Thank you for giving me the opportunity to deliver the George Lovejoy Memorial Lecture.
There is, in any memorial lecture, a sense of loss. There is also a sense of yearning; a yearning for the character in whose honour the lecture is being given, and of their time. Times past. Glorious times past. Times which mean a lot to us. Times that matter.
Some argue that this is mere nostalgia, based on the idea that the imagined past is better than the muck we wallow around in now.
Nostalgia, in this limited sense, is nothing more than a mind-altering drug.
But this is very unfair to one of my favorite words: nostalgia. In Australia the word is often used poorly, in an unsophisticated way.
But consider for a moment how it is used in the Latin languages. In French and Spanish, nostalgie has greater depth, as does the Portuguese saudade. These words capture a different essence: the sense of returning to that which has formed you; of returning home.
That sense of home, for many people here tonight (who on first glance seem to be a little older), will have been formed in the time of the great rugby league broadcaster, George Lovejoy. It was a different Brisbane, a different Queensland, then.
I can mention a few things that I reckon will make you smile. Trams. Custard apple farms at Sunnybank. Getting the cuts at Villanova. Big-tummied blokes in shorts and long socks climbing the stairs to the Don Tallon Bar at the Gabba – blokes who have “drunk their arses off”. XXXX before other beers were allowed north of the Tweed. Lang Park. These things are something, and they mean something.
I am slightly younger than the George Lovejoy generation. But there are plenty of things that make me smile. Rugby league is one of them.
Recently I spoke at the Adelaide Writers’ Festival with actor and writer William McInnes. If you have a Queensland sensibility you will relate to much in his wonderful memoir A Man’s Got to Have a Hobby.
William is a terrific bloke: a graduate of Humpybong Primary School, and a mad Dolphins fan. The night before our writers’ festival session we had a session of our own, remembering the players of the rich Brisbane Rugby League in the 1970s. I’d mention Hughie O’Doherty and he’d tell a yarn. He’d mention Bevan Bleakley and we were away. Nev Hornery. Ian Dauth got us out of our chairs: two grown men in an Adelaide pub completing the Dauth knee-raise.
The next day, rather bleary of eye, in front of an Adelaide crowd of almost 1000, nothing having been planned despite many hours together the night before, we opened with the Brothers club song.
It’s the team in the blue and the white it’s the Brothers
The team that’s superior to all the others
When the games are all played and the season’s no more
It’s Brothers the premiers topping the score.
And followed it up with the Wynnum Manly club song, before concluding that there are not enough excuses in the world to sing Men of Harlech.
If not quite totally perplexed, the crowd was certainly engaged. They could see these songs meant something to us, and they had the equivalent club songs in their 140 year-old Adelaide footy competition. And, indeed, their experience, the decline of their local competition in the face of the rise of the national competition, was similar.
William and I send emails to each other. He finds Youtube clips of rugby league from the 1970s and forwards them to me, signing his note Peter Leis or Tony Obst, Wayne Lindenberg or Peter McWhirter. And it’s brilliant when he pulls out a name you haven’t thought of for years; footballers who you saw on The Big League every weekend.
Around the time George Lovejoy was nearing the end of his remarkable broadcasting career, a political essay was published in Australia: “Yes, Virginia, there is a working class”. I read it in a political reader, one of those heavy tomes useful for killing cockroaches, pressing daisies, and keeping the door open.
Well, I’m directing my thoughts at Virginia again, “Yes, Virginia, there is meaning in rugby league.”
I want to say a few words about the origins of that meaning: about friends and families and communities involved in the game; about the game and the sense of community surrounding your suburb, your town, your state; about the sense of ritual which is a home and away season; about Indigenous footballers; and about the essence of the game.
I have lived a double life. I was born in Chinchilla. My father is a Geelong-mad southerner; my mother is from the Lockyer Valley. Her father Grandpa Logan was a spud and water melon farmer from Tent Hill. He was 5 foot 2, but he could run like the wind.
I remember Grandpa sitting in his woollen undershirt in the winter sunshine cutting spuds to plant, the sort of woollen undershirt he wore underneath his rugby league jumper around the time of the Depression.
He didn’t talk much about rugby league – more about bowls and rain, and how he could never win a raffle. My Nan hated raffles; she was of German Lutheran stock.
When I was very young we moved from Chinchilla to Victoria, but then after a few years we moved back to Oakey on the Darling Downs. And so we did what most Oakey boys did: we played rugby league. Sadly, we only won one match in four seasons; that was against Allora-Clifton, in Under 13s, in the middle of a July cloudburst. Our jumpers were always huge on us, because we were small. So when it came to weight footy, at school level, we didn’t get beaten.
Rugby league was an important part of the life of the town of Oakey. During the years when the Oakey Bears, under Peter Connell, were strong, the cars would be crammed in around the ground and the little grandstand would be chock-a-block on Sunday afternoons. Great players like Dicky Rose, Bruce Millett, Terry Arnold, Nev Tate, Willie Weatherall, Cec Docherty and Mal Muirhead. What a backline!
I went to all the home games to have a pie with mushy peas, and to hear the blokes in the pig pen yell, “Put ‘em on-side” as the beer spilled every which way with the gesticulation.
When I got towards the end of my high school years I used to make burgers at the Cecil Café in Oakey especially on Friday and Sunday nights – the rugby league crowd would always gather at the Western Line for a hundred beers after work on Friday and after the game on Sunday. They’d usually kick on until they realized they were late for tea. After (early) closing they’d wander over for a hamburger with the lot. While they were waiting they’d keep looking at the Kabana in the display fridge – until they could resist no more, “You better cut me off a bit of that Kabana as well.”
Then when Oakey played away I hoped they would be on the local radio station. Because they were one of the top teams, they often were.
I’ll never forget Pat O’Shea’s exciting calls. (Pat is still going: he calls the Toowoomba races these days). I loved the way his voice would lift as Dicky Rose made a break and I’d stop doing my Maths homework to imagine the swarming defence and the looming support:
“Rose. Rose is through. He looks outside, steps off is right, and finds Muirhead. What a great ball Dicky Rose, and Mal Muirhead goes in under the posts. Oakey 14 All Whites 5 with the kick to come.”
This was played out across the provincial cities and towns of Queensland.
Of course, we also followed the Brisbane and Sydney competitions.
But Brisbane was a long way away in those days – and they had sophisticates like Don Seccombe and Gary Ord who read the News.
So, for those of us in the bush, George Lovejoy was an exotic Brisbane caller.
Such regionalism has been a key part of the significance of rugby league – playing for the town and the region. – Toowoomba, Ipswich, Wide Bay, the Foley Shield of North Queensland. To make the Queensland country side was an achievement, and was a way of thrusting your name before the state (and maybe national) selectors.
Some players tried their luck in the big-time competition of Brisbane.
We watched The Big League with Arthur Denovan, and heard calls on ABC regional radio with Peter Meares (from memory) and Cyril Connell. Cyril knew Queensland, when it was still a small place.
Rugby league provided a shared experience; a feeling that was galvanized by the arrival of State Of Origin football.
I remember those early Origin matches in the days of the old Lang Park. On winter’s evenings when, across the top of the southern terrace, the silhouetted figures of the drinkers in front of the golden, western sky, reminded you of a World War I photograph; the flash-flash-flash-unflash of the XXXX factory.
These have become festival days in Queensland; days when we find our inner pineapple. I remember some of the classic ads:
Fish are jumpin’ waves are pumpin’
Steak is sizzlin’ this is livin’
An ocean as blue as the sky up above us
We love it up here.
We don’t just like it – we love it:
The people, the places,
The mates, the faces,
The XXXX mate,
We love it up here.
State of Origin symbolized the shared experience of being a Queenslander.
I saw all of the matches at Lang Park in the first five years, like the 1981 fixture when we were 15-0 down, and won 17-15. The characters who played in them became household names Wally, Mal, and Geno – they were (are still) known by one name, like Brazilian soccer players, only in a Queensland way. Many moments were etched in to the public memory.
Rugby league has also proved to be very meaningful for the Indigenous community.
Some of the first Aboriginal people I met were through sport and especially rugby league: Dicky Rose, Willie Weatherall and especially the late Cec Docherty (with whom I played golf occasionally at the Royal and Ancient Oakey Golf Club).
I have been able to spend a lot of time with Steve Renouf, working together with him on his biography. This included considerable research in to his family history, and took me to Murgon and Cherbourg which was formerly Barambah. I learnt of characters like the late Frankie ‘Bigshot’ Fisher, the wonderful player of the 1930s (Cathy Freeman is his grand-daughter) and the significance of rugby league to Aboriginal people at that time.
I also learnt of what rugby league means to Aboriginal people now. There are so many talented Indigenous footballers playing at the top level, and throughout the suburban and country leagues. Last January when I caught up with Steve he told me that he thought the All Stars game on the Gold Coast would be very popular among Aboriginal people. “They’ll come from everywhere,” he told me. And they did.
I look at Steve Renouf’sown love of the game, and the meaning he derived from it. He learnt to love victory, and the collective thrill of premierships. But he also derived deep satisfaction from his ability to express himself physically through the game.
There is meaning in the aesthetic of rugby league, the beauty of Steve Renouf slicing through, the aesthetic of the Parramatta backline of the early 1980s, the aesthetic of the current Queensland team.
You look at Steve now and you see his desire to have his own sons, and other boys, enjoy the game as much as he did.
The meaning we find in rugby league may have key cornerstones, but there are also changing meanings. Commercialisation and commodification have altered rugby league at the top level, and altered the meaning for some of the key figures in it. What happens to the game when the money men get a hold of it?
So we have commercially powerful clubs, who enjoy on-field success. They appeal to mass audiences and take advantage of the celebrity culture we now endure.
But we also have clubs like Goodna in local and junior rugby league. Goodna has a beautiful ground among the jacarandas down by the Brisbane River. There is meaning in the common purpose of putting teams on the ground; in playing rugby league; in striving for victories and premierships. There is meaning in the ritual of meeting together for home matches, standing on the veranda of what they call Bay 13, and cheering the boys on. There is meaning in the contest.
The Greeks called the contest the agon. It is a two-part test: he test of self, and the test against the opponent, all completed in the context of genuine physical danger. Rugby league is about skill, but that skill must be demonstrated under the constant threat of physical danger.
It links the game to human history, to human conflict, to human competition, to any endeavour where fear and courage sit side be side.
In my book Loose Men Everywhere I went looking for the meaning in football. I got to the age of 35 and I realised I still had a child-like excitement about footy.(I now have it at 48) I reckon we tire of things which lack meaning. They become tedious. By a certain logic I was able to argue that football must have meaning. Because I’m not tired of it!
For those of us who know and love the game, who have grown up with it, so many of our memories are bound up in football; our mythology of hope is expressed in football; our need to shake our fists at the gods is bound up in football. For some of us football provides a sense of who we are and where we come from.
Yes, Virginia, there is meaning in rugby league.