hawthorn’s Glenferrie Oval, South Melbourne’s the Lake Oval, and Footscray’s the Western Oval, and the other seven teams had their own hallowed home suburban footy ground. There was little choice about what team you barracked for. If you were born and raised in the working class Western suburbs you barracked for the Footscray Bulldogs. I barracked alone in the kitchen; it was cosy and warm.
Brownlow Medallist John Shultz, and Ted Whitten, led the bulldog boys into battle at the wind swept, wintry, hostile enemy grounds and the adoring Western Oval. It must have been the young boy in me that decided to ride the coat tails of a wining side; I drifted from barracking for the Bulldogs to barrack for the Geelong cats. It was the heyday of Polly Farmer, Bill Goggin, and Doug Wade. The distraction from the Bulldogs only lasted a couple of years and the wireless dial once again was tuned to the boys of the Bulldog breed.
And there was the Victorian Football Association as well as the Victorian Football League. Association games were played on Sunday afternoons. The Williamstown VFA team was the Seagulls and they played their home games and trained at Point Gellibrand Oval. The grandstand was at one end of the ground and a grass mound stretched from just past the grandstand to the Morris Street gate; and the old lighthouse, seagulls, and unpredictable waters of Port Phillip Bay flanked one side of the oval. Watching the ships entering and leaving Port Melbourne, and the Melbourne docks was a welcome distraction when the cold, salt water laden, strong Port Phillip Bay winds kept the ball at the far end of the ground away from the grandstand. And trying to stay on your bike as you free-wheeled down the grassy mound was another distraction.
Half time and the end of the games were the meaning of footie; you herded into the dressing rooms as the boys walked in from the field. At half time you watched in amazement as ankles were re-bandaged, and you became intoxicated by the suffocating scent of the liniment that was splashed and rubbed into every inch of bare skin. And you were mesmerised by the coach’s passionate speech; it was inspiring and rousing whether the boys were winning or losing. At full time you were with the boys when they dropped onto the dressing room’s benches at the same they were unlacing their boots; the room was filled with the incredible scent of sweat, liniment, and cigarette smoke and beer; the proud fragrance of the football brotherhood. And the coach followed up his half time rousing address and caps were popped from tall bottles of the golden amber and they celebrated.
As I entered into the world of change and uncertainty that was the sixties and seventies I lost interest in the kitchen wireless and riding my bike to Gellibrand Oval. During my first journey of searching for inspiration, and idealism in the ordinary I found myself at an afternoon game of rugby in Edinburgh. I stood among a crowd of passionate Scotsmen; passionate for their team. When I was overheard confessing I didn’t know the rules of rugby because I was a boy of the Bulldog breed, a boy who only knew Victorian Rules Football, a nearby passionate Hearts supporter reached into his inside coat pocket and produced a flask of whisky and proclaimed
Now I’ll be telling ya what’s happening and we’all drink whisky and
you’ll be a Hearts supporter
. On a cold, dank Scottish winter afternoon, surrounded by cigarette smoke and Scottish whisky, I stood together with the proud brotherhood of football.
On cold winter Saturday afternoons I stood on the sloped terraces in front of the Whitten stand with the familiar faces; the veterans sat in the front two rows of the Whitten Stand stand; their sandwiches were wrapped in greaseproof paper and a thermos full of hot tomato soup rested in their lap, or at their feet. We ambled to the Western Oval turnstiles after a few starters at either the Rising Sun, The Plough, or the Buckingham carrying a thin paper bag with a couple of bottles of the golden amber under each arm.
We drank our beer and cheered the boys on with a selection of affectionate obscenities and insulting encouragements; we could reach out and touch Gaz, Bernie, Laurie, Sockeye and Bazza: there was only red white and blue on the ground; they could do no wrong. As committed one eyed barracker’s we encouraged the umpires to make the right decisions with indecent and threatening support. The last quarter was greeted with the tribal ritual of a pie in one hand and raising a beer in the other as a salute to the sounding of the siren to start the final onslaught; the four n twenty would either be hot enough to burn the roof of your mouth or more on the cold side of warm. On a cold, dank, Melbourne winter afternoon surrounded by the smell of meat pies and tomato sauce, and cigarette smoke and beer, I stood with the proud brotherhood of football.
I went back to teaching when I returned from my first journey of searching for inspiration, and idealism, in the ordinary. Wednesday afternoons at Victorian Technical Schools were sports afternoons; usually football in the winter and cricket in summer. Each Technical School had a football or cricket team cobbled together from the best of the best senior boys in the fourth and fifth forms. Neighbouring schools would play against each other on Wednesday afternoons. Someone at my school decided it would be a good time for the boys if they could watch a football match played between the teachers, and the school football team. On a mild winter’s Wednesday afternoon I ran out onto the school oval with the teacher’s team. The entire school, form one through form five, wearing the school uniform of grey pants, grey shirt with tie, and maroon jumper lined the oval.
I closed my eyes and the boys became a cheer squad, dressed in their duffle coats covered with badges of their favourite player names and jumper numbers. And they waved their floggers; six foot long sticks with massive amounts of streamers taped to the ends. The teachers team had four players who were better than any of the senior boys in the school footy team; two physical education teachers, and a couple of teachers who played for Williamstown’s AFL reserves team. Our plan was to play keepings off; four teachers against eighteen boys. The cheer squad welcomed me onto the ground with a chorus of barracking. It was just a few minutes into the game when my excitement caused me to forgot about the plan; I jogged towards the corridor, the ball was kicked my way. I heard the roar from the boys lining the oval fence and then I was lying on the oval ground gasping at the air; it seemed to take forever for the air to return to my lungs, and for my eyes to focus.
I had been shirt fronted by one of the man mountain teachers that played for the Williamstown reserves. I spent the rest of the match standing alone on the half forward flank. A few of us went to the local after school; the lounge was soon filled with the incredible scent of sweat, my liniment, and cigarette smoke and beer. We were the proud brotherhood of football celebrating the victory of a heroic, stout hearted, sweat stained battle.
Australian Rules Football is now a national competition; Melbourne provides ten teams, Sydney, Queensland, and South and Western Australia two teams. Melbourne games are no longer played at the old suburban footy grounds but at the MCG, Etihad Stadium, and Geelong’s Kardinia Park. Smoking and floggers are banned, and no alcohol can be brought into the grounds. You can’t use indecent or obscene language, or threatening or insulting words toward the players or umpires, and you can only get rid of your rubbish in a receptacle provided for that purpose.
And the Footscray Bulldogs are now the Western Bulldogs; some say that the local magic of the game has been lost.
Sons of the ‘scray,
Red, white and blue,
We will come out smiling, if we win or lose.
Others build their teams my lad, and think they know the game,
But you can’t beat the boys of the Bulldog breed, that make ol’ Footscray’s name!
I think I should take a class in gesturing hypnotically just like Mandrake the Magician, or attempt to uncover a Tibetan mystic who can pound into me the secrets of ancient magic so I can stand once again on the sloped terrace in front of the Whitten Stand; a four n twenty pie in one hand and a beer in the other, raised in a salute to the proud brotherhood of football. Or perhaps I can just watch the replays of the footy on YouTube.