With thanks to the youtuber ozzmanzz
Are Australians really of the New World?
To North America and South Africa, religious dissenters were driven by a mix of duty and reverence best called pietas, like Aeneas and his fugitive Trojans, founders of the Roman race. Those protestants had faith, staunchness, a sense of mission. They’d been preceded in the colonial race by catholic Europeans, madly venturesome Portuguese, or petty yet impossibly proud nobles from desolate knobs of ground in Spain’s interior. Some dead-crazy colonising there, but also plenty of pietas.
Australians, on the other hand…
It’s our deep down Don’t-Care, isn’t it? Especially if you’re from Sydney, you know about the Don’t-Care. You may not admit to it, you may not even recognise it; but, even if you strain to care greatly, you are part of the Great Australian Don’t-Care. Lecturing types have called it our “apathy”, best cured by becoming a lecturing type.
But no. It’s mostly a good thing, this absence of pietas.
We found ourselves here, a dinky half-colony of convicts, bossed up by military men needing to get off half-pay. When the First Fleet came to land, they all got promiscuously drunk. The tone was set: drudge and survive, look for some fun.
The Second Fleet arrived, starved and brutalised, victims of a contract swindle worse than most of the crimes punished at “Botany Bay”. What to do? Drudge and survive, look for some fun.
What counted of the rest of the world was on the other side of the world. Everything was stupendously distant, everything would take time and more time. The parson might comfort your soul, or he might flog your body – you were hardened to both experiences. Drudge and survive, look for some fun.
Nobody could farm, or almost nobody. One marine’s wife called Elizabeth was an agricultural and commercial genius. She would have been happy with lace and patterns back in England. Who could know? Pot luck. Drudge and survive etc.
And so was formed our improvised and improvising character. And our yearning for the weekend.
Of course, behind the halting, unaspiring origins lay something new and lofty called the European Enlightenment. So instead of a plantation the closest thing the world has to an egalitarian nation was improvised, when no-one really intended it. And here we are.
When I try to put myself into the skin of a Boer trekker, a Canuck loyalist, a New England revolutionary, a Puritan, a Plymouth Dissenter…those skins won’t fit. Aussies are Aussies. We just haven’t cared like they cared, those rebel breeds in new spaces, fabled wielders of guns and bibles. Our natures, if not our sympathies, remain closer to urban English and village Irish.
When I rack through our character for scraps of New World pietas, I can find so little of it. And yet, just maybe, in one field of Australian life…
Bugger abstraction. Here’s a story.
Prof was born in 1915, to the usual big South Melbourne family. They lived at the rough end of the old Emerald Hill district, part of which would cling to its poshness for a few decades – but that was not Prof’s part.
Norm “Prof” Boyling was slow and asthmatic, better at books than at sport, though ordinary at both. He was a patient and even talented penman, his “sums” were good. After school, he kicked a ball low and short in winter, bowled easily punished off-spin in summer. The asthma remedy of the day, swimming in Port Phillip, helped his breathing; but young Norm was not one who could fling a cricket ball from the boundary or take a dazzling mark. Like many of that kind, he found fascination in oddities: first matchboxes, then ship arrivals, then tidal observation. Because of the tide thing, they called him “Prof”, and the name stuck.
On leaving school, he became an apprentice book-keeper. The job was about right for him, taking into account his sparse but definite skills, his application, and his solid elementary education. The marvels of penmanship and order we see in our old records were executed by Prof and his kind.
Small, slight-bodied, shy and a solitary hobbyist, he was no natural choice for any girl. Yet thanks to his ability to get absorbed in odd things, he felt the absence of a girlfriend far less than other young men might feel it. He was not, in Larkin’s phrase, “easily bored to love”, a saving advantage in a young man with so few advantages. Prof was a specimen of profound bachelorhood, a condition which did not spring from misogyny or being “queer”, but merely from an uncommon ability to occupy his mind. When others grew facial hair or took up smoking to mark their advance into manhood, Prof’s mind was elsewhere.
However, the great mental occupation for his maturity and long bachelorhood would not appear until the year 1933, around Prof’s eighteenth birthday.
He was well liked. Women saw him as a pleasant irrelevance, men found him companionable. Around the time of his first full pay packet, he was invited by work mates to the new and imposing Lake Oval grandstand, to watch a game of footy – or “Rules”, as the game was called in foreign Rugby parts.
Like all Victorians, Prof was aware of footy. To a boy raised in a decaying timber shack, slapped up by a grandfather in Tent City as the gold rush waned, things like radios and grandstand tickets were unattainable luxuries. Yet his father, and all the men he knew, followed that winter routine of anticipating the game from Thursday, following the game from a hill or by shared radio at the weekend, then sifting through its ashes till around lunch on Tuesday. Wednesday might be eerily free of footy. Might be.
The local team was called the South Melbourne Swans – or South, or the Ducks, or the Bloods, depending on mood. The official name had been attached to them because of the black swans on nearby Lake Albert. Like those birds, many of the team’s players were from West Australia. The expression “Bloods” was a reference to the red and white colours, and perhaps to a certain small-club desperation. The Swans bled, their supporters bled. It’s what minorities do.
Ah, that first day at the footy, with other men, some older and showing him manly courtesies – and with a pay-packet! Every eighteen year old has some such experience, something he remembers as a threshold.
The cost bothered him, as did the cumbersome grandstand roof tottering on wispy pillars. It bothered him also that there were many things about footy he did not understand – yet!
When the main game began, and his friends shouted, cheered, commented and remonstrated, Prof began to observe all. He digested all movement on and beyond the field, not just around the ball. He noted his friends’ behaviour, and the reactions of the visiting supporters.
Above all, it was the “leading” he observed: men rushing to position themselves, to guard or evade others, far away from where that ball was being played. By the last quarter, his mind could at least tread water in that fluid chaos which is Australian Rules Football.
The Swans won that day, and Prof shared in the elation, even frittering much of his pay in a round of beers. All the while, his mind was moving like Sidney Kidman’s. His mind was on that vast plain of play, which could become a seething or erupting sea, where forces gathered and dispersed, often unnoticed, unused, in infinite combination. And he yearned for the next game, where those fierce underdogs in red and white might triumph again. If they could surge more quickly? If they could pause more craftily? If they could only…
Norm “Prof” Boyling had emotion like the others but also his special craving to understand. A feeble-bodied asthmatic, he would never play; yet he would understand, not just the ruck, but that swirling sea far beyond the contest for the ball. That day, a supporter’s supporter was born. Such a Blood was born that day.
That season, the South Melbourne Swans made it to the Grand Final, a rare outcome for the club. The event would be held at the “G”, the enormous Melbourne Cricket Ground, a sporting arena which, according to some, had the largest capacity in the world. And it would be full.
Prof went with the firm friends he had acquired so unexpectedly over the last weeks. He loved their easy enthusiasm and sledging; they were beginning to approve his studious, open attitude, without pretence or the strutting typical of so many small men. After games, he was careful to “hold” his beer while never ducking his turn to buy. Alcohol mattered little, friends who were also Bloods were what drew him to the pub. Even a few supporters of other teams had become closer to him at work, through their love of the game and willingness to talk about it from Thursday through to Tuesday. There were even women in his new social circle!
He had economised fiercely to buy a ticket for his father, who almost wept at the luxury and privilege of a grandstand seat at a Grand Final. At the ground, Prof was careful to shield the frail and timid gentleman from the jostling of the mob. His friends treated his father as an important personage. Surely, manhood was reached that day.
The sweep of the Melbourne Cricket Ground, the size of the crowd, the scale of the formalities and entertainments, filled Prof with awe and joy. Some said a hundred thousand people were present, some said more. So this was maturity! These were the rights of a man after age eighteen – on full pay!
The result of the game against Richmond was an overwhelming win, and Prof, educated by now, had been in no doubt. He knew his team, he knew Richmond; he knew the injuries, weather conditions and state of the ground. But certainty could not lessen the thrill.
After some days of feeling light and elated, something new and worrying crystalised in his mind. Magpies would soon be swooping in spring, bulbs would flower, the summer would come on, he would have a Christmas break, he would swim, there would be white-clad cricketers in every park…
There would be no more footy till next winter!
Yeats posed the question. If a mother could see her babe “with sixty or more winters on its head”, would she endure its difficult birth? If we could see the future, would we lift a finger for much at all? Would a young Blood of 1933 give his heart forever, to the team with the red V, if he knew what lay ahead? If he knew of the years, the decades, rolling on to the turn of a new century and new millennium…
The neighbouring and detested St. Kilda had never tasted the honeycomb. It would be easier for them. The followers of the South Melbourne Swans had felt that giddiness, that unreal floating, which follows a Grand Final win, a morphine haze which hangs on the spirit for days after the initial burst of elation. Three times they had felt it, none more intensely than in 1933.
The next season was exhilarating. A full forward called Bob Pratt amazed all followers of the game with his devilish leaping and marking. South fans would talk more of Pratt than the game, even if it had been a storming win; and one of the delights of that year was in reading the plodding yet decorative reportage of his exploits in the South Melbourne Record. As Prof pored over the same sentences up to a dozen times each day, he was as much in awe of the journalist as of Bob Pratt.
“Nothing gave South fans greater delight than to see Pratt soaring above the packs. The fruits of victory would not taste so sweet if Pratt failed to reap a bag of half a dozen majors.”
Pratt’s 150 goals, and his eight goals in a single quarter, against Carlton, would be the highlights of the season. Tragically, the Grand Final – South’s for the taking – was an unexpected but resounding win to Richmond. While his friends spent the rest of that cold and gusty evening drinking and muttering away their sorrow, Prof sat in Albert Park, alone on a bench, and digested his disappointment. Being educated in the game, and curiously impartial for such a devotee, he had spotted the deliberate under-performers, so the later accusations of a betting swindle would not surprise him. What surprised him was the thought that men could live for mere money – rather than for footy!
That summer he spent…now, how did he spend summers? He took overtime, there was the odd dip in Port Philip, the odd cricket game to score. It was life, of sorts, a bit of a blur.
None of it mattered, when leaves began to fall in Albert Park, and the cricket trophies were locked away at the Lake Oval, and the distinctive thud of pigskin on boot could be heard about the parks of Melbourne as evenings grew chilly.
That 1935 season was, in some ways, greater than what preceded it. Pratt kicked many goals, but he was joined by two other champions, Nash and Moore, who, together, managed nearly as many as Pratt. To have a player who kicked half as many goals as Pratt was something, but to have two such players…
In vain. A couple of nights before the Grand Final, Bob Pratt was hit by a brick truck as he descended from a tram. For Prof and his comrades, the South Melbourne Record was barely able to encompass the scope of the tragedy when its finest wordsmith wrote:
“The initial attack on the inhabitants of Adowa by Benito Mussolini’s invading army upon Emperor Haile Selassie, is no greater shock than that received by SMFC officials when they learned on Thursday afternoon, through the press, that Bob Pratt had been involved in a collision with a motor truck.”
It was a win to Collingwood that year, not a good thing.
Yet it was still South’s era, and, in spite of injuries to many players, the Swans topped the premiership table in 1936.
In the Grand Final, they were again beaten by Collingwood. Collingwood! Never a good thing! While Prof’s friends blamed ill fortune and the umpiring, he knew the team had not deserved victory. Money had infected the game. Bob Pratt had wanted to leave for more money elsewhere; then, having decided to stay, he played too many games with injury – for money. Then there was the Gordon Coventry affair. In a previous game, the Collingwood star had retaliated when a Richmond defender persistently struck him on a cluster of boils that had formed on his neck. Coventry’s retaliation earned the great forward a suspension for the Grand Final.
The truth was, Collingwood had been under strength, and had still beaten the Swans. The spirit was leaking out of South. Others had hopes for the next season; Prof was silent on the matter.
The next decade brought back the consciousness of their smallness; the old sense of impoverishment began to hover again over the scrapper club which had defied giants and fates. South Melbourne, with its tiny urban catchment and no bush feeder clubs, might manage to draw a few more mercenary “sandgropers” from the far west of the continent – if it could find money!
And now a very great love would be tested.
The supporters had spent a decade anticipating each season, building dreams on every win or near win, while exposed to the drizzle and wind of Melbourne winters. Now winters seemed colder and gustier, as the Swans declined, shrivelled to be mere boys draped in old and glorious colours.
Other supporters now looked to Prof to find a little stability for their tottering hopes, a puff of warmth. Prof was the right attorney for hope. A man of strong intellect with a dominant passion does not allow too much expectation, but neither can he admit pessimism. That passion is a monstrous bloom, not to be fed or watered to excess, yet not to be neglected for a day. Each season, as friends with Melbourne nicknames like Crackles and Nuts and Donger clustered about in the pub before and after games, they half-heard each other’s whining and bravado…but truly attended to the Prof’s measured prognosis for each game and player, for any petty prospect he might nudge cautiously into view.
There was a distraction from footy in that dark decade for the Swans: World War Two.
Prof served, of course. His skills proved more than adequate for store work in military supplies. By war’s end, he was a corporal, having spent most of his service in several Queensland depots. The blood of the Bloods, confined in a rugby state! He was patient, thorough, and liked; yet few knew that their frequent talk of Rugby League was like a beaker of salt water waved before a man dying of thirst. Because the brine resembles the sweet, the torment is so much worse. Better no talk at all, than talk of that graceless tumbling and wallowing called Rugby League!
Almost as a reward for service, the end of the war brought a miracle, a brief one.
Prof had been able to take leave at home while awaiting demobilisation. He arrived in Melbourne in time for one September game: the Grand Final, with Carlton challenging – yes! – the South Melbourne Swans!
Controversially, the game was played at Collingwood’s home, Princes Park, since the MCG was still dedicated to military uses. While the ground was supposed to accommodate a mere 35,000, more than 63,000 were in attendance. (This may give some insight into why Melbourne needs, and possibly has, the biggest sporting ground in the world.)
The occasion was intended as a celebration of peace.
Instead, it was the most infamous game in the code’s history: the Bloodbath of 1945. Typical of the violence and farce of that day were the actions of Ted Whitfield, one of the Blood-stained Angels, as those Swans were later called:
“Charged with using abusive language to goal umpire Whyte, attempting to strike field umpire Frank Spokes, kicking the ball away after a free kick was given against him, and attempting to conceal his guernsey so the goal umpire could not report him. Suspended for 21 matches.”
In the end, it was a double disgrace. The police were called in, and Carlton won. The Prof was now a grown man, a serviceman, and senior figure among supporters. He declined to show emotion, but it was as if the War in the Pacific had been in vain, as if a divinely granted reward had been snatched away. As he did in that very first year, he declined to attend the pub post-game, and instead sat alone in the freezing dusk, by the lake in Albert Park. His mind was empty. Or was it full of foreboding, for the looming decades of dun desolation (as the South Melbourne Record might write)?
Next day, the colourful popular journal of the era, called, for obscure reasons, The Truth, carried gruesome photos of the violence, under the banner “Pictures of Bash from Bashball.” The Prof was too honest to deny his team’s share of guilt for the millennial blot on the game. However, the vulgarity of the reportage appalled him, after his years of savouring and even memorising the flattering verbiage of the South Melbourne Record. The Truth wrote:
“The Carlton-South premiership match was the game’s greatest blot and the most repugnant spectacle League football has ever known.”
The headlined word “bash” was a clear reference to the Swans’ Jack “Basher” Williams. How that headline cut deep. And how it would hang on his club, a badge of disgrace forever.
There were two teams involved that day, after all!
The years, in the case of Prof Boyling, would not be measurements of time. The seasons would not represent turns in the climate. They would be phases in that long night of the Swan, through which only the sturdiest spirit could pass without wavering. It was a time for pietas.
As his siblings departed and married, his aging parents came somewhat under his care. Why not? They were the best sort of people, and through those empty warm months he delighted to clean, maintain and make repairs for them. Moreover, Prof owed them more than life: they had brought him not just into the world, but into South Melbourne.
A fine girl of the neighbourhood, whose fiance had perished in New Guinea, showed a clear interest in Prof, even remarking to friends on his “steadiness”. Something good may have come of it all, if the lady had initiated her erotic campaign in the empty summer months. She chose, however, a winter offensive. Prof was engaged on another front!
The South Melbourne Record occasionally made reference to the “Stoic of Lake Oval”, a supporter who was becoming a legend of staunchness and quiet resignation, “a flickering off-field beacon of tremulous hope and sober faith”, in the florid words of the Record, “to the aging and despairing devotees of the Red and White guernsey”.
The years, the seasons, went by; the Stoic of Lake Oval became settled in all his ways, then rigid in all his ways. His father passed away, then his mother. Prof bought the old family home by making generous payments to his siblings, though he might have simply continued in occupation under the terms of the probate. Honour, even in the ordinary currents of life – even in the middle of cricket season – was paramount. Bob Pratt and Basher might bring a stain to the Bloods. Prof would not.
The South Melbourne Swans became less than minor: they were trivial. A triumph was a game with a few goals, a few good marks. Any damage done to Saint Kilda was a kind of triumph: each of the two neighbour clubs had come to need the misery of the other. A triumphant season was one in which there were nearly as many wins as losses.
Prof was close to his supporter mates like Crackles and Donger, but knew he could never afford to become like them: embittered ghosts of 1933, spooking the public bars of South Melbourne with their tales of Pratt and Nashe, objecting to every change, as if change had been South’s problem. No, progress was good. When the club gained permission from Notre Dame College to borrow the tune of their theme song, some were appalled. The first time it was sung properly after a rare victory, Donger gathered a mouthful of spit then slowly expelled it straight down. Crackles muttered: “Yank shit.” Prof, on the other hand, vowed to obtain a copy of the words and learn the song properly. He assumed, with logic, that anything exclusively associated with victory for the Bloods would come to be loved by the Bloods. He was right.
The problem with the song was that it was heard rarely after 1945. So many months might pass between renditions, even mid-season, that the words were often forgotten by the time the Swans scraped home, maybe against a lamentable rabble from St Kilda.
People called Prof a purist, an appreciator, rather than a barracker. Illusion! He was certainly studious, restrained – but Prof Boyling lived for a main purpose. What he had felt once, in September of 1933, he wanted to feel again. He wanted the morphine glow of Premiership! He wanted the Flag! Did he question whether anything feels the same, whether anything is the same, as one advances in age? He was too sensible not to ask the question. But, like so many measuring, careful types, Prof had his compartment of madness.
The years, the seasons began not merely to pass but to flit, an effect of age. The 1950s were desolate, yet a great joy came to Prof and to South Melbourne in that period: a joy called Bob Skilton. For some, having Skilton was enough. Not just a marker and scorer, “Chimp” was a true rover, his courage, his physicality, his scrapping instincts and his hounding of oppositions to the the point of persecution…he was South Melbourne. What Prof was to supporters, Skilton was to players.
Weather seemed hostile in those years; Prof needed more clothes, a better brolley, for the long hours in grandstands and on bare knolls. With his typical restraint, the only colours he had ever worn were those of his red and white scarf, but he now toyed with the idea of hand-knitted beanie in the same colours. However, Prof did not know any woman well enough to make the request of her: a quandary for bachelors of that era, those whose mothers had passed.
Toward the end of his career, Skilton was joined by the one man whose name could rank alongside his own: coach Norm Smith. The result was a semi-final berth for the Swans. Yet Prof knew that these champions were merely stirring ashes to re-create a faint glow. The permanently under-resourced and self-doubting Swans could not flame up again.
With Byzantine formality, he never sought the company of these champions, though Prof was now almost a public figure himself – the Sage of the Lake, as the Record called him, in yet another journalistic flight. Champions must be allowed to inhabit their Valhalla, supporters had their corner of the pub: that was Prof’s theology.
The Skilton years brought a few new supporters to the club, but that glow was soon gone. One more decade saw the club, laden with debts, empty of triumphs, on the verge of extinction. Just as he had refused to show premature enthusiasm in the Skilton years, Prof was now steadfast in the face of this, the club’s worst storm. Storm? It was a hurricane. It was almost certainly the end. Crackles even asked Donger in the course of one slurred, beery discussion:
“So…who will we support if…if…”
“Not St Kilda! And as for Collingwood…I wouldn’t support those turds if they sat in my lap!”
“But…what will we do if, you know…all winter long…what will we do? What happens to a man when, you know…?”
Prof refused to utter a word on the subject of extinction. He was the silent old Roman patrician, seated and immobile as the Gauls raged into the senate.
Suddenly, the club was saved by a measure so bizarre, so inapt, that salvation was like perdition. Some roared their disapproval, threatened riot. Crackles, on hearing the news, did one of his long and vomitous spits.
But Norm “Prof” Boyling tapped his fist on his scarf, right where it was draped across his heart.
The Bloods would go on. And the Bloods would win that Flag, somehow. What else mattered?
Victorians do not have an insulting name to describe those to their immediate north. The word “Sydney” encapsulates so much contempt that no special pejorative is needed.
Yet the South Melbourne Swans were now the Sydney Swans. The scrapping club with the purest working class traditions, founded in the nineteenth century, was suddenly the club of bloated, vulgar and insolent Sydneysiders – in the 1980s!
After initial bewilderment, the Swans comforted their supporters, either too old or too new, with some victories. Certainly, the Sydney Cricket Ground was no mean home. For all its size, it is a huggy, character-filled stadium, one of those stadiums where things happen. That much, at least, was good.
The popularity of Kerry Packer’s new cricket format helped the new winter sport at the SCG. Those with a treasured membership used it to follow the strange game which, cramped by television, only came to full life when viewed at a great ground. What Prof had learned in minutes at his first game in 1933, the fans of Sydney, suckled on Rugby League, were learning slowly. “Rules” is a game played off the ball, it is a seething sea of interests and speculations.
Soon a truly Sydney ingredient was added to the Swans: crass flamboyance. While new coach Tom Hafey was a disciplinarian with the right “scrapper” image for the Bloods, everything else about the club was flamboyant, from the glitz-addicted Jewish doctor who sort-of bought the team, to blonde-locked full forward Capper in his girlish shorts, to the cheerleaders, the, er, Swanettes. Cheerleaders in the Victorian game, for many good reasons, were unheard of till then. Since those days, they have been unheard of. Nonetheless, during the eighties, the Swans actually had cheerleaders, with the most un-Melbourne name imaginable.
Now the club seemed to have money, and it began to enjoy various individual and team triumphs, not least Lamborghini-driving Capper’s consecutive Mark of the Year awards. Back in their shabby South Melbourne pub, Crackles, Donger and Nuts began to restrain their sarcasm; Prof restrained his enthusiasm. The group even discussed a drive or a flight to Sydney.
But it was the eighties. Money was everywhere because money was just an electronic pulse, a promise with crossed fingers.
Suddenly, at the end of that decade, money had to be money again. Money had to be shown. The Sydney Swans could not show money. The ancient financial curse was again laid on the club. Hafey’s techniques were old, as was Capper’s blonde mullet. Players and supporters – especially those fickle Sydney supporters – deserted.
Three wooden spoons in a row meant that even some of the old crew at the pub in South Melbourne had stopped assembling for away-games in Melbourne, found other things to do. There was once again talk of extinction, and this time the team for extinction had a much feebler connection with men like Crackles. (Donger and Nuts had passed away by now.) These old barrackers were far more disgusted, but not so fearful. The threads of loyalty had been stretched across too many miles, between two opposed cultures, irrelevant or hostile to one another. The Swans were “Sydney” now. Only the colours remained of the Bloods.
Through all this, one supporter merely rapped on his heart with his fist, right where his red-and-white scarf was draped.
With a little welfare from the game’s governing body, and some new investors, the club survived. Soon, a charismatic coach and an inspiring captain, who was actually a New South Welshman, began to revive the odd hope and fan the odd flicker of Sydney interest. Attendances by the old South Melbourne crew for the Melbourne games increased.
Then came a day, in Prof’s eightieth year, when he was watching the Swans play Adelaide, on television from the nursing home where he often visited an ailing Crackles. A Swans turn-around of more than thirty points – in just the one quarter! – had Crackles sitting up stiff in his chair. The veil of years had been torn. Prof did an extraordinary thing. He laid his hand on Crackles’ shoulder and spoke the words: “With this Kelly chap. With Lockett up the front. Maybe. Soon. Maybe next year. Maybe.”
Those words would have meant very little coming from anyone else. But those words came from the lips of Norm “Prof” Boyling, the Stoic of Lake Oval. Before Crackles died later that year, he put out the word that Prof had finally committed to a prediction. 1996 would be the Year of the Swan. Of course, Crackles had left out the “maybe” – God rest the red-and-white soul of Crackles Corcoran.
To tell all the tales of that 1996 season is beyond the powers of a remote observer: one who followed the ball, who admired, albeit superficially, the scrambling of a Kelly, the enforcing of a Dunkley…and the human thunder that was Plugger Lockett. Only Prof Boyling could relate each surge and peak and trough of that great sea which is the true game. While others watched the ball, were engaged by the medical drama of Plugger’s groin, the legal drama of Dunkley’s delayed justice, it was Prof who saw. Others watched, Prof kept his navigator’s eye on every tiny doing and event.
He was there on Grand Final Day, when it all came to an end. North Melbourne were dominant, as Prof had suspected (though he was careful, like a true mystic, not to let his rational suspicions infect his belief). Mickey Martin did the impossible: he shut down Plugger.
No Flag in 1996.
That evening, Prof listened to the son of Nuts Chapman, who – no, not figuratively! – really did weep into his beer:
“If it weren’t for that toothless ape, Martin…if it weren’t for that gorilla…”
But Prof could not allow himself cheap emotions, futile resentment. At the age of eighty-one, he had served family, employer and nation well. Yet his greatest aspiration remained frustrated, after sixty-three years.
Well, he was still alive.
As the others complained and drank heavily, he merely sipped, sometimes running his fingers down that frayed red-and-white scarf, sometimes giving it a tap.
That evening, he sat for a full hour by Lake Albert, till the cold drove him inside. At eighty-one, you can only take so much weather.
The following years brought respectability, in spite of a salary cap scandal. The Swans were well led, coached, managed and financed. They made the finals four years out of five. They were the opposite of those inner urban scrappers of seventy years ago. They were a big, rich organisation, with an Olympic Stadium and a legendary Sydney Cricket Ground at their disposal. Their name and colours sold the products of other big, rich organisations. They were based in a huge city that exuded its glamour for the whole world – except for Melbourne.
But the Swans had not won a Flag, not since that far-off September day in 1933.
The years, the seasons they…what did they do now? It was faster than a flit now. The grave beckoned to Prof, as it had beckoned to Nuts, Donger and Crackles. Even Donger’s eldest son, born in 1935, the year of a Bloods Grand Final loss, had passed away in his late sixties.
As his ninetieth birthday approached, Prof, who had enjoyed good health for most of his life, felt suddenly enfeebled. After a merely solid 2004 season, the Swans promised but modestly for 2005. Yet Prof would be happy to drag his bones through another winter. Why? Like all true sages, he valued change. He spied a shrewd humility in the recruiting of the new team that was emerging. The Swans were picking up the stragglers and malcontents of other clubs. They had even acquired another St Kilda bad boy at full forward. As that season began, he watched their patient discipline and their deliberate frustration of opposition brilliance. He watched the sea of men, not just the ball-players. After numerous wins and near-wins, he caught himself smiling almost smugly. Did he know something, without knowing he knew? Was this just age?
They called them the Ugly Ducklings. The Swans of that year passed short, kicked low, flooded their own goal with players out of position…and held that ball. They owned that ball. To some, even those neutrals high up in administration, the Bloods’ frustration tactics were a barely legal affair, a defiance of constitutional convention, akin to an opposition blocking supply to government. Worse, there was a pestilential northern element, an element of Rugby League, in the Swans attitude.
To the Prof, it was merely a different sea, a tangled Sargasso, to be understood and navigated by any who dared. And the new, spoiling style seemed to be working. This was not like watching Pratt and Skilton, with their daring and brilliance. It was not even like watching Kelly and Lockett back in the ’90s. It was a style which might take the Swans where nobler, loftier styles could not take them in the past.
In the pub, one more beer, one more fret before the game.
“Man of ninety. You’d have to be careful. So, how is the Prof? Excited?”
“I wouldn’t call him excited. It’s something else…like he really believes it this time. No, not just believes. He knows it. So he’s more sort of…What’s that word when you’re happy but you’re calm?”
“Serene! That’s it. He’s serene.”
Nuts Chapman, eldest son of the late Nuts Chapman, had offered to escort Prof to the Grand Final of 2005, West Coast versus – yes! – those Ugly Ducklings. There would be others at the MCG to flank him, some of them sons and grandsons of the old crew.
Prof still mattered, still signified. To the mobs of Sydney barrackers he was a venerable figure in a red and white scarf, often seen, seldom engaged. For the old South Melbourne supporters, and even many new ones, he was still the Stoic of Lake Oval. He was the blood of the Bloods.
What was it about Prof? He had never played the game, had always been a slight man of modest abilities in all things. So what was it? Odd that not a single blemish to his character could be remembered, even after years spent in spite-filled offices and gossipy Melbourne pubs. Nobody knew or used the word pietas. And yet…
Nuts slapped his glass down.
“Well, I’m off to pick the old bloke up. I’ll see you the rest of you in the grandstand.”
“No rush. He just lives around the corner.”
“He’s not in his house. He’s out by the lake. Just gone for a sit – with the swans, I suppose.”
The walk to the lake, the trip to the G, the swarming enormity of the G on Grand Final day: it was a lot for a ninety year old.
Prof sat, engulfed in red and white humanity, a shrunk version of a man who had always been slight, even flimsy. He had never played the game.
He spoke even less on that day, but his face wore a calm and fixed smile, like those seen on Etruscan tomb figures.
Friends passed him drinks, snacks. He sipped and nibbled. When the crowd leapt high at some new turn in that wrenching struggle between the extremities of the continent, Prof sat and smiled. He knew without seeing, he had been watching the whole, the sea of interests, not just the ball.
In a moment’s hush during the last quarter, he leaned over to Nuts Junior and said in what voice he had left:
“We don’t die, Nuts.”
“What? We don’t…?”
“We don’t die. I’m sure. All this…(gesturing weakly over the MCG, where a dramatic mark had the players weaving and crabbing in expectation of a kick)…all this is just to get us ready…for not dying. Do you see? There’s more stuff past all this. But we have to have all this. It came to me today, down on the lake. We’re not getting ready to die. We’re getting ready to not die. You see?”
“Not really. Prof, are you all right? Mate, we can get you home if you like, and watch a replay from there. Or maybe they have a special room here.”
“I’m fine. But you need to know…so much waiting and messing about…it can’t just suddenly stop. Makes no sense. We can’t go nowhere, because there isn’t a nowhere. Have you ever seen a nowhere? Of course you haven’t. Everything points to somewhere and goes somewhere. There’s only a lot of somewheres…Never mind. That’s all you need to know for now. Watch that Leo Barry. He’s not big, but he’ll shut ’em out. Watch Leo Barry.”
Gray Cooley, nephew of Donger, was sitting on the other side of Prof. He had managed to hear some of the ramblings. The two younger men exchanged a wink, then their attention was swallowed up by the game…and by that last quarter.
Amid the roar and wringing tension of those final minutes, Nuts Junior leaned over to ask Prof if he was all right. But Prof had fallen asleep, it seemed. Unless…
Nuts leaned across, nudged Gray Cooley and jabbed his chin at the inert figure slumped low between them. Gray spoke right into the old man’s ear. He seemed very much asleep, still with that faint smile. It was so hard to tell anything, with all the roar. Now Nuts felt Prof’s neck, then his pulse.
He shook his head.
The two younger men stared at one another.
Out on the field, the West Coast had the ball from a miracle mark! One goal would win it for them. Less than that would mean…
Nuts shrugged. He looked out over the screeching crowd to the field, thought briefly, and shrugged again. Grabbing one limp arm, he nodded to Gray, who took hold of the other arm.
As the West Coast player was running in for the kick, Nuts and Gray had lifted the evacuated shell of Norm “Prof” Boyling, so that the three of them could witness together whatever had been ordained.