Short Book, Long Story: Long, Goodes & the story of reconciliation

‘We’ve gotta keep telling the good stories, Martin.’ – Michael Long

When Michael Long took off on the daring dash that set the course of the 1993 AFL Grand Final, I wished it would go on forever. Like Lewis Jetta nearly two decades on, streaming along the same southern wing of the MCG, neck and neck with Cyril Rioli in searing pursuit, it was apparent in the unfolding that these were timeless moments.

Fittingly, there is something of this quality in Martin Flanagan’s The Short Long Book: A portrait of Michael Long, the man who changed the Australian game, launched on the occasion of this year’s Indigenous Round. Like those runs, the book ends soon after it starts. But its length is no measure of the mark it leaves. Or at least ought to leave. The ‘flashpoint’ with Adam Goodes occurred the very same week, renewing all sorts of questions about what it means to be Australian today.

This is not a biography in the conventional sense. For the story of Michael Long is a long story. As Long sees it, Flanagan tells us his story, ‘extends to everyone to whom he is connected in this time or any other.’

It is the story of his father, Jack, his mother, Agnes, and the rest of his family. Which as he quipped in a mock note to Kevin Sheedy, numbers around 1,000 – and that’s just immediate family.

It is the story of Kevin Sheedy, whom he credits with opening up the game to Indigenous Australians. It’s the story of Beverly Knight, former Essendon director and Alcaston Gallery owner, who he once described as ‘mentor, mother, guide.’ And it’s the story of the oldest living culture on the oldest continent on the planet. How does one extract an idea of self in that context?

The Long story is also that of the Stolen Generations, which makes the question of identity that much more acute. How does one find connection to culture and Country, and a sense of self within that, through the veil of such separation? And if, as is increasingly recognised, the sense of belonging for the rest of us in this Country is related to what we are to learn with and from Indigenous Australians, how are any of us to find it?

Flanagan’s connection with Indigenous Australia appears to have been born of these questions. ‘All I heard growing up was a silence that dulled my spirit.’ And when he sought home as it used to be defined, in the country of his (and my) forebears, ‘no-one recognised me as Irish.’ It was upon returning to Australia that he ‘found the people I needed to speak to were here all along – Aboriginal people.’

Sam Vincent’s recent piece in The Monthly on kangaroo culling in Canberra made the point that while Indigenous Australians made a life within their surrounds, today’s inhabitants – citizens of the most urbanised society on earth – have chosen to live beside it, physically and spiritually. He concludes with this from Bill Gammage: ‘if we are to survive, let alone feel at home, we must begin to understand our country. If we succeed, one day we might become Australian.’

If we are to understand this country, we need to change the story of how we are in it. Francis Leach commented on the ABC’s Offsiders that we don’t yet have the language to deal with what’s been happening with Adam Goodes these past troublesome months. He said we don’t yet understand that racism isn’t just our conscious acts, it can be cultural practice. And not having the language to go there means we haven’t had the conversation yet.

John Harms shared a similar sentiment in these pages around the same time. ‘On this rather complex issue, I’m not even looking for guidance in what to think. I’d like to go back a step and seek help in how to think in relation to it.’ He went on to say, ‘This is not about the booing. In my view, it’s about the failure of a community to understand itself.’

In this sense, the process of reconciliation shapes to take on larger meaning. If it is limited to acknowledging the past, honouring the ‘first Australians’, or improving how Indigenous Australians and the rest of us ‘get along’, that would all be worthy, but could only mean so much. If reconciliation isn’t about learning a new story of connection to this Country for all of us, the ‘getting along’ with each other will not only continue to be fraught. Getting along with Country (or nature, as Western culture has come to call it) will be too.

Uniting Church Minister Elenie Poulos, speaking from a Christian perspective, calls it ‘reconciliation for the whole of the God’s creation’. Kerry Arabena, descendent of the Meriam people from Torres Strait, and inaugural Chair of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, describes it as ‘extending the current Australian concept of reconciliation from a process between peoples in a nation state to a process that invests in reconciliation between all peoples and the landscapes in which we live.’ She says, ‘We all need to decolonise our minds.’

It has been said that Martin Luther King didn’t have a dream to reduce racism by 5% by the year 1970. Reductionist thinking of this kind merely serves to hedge in the symptoms of a dislocated cultural narrative. We need conversations about fundamentally reconstructing our sense of place with each other as part of this wonderful Country. That may be uneasy at times, but not forever, and comes with great rewards.

The Short Long Book is a short book, but long enough. For Flanagan, it fills the vacuum in which he was finding Long’s legacy being increasingly misrepresented. Indeed, we have seen this in recent months. Which isn’t surprising given Flanagan found that to most Australians (even those studying race relations in sport!), Long’s role in the transformation of Australian football and culture had largely been forgotten.

Whatever imprint Jetta and Rioli may leave upon the Australian game and culture, Long’s ought to be indelible. Not for the sake of the man himself. But as this portrait does well to show, Long’s story is inevitably less about the individual, as what he stands for. It is a story of culture embedded in Country, a journey from separation to belonging. It is Goodes’ story. It is our story. It is a story with new language, understanding and connection. As such, it is a hopeful story. And as Flanagan concludes, ‘Hope is an engine of change.’

About Anthony James

AJ is Convenor of the Understandascope, teaches on culture and sustainability at Swinburne University, plays music and writes a bit. His writing has found its way into The Conversation, Arena, Eureka Street and elsewhere. But when he saw the Almanac, he remembered he wanted to be a sports writer.

Comments

  1. Beautifully done, AJ.

    I also recommend this book and its story heartily.
    A unique concept for a unique situation.
    Terrific, contemplative story-telling.
    Important.

  2. Anthony James says:

    Thanks Dave (& coz your piece earlier in the week gave me a wriggle on to finish this one!),
    AJ.

  3. Patrick_Skene says:

    Thanks Anthony,

    I finished the Short Long Book in one sitting and it is unlike any biography I’ve ever read.

    Disconnected from his father’s Ammatyere nation, his journey to learn their songs and stories is as impressive as the Long Walk.

    One heart wrenching section deals with his mothers death and how he used to sneak into the cemetery to sleep on her grave. He still has a cup of tea and talks to his mother every day.

    Great review and puts this great man in context.

    Thanks,

  4. Anthony James says:

    Thanks for commenting Patrick. Good to share in this. I agree, those aspects are so very telling and moving. And context is really the (often lacking) key to our understanding, I reckon.
    I also read it in one sitting! Really took me ‘somewhere else’.
    AJ.

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