The barren backyard

I am standing on the Newtown & Chilwell football ground, looking across the grass to my distant past.

I started playing here 40 years ago – not for the red-and-black Eagles, just for fun. A kick of the footy after school at the Elderslie Terrace end of the ground with my neighbour John. Two kids, not yet in their teens, mucking around. Day after day, year after year.

We both lived in Minerva Road, a few hundred metres from the oval. I vaguely remember that Bobby Davis lived around the corner, somewhere in Read Street. I don’t remember seeing him but I only had eyes for the red-and-the-black of the 1970s Bombers on the black-and-white television. Barry Davis, not Bobby Davis.

My sister says that Bobby Davis lived right behind us, that we shared a back fence, and that he had a flutter or two in Mum and Dad’s Geelong West TAB.

From centre-half-forward of the Newtown & Chilwell ground I look for the cyprus that dominated the front garden at 165 Minerva Road. I know it’s not there anymore but I still want to look for it, to see it popping out above the houses, looking down Sydenham Avenue to the city.

Instead I catch a glimpse of a large white cement-mixing pump arcing into a driveway or a backyard. It might even be pouring cement into my own past, I wonder, as I head down Read Street. My younger brother had told me a year or so ago that the house was being sold again, with a subdivision listed to tempt prospective buyers.

Cement dust used to crust flower petals in the gardens of Newtown and Geelong West. It used to turn black roads grey. It used to turn firm surfaces slippery. (Dad once came a cropper on his motor scooter when he took a turn too casually up near the footy ground.) The cement silos of Australian Portland Cement stood at the top of Autumn Street like sentinels. The towers are still there, though the cement works closed years back.

The arcing cement pump is pouring concrete into a driveway in Read Street, a few doors up from Bobby Davis’ old place. The new driveway is for a three or four apartment development.

I turn the corner into Minerva Road, where I lived from 1970 to 1980, from the last year of primary school to the first year of leaving home. The house is still there, as is my neighbour John’s. As is the house on the other side, which had peacocks and galahs in the backyard and maybe – in cages – snakes.

I walk up my old driveway, where Dad parked the Kingswood (and, briefly, the second-hand Mercedes), where my older brother parked his first motor bike, a Hodaka, where my older sister parked her first car, a Hillman.

There is a sign in the corner of my old backyard, my old field of dreams, my old Test ground. There is a sign in my MCG, my Windy Hill. A sign on Bobby Davis’ old fence.

A new paling fence runs the length of the driveway and then cuts right, across the back of the house so that the view is not that of a yard to play in, of a yard to muck around in, but of, well, a new paling fence.

I am disappointed but not devastated. Change is inevitable.

The backyard is bare but I can still see the table-tennis stadium (the garage), the cordon of slips fielders (the shed), the wicketkeeper (the pigeon coop), and the leg slip (the rhubarb patch).

I can still see mid-on (the apricot tree) and short cover (the Hills Hoist clothesline) and mid-off (the Clark swimming pool).

I can still see that imperious cover drive that would have been a boundary (the side fence near the peacock and snake house) if the cricket ball hadn’t hit our pet Pomeranian, Chang, right on the base of the spine.

I thought I’d killed Chang and was ready to start digging a hole at leg slip. Dad came home from the TAB that night and nursed Chang back to health, via an eye-dropper full of whiskey.

Thereafter all cricket matches between John and I, especially the newfandangled World Series Cricket matches, were preceded by us placing Chang safely inside for the duration of play.

Standing in the old backyard I can still see the agapanthus bushes that caught everything at silly mid-off. How many hours did John and I spend looking for cricket balls amongst the snails and the spiders and the slime of the broken green leaves?

Those bushes were also where I took mark-after-spectacular-mark while playing mind games of Essendon victories as darkness descended on Saturday afternoons. Those bushes were hapless defenders and I was Ken Fraser or Ted Fordham or Alan Noonan or Geoff Blethyn.

I used the roof at Minerva Road to practise anticipation, marking and ruckwork. I’d throw the ball up there, out of view, and then guess where it would roll down. Above the back door? Above the toilet door? The kitchen window? Now, there’s a paling fence in the way, a fence dividing the past from the present, and the present from the future.

The current state of the old backyard does bear some resemblance to the time my older brother turned the yard into a trail-bike track. With the house and the yard to himself for a weekend he decided to give his Hodaka trail bike a good work-out. The tyres carved out a muddy track around the perimeter of the Hills Hoist, along the cricket pitch, down past the shed and around to the agapanthus bushes. It was a daft thing to do but impressive too.

In a way, the old backyard where my neighbour John and I spent so many hours is empty. In another way, of course, it’s full.

I won’t be surprised if next time I’m passing through there’s a white cement-mixing pump arcing into the old backyard, concreting the past but not entirely burying it.


About Vin Maskell

Founder and editor of Stereo Stories, a partner site of The Footy Almanac. Likes a gentle kick of the footy on a Sunday morning, when his back's not playing up. Been known to take a more than keen interest in scoreboards - the older the better.


  1. John Butler says

    Lovely Vin.

    As kids we invested so many dreams in our backyards.

    With McMansions swallowing many backyards today, it makes you wonder where kids will do their dreaming now.

  2. johnharms says

    Love it, Vin.

  3. Nice Vin,
    Great use of the roof. As John says, many people no longer have homes, they have “significant investments”. Not in their kids dreams though.

  4. Andrew Fithall says

    Wonderful story Vin. We have a reasonable size back yard but covered much of it with native garden because, with a footy oval across the road, figured that would be where the kids can play. Yes – they have all learned to ride their bikes and played footy across the road. But cricket? Very rarely. They have preferred the back yard. The oval just doesn’t provide enough permanent fielders. The back lawn takes all winter to recover and then there are still bare patches along the pitch (and under the basketball ring). Come warm weather, it doesn’t take long to be returned to its bare dirt state.

  5. spud karoll says

    A homage to the old quarter acre block Vim, fantastic!!!! How many generations of kids grew up like this? and everyone had another backyard to go to after that memorable torpedo went through the back window and Mum said thats it, out you go!!!!! Fraser, Fordham, Noonan, Blethyn (still reckon that point in the 68 grand final was a goal) ahh names to bring a tear to Bomber supporters.

  6. Andrew Starkie says

    Great stuff, Vin.

    The Australian backyard. Those of us fortunate enough to have had one, never forget it. The mud, the bush as goal post, back door as first slip.

  7. Pamela Sherpa says

    We had an entensive back yard on our farm-.We hit tennis balls against the shearing shed wall, rode our bikes around the haystacks, had a netball ring on the electricity post , and when dad took up golf our front lawn became a fairway.The irrigation channel running through the yard became the sand bunker when dry and a putting green was established on the edge of it -There was a lovely slope leading up to it. When we played cricket on Christmas day, the one thing we had to avoid was smashing a house window.

    My own kids have had a smaller suburban size back yard , but big enough to play, games, ride bikes etc. in. .

  8. Dave Nadel says

    Cricket in the backyard, but footy in the street. Not our street, which had too much through traffic, but up the hill across Banksia Street to Myrtle St. West Heidelberg in front of Titchy Harrison’s place. Not much through traffic so you could usually get a game in after school. That was grade five, then Titch’s family moved, we went into grade six and those with ability stayed after school for footy training and those of us without much ability decided we’d rather ride our bikes after school and watch footy at weekends.

  9. A beautiful evocative story that really took me back in time, thanks Vin.

  10. Thanks for the link Vin. This is great and I identify with it strongly. Of all these wonderful words, these ones really stood out…

    “…while playing mind games of Essendon victories as darkness descended on Saturday afternoons.”

    Could not have put it better myself….apart from the Essendon bit! Great recall and again, thanks for sharing!

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