by Barry Dickins
I dreamt the other night of Swan Lake in mud.
The first ballet I ever saw, actually. It was beautiful to say the least and quite luckily for me it went on all the night long in my bedroom, with one particular ruckman performing a pas-de-deux in the teeth of goal.
Dreams are real, it’s life that isn’t unless you get a pass-out at the ground and come back in again. I know when I die I will only hear one thing. The siren at The MCG after Fitzroy come back from the dead and beat The Pies by a point after eleven minutes of time-on.
I miss seeing Fitzroy play and hope that Ross Oakley roasts in hell as we speak for what he’s done to the poor old Royboys.
So what they were no good? So what we owed millions of bucks?
The point is for lovers of them like me they are sacred, like treacle.
Anyway back to my balletic dream. I saw Bernie Quinlan and Micky Conlan tearing along the quagmire back-line, magnificent together as the dwindling dark took over, as darkness always does in time of epiphany. The thick oozy black mud behind the Victoria Park posts never looked more inviting. Players dived into it like seals and pirouetted out of it like parrots. Umpires got lost in mud and supporters cast their dentures into it for something to do.
In the last seconds of the final quarter at Pie Park I heard again the catastrophic sighing of The Collingwood Social Club, that fatalistic moaning like a dirge sung in a mullock heap, sung right through time itself, this awful and mournful crying because a Royboy had been given a free.
That colossal sighing-sound reverberates in my ears right now as my spirit and my immortal soul both get in for nothing. Both are life-members of a thing called Beauty.
It was splendid in the far-out mud that was manufactured out of honest hailstones blended with the run-off from Stout Night at Fosters Brewing in brotherly Abbotsford.
The holy pong of industrial yeast and working-class tears.
When my father and me went to the Collingwood Football Ground fifty-odd years ago to see them play Fitzroy, you needed a magnifying lens to see the brick-faced sons of convicts who sold tickets to get in; they were more like agitated stick insects completely secreted in the concrete and old brick wall. My dad promptly and elegantly coughed up the right dough to gain admittance and the brick-faced little men swore beneath their foetid breath and the turnstile went round.
When you went in you beheld Hell. The sight of alcoholic pie boys aged sixty was strange to me; and the fact that their horrid pies proved stone-cold on the munch.
Old pie boys had savage sauce-fights and sprayed the crowd with pools of blowfly-adoring tomato sauce which had fleas and thripps embedded in its grotesque surface.
There were old peanut men who duped the fans week after week by furnishing them with stale nuts. They chanted rudely and most loudly ‘Get your fresh peanuts!’ But naturally the nuts were old when they got picked during The Boer War. I used to honestly feel a strong stab of pity for the toothless pensioners I witnessed trying to break those rivet-hard devilish peanuts not even a jack-hammer might penetrate.
Dad would effortlessly wind us down through the Pie Boy scum to some place friendly near the boundary, and there things would make some kind of sense. There would possibly be a Christian there, or a Zulu.
Dad would smoke like the other fathers did. Millions of fathers smelling of Brylcreem and Colgate toothpaste and drizzled-on fawn overcoats. It was always raining and then it was unpredictably hot so men fetched their umbrellas with them and sprung them up for their wives who screamed the quaint word ‘Hopeless!’ at every umpire’s decision. Some women screamed so loudly the men vomited.
Some men natty and others slovenly and some boys clutching a footy improvised out of a packet of flour such as ‘O So Lite!’ which they used to kick or attempt to boot a drop-punt with at half-time when the proletariat ran on.
From my position so unworldly and eager and trusting the whole sea of mud promised more than romance; it absolutely guaranteed love. The joy to witness Ray Gabelich slide very quickly in and out of an atrocious lake of muck and come out laughing and still clutching the slippery Sherrin and then give it a whiz over to Desie Tuddenham.
Although I was loyal to my team of Fitzroy I marvelled at the true and outstanding men of the mud-heap-Collingwood!
Of a wet and thunderous sodden Saturday they couldn’t put on any lights fifty-two years ago, there weren’t any to put on. It grew much darker and blacker in vilest intensity with coagulated punch-ups going oddly unnoticed due to the annoying and most profound darkness that at least cost nothing. The dark has always been on the house I think you’ll find. Dark and mud sponsored the game of life back then before the new artificial grass authorities put the kybosh on free thinking.
I still love the footy and look forward to certain games that my young son and I can see live or on the box of course; he follows The Tigers so I sort of do as well, having witnessed Fitzroy got rid of back in dear old 1996 when people without pity voted to destroy them forever. I have never been able to believe in any kind of reincarnation and don’t believe in ghosts, only deceased pie boys and ghouls of nut men that still cry out all over Melbourne ‘Get your fresh peanuts!’ and ‘Clean ‘em up!’
It is half-time and all Pie Boys look alike. Like mud in all its glorious pong-ness!
Slithery and dithery and awkward and suddenly all over a mint-new Pie Boy’s dry-cleaned bottom!
How dreadful mud appears right over your snow-white shorts!
The crowd to point and laugh at that and you as a player just come down from the country, playing your heart out for the Mighty Pies!
Butch Gale is right in front of me and resting his mighty hands on his hips and a smarty in the crowd, right in the front row, where me and dad are watching, he calls out rudely and cravenly ‘By Gee Butcher, the white hairs are beginning to show on you, aren’t they?’ But nobody laughs. It is a fool thing to call out and he must be punished.
Butch Gale elegantly gets his legs over the picket fence and says ‘Excuse me, sir’, and ‘Excuse me Madam’, and is so dainty and patient and polite the surreal way he crosses over to the terrified offender and says with his hands on his hips ‘What did you say to me just then you peanut?’ And the man literally falls apart and darts away somewhere to be out of the Butcher’s intent gaze. Butch just stays there as a sort of god and the crowd smile gently and a lady gives him a solitary clap.
As he steps back into the game again, satisfied that justice has been served, I ask my father whether that sort of thing actually happens much. A footballer stepping over the fence into the crowd and to talk directly to one of them who was a bit rude or something, and he scratches his head and replies ‘No, you do not see that kind of thing happen very much’. I thank him and he lends me the binoculars to see Len Thompson.
Kids my age are selling ‘Footy Record’ and I have a sudden stab of envy for their liberty. Dad is pouring himself a thermos of piping hot tea and adding a drop of milk that mum tipped into a thoroughly rinsed-out Enos jar then hit the top back on.
He buys me a hot Four ‘n Twenty pie that cost him one shilling and sixpence and he does not give the pie boy a tip; but extends his palm to extract the four pennies that have sauce on them. He wipes it off with his neat and folded handkerchief.
He was a real toff, dad, and he never fell in mud, not once. At least in peace-time Australia he didn’t. There was more than enough mud in New Guinea and ‘the islands’, as he referred to various theatres of war when he enjoyed fighting our country’s enemy-the Yellow Peril. ‘Yeah, I really enjoyed that’, he smiled once at our tea-table.
He never suffered nightmares or revisited the smoky jungles of the past. He completed six years of it including volunteering for peace-keeping-duties all through 1946, where he helped guard Japanese POW’s. ‘There were so many of them they could have beaten us with sticks and stones’
Then he wryly added ‘They just didn’t think of it’
He is seated on a brick right near the boundary fence in perfect balance; it is only a rough old Clifton Idea Brick but to him it is nothing but ecstasy.
I am chatting to a boy my age who sells pies and he tears off a bit of paper and prints a telephone number on it for me to get that kind of job like he’s doing.
‘You get a bit tired of carting the hot pie box around your neck all day’, he grins and kicks a beer bottle as though its’ a football to me, which I sort of mark.
‘Dad do you mind if I too sell pies at the footy?’ I ask him as he lightly adds up how many kicks Thorold Merritt has collected, with the faint tick of a HB pencil.
I want to and need to believe there was an insanely tall ruckman for The Pies back then; he was Wes Fellowes and he had a tenacious tackling style as well as tenacious Rocker hair cut. He was so desperate for possession of the ball he positively grimaced if he didn’t have it.
The main recollection of that mud game is aroma which to me is the soul of football as I know it.
The piquancy of ruptured buttocks coming from the rub-down-table is never far from me. The stinging-nettle pong of Deep Heat athletic cream that is worn by Sales Reps on their way to work. The make-you-gulp stink of vast underground channels of weed beer. The terrible concussion sensation I used to find in the brewery of men’s eyes. Why did they drink so much beer at Pie Park, I wondered as a little boy in company of my eager father.
The other biting smells are of Cedel Ladies Hair Spray gluing their hats on in the wind; and the smell of a storm brewing upon Hobsons Bay that bit you in the heart as you stammered the word ‘Royboy’.
Although a long trot from Saint Kilda you could smell squalls through the volcanic jam that got pumped back through sugary helium doughnuts swallowed ten at a time by cold working-class mums with no teeth, a dreadful jacket and hanging out for the next child-endowment payment.
Fitzroy has Kevin ‘Gummy Shark’ Murray running around in front of his mud-encrusted teammates and although gangly and mangly and no teeth in him and cheap tatts put on his arms personally by Dickie Reynolds in Flinders Lane, he gets the ball and loses it, then boots a splayfooted kick over to Wally Clark who flicks it over to my hero ‘Butch’ Gale, who dobs it for a major, as goals were called half a century ago in mud or not mud.
But mud is best and mud is holy and the muddy crowd cheer ever on the coagulated Collingwood players who look like-I don’t know what they look like-but you see the determination better in muddiness and grotesque men resemble gods when caked in it. Even umpires look good in it and that’s saying something, to be sure.
Because I was reared in a very loving home of mum and dad who showed affection and good humour all the day and well into the night, I never saw hate until I saw it in mud at Pie Park; sculptured out of the horror of unemployment by the vagaries of winter-weather and once players were in it they stayed mud. The Lord Of Football looked down from Heaven and saw that mud was good. Football was mud in heaven.
A few years ago I was trying pretty hard to cross Nicholson Street Carlton and saw Ray Gabelich drive by in a most rusty chip and dim sim truck at a tremendous rate of kilometres indeed. I recognised him straight away from the look of his white old rocker haircut and gut on him. The dreadfully amateurish sign writing achieved on my side of that truck that catered crisps to pubs said ‘Ray’s Snacks. Remember The Run??
This surely is the persistence of potato chips or the persistence of rocker haircuts or the immortality of unroadworthy vans.
But the funny thing about such a sight was the mud all over it as it tore and rattled along to deliver another gut-ache to the poor who only have junk food to believe in. God is stingy and wouldn’t lend the poor a single chip.
My father is dutifully filling in his almost saturated copy of ‘Footy Record’ among the nice people in transparent goodness and old ladies who force their husbands to contribute a florin in the swear-box on the kitchen table if they blaspheme or barrack for Carlton.
He is grinning at me and he reaches into his ‘kick’ and says ‘Here’s two bob for a hot Four ‘N Twenty, old bean!’
I love it when he calls me old bean. And he is my old bean too.
Two peas in a pod long before pod cast.
He declines to come at a ‘dog’s eye’ as he calls them, but contentedly munches very politely one of mum’s gorgeous big thick white bread salad sandwiches, with sliced tomatoes out of our backyard. He picks a fresh slug off the lettuce and says to me ‘I should have given him a spray’
The match concludes exactly as it began in mud and the sodden mob goes home. The horn is still deafening me five decades later and the sighs from The Social Club hum nicely in my old ears with ear-hairs on that twitch in memory and wind and ancientness.
Hundreds of morons fighting in Johnston Street, but not fairly, not that I ever saw.
Two men are engaged in the act of holding a Fitzroy supporter underneath the Kew bus.
No one minds. ‘It’s only life’, someone mumbles and Dad and me ascend the vomitous ramp of Victoria Park railway station to be deafened by losing Royboys who rent in Preston because they can’t afford Carlton. Who can anyway? And besides everyone hates them.
Dad reads Professor Murdoch’s philosophical column published in ‘The Herald’ and I just sit next to him who brought me life.
Barry Dickin’s latest book is Barry and the Fairies of Dickins Street (available here email@example.com)