The Brotherhood of Stawell

It’s 5.30AM on Good Friday and I’m already across the Westgate. Liam and Kate have fallen asleep with their pillows pressed against the window as I motor through the grey darkness of early morning. For those not familiar with Melbourne, getting across the Westgate Bridge is harder than traversing the plains of Mordor. The bridge is like a giant kidney stone in Melbourne’s body of traffic. Blaxland and Wentworth would have had fewer difficulties cutting a path through the Blue Mountains. So we were up and at them as the sparrows farted. As I stormed up the Western Highway I was feeling very pleased with myself.

 

I quite like driving in the early hours. I’m a morning person. As the day goes on I wilt like a dried-out hydrangea but during the early hours I often find clarity. The car is quiet except for the hum of rubber on bitumen. The radio is crackling on a low volume, more as a way of keeping me company than providing listening enjoyment. Cockies leave the gum trees that line the highway and dart across the front of the car in pursuit of prey. Or maybe in pursuit of each other. The only obstacles in my way are the pointless “Roadworks Ahead” signs left abandoned on the verge by lazy fluoro flogs the day before.

 

I’m heading to Stawell.

 

What drags me up here every year? Why do I pack the tent and leave the comfort of home to lie on the ground for four nights and watch a footrace? There is a force. A kind of compulsion. I have never done the ring-around to find out who is going. I just go. Sure enough, when I get there, our corner of the horse paddock at the back of the camping ground will be populated by brothers, some other family members, and a few mates, just as it is every year. It’s unspoken. An agreement as profound and enduring as the blood bond that brothers have.

 

“Name?” the lady at the desk of the camping ground asks.

 

“O’Donnell”

 

“Ah yes” she says, “there are a few of your lot here already. Horse paddock. Toilet code is 2376.”

 

Cars wander in.

 

“G’day”

 

“G’day”

 

Tents go up. Eskies are retrieved from under the camping equipment that’s been stashed in the back of the cars. The old fire pit is dug out. Chairs are placed around it in preparation for the Good Friday fish and chip dinner and banter about the Stawell Gift and the footy. My youngest brother sidles up.

 

“Forgot my tent” he says.

 

“Crap. Where are you going to sleep?” I ask.

 

“The back of Gerard’s car” he says. “No probs.”

 

That’s Stawell.

 

I think about my father, who started all this. His obsession. His determination. I remember the photo that was placed at the back of the church booklet at his funeral in July 2016. He was young, but the look in his eyes was steely. He was on his way to winning the Stawell Gift. But perhaps more importantly, he was creating a tradition that swept through the family and captured the hearts and imagination of some of our best mates. We come to Stawell because he came here. He came to win. We come to watch the winner and let history drown us for a few days.

 

I think of the dinners that Dad made around the camp fire when we were wee kids. Tins of braised steak and boiled potatoes.

 

“That’ll keep the scurvy away” he’d say.

 

I think of going to Central Park and fighting my way through the crowd, so I could lean on the fence with an uninterrupted view of the finish. The first Gift win I remember with clarity was B.L. Moss in 1973. I watched Ravelo defy history in 1975 with an impossible win from scratch. That’s like a horse winning the Melbourne Cup with a weight of 63kgs. I screamed as Pollock smashed the raging favourite, and I leapt into the air when Edmonson skipped for joy through the finish gates. I marvelled at Proudlock the fighter in 1978, and John Dinan, one of the most complete runners I’ve seen at Stawell. I watched them and after each final would claw my way back through the crowd to find Dad who would be standing in the shadows of the old grand stand.

 

“How about that?” he’d say.

 

And we’d go back to the camp and run our own races across the sandy Wimmera soil as Dad bent over the fire to prepare another dish to keep the scurvy at bay.  Our races were epic. To the last gasp. The back-black jacket Derby final was always a fight to the death. We set our own handicaps and organised the heats. These races were part of our growing up. We won and lost, but we tried our best. We found out years later that Dad watched these races out of the corner of his eye, as he stirred the contents of the saucepan on the fire, prepared to pounce if the fighting and arguing after the final got too violent. He thought it was hilarious.

 

As we approach Melton and the darkness begins to break into morning I look around at Kate and Liam who are still dozing in the car, and I wipe a little tear away that is creeping down my cheek. It is a tear of sadness (I miss the old man) and a tear of happiness that we still make the journey to Stawell each year, bound to it, as we are, like Vegemite is to cheese.

 

About Damian O'Donnell

OK - which is the odd one out: Love the Cats and flannelette shirts, especially in winter. I get on extremely well with red wine. We just seem to hit it off. Love horse racing in Spring. Used to love cricket. Go to Stawell every Easter and contemplate life around the fire. Love water skiing, especially in summer. Get meaning from catching a beautiful curling wave. Love a great oil painting. Will read most things put in front of me. Thought 'The Sopranos' was the best TV show ever made - by miles. Run an accounting practice in Melbourne's suburbs.

Comments

  1. You were never a chance of getting scurvy with JD O’Donnell in charge.

    Beaut yarn Dips.

  2. Luke Reynolds says:

    Wonderful Dips. Love the tradition, love the ritual.
    2014 was the last Gift I attended. Enjoy watching the telecast each year but it’s not the same as being there. Hope to make it back next year.

  3. “let history drown us for a few days”- great line in a lovely, understated yarn, Dips.

    Thanks for this.

  4. “Bound……like Vegimite is to cheese”. The most Australian – and pungent – of metaphors. Rituals – however and wherever we find them – provide the structure and meaning in our lives. Without them we are lost in a sea of self.
    I’m off to play golf in Adelaide with my brother (the prick is a 4 handicapper) and 86yo dad next week. Because we’ve been doing it for nearly 50 years and it bonds us across the decades of difference (and indifference). And on the first tee I’ll be the same jumpy, nervy colt I was 50 years ago. Priceless.

  5. PB – brilliant. Can you beat your old man yet?

    Luke – hope to see you at Central Park next year. I reckon the standard of the running and the whole weekend went up a notch this year, on the last few.

    Thanks Mickey.

    JTH – isn’t lemon the cure for scurvy? We were never fed lemons.

  6. E.regnans says:

    That’s beautiful Dips.
    A thing of beauty.

    Did you earn your name “Dips” through dipping finishes on the sandy soil out back?

    Who are you?
    Who are we?
    Who are any of us?
    I reckon this story cuts to the heart of the matter.

  7. Thanks ER. Lovely comment.

    I had the nickname Dips long before those races. There’s a story to it.

  8. Yvette Wroby says:

    Thanks for taking me along to Stawell with you Dips. Loved this story. Love your writing.

  9. One of the great Australian traditions is it not? To be able to go back to the same place each year, with family and introduce them to your rituals and watch as they embrace and grow up around them. Didn’t happen in our tribe, but we have other rituals. I have a gut feeling that children brought up in this sort of environment will not stray far from the straight and narrow. Good on you.

  10. Malcolm Ashwood says:

    Superb Dips what a wonderful tradition you took us along for the ride superbly

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