By Paul Daffey
The call was unexpected but welcome. Helen MacGillivray, publican at the Gunbower Hotel in northern Victoria, rang to say that I had left my jacket on the woodpile at the back of the pub. What would I like to do?
I had been convinced that I lost the jacket near the bakery in Lancefield on the way home to Melbourne, but Helen’s call seemed apt. I had rarely known such hospitality as I experienced at the Gunbower Hotel. I said I would meet up with the next Gunbower person to come down to the city.
I had been staying with relatives in Swan Hill and it seemed a good idea to drop into Gunbower on the way home because Pam Sherpa had written such an evocative chapter about her home town and the club for Footy Town.
Pam now lives in Jindabyne at the footy of the mountains. She made a special trip to Gunbower for the Footy Town festivities. It was the book’s first launch outside Melbourne, where it had been launched so memorably amid a back-breaking storm at Richmond’s All Nations Hotel. Some of Pam’s family came down from Gunbower for the Melbourne launch, which was a top effort.
The sun was shining weakly when I nosed our Subaru Outback (yes, I live in Northcote) towards the front door of the pub, with wife and three kids eager to remove themselves from the hemmed-in mess. Richard McGillivray, Helen’s husband, was out of the pub in a nonchalant trice, fag in hand, the other hand in his jeans pocket, looking for all the world like he’d timed it to be outside just as we turned up.
“Park around the back,” he said.
Richard and Helen McGillivray had shaken a rundown shambles a decade ago and turned it into a wonderful pub – a place where locals of all ages are happy to go. Richard showed us to our digs, a separate dwelling at the back of the pub with five rooms – all ours – and no heating, which was also ours.
I warned Jo and the kids about inland nights. Jo loosed a shiver, but I was looking forward to waking up with the chill on my cheeks. It would remind me of my cadet journalist days in Bendigo, where I slept through a few winters with an army greatcoat as an extra blanket. It’s amazing what you get nostalgic about.
Jo and the kids settled in front of the fire in the front bar with packets of chips while Richard and I ducked off to the Gunbower butchery, which is still in the McGillivray family, as it has been for seven decades. In recent years the McGillivrays have developed a practice in which sports stories from newspapers and photos from over the years are put up the on wall. Richard pointed out the McGillivrays in premiership photos stretching back to 1936. There was also ephemera on members of the McGillivray clan who had won ribbons at Stawell.
Richard’s auntie Sis took a moment out from sweeping the floor to chat and laugh. Sis laughed a lot. What more could you want of an afternoon than a good sweep among family and friends? Richard grabbed a couple of steaks. “Good on you, Sis,” he said.
I settled my tribe down for a feed at six, in the little room off to the side of the main bar. Every pub seems to have one of those rooms, which is not the bar and not the lounge. We ordered lemonades. Jo ordered a bottle of red that Richard had recommended.
Pam and her clan were sitting at a table in the corner. Pam introduced me to Col McGillivray, one of the brothers in the famous generation of her father’s. Pam’s father Dick, who played one game for Essendon in 1950, a premiership year, before returning to the farm. Some of Dick’s brothers, Doodie and Sars, were also gun footballers for Gunbower, while the youngest brother, Bill, was asked down to Richmond. Bill went to Punt Road for a short time before returning to the farm in Gunbower. His letter of invitation from Richmond, signed by the secretary of the time, Graeme Richmond, is still in the family’s possession. Bill made it to the launch in Melbourne, where we had a chat before the crowd started piling in, but unfortunately he was unable to be there on this night in Gunbower.
Col was the only one of the brothers who wasn’t particularly a footballer. Instead he served the footy club as the timekeeper for four decades, maybe five. Col never went on to a farm. He was a crack shearer, and held the record in the district for the number of sheep shorn in a day. I can’t remember the figure, but it struck me at the time that he was in the region of Bradman at Headingley. Col is now well into his 70s. He told me he could still shear 20 sheep a day. His eyes were bright. He laughed at his good fortune.
I was struck by how many people were filing in for a feed. Many were in their grandparent years, some were men who had hung up their boots not so long ago. People were happy and chatty. Imagine coming out on a crisp Wednesday night in mid-winter!
In the kitchen Richard was cooking up several storms. Richard has mates in Melbourne in the epicurean caper. He rates himself with a frypan. My wife is a bit of a foodie, and she was taken aback by her porterhouse steak. Perfectly medium rare. You’d struggle to get this good at a fancy noshery in Melbourne. The kids had chicken nuggets with chips.
And still the good people of Gunbower kept filing in. I met Matt Hawken, who was to play his 300th game for the club that week. The club is now Leitchville-Gunbower; the merger went through in the mid-90s At the start of the season Matt talked about Leitchville-Gunbower on the Coodabeens’ country footy segment on ABC Radio. I remember the Coodabeens asking Matt about the Gunbower Island, which is bound by tributaries of the nearby Murray River. The McGillivrays and several others in the pub had farms on the island.
Matt was easy company, going with the meanderings of the conversation. In his student days in Ballarat he was the captain of Sebastopol. I told him I was at the grand final that Sebas lost to Melton in 2000, when Danny Del-Re kicked four in the slush to get Melton home. Matt spoke of the grand final as the one that got away – big Danny was the difference. He spoke fondly of his Sebas days. When his student lark was over he returned home. It was easy to imagine that was due to play his 300th game for his home club.
I roped Matt in to be the MC. We waited until everyone had finished their tea before Matt called the crowd in to the front bar. I thanked everyone for having us, especially Richard and Helen. Helen was busy behind the jump. Richard was still in the kitchen.
I said a bit about the book. I read a few excerpts, but nothing was quite working. The men leaning on the bar looked blank. My six-year-old daughter kept tugging at my shirt while I was speaking. I called in Pam, which was a brilliant tactical move. Pam peeled off several engaging preambles about growing up around the club. She then read a few paragraphs from her piece, assiduously avoiding any mention of herself. The crowd warmed to one of theirs. They warmed to a McGillivray, who knew the people and stories of the town.
I tried to get Pam to read out some paragraphs about herself, starting with the passage in which she and her cousin Kaye Bawden would do a lap of the oval before every match, looking for the best spot from which to watch the game. When they got to the sheds they were told they had to scamper past in case they heard the men swearing. If it was a grey day, they’d sit in a car. If it was a nice day, they’d sit under the fence in front of the car and barrack their hearts out for the boys of Gunbower. I love that story, but Pam was reluctant to read it. She batted back with a tale about her father describing the feats of John Coleman. (“You should have seen what he could do at training!”) She described her father’s mighty tussles with Laurie Icke, the rugged former North Melbourne defender who in the late 1950s and early 60s was the coach of Union, a club based in Cohuna.
I took this opportunity to turn the conversation towards the crowd. Had anyone seen Dick McGillivray and Laurie Icke do battle? There was a pause. I was worried that no one would speak up. Then one older gentleman described Dick grabbing Icke’s arm and hurling him clean over his shoulder. Half a dozen women were sitting on the couches next to the fire. One of them said Dick McGillivray was the fairest player to pull on a boot and she would have nothing to do with tales of bickering, especially with Laurie Icke. The laughter grew. The generations were involved. I looked down on the couch and saw that one of the women had persuaded my daughter to sit next to her on the couch. She had taken my daughter’s hand. My daughter was quiet, settled. They sat together and listened to the stories.
All in the crowd agreed that the McGillivray boys were big men – some of them got out to 20 stone. One of them, perhaps it was Bill, was known to eat ice-cream by the tub. On one occasion two of the McGillivray brothers were drawn to play a couple of young bucks from a nearby town in the tennis competition. One of the women described the brothers’ exit from the car by kicking in the air like you would kick open the door. She said the young blokes would have been rubbing their hands at the prospect of playing two bears who struggled to get out of the car. The crowd knew what was coming. It was part of town legend, but they loved hearing it again. The brothers stood in fixed positions and stroked the ball across the court and down the lines with such exquisite placement that the young blokes didn’t have a chance. The score was 6-0, 6-0 in favour of Gunbower. The pub was filled with laughter.
One woman of particular humour and charm began a story by saying that when she was young she was very quiet. The crowd though this was the funniest thing they’d heard in years. A bloke who was leaning on the bar, who was probably thirty years younger than her, said there was no way in the world she was ever quiet. There was the familiarity of people who knew each other and their families across the generations. They knew each others’ stories. They revelled in them.
I sold a few books but not as many as I hoped because Pam had already handed out books to most members of her family. Richard, his cooking done, came out to play while Helen stayed behind the jump. Richard told me he was asked down to Geelong but he had too much work in Gunbower to go down there. One of his cousins, Andy McGillivray, played seven senior games for Geelong in the late 70s.
We spoke about footy and farming and life, about Richard’s mates from the Melbourne food press who’d come up to Gunbower and had the feed of their lives. Richard was very proud of his cooking, and of the turnaround in the pub from the time he took it over. He was proud in a business sense, but he was also proud because the pub was once again a fulcrum of the community.
I spoke to Matt Hawken about his days at Assumption College, Victoria’s most famous football nursery. Gunbower’s most famous Assumption student has been Ray Power, who kicked 200 goals in a footy season for the school in the early 80s. Power kicked 100 goals in a season with Gunbower as a 16-year-old. All the men nodded gravely about how good he was. Matt said goodbye. Richard almost feigned interest in our book before offering that his mate from Deniliquin had written one himself. He brought it out. A memoir. It looked good, too.
Helen kept serving beers. She offered deadpan acceptance of her husband’s growing tales. Occasionally she half-cocked an eyebrow. Eventually she kicked us out. There were hearty goodbyes before I turned to the frigid digs, where I found three kids and their mother all piled in to one bed. Mum said they were freezing. I found my own bed and the cold descended on my cheeks. I felt quite content.
The next morning, Richard took us out to one of his several farms to feed the cows. His work ethic seemed limitless. You’ve got to work hard in this life, he said, adding that he and Helen would retire in five years and start travelling. I found it hard to imagine.
And so I left my jacket on the woodpile. And so we made it home. I look forward to picking up my jacket from a courier from Gunbower. I’m sure it will have been well cared for.