When children are born in Victoria
they are wrapped in 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
Ooohh 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 the 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.
The week before the AFL grand final seems a fitting time to recall Bruce Dawe’s great – if somewhat ironic – hymn to Aussie Rules Football. Despite the changes in the ALF that have occurred since he wrote it in 1960s (I think) – when he was writing about the Victorian Football League – I still can’t go to a match without some line or other popping into my head – like ‘Ooohh you bludger!’
Bruce Dawe is sometimes called ‘the Poet of Suburbia’, and the poem is characteristically straightforward – especially for anyone who knows anything about Australian Rules Football. It follows the life of a footy barracker from birth and first exposure to the game through the milestones of life:
– the reckless proposal after the one-point win, the wedding and honeymoon after the grand final …
to old age, with the prospect of new cycles of life.
Dawe’s theme is that supporting a footy team is a religious experience. There are any number of quasi-religious references, including to empyrean, or the highest heaven, bonding to a club as a covenant, teams with quasi-religious names like the Demons, (the Melbourne Football Club) and the Saints, (the St Kilda Football Club), and going up the premiership ladder as an ascent into heaven. The renewal of teams by recruiting young men is likened to the fertility rites of Maya.
In all of this, Dawe is poking affectionate fun at ardent footy supporters. It may be foolish to treat a game as defining a life, but in Dawe’s views there is the same compensation as is found in some religions – the hope of resurrection. There’s always next season.
Australian Rules Football is still essentially the same game on the field as it was when Dawes wrote his poem, though old-timers say a number of rule changes have reduced its physicality. But the way it is organized has changed almost beyond recognition by the inception of the Australian Football League. Footy fervor may still be most intense in Victoria, but surely it is rivalled by South Australia, with two teams in the AFL, with Western Australia a close second. There are two teams in both NSW and Queensland, and though tribal loyalties remain strongest to the rugby codes in those states, AFL is no longer a Victorian phenomenon. But hand in hand with the expansion of the game has come its corporatization. Football is big business now, and clubs have a corporate culture, with highly paid CEOs, media departments, and sponsorship and merchandising arms. The AFL draft does some levelling down of clubs, but being a rich club still helps enormously in making for on-field success. The new recruit from Eaglehawk will be expected to be a media savvy role model, and Chicken Smallhorn probably wouldn’t get a game. Fans are consumers, who expect to have a ‘football experience’ that goes beyond simply watching their team play. Can the sort of intense local loyalty that made ‘a little Tiger’ still prevail in this climate?
There are lots of bandwagon supporters – those who appear with brand new scarves when their team starts winning, and aren’t seen again once the team begins to lose. But there are also the die-hards, who go on barracking for teams that haven’t tasted finals glory for years. I can’t help thinking that for all its corporatization, football still provides a sense of community and belonging that has disappeared from many people’s lives in this late-capitalist age. It’s not the atmosphere of the corporate box on grand final day; it’s the rainy afternoon when the bottom teams battle it out in the mud, their loyal supporters still crying ‘Carn … Carn … (if feebly) unto the very end’.
Jim Phelan played for the South Melbourne Australian Rules Football Club (now the Sydney Swans) and in 1902, revitalised Aussie Rules in New South Wales. You can read more about Bruce Dawe, including a long interview with him, here.