September 01, 1991

A Sport’s Round-up

Filed under: Archive,Books


Oval Dreams

Brian Matthews

McPhee Gribble

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

Brian Matthews has written a fair swag of occasional pieces but I have two particular favourites. One is a conference paper on Australian poetry, which began with a droll account of his childhood in St Kilda, the other an essay, published in these very columns , on the subject of Channel Nine cricket. The former, written fifteen years ago, for me signalled new possibilities for academic writing. Yes, Virginia, it could be funny and serious at the same time. As for the cricket piece, it brought attention to a subject thought to be beyond the pale contemplation of literary minds  and in the process said things which, as one of the popes once put it, were oft thought but ne’er so well expressed.

Oval Dreams, which gathers  together these two strands, is a collection of nineteen meditations, reviews and addresses, the majority of which, interestingly, were first published in The Adelaide Review. The author calls them recalcitrant essays- “if they were photographs they would be just perceptibly- and maddeningly- double-exposed; if they were railway lines they would be not quite parallel, if they were sirens at the footy they’d go off half a minute too early.” He protests too much. What distinguishes the best of what Brian Matthews calls his larrikin essays is a singleness of vision, a swift delivery and a sense of timely alarum.

In this miscellany there are  ten sporting items (six on footy, four on cricket) and three more or less devoted to epiphanies of St Kilda the suburb, as opposed to St Kilda the sometimes apostate football club. There is also some literary ecriture – on the discussion of Patrick White, on biography and there is the odd angry nib on reviewing as well.

As readers of his fabled Louisa will know, Dr Matthews is given to some powerful thought on exactly who, in the average narrative, the `I’ thinks he/she/they is/are. These contemplations take him on several fanciful flights to the footy -notably in the inter-textually dexterous, Suits O’Sullivan Unmasked.

But I enjoy it best when he gets straight to the cogent point.  As in the title essay. “Every major influence on Australian Rules Football in the past twenty years has had the effect of making it, among other things and pre-eminently, faster. Rule changes and development of tactics have all intensified and refined the run-on game. The players are healthier, fitter, better cared for. The latter is also true of soccer and rugby players in the 1980s, but those codes by their natures are less equipped to take advantage of what we like to call peak physical fitness. By avoiding body contact, soccer allows players to `dwell’ on the ball for seconds at a time; and rugby, aside from its built-in stop-start patterns, places a premium on strength. This is not to make points against soccer and rugby: it is simply to say that, for them, speed is not necessarily of the essence. Whereas in Australian Rules, more than ever before in its history, speed is all.”

This is sports writing as we would have it, and rarely find it- perceptive, elegantly clear and suffused with unconditional regard. It is a welcome change from the bombastic cliches that unhappily pass for commentary in our sunburnt whatsaname.

In Oval Dreams there is elegiac analysis of the demise of the drop kick and the changed use of the stab pass, chauvinistic chronicling of South Australian achievements in the VFL and celebration of the unshakable majesty of the game- ‘Whenever thirty-six players burst on to a broad, grassy oval in beautiful nick under a blue and winter sky with a five-goal breeze blowing straight down the ground, in front of a an edgy mobile crowd that has waited just long enough, Australian footy somehow erupts beyond the reach even the dourest and most dogged of its heavy-handed administrators. ” Adroitly, Matthews finds the gap, booting straight down the line between solemnity and self irony.

But if the arcana of footy gets its due, then cricket, under siege from barbarians, is even better served. The view from the hill is panoramic and wickedly critical of the moneychangers- “the great failure of belief that has always afflicted Channel Nine cricket is an inability to believe in the game itself. The policy makers at Channel Nine don’t believe the game of cricket is endlesly fascinating in all of its thousands of features and facets. Cricket unlike any other major team game, has a crucial leisurely ingredient: it’s a sort of terrestrial chess. Part of the pleasure and intricacy of the game is its slowly building complications, its quiet shifts of emphasis and minor moves, its changes of complexion.”

The argument develops, wittily illustrated and trenchantly prosecuted . In starting to quote I find it so skilfully stitched together that it’s hard to know where to pause. But Matthews is no cricketting Canute -as he savages Ten Turbulent Years, a self-serving account of history by the winners, so he equally pays a likeable homage to Alan Border, and brings metaphysics to the crease in Fractal’s Castle: Observations on Cricket and Chaos Theory.

In a world elsewhere, the St Kilda memoirs are a delightful collision between James Joyce and Ginger Meggs- “Fifty years ago, almost exactly, Australia found itself at war with Hitler’s Germany, and my family, like most others, quite soon farewelled many of its members-some of them forever. My father disappeared from my sight, inexplicably to me of course, from sometime in 1941 until the middle of 1945, though he came home once on leave, but so wordless, lean and yellow-looking that I hardly recognised him. When he came back for good, scarcely knowing me and I scarcely knowing him, he set out on several personal campaigns of family rehabilitation. ..” That’s from Pretty Dulcie Markham and the St Kilda Realists.

In a different register ,  from Small Boy’s St Kilda, comes this final paragraph- “He sits on his gatepost at the other end of the years watching for a light, listening to the distant cradling of the summer sea, observing the performances and mysteries of the street… He’ll get there- his destiny is an eventual and no doubt disappointing reunion with `now’ and `I’ for a fleeting instant before the end. But I’ll never get back there, where Mrs Lynch and the paper boy and Cumberland the Baker and the Council Men and O’Brien and my splendid father and serene mother and all the others parade on and on in the solemn foolery of the past.”

Who says nostalgia is not what it used to be ? These Oval Dreams are reveries of the victory of innocence, of sweet heard memories and even sweeter, unheard-of’s – of the team transfigured against Collingwood or the middle order recovery. The range of subjects, styles and views makes Oval Dreams a delicious book to read. It is shrewd and funny and full of surprises. Some of the writing is sublime, some a shade self-conscious. But even the oblique attempts are good for a point -and the best of them are so bang-on they’re good for six whatever season you’re in.

The Adelaide Review, No.92, September, 1991, pp.33-4. Reprinted Sydney Review, December, 1991.

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