Book Review: Footy Town. Do Yourself a Favour.

Footy Town

 

I popped in to see Pastor Harms for an hour while the Avenging Eagle and I were in Melbourne for the Springsteen Show.  Bruce was brilliant as expected, but the greatest joys are often those we don’t expect.

After 10 minutes the Pastor trotted out his newest offspring “Footy Town”.  For only $35 she could be mine.  I liked the languid, striking cover but I must confess I felt like I was making a donation more than a purchase.

I was brought up on the SANFL in the 60’s and 70’s, and I maintain a passing interest in the WAFL and Swan Districts in particular.  But the editors had told me months ago that these were ‘elite’ competitions (they can’t have watched many Peel Thunder games in the last decade) and therefore beyond the ‘grass roots’ target of the book.

I retain fond memories of the SA country leagues of my schooldays, but I hadn’t had any involvement with ‘local’ leagues since my last game for Postal Institute B Grade in the mid 70’s.  Have I told you that I played on the wing and Bruce McAveney was in the centre?  Sorry – I have so few playing yarns to trade on.  In truth we were both just filling in time until the first trot at Globe Derby Park.

Still I had 3 hours to kill on last night’s plane back to Perth, so I thought I’d give ‘Footy Town’ a quick skim.  Might get me to the South Australian border.  Instead I arrived back in Perth with the book only half read, and the thought that I could text a bomb scare to keep us circling for a few hours so I could enjoy more reading time.

In short, I enjoyed it far more than the annual Almanac books.  I have all 6 editions and I devoured the early ones.  But last year it seemed a bit like the motivational struggle to watch Tom Hanks in “Apollo 13”.  Shit I lived through that stuff.  Their rocket’s power goes out and they get home by the seat of their pants.  Yadda, yadda.

I read probably 80% of the articles that get posted on the Almanac website, and I love and appreciate the passion and creativity of most of the authors.  But somehow I knew the 2012 book would not have a happy ending, so it has only had a desultory thumbing since Christmas.

“Footy Town” is an altogether different creation.  It’s a page turner.  It’s compulsive.  Addictive.  If “Fifty Shades” is a bodice ripper, then “Footy Town” is a jock strap stretcher.  It keeps you on edge waiting for the next twist.

Pondering why, I think it has a lot to do with the extra length that the format gives for a more excursive writing style.  Almanac book and website articles are necessarily clipped to allow for the 209 games of a season, and the rapid shifts of attention in any sporting week.  “Footy Town” articles are generally 6 to 8 pages, not the 2 of an Almanac book.

Maybe the clearest example is my favourite from those I have read.  I nearly flicked over Daryl Sharpen’s piece on “Fev Goes to New Norfolk” because I thought I had read it on the website.  Much to my joy I found that most of the similarity was in the title.  The web piece concerned itself with Fev and the day.  The book piece gives us the history, characters and incidents from the infamous past of the Tassie Eagles – returning only occasionally for quarter time score updates on the Fev’s exploits.  Let’s just say he’s by no means the most colourful character of the yarn.  It’s a ripper.

Murray Bird’s piece is flat out funnier, but as the tale of an ill-spent though well-lived life, it has less of the narrative arc.  Murray is Black Caviar to Daryl’s Kingston Town. Kingston Town was a winner at all distances.  But my biggest single laugh was Michael Sexton’s one liner about the cordial bottle at Edwardstown Baptist.  My inability to contain myself had the flight attendants calling ahead for a strait jacket when we landed in Perth.  Read it and weep (page 237).

Lest you think that the whole thing is just played for laughs, some of the most enjoyable pieces are gentle reflections on the place that footy plays in a life or a community.  My favourite in the Reflective Stakes was Terry Chapman’s elegiac take on a season in the Millewa League as an avenue to belonging.  Dips O’Donnell ran second in my limited sample (ever the bridesmaid).  Those of us who never achieved anything in sport consider almost being an All Australian schoolboy, or almost a Collingwood recruit or almost a Stawell Gift winner to be the pinnacle of achievement.  Dips’ piece shows how deep those narrow misses still burn, but the turn of phrase always rescues us from the maudlin.  There is the centre half forward who pulls in towering pack grabs and “shakes the Sherrin all the way down to the turf like he was sprinkling salt on his fish and chips.”  Magic.  We’ve all seen it dozens of times, but lack the poetry to express the moment so clearly.

There is even a bloke from Wynyard called Bill Walker who writes a moving trilogy of father, self and son as they struggle through 50 years of Northern Tasmanian “average blokes and ordinary football”.  The piece has a generous, uplifting conclusion so the author clearly has no connection to the curmudgeonly Geelong supporting Phantom from those parts – who goes by a similar moniker.

All of these authors are clever, skilful writers and not all of the pieces can have a similar provenance.  But even those without the poetry have a witty anecdote or a painful story that tell us something of who we are, where we come from and the history we all share.  Robert Allen’s prose is a bit stilted, but his detective story of looking for the remnants of Roy Cazaly’s season in Minyip in 1925 is compelling.  The scraps he collected told me so much about the region, the times and the man.  The Mallee was once an economic powerhouse, and great players have been average coaches and mug businessmen since Pilate laced on the boots.  Who knew?

Richmond premiership player Barry Richardson writes in a simple, straight forward manner.  He clearly has no tickets on himself, but his record of success as player, coach and selector says otherwise.  This matter of fact style belies a depth that has made him a master motivator and tactician across 40 years at many different clubs in different leagues

Tony Robb’s dad Tim was a similar high achiever whose reputation as “the Bush Barassi” took him from VFL player to premiership coach at clubs throughout the Riverina.  Tony’s website pieces often play the clown, but this piece is a poignant memorial to a different time and a man who was clearly his son’s idol.  The piece aches with the feeling that he was taken just when he could have also become a friend.

West Coast Dave had mediocrity stolen from his grasp by cruel injury.  Jared Newton’ s piece on a season commuting from big city politics to small town footy is so full of striving, purpose and hard work that he is clearly destined for an Abbott ministry.  Personally I think he should have written about last year’s premiership with Murray Bridge Imperials and gone to work for Barnaby Joyce.  Nats have more fun.

Di Langton and James Gilchrist’s generous pieces find the soul of footy and their place in life with the Ammos.  Its big hearted stuff and Noel McPhee even gives boundary umpires a human face.

I thought the book would be worthy.  But it’s so much more – it’s funny and engaging and wise.  I often write cynically about AFL and big time sport, but this never gets a guernsey in “Footy Town”.  In telling me what’s good about footy, it reminded me of all the things that are good about life.

Pastor Harms rounds out the book with a typically self-effacing take on his 2 game career with the Adelaide Lutherans.  I often think of John as a secular priest following in his father’s footsteps with lessons from the Footy Record in place of the Bible.  The annual Almanac is our New Testament, but “Footy Town” is our foundation story.  Our Genesis.  Our Old Testament is full of fiery prophets like Bill’s Dad and Tony’s Dads, whose inspiration eventually guides their people to a promised land.  Be it premierships won or the wisdom gained from losing them.

The stories in “Footy Town” will uplift your soul and your heart.  I am hopeful that it is also a cure for baldness.  Either way it is the best $35 I have spent in recent times.

Do yourself and the Pastor a favour.  Buy a copy.

 

For more information on Footy Town (and to purchase a copy) click here. 

Comments

  1. Pete, love the passion, mate. If the book is half as good as your glowing take, it’ll be a great read. Will seek it out.

  2. John Butler says:

    Well said PB.

    Having read read a (much) earlier version of TR’s heartfelt piece I’m keen to see how it finished up.

    Hope The Boss appreciated your devotion.

  3. John Butler says:

    PS: I reckon you’ll still be out of luck re the baldness.

  4. DBalassone says:

    Engaging review Peter. Looking forward to grabbing a copy.
    PS Re your days at Postal Institute B Grade, I’m guessing Bruce knew his exact stats at the end of each game…

  5. Matt Zurbo says:

    Jeez, Pete! You make me want to buy a copy!!!!

  6. Currently on the 112 laughing at The Swine. Fantastic

  7. My copy arrived today with a written note from Mr Harms. Looking forward to getting stuck in tonight. Cheers,

    Matt

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