Saturday morning, in a fog, after a night like that. Count the ways our football team bruise us. The game is brutal, with no respite in the watching. Is it a failure in recruiting? West Coast footballers look bigger, stronger, faster. They boss us. Hope is torn.
Consolations come from cookery, gardening, in being moderately useful.
Kick the ball in a park with Mr 6yo. He talks about changing teams; “in three weeks”. Why three weeks? What does he know that I don’t?
As parents, we encourage independence, personal responsibility; it’s his life to lead. We want our boys to be happy, fulfilled. But what of the buzz word, ‘resilience’? Nothing’s more resilient than following Richmond.
But Richmond footy cards remain on the first sleeve of his album. He’s still his mother and father’s son. He reads out the names of his favourite players, adding emphasis: Bachar Houli, Jack, Dusty, Trent, Ty, Nick Vlastuin.
The Chris Yarran card looks a cruel joke; a photo-shopped montage.
His favourite non-Richmond players: Nick Nat, Eddie Betts and Nick Riewoldt. Grade 1 schoolyard currency. I’d have them in my team, also.
Monday, after-school kick-to-kick in the backyard – three boys and a ball – and I think of words I want to say to our players, to encourage them. Their confidence is gone, the trust is broken. Fingers are being pointed, names named. There is division, resentments. In the four games this season, I reckon only one player can hold his head high. He had an ill-timed defensive punch in the last 40 seconds of the Collingwood loss; but at least he took the personal responsibility of being there, of putting his hand up, of trying to make a difference.
Too much sideways and backwards passing; moving responsibility elsewhere, putting the pressure on the next player, then adding some.
Sunday night is our crucible, and much needs to change between now and then. All we can ask is that our players play for each other. Block out all the chatter of the football media, the anonymous scorn of the fan sites. Know that we are a club, and all supporters want only the best for you. Take the game on. Be strong, be bold. Fortune favours the brave. It is no time to shirk a contest.
Backs to the wall stuff; we’ve nothing to lose.
Sunday afternoon, after a loss, met with a fan at the Shrine of Remembrance to ask of his Richmond story, then drove to Castlemaine with the family looking for inspiration. Off to see the artworks of Ben Quilty, commissioned by the Australian War Memorial as an Official War Artist to record and interpret the experiences of Australians deployed in Afghanistan.
Three seasons ago when I approached the Richmond Football Club to write for them, in a letter of introduction I mentioned the role of Australia’s official war artist; of interpreting the chaos of battle, giving form to a shapeless pursuit. It was an idea; one I hoped might be of benefit to the players, to the team. I believe in the power of words, in the clear logic of storytelling.
But for whatever reasons, I was never allowed access inside the “four walls”. I remained on the outer, watching with the crowd, lending my voice with all others.
This season, curiously, Richmond do have a writer in their midst – ‘embedded’, in combat speak – as a fly-on-the-wall. He’s documenting a season. His job got harder last weekend; the narrative shifted.
Quilty’s artworks remind of Irish painter Francis Bacon; the imagery is bold, abstract, unsettling, emotionally charged, raw, verging on the grotesque. The most affecting works are figures with blank stares, black splodges that could be exit wounds, contorted male torsos. They seem studies in masculinity, national identity, mortality.
There is brutal honesty in the brushstrokes; no glorification of the horrors of war. It is truth-telling.
My viewing was curtailed by our two young boys, hanging off me, clutching AusKick footballs, wanting to return to the park for kick-to-kick.
Much of our half-day in Castlemaine was spent in Victory Park, the Botanic Gardens, and by goalposts at Western Reserve. Before driving there, I knew this was where Dustin Martin grew up, where he played football. I visited the town’s footy oval, but it was busy with a car swap-meet.
Late in the day, having our last kick before heading home, an older boy joined us from a nearby skate-park, wanting to have shots on goal. A left footer. He hadn’t tied his laces up; his shoe kept coming off.
Asked him who he barracked for. “Richmond,” he said, “and also Collingwood”.
Asked him if he he’d ever met Dusty. He said he played at Campbells Creek, out of town. As he turned and left to join his friends in the skate park, he called out: “And he once asked my sister out”.
A young man, a boast.
A war story.
Many years ago, before children, I travelled with my partner to El Alamein in the Western Desert in Egypt, to visit the last great killing field of Australian men. I wanted to offer respects through telling their story, of a place that since childhood I wondered about, mostly because of a branch line on Melbourne’s rail network.
Also, my partner’s mother was born nearby in Alexandria; her mother was a nurse during the war. She met her husband, a member of the Polish Army fighting with the Allies in North Africa, in a hospital.
Visiting the Commonwealth War Cemetery at El Alamein, wearing boots and football socks, was profoundly moving. Contemplation among all the neat rows of headstones; perpendicular blocks, each engraved with a ‘Rising Sun’ shield and a string of names, ranks, units, ages and fatal dates.
Most were no older than the 44 footballers who’ll take the field this Sunday night.
Australian men, who had travelled so far to fall in such sparse country, now entombed forever in soil the colour of cinnamon. They were buried as they fought: together, in four plots on the western flank, nearest the front line with the Axis forces. Australia’s heroic Ninth Division comprised about 10 per cent of the Eighth Army’s strength, yet accounted for more than one-in-five of its casualties.
Of the 7970 men buried, 1234 are Australian, with a further 655 chiselled in limestone in a cloister honouring Allied servicemen who “died fighting on land or in the air where two continents meet and to whom the fortune of war denied a known and honoured grave”.
Lest we forget? I deplore the idea of war and am often uneasy about its commemoration – too often the remembrance turns into flag-waving nationalism, turns into xenophobia, turns into misguided loyalties – but I can never forget the young men of the Australian “Ninth Div”, buried in such dreadful numbers in shifting sands in a faraway land.
A mood of melancholia has taken hold, again.
Times like these, I need to chop wood.
Or I need our football team to win, letting the spirits sing again.
I’ll be at the game on Sunday night, my first for the season. It shall not be my last.