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An exhibition of material from the Monash University Library Rare Books Collection
Australians do enjoy sport and Melbourne is now routinely depicted as Australia’s sporting capital. The formal rules for playing the world’s original code of football, Australian Rules, were drawn up here. Melburnians have long enjoyed an official public holiday to watch a horse race. So although Melbourne’s traditional Australian Rules clubs can no longer match it with cashed-up competitors from interstate, and despite the fact that every so often a horse from Ireland wins the Melbourne Cup, an exhibition of books and associated historic items about sport, fits well with the city’s, and indeed Australia’s, sense of identity. In the written words of the book, of the annual or the pamphlet, sport becomes far more than a ‘just a game’.
Today, any list of Australian best-sellers will include books about sport; books not always deftly-written and texts not typically able to bring to the reader an inspiring explanation to life’s great mysteries, but written works nonetheless, whose pages are turned by many who may never pick up another type of book. The author of one of these autobiographies, a former star from one of Melbourne’s Australian Rules clubs, famously announced at his autobiography’s launch, that he had now written one more book than he had actually read.
The written word can probably never match the manner in which the spoken language of our favourite sports has passed effortlessly into demotic use. An unconfident worker might be told by the boss to ’get on the front foot’. Unable to make a decision he or she has ‘a bob each-way’. With success within reach, the worker ‘stumbles at the last hurdle’ or worse, gets a touch of ‘The Colliwobbles’. The hapless employee must then be given ‘the flick pass’. Some sporting metaphors fade quickly, especially those associated with horse racing. So only an antiquarian worker would, having been given the flick, reflect that he or she was “as unlucky as Shadow King” (the perennial Melbourne Cup placegetter). To the boss of course the worker would always be recollected as a “Drongo”. (a racehorse form the 1920s who had 37 starts without winning, although he was 2nd in the VRC Derby and St. Leger).
Traces of this rich oral culture of sports we might now see emerging in the conversational autobiographies of sporting champions, many of them passing from taped conversation to printed text with the lightest editorial intervention. Very popular sports stars are now subject to a range of biographies, some of them attempting to make claims more broadly about society of which the star is emblematic, rather than about sports. As a counterweight to the book about the sports star as celebrity, there now exists a rich sub-genre of writing by average sports fans, or at least the sports journalist masquerading as just one of the crowd.
Such personalised accounts of sports take us a long way from the manner in which writers in the early-nineteenth century wrote about their pastimes; often about the great outdoors and opportunities for killing local fauna. Many of these accounts, drawn from the first, perhaps sixty years of European recreation in the Australian bush, are modelled on the travel diary. The writer engages the reader back home through his gothic sketch of Australia, the grotesqueness of the place calibrated in numbers of kangaroos slaughtered and strange birds shot down. Formalised rules of sports in the second half of the century gradually led to written reminiscences by sportsmen and reflections on team sports and behaviour of spectators interwoven again into the more generalised travel diary; hence the several depictions of suburban football and cricket matches in Melbourne which found their way into more generalised descriptions of Australia. Horseracing perhaps more than any other sport, had lent itself to fiction writing by the end of the nineteenth century, a genre in which Melbourne, through the writing of Nat Gould, figures highly. Horseracing too gave us the ‘annual’ and the compendium’ collating results of races, lists of sires and trainers and anecdotes from the track. Cricket by the early twentieth century gave us a specialist genre, which has multiplied ever since: the book of the tour. So that when the Ashes change hands, as occurred last year, we get many books of the tour, by players, critics and journalists.
Whatever the sport, the book about sport bridges a gap between the ephemeral reporting of the daily press and the more distant commentary on substantial events. Sports journalists over the course of the twentieth century became adept at speedily transforming their daily accounts into book- length critiques, so that almost as soon as a season or major championship ends, the story of that event appears as a book. With growing frequency, investigative journalists now write books to expose the corruption and scandal of sport; from rigged results in European soccer, to the constant use of banned performance-enhancing drugs. Much more prosaic are the histories of clubs, Now, almost any club at any level of competition has its printed history. Whilst professional historians are active in writing about sport, most of the history of sport is created at a parochial level, by enthusiasts who write with passion rather than discretion. Sports have become a recognisable part of university education and there is a specialist literature to support sports studies. It is fitting that Monash University holds the items which are part of this exhibition. Long before universities promoted courses in sports studies, Ian Turner of the Monash History Department, had set out to explore the historical significance of sport in Australia. He was the first serious historian of Australian Rules football. Were he still alive no doubt he would remain unconvinced by some aspects of academic sports studies, galled by the repeated failures of his football team, Richmond, and excited by the works on display in this exhibition.
Dr Chris McConville.
Faculty Of Arts And Social Sciences,
University Of The Sunshine Coast
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