Almanac (Cricket) Memoir: ‘Creeket iz life’

One night in early November last year, I was reading a short literary essay that reminded me of the concept of ma, a fundamental pillar of traditional Japanese society and culture. The word for ‘space’, its meaning leans more towards notions of interval, distance or blankness – the space between object and object, the pause if you like.

 

It came at the perfect time for me. My family of three had just started a new kind of life, split between Sydney and Brisbane. I was about to leave my job of eight years at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Footy was over. The long stretch of summer lay ahead like an untrodden stretch. So I decided that I would preserve this ma space I found myself in. I wouldn’t get involved in cricket this year. I would have a genuine sport off-season, take a hiatus the way the players do, breaking off from their ‘teamness’ like limbs being loosened from a body. I would run my summer narrative unaccompanied, rather than be dragged through five chapters of an Ashes I knew I wouldn’t be able to stop reading if I started, a contest that would colour my weeks with its characters and plot points and distract me from my own.

 

I was in the car, probably blocked in some Sydney artery, when I heard the familiar blend of commentary, pitch mics and crowd atmos that is ABC radio’s Grandstand. It was the first morning of the Brisbane Test. The smooth trail of Jim Maxwell, pecked at by the sardonic additions of Dirk Nannes. The rhythmic baton switches to Whateley or Aggers. I strove for non-committal. But then, it was Brisbane. Where my Cob was just setting up home, where we were bound for Christmas, that northern post which is destined to figure enormously in our next four years at least. The sneaking thought entered my head that I could perhaps begin my Brisbane belonging by listening to the particularities of Woolloongabba.

 

Cricket runs deep in my psyche, in a place that is beyond the game as spectacle or entertainment or contest. In a place that is beyond the game.

 

How may times have I dined out on my father’s folkloric status as the only Frenchman in the world obsessed with cricket? How many times have I attested to Dad’s dossier of proof that the game was invented in northern France by a group of idling monks? How often have I repeated the stories of me and my sister, his proxy sons, being towed down Moore Park Rd with a picnic and a thermos full of French red, sitting in the concourse rows of the SCG in the `80s, our legs drenched in reef oil and propped on the seats in front of us, intent on the West Indians as they sped in and snared while Dad barracked for the cockatoo yellow.

 

Dad was never supposed to come to Australia. His arrival takes place in that foreword of any child’s life, a time when their parents existed as young adults, individuals rather than kin.

 

He was working, in 1966, for major French engineering firm Dumez as a civil engineer and was headed to Pakistan to oversee construction of a dam on the Indus River. Two days before his scheduled departure, his employer called to say the company had been asked to tender on the White Bay Wharf Project in Sydney, Australia. Dad was a maritime expert and the man for the job. The company would send him to Sydney for three weeks to prepare the tender and then return him to Pakistan. He landed in Australia on the 6th of November.

 

Dad knew two things about Australia. Firstly, that one of his French aunts had an Australian mother from Adelaide. And secondly, that the Australian runner Herb Elliot had beaten the French 1500m champion Michel Jazy at the 1960 Olympic Games. Dad had seen a documentary on Percy Cerruty – ‘Le Sorcier de Port Sea’ – in which he trained a band of young runners, including Elliott, on the sand dunes of Portsea, Victoria. The narrator referred to them as – ‘les dunes au bout du monde qui touchent l’ocean’, the dunes at the end of the world which meet the ocean. Dad had marvelled at these men and wondered where on earth these dunes at the end of the world could be found.

 

On arrival in Sydney, Dad checked in to the Australia Hotel on Castlereagh Street. While he worked on preparing the White Bay tender, Dumez was awarded the contract to build the Snowy Mountains’ Jounama Dam. Dad was joined in Australia by a more senior engineer, Gerard Breton, a towering, slim Frenchman with a tilted sense of humour and a deep honey voice. The two men spoke very few words of English, knew nobody and bemoaned the cuisine, wine and culture (or lack thereof) of 1966 Australia. At least in December, the housemaids from the Australia Hotel plucked up the courage to insist that the two Frenchmen join them for an Australian Christmas lunch in Cronulla!

 

It was clear that Dad would stay in Australia to work on the Jounama Project. It wasn’t a tough decision. A Count by name, he relished his release from the box of Parisian aristocratic society, a closed circuit of dances and bridge nights thrown by the self-made haute bourgeoisie with the aim of marrying their daughters to an aristocratic name. ‘Péter plus haut que leur cus’ is how he described their ambition – a desire to ‘fart higher than their arses’.

 

The two Frenchmen looked for more permanent accommodation. Dad found an advertisement for a flatmate to one P. Plaskett in Double Bay. My mother’s sister was working for the same advertising company as Plaskett and he regaled her with stories of the Frenchman whose pitch for the room included a perfectly cooked cheese soufflé. My aunt, in turn, told her shy older sister, Diana – my mother – and the two sisters were invited to a poker night arranged by the girls who lived downstairs from Masters Plaskett and de Hauteclocque.

 

My father was immediately taken with Diana and made enquiries as to where she worked. She was attending John Olsen’s Bakery Art School by day and working at the Piccola Scala shoe shop for funds. Dad bought two tickets to Monteverdi’s ‘Vesper of the Virgin’ sung by Alfred Deller and arranged to collect her after work. He met her with a bunch of violets.

 

My mother and father courted by telephone between Sydney and South Australia’s Kangaroo Creek Dam. Dad spent Christmas 1967 at my mother’s family home in Sydney. They were engaged by April 1968 and married two months later. None of my father’s family attended his wedding at the end of the world, but Gerard stood beside him as best man. The newlyweds left for Europe shortly after the wedding and bought a house near the French Riviera town of Grasse. Dumez offered Dad a posting in Libya or Nigeria or the chance to remain in Paris, where he would once again work as a small fish in a very big pond. He quit the firm and engineering and left once again for Australia.

 

American art entrepreneur Harry Lunn, whose wife Miriam was a relative of my French grandmother, had established a print gallery in Washington, USA in 1971 and encouraged Dad to embark on a similar endeavour back in Sydney. A year later, Mum and Dad established Stadia Graphics Gallery in a corner shop in Paddington, specialising in contemporary French works on paper. And by 1974, before I was even one year old, Mum was already working on her own enterprise – Stadia Handcrafts – a wholesale and retail business importing and selling handcraft goods from Denmark and Holland.

 

As my parents’ business family grew, my father met one Cam Alexander, the husband of one of Mum’s employees. Cam had been a grade cricket umpire. He saw the potential in the Frenchman. He bought Dad the ABC Cricket Magazine. He took him to Sheffield Shield matches at the SCG. On the odd occasion that she went with, Mum drank in the faces of the crowd in front of them when, in his thick French accent, Dad would reiterate the day’s lessons.

 

Cam prepped Dad for the 1974-75 Ashes tour of Australia, tilling the mutual dislike of the English that the two nations shared. The intimidation and entertainment provided by Lillee, Thomson and Marsh hooked Dad. He loved the tightly wound competitiveness. He loved the sheer number of parameters to the game and how the human element of chance found a way to prevail between them. It stands to reason that a civil engineer of any nationality – especially one with a Masters in Econometrics – could fall for cricket. It is a game of calculations and span, of tweak over force.

 

Two daughters were born on Australian soil into dual nationalities. Mum and Dad bought a small semi-detached in the Eastern Suburbs. Dad took us to the ocean at the end of the world after school and threw us over the waves. Saturdays were brioche and croissants from the Paris Cake Shop on Bondi Rd – the pâtissier Jacques Chaboisseau wore the tricolour collar reserved for the ‘Meilleurs Ouvriers de France’ – the greatest artisans of the country in their field. And the summers were lived alongside the artisans of ball by ball coverage – Alan McGilvray, Jim Maxwell, Richie Benaud. (Dad claimed him for France thanks to his surname!)

 

Dad watched Chappell and Gower for their fluidity. He watched Lillee for the thrill. He idolised Steve Waugh as a captain. His favourite cricketing moment was Shane Warne’s first delivery in test cricket, the ball that removed Mike Gatting, signposting what would become Warne’s fine understanding of the game.

 

The great transmitters and players of the game gave Dad much more than an understanding of the sport, they gave him the tempo and tone and values of his new country, the delivery style of it, the nature of the new turf into which he was digging his roots. Cricket gave him a framework equally as complex as the transference of his existence to a distant foreign land and a reason to decipher it slowly, with room for many pauses.

 

I remember a particularly long Sunday lunch of my childhood when one test or another was playing on the small TV in the kitchen. Mum asked if the television could actually be turned off, if we could actually talk over lunch, wondered why it had to play all day, all weekend. Dad explained it was a critical moment in the match, how the whole of a match could not be cut and then caught again, how each delivery was amounting to something as yet unknown. He grew more and more impassioned, as Mum grew more disinterested, until he stood with charcuterie in hand, neck craned over the table, face stretched in the streak of effort it takes to plead for understanding. ‘But Dyane,’ he appealed, ‘Creeket iz life!’

 

My sister and I were taught how to play on the beaches of Killcare where Cam and Janet Alexander invited us to their summer house. Dad bowled his slow to medium pace, hampered by a series of knee injuries from his horse riding youth in France. He believed that we should know how to participate in the most Australian of rituals. As if he could eliminate any doubts about his own belonging here by ensuring his daughters had none of their own. Despite returning regularly, he has never lived permanently in France since that accidental visit in 1966 and his mother never visited him in the land he chose.

 

As a 25 year old, I sat beside him in the O’Reilly Stand for Mark Taylor’s last test, the ending of an era. We shared a thermos of French Pinot. It might have been that day that I realised what a momentous thing it is to make the decision to leave, to close a chapter and wonder what the new one will be. And I realised what a fundamental bridge cricket had provided to help Dad span the interval between two chapters in his life and by proxy what a deep fondness I have always had for the hand it held out to him. That indebtedness to the game follows me each summer like an unavoidable shadow.

 

And so, on the Monday of the fifth Ashes test in Sydney this January, I was intent on the coverage, waiting to see what kind of punctuation would end the series. Cummins was in the third over of a peppering spell. We hadn’t been able to ignore the starting gun of the season; we had watched or listened to every day of every test. The full scope of Brisbane with Smith’s first stamp of his presence and Bancroft’s emergence. Adelaide and the 13 year old’s excuse for TV dinners with cricket half the night. Perth as the holidays built and carefree swept across the year, the captain putting on 239 and the quicks breaking the visitors. We sought Melbourne on the roads through southern Queensland, listened to the trundle of its hungover pitch and Cook’s sole highlight. And returned home to Sydney with its runs for Usman and its Englishmen melting in the midday sun. We were engrossed. With Smith, the captain with the 12 year old smile and the will of an ox. With the amplification of the Marshes into genuine contributors. With the musketeer solidarity and success of the fast bowlers, the rebuilt sturdiness of Cummins (perhaps the only handsome man in Australian cricket – a left over requirement from my development days with Courtney Walsh and Michael Holding!)

 

We rang Dad in between Tests to listen to his dislike of Warner, his affection for ‘Azlewood’ and Lyon, his interest in ‘zis Vince’. The thirteen year old explained the difference between orthodox and unorthodox spin. ‘You see,’ Dad said to me, ‘I am still learning. You can never possess all ze knowledge of zis game.’ (Dad now refutes that he ever kept a dossier on the game’s French beginnings. He insists it is far too illogical a game for the French to have created.)

 

I don’t have the technical knowledge of cricket’s intricacies. I will never be at the level where I understand the delicately prepared relationships between the myriad elements of the game. But all the things that test cricket asks – stamina, poise, patience, work – they take hold. Watching the bowler in a spell trying to find the right delivery, tinkering, adjusting, responding, following pathways completely unsigned. Watching the dogged batsman stay and stay and judge and absorb and grab and stay. They are things that remind me a lot of life. And making changes. As the final montage rolled off Channel 9’s screens, I took a deep inhalation, held that pause at the top for as long as I could and slowly released a long exhalation. I would leave the One Day Series to others.

 

That very same afternoon, I went out to check the mailbox and found a white oblong package. It was addressed to me. From the Sydney Swans Football Club. It was my 2018 membership package. Dad is thinking of coming to his first live game this year …

 

*

 

Addendum: One of my father Stanislas de Hauteclocque’s tools for learning the game was ‘Cricket Explained to a Foreigner’ – tenuously attributed to the Marylebone Cricket Club.

 

About Mathilde de Hauteclocque

Swans member since 2000, Mathilde likes to wile away her winters in the O'Reilly stand with 'the boys', flicking through the Record and waiting to see the half backs drive an explosive forward movement. She lives in Sydney and raises a thirteen year old Cygnet.

Comments

  1. Colin Ritchie says:

    Fabulous read Mathilde, thoroughly enjoyed your story! Your father has obviously led a most interesting and diverse life, and I’m sure I am like others who read this story, that we will want to learn more about this wonderful man. Is there a book in the making? Red wine in the thermos, now why didn’t I think of that!

  2. This is a wonderful piece.

    I admire your father; he has clearly built a fine innings in Australia.

    Chapeau!

  3. C’est magnifique. Your twin loves – sport from the masculine and art from the feminine side? Sport as safe ground for the migrant feeling their way into a new culture is a common theme. Phil D; Matt Z and the Avenging Eagle share the same story – but with Australian rules not cricket.
    Michel Jazy surely. I remember him as one of Ron Clarke’s main rivals over a mile in the 60’s. I thought how cool are the French? Even their names are artistic.
    Does your Dad follow world football and tennis. Roland Garros in May?

  4. One of my recurring thoughts throughout your piece was “Oh, no she’ll be living in Brissie and not able to get to Swans games”!

    What say you?

    Cheer cheer

  5. Warren Tapner says:

    A beautifully written, whimsical piece Mathilde. Thank you.

  6. Mathilde that is a wonderful read. Everyone has an exyraordinary story. You father has helped contribute to the richness of the Australian fabric. People like your father, who settled here and built a life in a foreign place, are as brave as they come. And he seems to have a wonderful balance between being quintessentially French and bloody Australian. What a life!

  7. I loved this piece, it speaks to human experience. As an emigrant from Australia, cricket with the ABC live feed is keeping me in touch with my youth. It brings back the good old times when I used to listen to test cricket all day while picking fruit in the Riverland of SA or driving across the Hay plane to Sydney. So wonderful to think that cricket can help bind those that come to a coutntry as well as those that leave a country. You make your father sound like a wonderful man. I admire his openness to ambrace cricket and help him to adopt the new land. I have been unable to embrace professional ice hockey in the same way in Canada and know that I should have tried. However, professional teams have a more mercinary feel to them that the tribal test matches. (I did enjoy hockey and ringette when my children played.)

  8. Thank you MdeH.
    I agree with your Dad.

    We never know what’s coming next.
    But we persevere.
    Defending, ready to pounce.
    On an over-pitched ball.
    On a courtjng.

    One ball at a time.
    One day at a time.
    Test cricket is cricket.
    Cricket is life.
    Beautiful writing, reflections. Many thanks.

  9. Mathilde- thanks for this. I really enjoyed all the different threads.

    I wonder about the contrasts between my relationships with footy and cricket. I love footy, but wonder if it doesn’t impose itself upon us a bit psychologically and culturally, whereas we work with cricket’s languid rhythms more naturally, and less violently over the course of a summer.

    Test cricket is king, but the BBL is great for our boys. I preferred when its conclusion matched the finish of school holidays, and am worried about rumours that CA might extend the season to fourteen games per side.

    Great to learn more of your family history too. Brilliant.

  10. A great read, thanks Mathilde.

    I cannot believe that your father has not seen the Swans play live!

  11. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says:

    Percy Cerutty, Kangaroo Creek Dam and your fascinating family background, merged with a love for cricket. Loved this lots.

  12. Mathilde de Hauteclocque says:

    Jan, my Cygnet and I are in Sydney for now. Our Cob flies in and out.

    Mickey, you put that so beautifully, that difference between footy and cricket. Yes, speed has everything to do with them. I also think that my relationship with footy is different to my relationship with cricket because I chose footy. There was no precedent in my family. (It was definitely the round ball or the rugby ball, PB, and ‘les bleus’ when it came to balls manoeuvred by foot.) And so my relationship with footy is bolshy and needy, wrapped up in self definition in a way that the cricket is not. The cricket is afforded the lazy certainty of the thing which has always been there.

    Merci to all for your close readings and contributions.

  13. Peter Flynn says:

    Just found a guest of honour at a Sydney Almanac Function I reckon.

    Your dad gets it.

    And so do you to tell it.

    Superbe.

    OMF

  14. Jack Chaboisseau says:

    My name is Jack Chaboisseau, it was nice to read your comment about the Paris Cake Shop I have fond memories of thi time, however I must add something regarding the blue white and red collar on the vest ( Oh mon Dieu quel sacrilège ) Never ever I would have worn one of those vest as it would be an insult to our profession this privilege is reserved to a very few highly qualified pastrycook who have been successful in the concours of « Meilleur Ouvrier de France « 

  15. Mathilde de Hauteclocque says:

    Oh Jack – bonjour!! What a delight to ‘hear from you’. Mon père Stany serait ravi!! I do understand about the Meilleur Ouvrier de France – did you see the wonderful documentary on SBS many years ago about the pâtisserie/confisserie competition? – but I thought you had achieved this. Sorry! And if you have never achieved it then you should be handed an honorary collar!!! I still eat and cook a lot of pâtisserie and you are still ‘the best’ in my mind. Your Carré aux Pruneaux and your St Honoré – I still dream of them. Have never found better. And my mum is still looking for a brioche as good as yours. Merci!

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