Memoir

Born to run

MOST BIG CITIES have a smaller, poorer offspring that never manages to wear its pants quite right. London has Essex, Manchester has Bolton, Sydney has Wollongong, Adelaide has Elizabeth, New York has Newark and Melbourne has Geelong.

Geelong is where I'm from.

Geelong has its own identities. The condescending call it Struggletown or Sleepy Hollow, the romantic call it Motor City, and the historians refer to it as Pivot City. Some of us used to call it Sphincterville and longed for a place far, far away.

Most know it for the Cats, a quixotic Aussie Rules football team that before 2007 hadn't won anything significant for nearly fifty years. The Cats retain one of the most unique identities in the professional sporting landscape of franchises, brand-building, footy shows and toothpaste. Geelong is the only regional town team in the AFL; many of its current players are local or come from the surrounding region. The club culture embraces wayward, freakish and undisciplined talent (the type no one else can handle), and any form of play that is fast, exciting and beautiful. Geelong, the second-oldest football club in Australia – it was formed in 1858 – has made an art form of coming second ever since.

Australian Rules Football (AFL) was invented by Tom Wills in collaboration with the Indigenous people of north and western Victoria with whom he was intimate. Their game of marn grook is believed to have contained many of the skills required to play the new code. Tom Wills was a sportsman of freakish natural talent and an enigmatic drunk who formed the Geelong (as well as the Melbourne) Football Club and was its champion player in the early years until his fondness for the booze and hanging out with Aborigines got him kicked out of his own game. He then formed Australia's first cricket team to tour England, all of whom were Aboriginal. He died by his own hand – a pair of scissors through the heart.

Some believe Geelong's community focus, regular finals appearances and traditionally fast, exciting style of play make it one of the most successful clubs in Australia, but that depends on what you want from your sport. Geelong provides the only real old-fashioned community connection the AFL has left. The traditional myth (and it is a myth) says the town follows the fortunes of the team – I'd say it's the other way around.

When you grow up in Geelong and like football, you either barrack for Geelong, or anyone but Geelong. My father fell into the latter category. He was a Fitzroy-supporting socialist who'd take his three toddlers to games after three-quarter time when it was free. In the mud of the outer, he'd try to keep control of us while yelling abuse at a team and town he hated. He kept this up until a drunken old man pissed on my sister one afternoon. We moved to the new R.J. Hickey stand at the southern end of the ground until a blue-coated official tried to kick us out. Dad couldn't afford tickets for four seats and thought it reasonable that, in a time before dry zones, a man with three small kids could stand on the concrete causeway; the blue coat disagreed. Dad launched into a class war tirade and we were escorted from the ground and banned for ‘life'.

 

GEELONG, A TOWN in Victoria's south-west, is bigger than some of Australia's capital cities. Its positioning as the gateway to the goldfields, and as a hub for a rural squattocracy that capitalised on Europe's desire for wool and wheat, made it rich. A sandbar across the harbour stopped it being a capital and Geelong evolved into an industrial belt centred on a highly subsidised car trade, oil refining, phosphate and aluminium smelting. The city pumped for over a hundred years as a perfect organ. In 1932, the lone auto designer in Geelong's Ford plant, Lew Bandt, invented one of Australia's greatest icons: the ute. Since then, Ford and the Geelong Football Club have been linked in the world's oldest continuous sponsorship deal: eighty-two years.

Like a sphincter, the government schools would close their gates behind the local kids to let the factories and farms open theirs and suck them in. This working-class paradise was also home to some of Australia's most elite private schools. The British aristocracy sent their nancy-boys to be toughened up and rub oars with the Western District's broad-shouldered kin. On the land, the post-World War II years were really great years. ‘More Rolls Royces per head than anywhere else in the world' was the boast from boomtowns like Hamilton, Horsham and Casterton. Both Malcolm Fraser and Bob Menzies came from this stock and led the nation accordingly, just like the Carlton supporters they were.

At the start of the 1970s, when Britain joined the European common market and stopped needing Western District wool, everything started to change. Not long after, the Whitlam Government came to power and removed many of the subsidies that kept the town's manufacturing base alive. Geelong had long been a conservative Labor-voting town, and the wish finally granted must have felt like a bitter prayer answered. The industrial belt was becoming a rust belt like so many others around the world.

 

AFTER THE SPECTACULAR '50s and '60s, the Geelong football team of the '70s never achieved much of anything. The skill, speed and inventiveness that characterised the club throughout its history became soft, sideways and individualistic. Somewhere along the way, the club picked up the nickname The Handbags and it stuck. In 1981, the Cats choked on a preliminary final against Collingwood by seven points and bid finals football goodbye for eight years.

Around the town, other sideways decisions started being made. A university that could have reinvigorated central Geelong was built instead on a windswept paddock fifteen kilometres out of town at Warn Ponds. Deakin University manages the miracle of having no life on campus or off.

With the arrival of the Hawke government and a deregulated economy, easy money blew in. Many of the beautiful Victorian heritage buildings from the gold rush and the early boom years were demolished in this new development boom, removing any architectural beauty the town may once have possessed. Two huge, ugly malls replaced lively shopping strips. Geelong rode the development boom all the way to the bank, or rather the local building society: Pyramid.

 

WHEN I WAS ten, my mum finally allowed me to go to a game by myself. It was 1984, a year which also heralded the arrival of Gary Ablett – a whirlwind who lasted until 1997. He had a hunched-over style of running and was amazingly fast, skilful and powerful. He seemed brighter somehow, more brilliant, like a moving feature point in a classical landscape painting. Watching him felt like some sort of gift. For my brother and me, it was the beginning of our love for the club.

In 1987, the social divide in Geelong was at its height and the town gave birth to another Australian cultural icon: the Bogan. A letter to Dolly Magazine in the mid-1980s penned by a tortured young reader bemoaned the use of the word, which was ‘invented in Geelong private schools to describe anyone who didn't wear the right labels, Katies, Cherrylane, etc.' In the widening gap between haves and have-lesses, the term described anyone from a government school. When the economy collapsed in 1989, Geelong was huddled on the edge of a deep decline.

My high school preened itself in front of a long mirror gilded by its self-appointed status as the high-water mark of government education. Over the years, its ambition to fill the places left over at Melbourne University by the private schools became entangled in the multicultural nest of Australia in the '80s. Social divisions centred on haircuts and music. Kylie Pappalardo indicated as much on my second day of high school when she asked: ‘Who are you? Bon Jovi or U2?'

I loved U2, I really loved U2. In 1989 the town and I were continuing our decline when two watershed moments occurred: Geelong made the grand final and I had my heart broken for the first time. Before then, I had never given grand finals any thought; it just wasn't something Geelong was part of or even aspired to. Hawthorn, Essendon, Carlton and Collingwood – these teams played in grand finals; Geelong did not. But after the enigmatic Malcolm Blight was given the reigns of the lupine husky pack the team had become, the Cats turned into a rampant success. The genius game plan was ‘do what you like as long as you score more than them'. Gary Ablett went from being irregularly brilliant to regularly breathtaking. Record scores were kicked, endless high marks taken, gargantuan thumpings dished out – football had never seemed so much fun.

And then we lost ... by a goal.

It is often called ‘The Greatest Grand Final Ever', but I only ever remember the unbelievable, unexpected hollowness. Like seeing your dog hit by a car. We'd nearly pulled it off. It was impossible to do more and still lose. People started saying perhaps defence was important after all.

I didn't have long to wait for redemption.

U2 were coming to town. I lined up all night out the front of Myer for a ticket and managed to convince the girl I had a secret crush on to come with me. I had never been to a concert unchaperoned and my secret crush had got herself a spiral perm that seemed to up the possibilities. Mum dropped us off and the evening light positively fizzed.

U2's stage set-up made the new tennis centre appear small. The lights dimmed, a red wash went along the back wall and the long, slow build-up into ‘Where the Streets Have No Name' began. As the gig rolled on and professional earnestness parted way for rehearsed anger, the feeling arose that I'd been sold a lemon. I had seen this gig before: in their Rattle and Hum movie, in the promos and the video clips. Nothing was spontaneous; everything was rehearsed and resiliently professional. I couldn't fathom it. I believed everything rock'n'roll had promised and here was the biggest band in the world, my favourite band, colouring by numbers.

The crush, like most crushes, went nowhere.

The two events resulted in a summer of pathetic introspection. Luckily, I had a cool older sister and she had an even cooler older boyfriend and he took me to a gig that reinvigorated everything – The Ramones and the Hard-Ons at Festival Hall. It was like shell-shock with a smile. The noise, the sweat, the chaos, the two-minute songs and shambolic joy of the whole evening still puts a smile on my face to this day.

Music in Geelong was one of the great pillars of life – especially punk rock. The punk style Geelong bands generally looked to was not the New York sound of The Ramones and Television or the English sound of The Buzzcocks and The Clash, but the Detroit sound of The Stooges and MC5 without all that Sun Ra malarkey. Through the late '80s and into the '90s, the National Hotel and its much rougher, older brother, the Barwon Club, thrashed the unemployed and disaffected. The music scene in Geelong created the sound that would make us ready for the cataclysmic events of 1991.

 

WITH THE NATION still in economic freefall, suffering 17 per cent interest rates and massive unemployment, the Pyramid Building Society – based in Geelong and controlling nearly half the town's money – collapsed. It was an economic burning zoo. Geelong was a bum with its bum hanging out – even people in Melbourne started to feel sorry for us and were very glad they weren't us. The sheer indignity grew when newly appointed Victorian premier Jeff Kennett made himself ‘Minister for Geelong' and Derryn Hinch put the whole town in his Shame File because of its rampant street violence. Businesses went belly-up. ‘For Sale' signs appeared and private school kids started turning up at my school.

Like all immigrants, they carried the exotic items of their former lives: cheap drugs and expensive booze. It was a beautiful coming together that I fancied a little too much. With youth unemployment hovering at around 40 per cent, I managed to fail high school. I had to suffer the humiliation of repeating and staying in a town I had begun to not only dislike, but resent. By then I was playing gigs at the Barwon Club and Geelong made the grand final again.

The relationship between the town, the club, its fans and me had come to resemble the chorus of the Barwon Club's unofficial anthem, ‘My Pal' by God. ‘You're my only pal, and you don't even like me!!' Many still regard it as Australia's greatest-ever punk song.

Throughout 1992, the Cats and Ablett had become a thing of beauty; the prototypes of '89 had polished themselves into an art form. They finished top of the ladder, swept into the grand final and led it near half-time by four goals. And then, as though highlights of Greg Norman had been the half-time entertainment, they choked and lost badly.

This was also the year I got to vote for the first time and, in what I was to discover was a unique experience, I believed in who I voted for. There was something in the style, politics and national vision of Paul Keating that created real love in the generation marked by an X. These were dark days in which to come of age. I don't remember anyone talking about their dreams, but in Keating I saw someone who just seemed to know the way through, to articulate a future that seemed right.

As the distance from disaster lengthened, Geelong became a joke: the town of financial depression, rough nights out, Bogans, choking football teams and urban decay. As the rest of the country pulled itself back together, Geelong kept dragging the chain. Two more grand final smashings in '94 and '95 preceded Keating's below-the-knee amputation of the following year, and the election of the Howard Government turned off the nation's empathy glands. No one wanted to know about the poor and unsuccessful. At the end of '98, the club found itself in a $7 million hole and the young captain, Geelong born and bred, walked out. By then, like most kids who couldn't see much of a future in their home towns, I'd left for the big smoke.

My brother stayed – a true believer who maintained dignified witness from the terraces as the club clawed its way back from the brink into something of an economic success. Instead of decamping to Melbourne as the AFL had wished, the Cats sought to redevelop their own ground. A call to Ford had the sponsorship paid up-front to cover interest. The best CEO in football, Brian Cook, was hired by local fruit magnate and new president Frank Costa, and together they rebuilt the whole club. A young (and cheap) coach, Mark Thompson, was employed and local kids were preferred over expensive recruits. Instead of going global, Geelong went ultra-local.

I was as far away as possible.

I found myself watching the 2007 preliminary final in an Arnhem Land lounge room, eyes glued, teeth grinding and pressure in my head like a ballerina's toe – the ball camped only fifty metres from Collingwood's goal. Suddenly I heard the distant echo of Ted Whitten on 3GL calling out ‘SIREN!' We'd done it, choked and survived by a single goal! I was on my way to Melbourne to join the flood of repatriated refugees heading for the grand final.

Our opponent was Port Adelaide, a powerful AFL minnow with a huge tradition of success in its previous life. During the week, Port coach Mark Williams and his players played a risky game. They jumped on the front foot and began taunting Geelong's tendency to choke and played up the public pressure on the players. Geelong closed shop and spoke only through player manager Neil Balm.

I could hardly speak at all.

My brother had not bought a membership for the first time in fifteen years – he had to save for his wedding. The bitter irony of his situation compared with that of his flighty scammer of an older brother (who'd left town fifteen years ago and never bought a membership in his life) went undiscussed. Arriving in Melbourne on Friday, I spent grand final eve cocooned with a section of chain-smoking Cats fans gently shitting themselves at a good friend's birthday. I only realised after I left that I'd forgotten to speak to the birthday boy, let alone wish him many happy returns.

 

GRAND FINAL MORNING arrived with a hangover gloriously salved with an Oliver Reedesque splash of cold water. On the way to the ground, I recognised so many non-acquaintances from my past: a woman who owned a florist near my mum's house; a science teacher from someone else's class; the former bottlo attendant from that place on Latrobe Terrace and two friends of my younger brother. They looked grand and they all had somewhere grand to go. I could have watched them all day – it wasn't just nostalgia. Something was different: no one seemed desperate, just needy and hopeful. They needed the win like I needed it, so we could stop talking about it and just get it the hell out of our systems.

I waltzed into the members' enclosure at 11 am like I owned the joint. The people in red coats never checked the photo on the borrowed MCC pass; this time no one was getting kicked out.

The ‘Long Room' is the bastion of Melbourne's establishment and was squeaking in government-subsidised refurbished splendour under the soles of the well-shod and collared. I had a lovely Tamar Ridge pinot in a polished glass and rang my dad to tell him so – he was suitably disgusted. I was even wearing an MCC blazer supplied by a wonderfully doddering attendant with a complexion like an eighty-over cricket ball. I have to admit I loved the members': the trust, the politeness, the hot pies and cold beer – it was different.

The politeness lasted until the eight-minute mark of the first quarter when a man behind me suggested that if I was going to keep leaping to my feet and shouting I'd best move on. I stood in the disabled section where they didn't seem to mind and a foul-mouthed attendant called Jeff kept me company.

Sometimes history can be a plinth from which to launch, a pair of concrete boots or a Whitechapel fog. It was wafting around the MCG on this day like an oil well on fire. The hero of the day was a reformed drunk with freakish natural talent from northern Victoria called Steve Johnson. Age writer Martin Flanagan noted the similarities and gave him the Tom Wills award.

Geelong smashed Port Adelaide by 119 points – the biggest grand final margin in history. Channel Ten commentator Tim Lane, searching for a way to explain the massacre that had killed the contest by half-time, put it best: ‘It's fitting within the Geelong story that when they did break through and win a flag they would do it with such panache, such total style and domination. It's the nature of the club; they're the great enigma of the competition.'

In the last quarter, I'd fled the members' to find my friends on the opposite wing. We were miles ahead, victory was ours and I needed others I loved to see it with. The tears began, along with high fives and hugs with strangers and the first of a million renditions of the club song. Pure joy and utter relief flowed like the burst radiator of a straight-six Falcon ute.

When the Premiership Cup was finally raised, a collective roar of beaten frustrations echoed back to Newcomb. A weeping club stalwart, Billy Brownless, said it for all of us: ‘Finally we done it. All that shit we copped for so long – we copped so much shit – it's over.'

The need to do something extravagant saw us catch a cab to Geelong. Amazingly, neither the club nor the town had organised anything. We walked over the Moorabool Street hill as burning rubber wafted through the evening air.

I met my brother. We whooped, hollered and cried, and he swung me around on his broad shoulders. A town unused to celebrating itself was taking to the streets and blowing its lid without a hint of self-consciousness or political correctness. The hugs of strangers became distantly familiar – old primary school friends and ex-girlfriends' sisters. We spent the night singing and drinking at the National Hotel and ended it the next day watching a replay of the game at a renovated Barwon Club.

A drunken teenager and an older, drunker woman hugged outside the Greek café on Moorabool St and jumped up and down. The younger screamed for ‘a new day, a new day!' The older woman, knowing better but just as happy, replied: ‘Yeah and on my new day I'm gonna wake up for the first time and say, "I'm from Geelong and I'm a fuckin' winner!"'

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