Almanac (Pro) Running: Death of a Friend

 

A summit has been proposed. We are to meet at Sean’s place this Friday night.

 

I’ve had a call from one of my brothers.

 

“Dips,” he says, “I might be pulling the plug on Stawell.”

 

This is serious.

 

“Let’s have a beer and discuss it further. All of us.”

 

I put the phone down and sink into a sort of grieving. Going to Stawell every year at Easter has been more than a family tradition. Much more. It’s been our raison d’etre from Good Friday to Easter Monday ever since I can remember. The car packed with the floor-less canvas tent, pots, pans, bunk beds, towels, blankets, sleeping bags, bits of wood for the first fire, an axe, a spade, more blankets, and the polystyrene esky. Dad and my five brothers off on a boys’ lark. The Kingswood so laden with bodies and equipment that the bonnet sticks up like the bow of a scuttled ship retreating into the ocean’s depths.

 

I think of Pollock and Proudlock and Dinan. My first vivid memory of a Gift winner is B.L. Moss in 1973 but I have vague recollections of B.P. Foley’s first win in 1970 (he won again in 1972), the year my Uncle Frank ran third. I think about Ravelo in 1975, the Madagascan who ran the whole race like he was blowing up a balloon. I remember Edmonson’s victory salute in 1977. A flash of green as the finish tape relented to the power of the winner’s chest. Arms raised. Mouth agape. Sheer joy. The joy of generations. I’m sure he could feel it; the spirits of past winners. He was exalted. I think of our grainy video tape of the 1955 final that my father won.

 

I think of our childhood camps in the back blocks of Stawell. A piece of cast iron balanced on a pile of bricks was the kitchen. The bricks were buried under a tree at the end of each camp, to be dug up and used again the following Easter. Nothing much changed in Stawell back then. There’s Dad bent over the smoky fire, stirring the braised steak and spuds, probably telling stories about the American Olympian Barney Ewell or the exotically named Lloyd La Beach from Panama. We sit, huddled around, wrapped up in our coats with layers of shirts and jumpers underneath. The cold air from the Grampians gripping our shoulders. A sense of adventure was on the menu. Our imaginations were as immense as the Milky Way above.

 

This is a history that commenced in 1878. The gold rush was ending. Ned Kelly was alive and well, romping around the hills outside Euroa and Benalla in Victoria’s north east, mocking the police and calling out corruption and brutality in high places. Melbourne was one of the richest cities in the world, thanks to gold. Railways were being constructed. Australia was waking up. The Stawell Gift was run on the 22nd of April of that year. The first Gift. A Gift to the emerging nation.

 

These were days of hardship and hope. Improvisation. Punting. Life was a quest without expectations. The Melbourne Cup had only been run seventeen times. The country was finding its way to nationhood through adversity but thankfully in relative peace.

 

Extraordinary heat gripped many parts of the land that January. “On the Lachlan, the Darling, amid the Billabong, the water-supply has given out and residents are reduced to great straits,” The Riverine Grazier reported.

 

And yet a footrace was run. It was run to give anyone and everyone a chance. It was run to provide a carnival for the people. Fortunes were won and lost. Bookies were leaning on the bar one year and being run out of town the next. Blokes turned up from Queensland and Western Australia and New South Wales to have a go. Mysterious blokes. Railway gangers and tree fellers. In 1886 a chap called W.B. Clarke won. His home was described as ‘England’. Then in 1889 E.S. Skinner won from the United States of America.  There was magic and romance in the air.  The Stawell Gift represented opportunity and fame and was often a ticket out of adversity. It reflected the energy and optimism of a new land. It was a game of chance.

 

And it remained so for many years.

 

But things change. The country changed. Expectations have changed. For a while the Stawell Gift has been a cute relic from a bygone era. Something to treasure and hold onto, not because it offers anything to the modern world, but precisely because it doesn’t. It’s like an exotic butterfly specimen kept in a glass cabinet. People gaze at it and wonder where it has come from and why it’s no longer fluttering about. But things of history and antiquity are not required anymore. Or interesting.

 

The Stawell Gift sits on the precipice. It sits in a twilight zone between olde world charm and the new world of incorporated sporting bonanzas. It relies on being itself. How can that be marketed and exploited? In refusing to be diminished or shrunk down into a brand it has sealed its own fate. Like the corner milk bar, the Gift will be overrun by super-convenience. It is an anachronism in the hyperventilating world of sport NOW.

 

Those who administer and manage the Gift have tried. But I get the feeling that they too are unsure where it sits in this dismissive and unsympathetic contemporary culture. They have thrashed about looking for the solution. But they are thrashing about in a bubble from yesteryear as the new world outside dashes past. Perhaps its day has come. Simple as that.

 

“So why are you thinking this?” I ask my brother. (I’ve been thinking the same way for some years).

 

“Ahh, dunno.” he says. “It’s lost it. It’s not the same. It’s gone.”

 

There is an emptiness. A profound despondency and sadness. I have lost a great friend if I don’t go to Stawell. Or, indeed, if we all don’t go to Stawell. I’ve lost an anchor. I’m trying to understand the significance of that anchor. What does it moor me to? Why do I need it? Perhaps the explanation lies in words I recently read from a review of Anthony Esolen’s new book Nostalgia. Going Home in a Homeless World:

 

“Alone among the creatures of the world, man suffers a pang both bitter and sweet. It is an ache for the homecoming. The Greeks called it nostalgia.”

 

How true.

 

I’ll miss the trees and the sandy soil and the straggly mountains. I’ll miss the rocks and the stifling heat and the bitter cold. I’ll miss the night sky. I’ll really miss the night sky. I’ll miss the smell of drenched eucalypts after the rain and the dampened dust around the campfire. I’ll miss the nights of laughter and brotherhood as our fire’s flames lick at the darkness. I’ll miss the collective holding of breath from the crowd before the starter gets the finalists on their way, and I’m sure I’ll still hear the starter scream “Seeeeett” as the runners raise themselves in readiness to chase glory. I’ll miss the coloured satin vests flashing down the grass track, the strings that line the way to the finish, and the finish gate itself that has greeted a galaxy of champions. I’ll miss the banter after the heats and again after the semi-finals, as we all try to make sense of the times run and temperaments displayed. I’ll miss the old grandstand that we have stood under for generations (literally). I’ll miss the bookies’ calls (though they too dwindle in number) as I pass them by. “Final of the Gift!” they yell. I’ll miss the smell of hot potato chips and Carlton Draught that hangs in the air over the grass hill. I’ll miss being part of it all; part of history, however minuscule. Part of this country’s story.

 

But I am grateful for one thing. I’m grateful that the proud ship that carries the Stawell Gift kept her dignity while the old man was alive. He sailed on that ship. Now I fear it sails into the sunset.

 

Read Dips’s story of running in the Stawell Gift final HERE.

 

 

 

Read more Almanac Stawell Gift stories HERE.

 

Read John Harms’s W.K. Trewick story HERE.

 

 

 

 

To find out more about Almanac memberships CLICK HERE

 

 

 

 

About Damian O'Donnell

I'm passionate about breathing. And you should always chase your passions. If I read one more thing about what defines leadership I think I'll go crazy. Go Cats.

Comments

  1. Yvette Wroby says

    To everything, turn turn, there is a season, turn turn. I hear your ache from here. Thanks Dips for another great piece.

  2. Colin Ritchie says

    Fab read as always Dips! There comes a time and when that time comes the nostaglia of past memories are hard to let go.

  3. So Dips, why now? What has precipitated this pow-wow and this (deep) concern?

    And surely Big Seany in his snake-skin boots will sort this out.

    My guess is that the Stawell Gift will find its level/place – whatever that means. Put Seany on the committee – he’d look great in a maroon blazer.

    Terrific piece Dips. Thanks.

  4. Another lovely read Dips. I’ve never much followed the gift but you’ve painted the picture well. Any decisions made?

  5. Thanks for the comments.

    JTH – in answer to your question, its been brewing for a while. There is no doubt that when the old man died in 2016 he took a large chunk of connection with him. But there have been several “straws” that have been weighing on the camels back. For me the rot set in when the repechage was introduced. When that happened the sudden death element was gone. And with the loss of the sudden death went a lot of the mystery, tension, and intrigue. Blokes who got rolled in the heat had another crack at the semi. What nonsense. This is not the school sports.

    To be fair the “problem” with Stawell could well be that we are so bound to it, so attached, that any change affects our perception. In other words, it could be us not Stawell? Probably partly true. .

    There are many elements to this. Part emotional, part practical.You might be right that the Stawell Gift will find its natural level (whatever that is). But to me that’s a sort of death anyway.

    Seany is exactly the kind of bloke they should have on the committee. The perfect mix of pizzazz and understanding. He’s cooking the BBQ tonight.

  6. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    It’s a fine line that you’ve depicted there Dips between ritual as meaning and ritual for ritual’s sake. If you do give it a miss, you’ll soon know whether it was the right call. Is there somewhere else you could all still go to instead?

  7. Luke Reynolds says

    Wonderful piece Dips.
    I have loved attending the Stawell Gift. The atmosphere, tradition and constant racing make it a brilliant event to attend as opposed to just watching on tv. But we live in arguably the most competitive and crowded sports market on the planet. The big Geelong v Hawthorn game is probably now the biggest event on Easter Monday. The Stawell Gift needs to continue to evolve while retaining it’s charm. I hope it can somehow own the four days of Easter. More events in the town, maybe some of the races at night?

  8. Great memories and great questions. Thanks Dips. Got me thinking about the sporting icons of my youth and where they are at now. Melbourne Cup; Interdominion; Sheffield Shield; TV Ringside; Australian Open tennis and golf.
    The Cup and the tennis have mutated and thrived. The Cup fed by the punt, wealthy breeders and owners looking for status (rich men’s toys) and the party/frocks atmosphere. Internationalising the Cup has transformed it. In the 80’s and 90’s it was going the way of Stawell.
    Tennis found a sweet spot in Australia on the back of our historic dominance in what is still largely a “white man’s sport”. The Kia sponsorship and “Grand Slam of Asia” has managed to generate the prize money needed to get the world’s best players coming here.
    Unlike golf where Australian prize money is a third of Europe and Asia and a fifth of America’s. Australia has some of the world’s best players and courses; but the top men’s players would play in a car park for the money available in America. We had the top players in the 70’s and 80’s but only with the injection of Kerry Packer’s personal wealth. The future of tournament golf in Australia should be in bringing the best women players here as they don’t yet have “golden handcuffs”. The Vic Open is our best tournament by miles and should supplant the Australian Open.
    The Sheffield Shield is a dead parrot, and only serves as a training ground for Test players. I doubt long form cricket of any sort will survive private leagues and rampant commercialisation in 20 years time.
    Boxing and the Red Hots seem to have most in common with Stawell. They were handicaps that gave the ordinary man/bolter/cunning planner a chance to make a quid. Professional boxing in Australia died under the weight of international boxing’s corruption and the lack of any clear champion status (IBF; WBA; WBC etc etc).
    The appeal of WWF/cage fighting seems to at least be partly on the basis that it’s “fair dinkum”.
    The Interdominion is just another big money race on the Grand Circuit of harness racing these days. No more handicaps and “getting in light” to “steal a march off the front”. Back in the day the Inters and the Miracle Mile were the only big money races, now trainers can dodge the champs with stake money spread widely across the calendar.
    Stawell cannot hope to attract the best athletes these days. I guess the trick is to maintain enough prize money to attractive handy locals and keep it attractive/competitive. Its a time capsule of our history in a beautiful part of Australia (gold rush and the Grampians). A Sovereign Hill for sport where we show our kids their heritage while savouring Mt Langhi Ghiran shiraz. I remember going to the Lake House restaurant in Daylesford from Stawell on an Easter Sunday in the 80’s. An introduction to the delights of Western Victoria.
    Hope you find an answer for the Gift and companions for your pilgrimage.
    On a historical note how did they handicap ES Skinner and WB Clarke in the 19th century? Can’t imagine there was much disclosed international form???

  9. Thanks for this, old mate. A wonderful read.
    And thanks for stirring up that image of Ned Kelly, and the glorious night sky.

  10. Thanks Swish, Luke, PB, Smoke. PB you draw some very telling comparisons in other sports.

    One thing that would revitalise Stawell is a prize of at least $100,000. For the winner. Watch them come out of the woodwork then. No repechage. Sudden death. And spread the prize pool amongst the middle distance races too. Build it and they will come.

  11. They need a genuine sponsor. One who understands what they are sponsoring/supporting. Resources Lie with corporates – is there just one that understands the nature of the Stawell Gift?

  12. Beautiful writing, Dips.
    Your whole story runs like the wind.

    Your story of Stawell seems like a symptom of a larger issue. Especially as highlighted by Peter_B in the comments. Probably a fundamental issue of priorities at a society -level.

    e.g. I read yesterday of the closing of the Smithton footy club in Tasmania.
    Yet there is an ENORMOUS amount of money and goodwill in footy generally.
    (Is AFLX still a thing?)

    Is there a Department of Sport in the State Government?
    Department of Community?
    Maybe there is a role for government support.
    Maybe there is an argument for sport money to be handled not by unelected executives of various sports bodies, but instead by elected representatives of the people.
    Imagine a world where the $225 million that Vic State government allocated in 2018 for upgrading Docklands footy ground went instead to Stawell, to Fish Creek Football/ Netball Club, to community sport.

  13. Andrew Starkie says

    Beautiful Dips.

    We need ritual to give us hope, perspective and faith.

    Humans will always want to run faster, so I think Stawell will survive.

    Hope you get there.

  14. Stawell needs new young blood to run it. It needs to increase the prizemoney for the other events on the card. The game also lives and dies by its handicapping system. Must get the marks as accurate as possible. Too many times the handicappers are made to look like idiots. The best runners need to be given a chance and relatively slow 15yo winners do nothing to enhance Stawell’s popularity.

  15. Back in ’51 a lighting expert and baseball enthusiast, Roy Page read in an American magazine how night baseball completely changed the game, allowing whole families to enjoy the game. Page then set about convincing the SA Baseball League to play baseball under lights over the summer. He succeeded and in Nov ’52 Night Baseball began at the Norwood Oval. 2 games each Wednesday night were played with 6 teams in the competition. With superb marketing and the brilliant and witty commentary of Mel Cameron, himself a former state player, the venture was a huge success with crowds of between 5,000 and 10,000 per night. Initially games were played to a time limit of 85 minutes, ensuring the action was thick and fast Colourful characters were encouraged and many such as “Peanuts” Martin were real crowd pleasers. Newspapers provided various trophies and the Shipway Medal was the games’ equivalent to footy’s Brownlow. Norwood Redsox’ great southpaw pitcher and dangerous right hand batter Peter Box won the first medal. A portable home run fence was erected and displayed sponsors’ advertisements on it. Those firms advertising on the fence offered prizes to the batters’ whose big hits cleared the fence. For 16 years Night Baseball was a huge success but when Summer Baseball began in season ’68 / ’69 the popularity was waning particularly as all the 12 district clubs were competing thus lowering the standard. These days, with so many distractions, baseball attracts no where near the amount of support it once did in those glory days. PS back in the sixties a young ‘ball player, the younger brother of East Torrens pitcher Dean Fisher, was struck under the heart while batting and, despite the best efforts of docrors, passed away.

  16. I should have said, in my previous comment, that the sponsor does not have to be corporate. It could be community. In that case it becomes whatever that community wants it to become. It’s just that corporates have the cash, not governments.

    Or does the community (of Stawell, of pro-running) look after it – I suppose the way it happens now. Having communities look after it places substantial burden on them – that’s the burden the organisers and those who love it carry now. And are willing to carry. Does it take a whole re-think? Is the event actually OK? Does it become like the Gifts of other provincial cities and towns? Can its history sustain it? Just thinking out loud.

  17. ER – that’s a powerful argument. Sport dollars are increasingly going to the top end. But please, please, please lets keep government out of it. They have an outstanding record for stuffing everything up they go near. All of them. Its probably got to be a corporate sponsor. Cashed up and with an integral knowledge. A regional bank? Don’t mind Harmsy’s idea of a larger community organisation (which could be part government funded, so long as government has no direct say)?

    Chas – spot on. Absolutely spot on.

    Fisho – needs to be thinking outside the square.

    Starks – you are probably right. I hope so!

    I believe this event could be made great again. It doesn’t need to “go back”to the old times, but it needs to respect the history and culture. Its extremely do-able. It has local appeal, it has national appeal, and it even has international appeal (at the right price). $500K would do it. A drop in the ocean for large organisations.

  18. Fine words Dips – as are all of your words on the Gift.

    I’m surely not alone in my admiration of your passionate, generations-deep connection to Stawell and it’s idiosyncrasies.

    Rather selfishly, I’d hate to see a parting of the ways simply because I look forward to new stories from you every Easter!

  19. Dips

    I suggest the Almanac runs a raffle at the Brix every Friday night during footy season.

    And bingo at St. Whatsits after mass.

    JTH

  20. Cheers Jarrod. Thanks for the kind words.

    Apparently Stawell has received funding for 2019. Good news.

  21. Dips Oakbank here in SA at Easter seems to have similarities crowds have dropped dramatically pure ridiculous greed kept hiking the prices up and have lost the masses what was a institution is no longer

  22. Fisho yep loved the night baseball at Norwood at one stage the whole Kensington Cardinals 9 was ex Norwood high,Wednesday nights became virtually school reunion nights

  23. Hey Rulebook, did you know that when Night Baseball started in ’52, Norwood Redsox had a star outfielder named Don Roach. He could also hit a long ball. Somehow I assume it wasn’t the footballer Swish wrote about.

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