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Listening to The Listener

Last Friday, I headed into the Pâtisserie for 2 o’clock coffee. Ah, smiled North loving Barista J – J’s got a cracking smile—Just now I asked … has Mathilde been in yet?


It’s hard to know how to approach competitive banter with someone you need week to week. All very well to celebrate the successes or smooth the ills of each other’s teams against shared oppositions. But head to head, face to face, hard to know which way to play it. I’d rehearsed bolshy bring it on. Reserved we’ll see. Sydney-style underdog reverence for the opponent.


As J tamped the coffee I introduced a mix: Going to be exciting. Bit worried about your talls without Teddy. But not a lot of space on the little netball oval. And off he went. Midfields, X factors, the returns of the Ws, Wells and Wright. Tarrant on Lance. A run-with role for Gibson. He reiterated another regular’s parting words from that morning, a Swans supporter: I’m just hoping it’s a good contest.


Bullshit, I said. We both know courtesy.

I hadn’t really thought much about the game. I wasn’t adequately armed with the organised data that makes us feel somehow in control. I let him go on; he had my flat white in his hand. I can’t believe the AFL site has Sydney by 27 points, he said. I suggest it will be closer than that!





The previous Thursday, I sat on the end of Walsh Bay’s Pier 4 to attend a rare writer’s festival event—one which deals with sport! It was a session with Martin Flanagan, Erin Riley and Stan Grant called ‘Sport, the Great Distractor?’ The question was structured to draw thoughts about whether sport in practice deals with social issues in a more foregrounded and active way than the broader society in which it sits or whether sport operates as a kind of opiate for the masses. Martin Flanagan declared that he looks up to sport where other people look down. He noted how AFL clubs make space for a dialogue between Indigenous and non-Indigenous staff that takes place in an atmosphere of equality and understanding, something that is harder to find in broader society. Football clubs give Indigenous citizens the chance to lead, to set agendas, to ask for standards to be met and to hold their peers to account when they are not.


My Cob and I have spent most of our income-generating lives in Arts sectors which share these values. His in performance, mine in galleries. These days my work at the Museum of Contemporary Art means I am regularly exposed to the complexity, talent, humour and strength of Indigenous artists and their commitment to cultural continuity, visibility and power—their way! While Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders make up 2½ percent of the population and 9 percent of AFL playing lists, the MCA’s dedicated ATSI policy stipulates that 25 percent of all artists exhibited annually in the building should be Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. We are fortunate to have these models of insistence close at hand.


But Stan Grant had an alternative take on that capacity Indigenous players have to impose, achieve, influence and inspire in their sporting spheres. Sport might just be a distorting lens. Success could give a false sense of how much progress has really been made. For even when players like Goodes and Wanganeen achieve the game’s highest individual accolade, or Burgoyne notches his fourth premiership, or Franklin commands the longest, most lucrative contract in the history of the game, their individual successes sit in stark contrast to the broader intergenerational trauma and incomprehensible levels of disadvantage still endured by their people. Stan described with great eloquence and simplicity how the things he and his brothers were trying to hide from in sport always ended up coming back into view. He came to writing about the Goodes year gingerly. He knows too well that many people don’t want the façade of sport’s triumphal veneer broken by reality. Its maintenance is the price of admission for Indigenous players, lovers of the game and commentators.





Winter was finally asserting itself in Sydney last Friday night. The Cygnet picks and chooses his footy these days. But the combination of end of school week, Indigenous Round and the chance to knock off the ladder leaders (not to mention the half time Maxibon) meant he was by my side. A huge crowd was welcomed to country. Wells and Franklin exchanged gifts in the centre. The wind had the flags flying straight. A didg circling the field built the last 60 seconds before play. With all the pride and stirring—I’d have it every week—the question of possible distortion hung in the back of my mind. And then ceremony opened out into action.


The Swans’ first quarters are furious this year. Full of intent. Buddy with his two goals, the old captain rallying despite his head laying sideways on O’Reilly Gwen’s chopping block, the undersized backs keeping the talls to zip, Kennedy and Hannebery and Mitchell already comparing tally marks for their contested possessions. These first quarters are statements. But it’s what comes after that makes the statement add up to a win.


The day after the Writer’s Festival panel with Stan Grant, Martin Flanagan read his remarkable Penguin Special ‘On Listening’ from Pier 3’s Curiosity Stage. It is a small book that summation can’t account for. A prose poem if you like, a delicate inventory of sounds, stories and silences, gentle turns through his personal territory of becoming listener. And if you stay in it for a very modest allotment of time, you might feel something enormous. The book’s philosophy comes in Flanagan’s own words: If you’re quiet enough, it’s like you’re the branch of a tree and the bird of story is about to land, and it’s one of those stories that explain us to our private selves, that goes to the edge of our daily battle to survive. Flanagan’s own story shards are a remarkable example of how reading itself, looking at words on the page, can be deepest listening, form and content in the perfect marriage.


Perhaps listening is the best statement. I decided, for the next three quarters, to abandon the tangibles, the blow by blow movement of the play, the set ups, the numbers in front or behind the ball, the spread, the match ups and mini battles, the score line, the things that make us feel we understand what is happening. I decided to watch the game as if I were listening for it in silence.


And all sorts of story birds landed on my branches: Hannebery and what it means to take it on oneself to define how to go about something and be outstanding at it; Mitchell and Kennedy and what it means to be hyper present and plainly relentless; Tippett and what it means to shape meaningful success, slowly, over time. Hewett and Mills and Heeney and what it means to have the courage to believe you belong, to fail on occasion and stay; Rohan and what it means to risk the gape of peripheral awareness; Grundy and what it means to hold up; Lance and what it means to carry responsibilities far beyond the personal. The team, running one way or the other, is working with the power and confidence of trust. That whoever is beside them is there in support. It’s work that happens with training, skill, thinking and guts, in painfully small spaces.


Perhaps sport will always be progressive and distortive at once. And the job is to work in the interstice between the two. There were clues in Friday night’s game for how to be a part of significant conciliation. Footy can train us for that kind of attention if we allow it to. It can train us to stay with it even after the statement is over.





On Monday morning, MCA staff were treated to a walk-through of a new exhibition which opens this week, Telling Tales: Excursions in Narrative Form. The first work in the show is a wall of Marlam boards by Peggy Patrick, a senior Gija artist and cultural custodian in the Kimberley community of Warmun. The boards represent the movement of hands and fingers during the body painting that is the preparation for ceremony. The boards have been hung at body height so that we may face them directly. We are asked to stand close and look. For this is the beginning of storytelling.


Barista J was alone behind the machine at 2 o’clock with a queue of orders lined up. I’d rehearsed self satisfied Got you! Ominous First loss. Smug 26 points! Until I caught his eye.


Oooh are you alright? I asked.

A half hearted smile as reply.


Ça va? I checked.

Ça va, he replied. Well yes and no really.

I appreciated his honesty.


We were smashed in the middle. That was the most disappointing thing. We didn’t have a good forward on the night. Maybe Nahas. Maybe Cunnington gets a tick. Not sure if a single player won their position. Maybe Tarrant. I saw your midfield against Richmond. They were beaten up!

I really wanted to sneak in the bit about the 26 point margin. But we don’t always know what need people have of their footy from week to week. The coffee was excellent. Sometimes the best course is listening.



The Footy Almanac - Write From The Heart

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. Mathilde – beautiful as usual. I think I’m in the Stan Grant team. Whilst I understand and actually enjoy the Indigenous round, I’ve always felt it has a slightly patronising edge. As a rule I’m not really in favour of any designated, themed “rounds”. Its not the AFL’s place and could paint it into a corner on certain social issues. IMHO.

    I would love to be a better listener. I’m working on it.

  2. E.regnans says

    An ongoing pleasure to be given an audience with you, MdH.

    I see merit in both M Flanagan and S Grant’s views
    The idea of “what is possible” is so important for any of us (where is the boundary? why?).
    Reading of the inspiration others have found in Sir Doug Nicholls (e.g. is a good example of how events of the sporting world can have wider (and greater) implications.
    But yes, for every high-profile aboriginal footy player there are many hundreds of others struggling in marginalised and ill-understood circumstances. Doing it tough. Sometimes without hope.

    Probably, the symbolism is great for raising awareness.
    And meaningful actions that stem from the raised awareness are the next step.

    We chip away.
    And appreciate a thoughtfully and skillfully woven story of many threads.

  3. Brilliant and thoughtful – as always. Thanks MDH.
    I am more in the Flanagan camp, so I particularly loved your listening para when you “heard” the stories different players tell. I often play out those micro stories in my own mind about players or games. The footy version of imagining the lives of others in a café.
    I will chase up the “On Listening” book. Sounds wonderful.
    I see sport as a mirror of society – the good and the bad. But a simple lens for viewing complex issues through. Perhaps a mirror that glosses over blemishes as Grant says, but I firmly believe you catch more flies with honey than lemon.
    Sport unites and inspires. Qualities in short supply.

  4. Luke Reynolds says

    Superb Mathilde. Wise move going easy on Barista J during your return visit. A good coffee cannot be jeopardised.
    I think both Flanagan and Grant make worthy points. Complex issues have no one correct answer.
    “Sometimes the best course is listening”. That’s a correct anwer to most questions.

  5. Beautiful prose and simple in its brilliance and power. Stan Grants challenging observeration on the distorting lens sport can provide can’t be ignored.

  6. Ross Treverton says

    What a superb piece. Thank you Mathilde.

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