This eye does not see
But speaks wisdom in hindsight
This eye does not see
This eye does not see
But speaks wisdom in hindsight
I love to glimpse the soaring truth
To see the unknown dragon fly
If I could grasp its mighty wings
I’d crush them, and the fragile truth might die.
Oenanism: murmuring pretentiously about the vintage whilst sipping wine alone.
The other day I watched the film “Good Night and Good Luck”. In the opening scene Edward R. Murrow, the famous World War 2 correspondent and television journalist stands at a podium to accept an award from his peers. The film then flashes back a few years to the time of the McCarthy hearings, and Murrow’s current affairs program exposing McCarthy, or more to the point, where he allowed McCarthy to expose himself. At the time CBS was under commercial and political pressure to toe the sponsors’ line.
The film is about a brief few years, a simpler time where truth seekers had a voice within the new medium of television, and where the forces that nourished and opposed them at the same time were easier to distinguish than they are now. But at the beginning of the film, at the podium accepting his award, Murrow laments the rot that has already set in. I am astounded, as he is speaking in 1958, soon after the beginning of the television age.
Today we still have the independent intelligence of the PBS network in the United States, and ABC and SBS in Australia, and shows such as Frontline, or Four Corners, amid the colorful and sugary riot on our screens, so TV isn’t a total narcotic, but these shows, though frank and well researched, seem less courageous and less effective than anything Murrow did fifty years ago, perhaps due to the heavily diluting effect of the garbage-choked media sea they swim in.
Bearing this in mind, I can think of two fundamental types of tyranny that exercise control through the medium of television. The first is a type easy to acknowledge as alien and hostile to our freedoms. It was the tyranny of Nazi and Soviet regimes. These days North Korea represents for us the nadir of this type of system. I call it Tyranny A.
Tyranny A is the old fashioned type: a regime that needs total control over information in order to remain powerful. All dissenting voices are suppressed.
In Tyranny A:
Let’s liken television, and the information it offers, to a table on which food is served. In a family, or in a country ruled by Tyranny A, where nourishment may be scarce, whatever is laid on the table is eaten up and appreciated. It doesn’t take long for people to get an idea of what’s missing, and to know the difference between what is good and bad to eat. Whatever is good is digested, and the bad spat out discreetly by those who can tell the difference. In such a regime, truth, when it gets out, has power, even if it cannot yet be acted upon.
The second kind of tyranny is the kind that stays in control through abundance. Tyranny B is a regime that does not need total control over information in order to remain powerful. Lies are sweet, supported by wealth, and truth seems hard to distinguish.
In Tyranny B:
In a country controlled by Tyranny B, where food is over-abundant, television is the cornucopia in the corner of our living room. Information is like the buffet table at a children’s party. The table groans under the weight of plates of junk food; hamburgers, chips, pizza, soda, cakes. On the table are also a few plates of celery and carrot sticks, apple slices, whole wheat bread with cheese, and other nutritious items that a few people have bought or prepared at home. Surveying the debris at the conclusion of the party, you see that nearly all the commercial junk food has been devoured, but the small plates of plain nutritious fare remain mostly untouched.
No one has been forbidden to eat healthily. But most people, especially children, wouldn’t consider doing so, and wouldn’t know what they were missing in terms of nutritional value until sickness set in.
Because this form of tyranny is apparently benign, nothing will change unless there is economic collapse and the formerly sated population becomes competitive and critical, and possibly fractious. At that point the tyranny will be forced to show its hand.
To prevent this, the tyranny does all in its power to prevent economic downturn, and may engage in activities and adventures that support wealth and distract the population.
Now that I have depressed myself with all of this, I am going to make a peanut butter sandwich and turn on the TV. There’s a new show on. It’s called Invasion.
Oh, and the following is a piece I scribbled out while watching the first night of the bombing of Bagdad in March 2003.
the clever men have had their say
the martial trumpet fades away
and now the curtains rise upon
the opera of shock and awe
a willing slave of our TV
anaesthetized by what we see
the promised firestorm begins
catharsis through passivity
it’s a precise and painless kill
claim the surgeons on the hill
and what we cannot feel or smell
might safely rouse a little thrill
night vision glowing black and green
fireflies circling on the screen
cloud stalks engorge as they explode
orgasms of sparkling gasoline
let these distracting flowers bloom
a thousand schools of thoughtlessness
contend for our attention span
to soothe away all sense of doom
complacency is our police
satiety our masterpiece
our freedom playing with itself
in this wasteland we call peace
yes, we are now the gods of war
but splendid gods have died before
and will again, the Goths* will come
and starving dogs will eat us raw
*By this I mean the forces popularly seen as the barbarians out to destroy our way of life, just as the Goths descended on Rome to destroy it.
This essay first appeared in the monthly magazine Black Lamb, which can be seen at http://www.blacklamb.org
After twenty-eight hours and four fully booked aircraft, the first originating in Sydney, this is the last leg from Copenhagen heading north. In the row behind me there’s a couple with two small children, a boy of about seven and his little sister. The children chatter away in Norwegian, asking question after question. I understand everything they are saying. I was the boy’s age when we left.
Our cabin attendant is a big Norwegian queen ripped and stacked like Conan the Barbarian. He’s perfectly manicured and coiffed, with a military-style blond brush crowned with a little quiff like TinTin. He arches his neck leftward and down, like Dame Margot Fonteyn as The Dying Swan, smiles a Mona Lisa smile, and asks me “te, eller kaffe?” I’m sweaty, stinking from the recent humid rush of Sydney, with a 36-hour growth and slimy teeth. Our fingers touch as he hands me the burning paper cup. The cloud-sheet tears asunder and below it appears patches of vivid green and wet black rock. Then, a patchwork quilt of Nordic neatness: clean white houses and big red barns on brown combed potato fields, and a few minutes later, serried rows of apartment blocks on the hilly outskirts of Oslo.
There’s nothing left of Viking Norway in the way of buildings. The Vikings built no towns up here, and they didn’t need ditches and fortified mounds like the Danes and Saxons did. They had rugged cliffs and narrow inlets to defend them. They built rambling farmsteads roofed with turf, and sturdy jetties to tie their boats to. The Oslo museums house a few fiercely elegant wooden ships and a hoard or two of treasure, much of which is Saxon, Byzantine or stolen from somewhere else south.
The oldest ruins in and around Oslo are from the early Christian period: stone churches, cloisters and fortified halls. The only remaining church in use from circa 1100 is the Gamle Aker church, up by the Aker river which flows out of the Maridalen lake, far enough out of the old town to be spared fire and plague.
The old medieval town, tucked away to the east of the present city centre, still has a section of cloister under a 17th to 19th century edifice, and nearly all of the 16th century hospital building erected out of the remains of an ancient Franciscan hospice. You can wander in and out of the rubbly outlines of the old castle and several churches. Norwegians are proud of their ruins, and regretful that late medieval poverty and the subsequent reformation destroyed them all. The more mystically, musically inclined Lutherans sometimes hold candlelit church services in them. The first week I was here I missed the vespers in what remains of St Halvard’s cathedral.
The old town reached its peak 700 years ago under the rule of Magnus the Good, but the Black Death of 1349-50 took about half the population. Things fell apart and Norway became a joint kingdom with, then a mere province under, Denmark for several hundred years. The last stroke came in 1624 when another fire razed the town, and Christian IV of Denmark built a new administrative centre a little further west, around the 14th century Akershus fortress, and named it Christiania, a name which lasted until the 1920s, when the name Oslo was voted back in. There are a few blocks of barn-like official buildings and plain stone mansions from the 1600s and 1700s around this area, as well as a modest baroque cathedral with an enormous copper spire. The rest of latter day inner Oslo is solidly 19th century, with four-story apartment blocks painted pale blue, or pink, or rose, or light gold. The main north and inner-west arteries are austere canyons of cobblestones and tramlines, winding and rising from the centre of the city to the hills that surround it.
Oslo has a number of impressive parks and gardens, and many small squares lush with rhododendrons. Further out, the city is a moraine of utilitarian concrete blocks raised up since World War II, but the hills around the west end of town are built up with large houses of wood or brick, and back gardens with a tall white flagpole in every one.
The axis of Oslo is Karl Johan’s Gate, running from the railway station plaza in the east to the royal palace on the hill to the west, lined with neoclassical and industrial-baroque edifices. Ibsen had his own table at the Grand Cafe, where a three-course lunch with wine costs 750 kroner nowadays. The hungry character in Knud Hamsun’s novel would have wandered around the back streets to the north of the glittering promenade. The harbour is small, cleaner that it was when I last visited, full of old sailing ships and new ferries, and the old warehouses on the west wharf have become Oslo’s glitziest mall.
East Central Oslo, which has always been working-class, is full of Middle Eastern folk now, as well as other, poorer immigrants. The kids seem to be mixing, but I see very few inter-ethnic couples on the street, other than a few East Asian girls with Indian men, or a few Norwegians with Africans. You don’t often hear the Babel of language on inner city streets. Everyone speaks Norwegian, and it is a peculiar enjoyment to hear a Vietnamese, Bulgarian, or Urdu twang in it. Occasionally a couple of women might be heard speaking Somali, or a few older men might be smoking and drinking coffee and talking Arabic around a sidewalk table. Immigrants have the opportunity to assimilate well, with free and mandatory Norwegian tuition for asylum seekers, access to social services, plenty of jobs and small-business opportunities. You can get all the spices, unguents and reasonably priced fruit and vegetables you want in the inner city neighbourhood of Grønland, which has become Islamic land here, possibly chosen both because of the name and the relatively cheap working class rents. A short stretch of Tøyengata has five barbershops, four greengrocers, a couple of Bollywood-Lollywood (Lahore) video outlets and an Indian sweet shop.
On Friday I pass by the mosque in Grønland emptying after prayer. It sits between two old-style four-floor apartment blocks. It is an impressive edifice with a blue-tiled facade, a dome and two tall blue minarets which can be seen from my temporary bedroom window further up the hillside in Tøyen. This mosque, the main one in Oslo, sits across from the high concrete walls and gates of Oslo’s city prison (with interesting sociological implications). After Friday prayers the street becomes a mass of men, mostly young, and the atmosphere is supremely masculine and confident, as though everyone were pouring happily out of a football stadium after a big win.
Conversing in basic Norwegian can be difficult because some folks speak dialect (a kind of East Oslo Cockney for instance), or won’t slow down at all (like my old friend and chief contact), and others insist on practising their excellent English on you as soon as you open your mouth, but I had a reasonably full conversation in Norwegian with some new acquaintances, a Peruvian and his Norwegian husband, when they invited me to meet some people over a home-cooked meal. The food was rich, Franco-Norwegian (Metro-Viking), served with copious amounts of interesting booze before, during and after the meal.
Everything in Oslo is absurdly expensive, and everyone, immigrants included, consumes vigorously. The bars and cafes are full. Things cost about double what they do in Sydney or New York, except for wine and spirits, which cost three times as much in the Wine Monopoly stores, and beer from the supermarket, which costs about the same. There is a lot of money floating around and people seem spoilt by the oil and gas wealth, although tax on goods and income is high. Norwegians, especially retired people, take bus trips to Sweden or mini-cruises to Denmark to go shopping as the prices are a lot lower in those countries. For someone without a job, money pours out like blood from your jugular vein.
I’m staying with my friend’s mother until I can afford the three-month rental deposit on a share, or a tiny place of my own. First she was iffy about having a paying guest. I give her 800 kroner a week for a small room, use of the kitchen and bathroom. I can prepare quick dishes, (the regular supermarkets sell more varieties of cured sausage than anything else) and keep costs down to a reasonable level by packing lunch every day. Joining both the City Library and the National Library means I can borrow books, DVDs and music. It’s free to join, but not free to visit. If I go to the National Library, it’s ten kroner to use the mandatory locker for my bag (but the toilet is free). At the City Library, you can take your bag, but the toilet token is five kroner (about a dollar). I’ve borrowed some organ music, and need to find an instrument to practise on and a choir to join.
Oslo people are breezier than your regular country Norwegian. But they can seem rather slow, even as they exude sophistication and modernist cool. It can take a while getting anyone to help you in a clothing or a camera store. Sometimes the level of service seems quite Soviet, but without the resentment. Norway is a nanny state, with enough social resources to give people the illusion of not needing others. Oslo has a huge workforce of civil servants. I have had several acquaintances and officials offer to help me with advice, or a word to others they know, concerning my legal status here, but several times I have got the sense of being an imposition on enquiring further.
I’m tip-toeing around my temporary landlady. She’s still not keen on a lodger and moreover, has a bad cold. Her attempt at giving up Marlboros lasted ten days. She hacks and groans for a large part of the day in swirls of smoke, sitting in her chair watching the TV or doing Sudoko. I keep out of the way, but watch a bit of soccer or news with her in the evenings before I go to my room to read and sleep. We have friendly little chats in Norwegian and English, and we’ve shared a couple of meals as well, but she did make it gruffly clear, “you’re not staying here for long.”
The days have been like mountain days, with warm sunshine on ones back, and a chill in the breeze. The flowers in the parks are bursting, and in a couple of months there’ll be loads of berries in the woods close by.
On a long evening hike around Oslo I go tramping through Frogner Park, around Gustav Vigeland’s bronze and granite sculptures of naked men, women and children. The statues depict the joys and sorrows of mankind in family groups and in solitude, surrounding a tall monolith of entwined and writhing figures. There are plenty of late-evening visitors. It is still bright at nine pm, and a couple of blushing, giggling girls in veils are having their photo taken in front of a virile stone torso. The park is huge and formal, like a French palace garden or a Mexican temple precinct. In the span of half an hour I pass by a dozen small brown men wielding large accordions. A few of them play Eastern European dirges, some with dexterity. But many trot out what sound like Norwegian tunes. Their little plastic pots have only a few coins in them and the men have subdued, resigned expressions on their faces. Are they waiting for their work permits to come through also?
Night, even well before the summer solstice, arrives tenuously after ten pm. The sun seems to recede toward the north, rather than go down over the hills. It rolls around somewhere below the horizon, and above it Venus circles the north as well, travelling eastward over the horizon in a curtain of blue and gold, over the mauve twilight which mists up the forested hills until the sun rises sometime after three.
At midnight, with still enough light to read by, I wander up the hill to the Fageborg Kirke where I was baptised, and around Bislett, a circular complex of apartment blocks from the 1950s, cream painted, austere but comfortable, with small clean windows and large bare balconies. This is what a communist utopia would have looked like, had that system flourished. Perhaps it has, here in oil- and gas-rich Norway.
I head back down Pilestredet to the centre of town, passing several Indian restaurants, and one that offers the best in Chinese-Norwegian cuisine. Do I want to save my kroner and try a Norwegian-Chinese meal? I let the thought go as I drop into London Pub, the main gay bar. It turns out to be a dark and dreary basement. Norwegian men are shy and cool. They seem to get drunk first, then try to make contact. I spend half an hour sipping a half litre of beer, surrounded by a few gossiping couples, a few sourly handsome lone Norwegian men. At 52 kroner (about US$9) one beer is enough, and I don’t stick around for any tipsy possibilities.
At two thirty in the morning the main thoroughfares and squares around the harbour are busy with Nigerian prostitutes, stepping aggressively into every male pedestrian’s way with cries of “hello darling, hey you, darling . . .” There are no longer state-regulated brothels as there were in Edvard Munch’s day. I’m told soliciting is legal, but picking up a hooker is not. The square around the central station is buzzing with little groups of Middle Eastern men conversing, drunk Norwegians arguing and vomiting, and weary, grimy gipsies huddled on benches trying to sleep. When I passed through here as a youth Oslo was said to be the acid capital of Europe. On my visit twelve years ago, it was supposed to be heroin. Not sure what the gangs are peddling to the locals these days.
In glorious weather after a few days of rain, I take an early morning train up to the nearest hiking trails. The Oslo T-ban allows pets, and you see quite a few adorable yard-dogs on the trains, as well as the trendier type like French Bulldogs and Jack Russell Terriers (apparently, the dog du jour for those who prefer to purchase a pet rather than be found by one). It’s making me dog-lonesome, missing my former desert puppy, now a dowager Brooklyn hound.
Frognerseter is the end of the line, up through the whitest and wealthiest area of Oslo (“bimbo land”, as one cynical Oslo east-sider put it to me), to a great view at about twelve hundred feet. Hiking trails criss-cross the fir-covered valleys that surround the city and fjord.
Five hours and twelve miles later I’m down by the old monastic ruins on the northern shore of the Maridalen lake, and after some lunch, head up the old road past the school and the cluster of houses and farms, all still recognizable to me.
Down by the river hollow there’s still the patch of fir forest into which, forty years ago, I had wandered as a small boy. Back then I stumbled upon a couple of elks in the murky shadows, and then fled in terror. This time I find refuge in the dense forest shade before heading up the little dirt track that crosses the valley. And again, there’s an elk in there, female, and bigger than a horse. After sniffing me out for a couple of minutes, it is she who takes fright at my presence, lumbering away in the green gloom.
This essay first appeared in the monthly magazine Black Lamb, which can be seen at http://www.blacklamb.org
Excerpt from Turkish Diary
Thursday 23rd August.
The van sways and heaves itself up though a small brown village. Everything has been worn down by poverty; the rutted, washed-out track, a scattering of stone and mud brick hovels, chickens and dogs waddling around mounds of dung, pecking and sniffing. Half a dozen chubby children squat in the dirt tossing pebbles at a wall. Two thin, worn women thrash wet clothes against flat stones by a small grey stream.
Further up the slopes we pass stubbled fields, a harvester and a couple of tractors with about twenty or thirty dark and wiry men standing around the machinery. Still further up, a grader digs into the flanks of the dirt road, and an excavator pours the rock into an old truck whose axles and fenders are weighed down with mud. High ahead, on the flanks of the mountain I can see two faint trails of wire, cross-hatched with black support towers and tiny hanging benches. This is a newly developed ski area, and the reason the road is being improved. The work is not being done for the villagers or the summer day-trippers, but for the money that will hopefully pour in during winter.
The Czechs sit in front of us, snuggling as the van twists and heaves over the stones. Achim and I sit up back, legs and shoulders getting close, hands between each other’s thighs. The Czechs turn and smile occasionally, half aware, uncaring. I have no idea whether the driver or his aggressive boss have anything in particular to notice. The road climbs to the summit, the rim of the crater, high above the lake stretching to the hazy eastern horizon. The crater blew out aeons earlier, blocking a river and creating Lake Van, which has no outlet. My heavy morning mood lifts and flies away.
We stop for photos at the rim, and a minute later, another minivan stops, with six passengers ushered out by the garrulous old man who had accosted us in the hotel lobby early this morning. He drones on about the view to a couple of Asian girls. The others in the van appear to be Turks. The view is spectacular, slabs of blue and yellow brightness stretching over the east and south horizons, with softer washes of red, green and violet in the cool scree within the crater. Below us, the large serpentine crater-lake is a metallic blue void, and the smaller warmer one, a muddy moonstone.
It’s eleven a.m. now, and we must negotiate a slow descent to the lake. But first, both vans brake, turn up a steep track and stop at a black outcrop of rock. It’s a steam vent. We all pile out to have a look, and the old tour guide goes on about it for a bit, before we all get back into our vans for the last fifteen minutes of bumpy drive to the base of the crater.
Below us in the distance we can see a large green tarpaulin tent and a wooden, canvas-topped shelter, with a few indistinct figures moving about. Achim thinks it’s a Bedouin camp. But when we get there we see that it’s a tourist camp, with stacks of cans of Turcu Cola and Fanta, and preparations being made for kebabs for those who want to buy lunch. Piles of rubbish and plastic wrappings smoulder in a fire in the gully at the back. A couple of other white vans are parked there, with a few elderly northern Europeans wearing sunbonnets and sensible khaki touring clothes. The two of us manage to escape. Our guide has become less bossy, realising we just want to enjoy some peace and quiet, and sees that we’ve bought our own picnic. He waves us towards the rocks, with “hot spring, hot water, very good.”
The smaller lake, which is supposed to be warm, is about as cool as an Australian lake in summer, but at this altitude – 2600 metres or so – it’s relatively warm compared to the breeze. I strip off, put on my bathers and dive in. It’s briskly exhilarating, then deliciously tepid. Achim strips off to his underpants and dives in too. We swim out to the middle of the lake, gazing up at the ravens and the multi-coloured crags, with tufts of cloud sailing over swiftly, the ragged black doom-birds circling and sinking. Time slows down and I forget everything else.
We swim back, and find the warm pool of water surrounded by a wall of stones, and wallow in it languidly. The water is quite dirty, and from the corner the stream from below is quite hot, stirring up the sediment. A smell like shit wafts around us. I try to imagine that it’s a sulphurous smell, from the volcanic vent.
We hear a cough from somewhere up above; just time enough to adjust ourselves modestly. It’s the Czech couple. The girl sits on a rock, quiet, perhaps a little bit melancholy, and her boyfriend tiptoes over the jagged rocks to reach the water’s edge.
“I hope you don’t mind, but I am going to strip off naked,” he says.
We don’t mind at all. I would have stripped before, but I didn’t want to offend any Muslim eyes that might notice. He strips off, swaying on a steep rock at the water’s edge, and dives in. He is beautiful, with very white skin and fluffy balls like soft white apricots. Achim murmurs his appreciation into my ear as we sit there, nonchalantly not watching, but not avoiding him either. I strip off too, and dive back in. I call out to the girl, “come on, dive in.” But her boyfriend tells me that she is unwell. Maybe she’s having her period.
We swim around, laughing, and as we clamber out, a car comes into view in the distance, bumping along the track. It stops halfway around the lake, and a couple get out and walk down to the reedy edge of the water. The woman is wearing dark flowing clothes and a veil. They might be able to see us, but not any details. We laugh and hide behind some rocks, pulling our underpants on quickly. As I dress and find my socks, I see a used diaper wedged between some rocks at the water’s edge, and a bit further up, a large scab of dried human shit. I’m shocked out of my dreamy day. Why on earth would anyone relieve themselves here, right beside the hot spring?
A couple of other cars pass along the track as well. I guess we could have hitch hiked up here after all.
Achim and I leave the Czech couple to themselves, but invite them to share our lunch if they want. We find a slab of rock to eat our picnic on. We’re busy on some peaches, and a group of locals wanders by. We smile and say hello, and one of the men gestures, showing us his camera. He wants to have his picture taken with us. He wedges his slight, muscular frame between us with a big grin, and Achim and I put our arms around his shoulders for the shot. How amusing, a local playing tourist and we being the exotic ‘colour.’
Our bossy tour guide wanders over too, quite mellow now. He asks if we had our swim, and we both look up at the sky and smile. He smiles. It’s become obvious that we are gay. “We go at three, OK?” He stands before us for a couple of minutes, silent, inscrutable, solemn, with his hands plunged deep into each pocket, his fly bulging. We pretend to notice nothing.
After lunch, Achim and I wander over the shrubby trail to the larger, deep blue lake, walking hand in hand. We find another hut, by the water, and two more white minivans parked nearby, with a dozen or so men, the guides and drivers, eating a substantial lunch. Further on amid the rocks and shrubs, families of locals are loudly enjoying their own picnics.
At half past two, the day ends, and we return to the van. On the return journey down to Tatvan, we see the field workers moving slowly through the dry mountain grass. Closer to the road two men carrying guns stand watching them. Why, I wonder? Are they out shooting foxes? Or are they guarding the workers in case they escape?
A brief foray into Aussie Rules, for North American readers.
Late Friday night I’m at the old Royal Hotel in Richmond with Andy. It’s crowded. I manage to push my way through the throng and get to the toilet to pee. There’s a drunk punter pissing copiously at the other urinal. He looks over, red faced, tubby and happy. It’s as if he wants to grab my eye and take it where it doesn’t really want to go, down to his frothy splish-splash. He gazes over, grunting proudly, “tike a look at that! That’s pure fucken’ alcohol that is. Pew-er fucken’ alcohol…” He’s got his left arm propped against the tile wall so he can’t fall in. Everyone’s just come from the footy, and Richmond has just won.
My poetry comrade took me by surprise when he invited me to tonight’s game. I’d thought Andy’d be the sport-shy type, being perhaps a tad intellectually superior (maybe this is why we get on well). He teaches Indonesian and writes wisps of cerebral verse. I’ve known him a few months, and had him pegged as a Young Fogey of the High Melburnian sort (as yours truly once was). But he says he’s been a Richmond (“the Tigers”) supporter for years. It was my team when I was a kid up in the country. I went for them because of the yellow diagonal stripe on the black jersey, manly, yet elegant. My brother Norbert has been a loyal Carlton (“the Blues”) fan ever since he was little. And tonight they’ve come together. Norbert, up in Sydney, has forbidden me texting him the score as he wants to catch the replay at 11pm.
Australian Rules football is played by two teams of 18 players, with interchange players in reserve. It’s ferocious and fast, with spectacular leaps as the men compete for the ball. To begin, a coin is tossed, and the winning captain selects the end of the field for their goals—and this will alternate every quarter. Players disperse across the relatively large oval—up to 200 yards long by 160 yards wide. After the first siren, the umpire bounces the ball hard in the center of the field, and the two ruckmen battle for it high in the air on its way back down.
Four banks of bright arc lights hover over this huge steel and concrete stadium, squatting on the banks of the Yarra River like a mother-ship convertible, very Spielbergian. We’re high up under the eaves of the Melbourne Cricket Ground, built for the 1956 Olympics, used for cricket in summer, football in winter, and recently remodelled with new stands, lighting and electronica for the 2006 Commonwealth Games. Tonight the crowd is a bit over half capacity, at 55,000. From way up on the North East side the oval below is a grass galaxy scattered with fast moving stars, tiny molecules of men. To a blind man unaccustomed to new light, the first minutes of play seem brilliant and exciting. I have never been to a big game. I barely dealt with football at school, always picked second-last or last, trotting around the periphery trying to keep my self, my left foot and my wire-rimmed spectacles out of the way.
The object of the game is to score goals between two flagpole-tall goal posts. A goal is worth six points. Outside the two goalposts are two shorter “behind” posts, and getting the ball through either of these is worth a point. If a player touches the ball before it crosses the line, if it hits a goal post, or soars over them it’s only worth a point. Aussie Rules differs from other football codes in having no offside rule. The offside rule delineates an offence in which an attacking player is closer to the goal (thus interfering with the defense and making scoring too easy) than any two defenders—usually a goalkeeper and one other.
There are no limits on ball and player movement, but players must bounce or toe kick the ball when running and must hand-pass the ball by punching it. Throwing is forbidden. Running with the ball is allowed, provided it is bounced to the ground every ten paces or so. Bumping and tackling is allowed, and when tackled a player must get rid of the ball, or risk a penalty (at tackle points, the crowd erupts, roaring “ball”). If a player marks the ball after more than 15 yards in the air, the game pauses and he gets a free kick from that spot. Apart from those rules, the ball is fair game. Fast, ferocious and often confusing play with high balletic leaps, tackles, and spinning scrums of wrestling men is the result. The game is played without body protection, although these days all players wear mouthguards, as boxers do, to protect their teeth. Bruised ankles and battered knees get taped up. Bones are occasionally broken, but there’s rarely a serious injury.
When my friend extended the invitation I suggested smuggling in a bottle of Pinot Gris and a chicken salad hamper (and, fished from the back of my cupboard, a couple of pairs of opera glasses, with which to analyze the form). “Don’t you dare, you’ll be killed” said he. I’ve brought the two pairs of binoculars, but play is far too rapid on this vast field to follow the ball. I get some beers and fries between the first and second quarters.
The Tigers and the Blues seem to be playing quite different styles of game tonight. The Richmond players employ rapid hand passes back and forth, zigzagging around the Carlton players, and trying to get enough room for a decent kick. The Blues are playing a much more spacious game, and more often than not during the opening half hour their players are where the ball is falling. At the end of the first quarter it seems the Tigers, trailing by 19 points, are getting creamed. But for the rest of the game they manage to push ahead.
“Aussie Rules” originated in Melbourne in the 1850s as a game to keep cricketers fit during the winter off-season. It borrowed elements of Gaelic football and Rugby, both played by British and Irish immigrants pouring into Victoria during the gold rush. It may also have been inspired by a local Aboriginal game, Marngrook, which used a ball of stuffed possum hide. The local native term for a high leap to catch the ball was “mumarki,” from where the term to “mark” the ball may have originated. The first code of rules was drawn up in 1859 at the Parade Hotel in Richmond, close to where we are at the MCG.
By the 1870s there were a number of competing teams in the inner districts of Melbourne: Carlton, Collingwood, Essendon, Fitzroy, Geelong, Melbourne, St Kilda and South Melbourne. The Victorian Football League was established in 1896. The game soon spread to other towns and Australian colonies, then New Zealand and South Africa. Major league football has always been a Victorian game though. In New South Wales and Queensland rugby is king. There used to be few interstate Aussie Rules matches, but in the 1980s several Melbourne teams migrated to other cities, and the Australian Football League was established in 1989. If you want to see footy in North America you’ve got the Ontario Australian Football League, with a dozen teams competing this year.
I begin to notice how messy the performance is tonight. Rapid, with bone crunching contact, and high arching leaps to mark the ball, but the ball gets dropped enough times for me to become aware of the clumsiness of play. I’m excited to be here, but there are groans all around at the mediocre level of tonight’s game. Carlton hasn’t been good in a decade, and Richmond in more than two, says Andy. They were gods when my brother and I were young, but they’ve both been on the bottom half of the ladder for the past few years. The level of play seems to be infuriating a lot of the spectators. There are a few good precise, difficult kicks from both sides, but a lot of easy goals get missed. What the hell is going on?
The crowd is good-natured, there are plenty of women along, and kids with oversized football jerseys, clutching half-size red leather balls, wear team coloured war paint on their bright and shiny little faces. Booing and roaring erupt from all quarters. The jesting is rarely hostile (it’s ironic that cricket, the gentleman’s game, has lately been marred by racist taunts toward visiting African and Asian players). I’ve developed a high piercing finger whistle that gets angry winces from the guys in front of us—Carlton supporters obviously—so I better stop it. There’s not much noise from Andy though. He murmurs indignation at Richmond’s poor show, perhaps a sigh of resignation, or an occasional approving nod at a reasonable kick. I roar with red-faced plebeian gusto along with the rest, having a blast. Finally, I register a genteel yell from my friend, “pick em up you fucking idiots.” The game is getting slaughtered. In the end, Richmond stumbles forward to collect an undeserved win: 12 goals 20 points (92 – a goal being 6 points) to Carlton’s 11 goals 18 (84).
Two and a half hours have gone by fast. It’s raining as the crowd empties out of the stadium like water pouring through holes in the bottom of a steel drum.
And now, back to where we are at the Royal Hotel. It’s the pub where Richmond footy club was founded in 1908. It’s got topless barmaids now. The mostly male crowd is very loud, mooing and rumbling in beery satisfaction. I manage to get myself back to the bar without having been sprayed with “pew-er fucken alcohol.” Andy’s got a sparkly-eyed grin. Maybe the look on my face is just as boyishly callow as the look on his, as if the steel-smiling English backpacker barmaid just dipped her nipples into our pints of Kilkenny and proffered her frothy tits for us to lick.
This essay first appeared in the monthly magazine Black Lamb, which can be seen at http://www.blacklamb.org