Field, Ground, Oval, Stadium.

I rode up Lennox Street and then through Abbotsford. The dealers and users were on the corner of Victoria/Lennox. I rode through the intersection and past Aldi. Leaves covered the bicycle lane and now and then I drifted to the centre of the road, wary of any quickly-opened parked-car door. I turned right into Johnston Street and then left into Trenery Crescent and past the eastern end of Victoria Park. Riding north. I got onto the Merri Creek bicycle path at around Dights Falls. Clifton Hill. These are the recent names given to this part of Wurundjeri Country. The flats of footy ovals, playgrounds and football fields on my left. To the right, the small valley of the creek and the higher ground on the eastern side. The sun shone and I remembered past conversations I had shared with friends as we had walked along the same path. This time, I carried with me a small bag with a couple of articles to read and some snacks. A casual footy picnic, while watching the game at Northcote’s Bill Lawry Oval. I was passing up on the Richmond-St Kilda game and going elsewhere.

 

**

 

It is the last weekend of autumn and yet the ground remains firm and in good nick. The centre square turf is thick and black in patches, but nothing that would prevent players from bouncing the ball with only the slightest degree of caution. A crowd of supporters is gathered on the northern wing. Some sit on the stone wall fence a metre back from the white picket fence that rings the field. It feels like a cricket oval. There are some spectators who seem to be injured players: they’re full of energy and perhaps are mildly frustrated about not being out their themselves. They stretch their legs and sport the team’s tracksuit jacket. At the back and a fraction higher up on the grassy mound, a couple of men stand with cans of cider. The crowd is small enough that you feel like checking with those around you: am I blocking your view?

 

 

On the southern wing, there is a pair of cameramen filming the game. Otherwise, it is empty. There are some large trees which would provide cooling shade in the summer. Two large blocks of housing estate apartments loom in the background. They appear poorly kept, yet the decorations on the windowsills indicate they are not only inhabited, but that the occupant is seeking to adorn them with his or her own style. The housing flat commissions are indicative of an earlier era of urban planning. The scoreboard in the south-west pocket is also a reminder of things past: analogue and clunky and operated by an unseen figure (or figures) inside the metallic box and is dedicated to the memory of Geoffrey Guille and Arthur J. Spain. Behind the eastern goals, a man sits alone, at the back on a piece of outdoor furniture. He is smoking a pipe and shouts occasionally towards the players. It is unclear whom he is barracking for: he applauds good skills while bemoans mistakes.

 

 

Entrance today is free. But a sign remains up for cost of other games that are held at this venue. Just inside the gate is the merchandise stand selling the Darebin Falcons official beanies, scarves and peaked caps. Some in the crowd mark their affiliation with the club through wearing these items. Perhaps they are friends or family of the players; perhaps they have a voluntary role with the club. Girls, under ten, run around in the Falcons’ jumper: they may have had an away game, elsewhere, earlier in the day. At half-time, a father and his son come down the eastern end for a bit of kick-to-kick through the goals. The boy is dressed up in Essendon clothes, indifferent to the misdemeanours of the club’s recent dubious practices. The boy attempts to mark some of the Falcons’ goals as the ball sails over the low fence. He fetches it and drop punts it back to the young lime-green boundary umpire who runs the ball back to the centre circle with meticulous efficiency.

 

 

The game is tightly fought throughout the first and second quarters. The ball moves well between both forward lines; forward thrusts often being stopped some 30 metres out from goal. But the play is clean despite the low scoring: true drop punts kicking diagonally across the field and making space. Solid bumps and broken tackles and the occasional clanger. Darebin takes a narrow half-time lead and then runs away with it in the third, kicking towards the scoreboard end. Casey have ended up being outplayed in their back third of the field, but, otherwise they seemed on a par with Darebin. It was tighter than the sixty point margin suggests. The margin is one thing; the feeling is another.

 

 

From my spot at the eastern end mound behind the goals, I keep my head down and read, now and then, when the result is beyond doubt. There is construction noise in the distance, but otherwise, I have a soundscape of players’ calling out to another, the umpires whistle and instructions, the thud of the ball into the fence, and magpies having their warbles. This rendition of footy seems far from the packaged spectacle taking place a few kilometres down the road. This feels like a picnic: bucolic and tranquil.

 

 

Even though the name is ‘Bill Lawry Oval’: I find myself thinking more of Pastor Sir Doug Nicholls. If I am not mistaken, this is the oval where he played for Northcote while in the VFA. Nicholls had left Carlton due to racist abuse and found a home at Northcote, before later playing for Fitzroy in the VFL. Then, while Bill Lawry was playing for the national Australian cricket team during the 1960s, Sir Doug was busy setting up the Victorian Aborigines Advancement League and the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. Sir Doug’s authority and ability to attract the interest of a wide audience in part came from his fame as a sportsman.

 

**

 

I ride back south while also thinking of Timmah Ball’s essay in The Griffith Review #60 on the contested historical ground on which the MCG stands. She writes, “Australia’s colonial past thrives while we watch footy matches played on Wurundjeri/Boon Wurrung land, in a stadium named after the invaders’ favourite sport” (Ball 2018, p.216). The narratives facilitated by geography interplay with those of individuals and who gets remembered and who is forgotten. Footy grounds, ovals, stadia, are a part of shared social spaces; they are spaces which shape us and which we shape in turn. By the time I get home, I see my team is winning at the Stadium over the road. My app tells me so. Today, I don’t think they’ll notice my absence.

 

 

 

 

Comments

  1. Yvette Wroby says:

    A lovely meander with you. Thank you

  2. Mathilde de Hauteclocque says:

    Wow, this is really something , Andy. Not even about the words or sentences – they are one thing. But the feeling …

    In the last few weeks, I have gone for a peripatetic chat with my fella (and yesterday our 13 year old son) around our local area, Marrickville. Mostly we go, without plan. Sometimes, like yesterday, we go in search of the amazing Ukrainian poppyseed cake at the cafe on top of a hill. Invariably we cross paths with Henson Park.

    Yesterday we took our cake and coffees to the hill of Henson, where UTS were playing the Eastern Bulldogs. The afternoon sun was fighting a painter’s clouds. There might have been 25 people across the whole huge hill. The local dogs were frolicking madly in space. We could hear the players yelling. We could hear the thud on leather. We could follow the ball from one end of the field to the other. We invested almost immediately. We started to know the leading patterns of the Bulldog’s number 23 and imagine the promise of the lanky ruckman resting forward. We admired the speed of UTS forward movement. We ‘ooohed’ the ball hitting the windscreen of a HiLux behind the sticks. We met a red setter puppy. The thing that struck me most … as you so deftly identify … was the tranquility. It was an unwinding experience rather than a winding up one.

    I came home hoarse on Friday night. NOT from cheering for the lacklustre match at the SCG. Just from trying to talk to Gwen in Row U or my mate two seats over. I could only attempt sign language with Connie in Row S. I come away from those big matches exhausted, depleted. And yesterday I felt filled up. It’s very interesting … I think it might become a bit of a Sunday ritual.

    Thanks for this lovely piece.

  3. Mathilde de Hauteclocque says:

    ps. I love your last paragraph. I think the stadia could do more to acknowledge the land they are on, their role as shared spaces, meeting places. Not in the corporate survey kind of way.
    Perhaps we as supporters can do the thinking/discovering work too. Thanks for the impetus.

  4. Thank you both Yvette and Mathilde for your comments.
    Part of this has come out of trying to find a better balance in the kind of footy I watch: some Richmond games at the MCG of course, but, also having these balanced by others involving clubs I don’t know of and on grounds I haven’t visited before.
    After attending some of the recent Richmond games…I find it takes me at least two hours afterwards to calm down and recover from all the shouting, noise and intensity. This is something that one can miss, but, it is also something one can need a break from :) i guess.
    I have realised that (for me) one of the most insignificant factors in ‘enjoyment’ of watching the game comes from the ‘quality’ of play. I find my pleasure increasingly comes from contextual matters – the how and who is doing the playing and where it is taking place.
    I’m trying to avoid the AFL monopolising my experience and understanding of Australian rules football :)
    best,
    Andy

  5. E.regnans says:

    Andy –
    I think this is magnificent.

    Bombardments that include fence advertising that moves, cacophonous audio intrusions and distracting kiss-cam/interviews/competitions that inevitably take place during quarter breaks have combined to test the patience of supporters at AFL games.
    Watching two evenly matched teams play footy is pretty similar, whether it’s AFL or C grade amateurs. Sure, history and connection exist at AFL level.
    But you don’t get to move around, sit under a tree or chat to your mates at AFL. More is the pity. For it need not be this way.

    Wonderful writing. Wonderful meditation.
    Many thanks.

  6. Really enjoyed the piece Andy.

    So evocative.

    We’re not far from Bill Lawry Oval and go there from time to time. You describe the Oval we know. Creek. Oval. Bluestone. Housing Commission flats.

    There is also a September addition. We have watched finals there (ammos) and to all the images and sounds you describe you can add the images and sounds of early-season athletics from across the creek at the athletics track there. Coloured singlets. The gun. The school playground bubbub of the athletes and their supporters.

    I recall going there to a Willy v Therry Penola semi. The kids were pre-school and rolled down the embankment round the south-east pocket. Lush clover. Over and over again. Giggles turning to stacks on the mill laughter. Me half-watching the footy. But still footy-aware. Footy was just part of it.

    And how it reminds you of your own childhood at footy grounds like Princes park in Shepparton and the rugby league ground at Oakey.

    Thanks for the piece Andy.

  7. Thank you E.regnans and John for your comments.
    E.regnans: I hear you. :) I have been reading a book on baseball stadiums which have been hyped almost beyond recognition: the players tell of how much more they enjoyed playing in stadiums without all the whizz-bang distractions – that is, when they knew the fans were giving the baseball their full and undivided attention.
    John: thanks for mentioning the athletics track. I mentioned it in a paragraph which I ended up deleting. I shall revisit it. Every stadium needs a rolling-hill inside its walls.
    best,
    Andy

  8. Hi Andy
    A wonderful slice of Melbourne you present here in word.
    Because I feel it is as much about Melbourne as it is footy or sport.
    Contemporary life layered with elements from the past.

    Back to the noise of the G on Thursday after the quietude of the Bye weekend.

    Kate

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