AFL Grand Final – Sydney v Hawthorn: Twinkle Twinkle Little Swan (how I wonder where you’ve gone)

The great Primo Levi wrote a story in 1978 called Tranquil Starabout a star which had been watched for many human lifetimes, without changing. The story alights on the cataclysmic moment of the star’s brightening, the nature of the event up close, its energy and power, the destruction it would reap. And then it turns abruptly to a Friday night in a vast Indian landscape, where a Peruvian astronomer is manning the observatory. He is preparing to spend the weekend away with his desperate wife and children, but notices a tiny anomaly in the photographic plate of Friday night’s sky: Ninety-nine times out of a hundred it’s a speck of dust … or a microscopic defect in the emulsion; but there is also the minuscule probability that it’s a nova, and one has to make a report.

The narrative of Tranquil Star is preceded by a meditation on the inadequacy of language to account for things beyond our own parameters and scale A big, hot star, far away. Can these human sized words ever really account for how hot a star is, and how far away? And how much more is very? How do we report on things that we are unsure about, that are beyond our own literal dimensions?


On grand final eve, I made up the last of mother-in-law’s birthday meringues, with whipped cream and strawberries. Cheer cheer the red and the white. I sent out word to the faithful – Swans by two meringues.

On grand final morning, amid Channel 7’s marathon rehash of the season, I remembered the 22 Swans. The ones from 2012. I’d fashioned them from every red and white origami paper in the box, 22 paper swans, two beautiful black ones (no Buddy in ’12), two larger ones for Macca and Jack. The madness we take ourselves to! It worked in 2012. So as the deadline for lunch at sister-in-law’s came closer, I made 22 more Swans, 3 glorious black ones, propped them on the pigeonhole bookshelf and locked them in with the cat as we left.

We carried prawns and salad, a cake and bubbles three streets over.

Ooh, I said as we walked single file down a squeeze of pavement. I just don’t want to feel disappointment.

Me neither, said the Cygnet

You know there’s a saying about that … It’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. I explained its thereabouts meaning. I can’t really help but live that way.

He didn’t reply and we rounded the corner and called our Yoohoo! from the front.

Sister-in-law’s was doused in red and white, from the Arabic kufiya that adorned the back of the couch to the mini jersey on the 16 year old’s teddy. Brother-in-law had rigged an almighty projection scheme; the pre-game was all over the living room wall, Dermott and Carey way beyond life-sized. This was going to be big.

Lunch was done by the anthem. The Hawks were in an anemone huddle! We sat in a long line, roaring for the bounce and then the even possession, the score line which marched one foot, then the other, to 2 and 8 and 14. Brother-in-law wished an early leg injury on a marking Roughie and youngest nephew, a five year veteran of the Swans academy, unleashed a tirade of abuse, at his father. You can’t do that Dad! You worry about your own team, not the opposition! There be witchcraft in bad wishes he told us. He was right. Pretty much from that moment onwards, the game was gone.

We willed tackle upon tackle that never stuck, we yelped a high on Hanners that never came. We moved in unison from one side of the couch to the other, willing the players with us, anything to block up the universe of space those Hawks were in. The Cob hurled concourse variety abuse, nephew was preaching a higher road. Longmire looked frozen.

We spent half time putting away the savouries and dusting the cake – icing sugar until it was bright white, ringed in red berries. Dear dear the red and the white. I suggested we open the Champagne; it didn’t feel like we’d need it afterwards. Middle nephew’s girlfriend, raised on Swans, her mother watching live from New York and status updating along with the score, suggested we all stay positive. So we toasted another half, ate our cake and all its crumbs while lamenting those at Lance’s feet.

We called turning point at every half decent possession. As the ball came in hard and fast towards the defence, we held teddy aloft and prayed. But Teddy could not get forward. Every goal brought do-able … until it was answered. Every string of possessions signalled momentum … until it was turned over. Brother-in-law, a musician, offered to transform the front room of the house into a chill out space, complete with ambient music and birdsong. But gradually the energy waned. It gasped its final breaths as anger in some, humour in others, plain indignity in nephew: It was a grand final, he cried. How can you just not show up?

We packed the dishwasher, decanted the leftovers into doggy bags for dinner. We watched the Hawks climb the fences into the arms of their fans. Some time during the misery the boys disappeared, down the backyard, out the garage and onto the street behind. When I got there laden with food and regret, there was a football flying past the roller door. Veterans versus youth, the Cob and brother-in-law versus the Cygnet and his cousins. The ball came in high and long, missed the windscreens and hit its targets. The tackling was barefoot and fierce, the young defender outsized by at least three heads, but he never gave up. The flow was clear, the skills were up, morale was good on both sides. The Harrison Street cup played out under a nail clipping moon until the light was gone and all were spent.

As we walked the single file footpath home, I tried something on about not feeling too bad about a game we were never in. The Cygnet and I lowered every head of the 22 birds before bed.


In the nights and days that have followed, the discomfort has emerged. It is manifold.

There is the discomfort of unfulfilled promise. And if it’s bad for the supporters … I feel for the players, for their momentum so hard won and the cliff edge they didn’t see. I feel the lack of cap on a year of vintage work and the requirement that they claim it as their fault, offer answers and then be strong and driven almost immediately – account for the loss and make it count, all in one take.

There is the discomfort of intermittent trawling. It began on Sunday night and has operated like the commas of multiple clauses since – a search for the press conference, the article, the analysis, the quote, the photo, the eyewitness report that can provide an answer that sits right. There is not one. Reporting tries to arrange the ineffability of our human efforts – all the mess and chance, all the energetic variables, the invisible things of which we are hardly aware – into some planned and palatable narrative: the hunger was right or it wasn’t; a team lost a player or gained one; the build up was perfect or not; the win was revenge or destiny; the stars lined up for the day; a father juju-ed the team. What I feel as I read is the aggression of people trying to rally what happened into shape, domineering heads and hands pushing it while the clay is still wet and does not want to congeal into some finished form.

While Hawthorn supporters revel in the magical heights of a plan and its perfectly uninterruptable execution, what a Swans supporter faces most immediately is the search not to answer. To live alongside the larger, deeper discomfort that is the necessary acceptance of inexplicability. There is less and less public space for such a state, but sport without the commentary is good at it. Movement and energy, mysterious combinations of will and capacity, inconsistency and then sudden brilliance – the turn of things greater than our best attempts at interference.

What can be salvaged from the wreck for Sydney? McAvaney chirped in the fourth.

Nothing, responded Matthews.

If we can hold off trying to explain, publically declare that space, we can actually touch the emotion of loss and disappointment and get to know the difficulty, but the reality and grace, of that state.

The Hawks were very good on Saturday. The Swans were very bad. But only destiny and her basket of eggs knows whether this was a nova or a speck, the unheralded beginning of the end for the Swans and the middle of more for the Hawks. Only she knows whether the Bondi penthouse is imploding from this moment on and the Swans will end up a bitter, feuding family of underpaid averages and a billionaire bench. And only she knows whether the dynasty has been cemented at Hawthorn or whether this thrashing was the indicative mark of a cataclysm of Hodgelessness and hamstrings, of hubris and the hunt. She will not necessarily report.


About Mathilde de Hauteclocque

Swans member since 2000, Mathilde likes to wile away her winters in the O'Reilly stand with 'the boys', flicking through the Record and waiting to see the half backs drive an explosive forward movement. She lives in Sydney and raises a thirteen year old Cygnet.


  1. Poetic as always. A joy to read. “Nail clipping moon”. I wondered what you were going on about and then the penny dropped. Wonderful.
    We infer great meaning from small events, and believe we can tell fortunes and predict the coming of comets and great events.
    I tipped the winner of all 9 finals games, several of which, like Saturday, were not the favourites. My reptile gambler’s brain started to think about what the return would have been on $50 all up over the finals series.
    Then I remembered that I was in the bottom 20% in the Almanac tipping comp for the season. These days I wager ego but never cash.
    Random events distributed randomly. The moon. The tides. Bad biorhythms?
    P.S. If the Cygnet is distraught I can send a blue and gold scarf to cheer him up.

  2. Very thought provoking, Mathilde. She, being destiny, is so right. Like “she” being a ship. Destiny is certainly female.

    Being of Irish decent I understand misery and melancholy. In some ways I love it. Its simple and self indulgent. Feeling bad and disappointed needs to be embraced and cuddled, because these feelings signal the start of the climb back up. Euphoria, on the other hand, is the beginning of the decline.

  3. Beautiful piece Mathilde, so evocative. I’m there, on the walk over, in the lounge room and out the front, watching as the “ball came in high and long, missed the windscreens and hit its targets”.

    I can’t say I’m sorry about the result of course. I’m happy with that.

    I wish your Swannies all the best for next year and I know that they will be back harder, more determined and giving you so much more joy than sorrow.

    If you are a fan of Lucinda Williams can I recommend her latest (just released) double album, ‘Down where the spirit meets the bone’. Like you she ponders the unmeasurable in our lives and beyond. Like you, she delights the listener (reader) even if the story is without a happy ending.


  4. Grant Fraser says

    Mathilde – as one who suffered during 2012 (more so due to the ebb and flow nature of that game? I do not know) I sympathise. What I do know is you are absolutely right when you (effectively) say it is better to have been there and lost than never to have been there at all.

  5. Ahh Mathilde,
    “How do we report on things that we are unsure about, that are beyond our own literal dimensions?”
    A conundrum, indeed.
    Like much of Saturday afternoon.
    Yet your pondering of destiny and her basket of eggs seems apt.

    I wonder what will transpire next…
    …as acceptance again grapples with the everlasting refusal to accept.
    (thanks – I greatly enjoyed your story)

  6. Phil Dimitriadis says

    “Movement and energy, mysterious combinations of will and capacity, inconsistency and then sudden brilliance – the turn of things greater than our best attempts at interference.”
    Beautifully written Mathilde.

  7. Patrick_Skene says

    A joy to read Mathilde.

    “We called ‘turning point’ at every half decent possession.”

    Captured my couch optimism perfectly.

  8. Earl O'Neill says

    Wonderful piece, Mathilde, thank you.

  9. Mathilde de Hauteclocque says

    Thanks Pete, but the Cygnet says a polite ‘No thank you’ to the blue and yellow scarf. He was not nearly as wounded by the loss as I would have liked him to be. And bravo on Priddis too. A noble pin-up for the game.
    And thanks all you fellas for sharing time and words. You are a pleasure to write for and with.

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