Matchbox memories

Recalling Brisbane's flaming glories

IT SOMEHOW SEEMED right, one golf day, that we ended up banging on about the Brisbane Rugby League competition of the 1970s, because the round of golf that my old friend PB, my son and I were engaged in was a form of time travel anyway. We named the style of game we play after that particular decade because our scores are so inflationary, just like the inflation rates of the 1970s oil crisis. When we’re really on song, particular holes are called ‘Malcolm Frasers’ because PB and I achieve double-digit scores, just like old Mal’s 1982 effort of presiding over double-digit unemployment and inflation.

I was certainly channelling Mal that day, among others. I put it down to the fact that my left knee had given up the ghost and I was walking with an awkward gait around the legendary seventh hole of the local golf course. I say ‘legendary’ because someone who looked and behaved a lot like me had a very animated conversation with a four-wood and then an even more animated interaction between the four-wood and a tree. My son laughed and said out loud as I engaged in some further fairway therapy that this round was like playing golf with Basil Fawlty.

It was PB who in conversation called up a ghost from our past, and that led directly to reminiscing about the football competition of our youth. ‘You look like you’re selling double tickets,’ he laughed. My son was a bit perplexed by this old-coot talk, so busied himself with playing a more-than-useful golf shot. Double sellers. Oracles of the sidelines from the suburban rugby league grounds of my childhood.

Every ground had them. Blokes who’d prowl about the sidelines of tiny suburban footy fields of dreams, with vinyl bags strapped to them, usually suspended under beer guts of varying sizes. These doubles sellers were ‘great clubmen’ and were out and about in all kinds of weather raising money for their respective teams. They were memorable, in part because they broke the demarcation line of spectator and player. They were a sort of in-between creature, with a heightened role in the game. The roped area would signify where the crowd could not pass, but the double seller existed in between the rope and the touchline and seemed to operate on another plane, not on the level of the players or even the referee, but certainly above the two touch judges, or ‘touchies’ as they were sneeringly referred to by the proletariat crowd.

Redcliffe’s double seller was a fellow with grey hair and a moustache who often had a faraway look in his eyes, as if he were looking past today and into tomorrow. He was a heavy smoker and his voice was very deep and loud and strong, almost operatic. This was at odds with how he moved, bellowing along with a mistimed swaggering gait as if his lower half was not quite in unison with the rest of him. My Uncle Reg said the double seller’s carburettor was misfiring, but as I had little practical knowledge of cars and engineering at the time, this meant almost nothing. However, I could see by the way he walked that mechanically he had a problem.

Yet the double seller always got to where he was going, and did what he had to do. ‘Eight for ten, sixteen for twenty! First point scorers!’ And he and his kind would pull from their pouches tickets for the first point scorers.

It was a harmless form of gambling that I never quite understood. You’d purchase a ticket and receive two numbers corresponding to the players on the ground. If your numbered player scored, you’d win. This much I understood; what happened next lost me. For, while you watched the game and waited for the first scorers, the double seller would bellow their cryptic creed. ‘Eight for ten, sixteen for twenty!’ I had no idea what the chant meant and still don’t. No matter how much PB tried to make me understand I still couldn’t fathom it.

It didn’t really matter because it was a long time ago. A long time.

But if we stopped and thought for a bit, both PB and I could reel off game after game and many of the characters who ran across the 1970s Brisbane Rugby League fields – even my son knew some of the players because he had heard me bang on about them on many occasions. PB’s and my celebration of the BRL is odd in itself, because PB played soccer and I, outside a couple of midweek Commonwealth Bank Cup games in high school, played rugby union.

We were both quite young at the time we really paid attention to league. Maybe it was the mid-1970s. What was it about that time that seemed so memorable? For those who remember those days, they were when suburb struggled against suburb. It was a different Brisbane. A little rougher, maybe, a bit more of a small town. But a town that was a little richer in the way its people interacted. Every suburb had its own character, its own politics and that footy competition was a way in which these idiosyncrasies were played out before the city’s people.

Brisbane was undoubtedly smaller and more contained back then. It defined itself by its own measures – and the Brisbane Rugby League competition was one of them. I didn’t for a minute think that the Presidents Cup and the Peter Scott Memorial shield were anything other than some of the most prized sporting trophies in the world. And the Kirks Cup, the BRL’s grand final trophy, was the greatest of them all.

I am slightly amazed that I can remember these titles – then again, why wouldn’t I? They seemed pretty important when I was nine. The Presidents Cup was played between the two top teams on the ladder after the first round, and the Peter Scott Memorial shield was played between the two top teams after the second round. Big news in Brizzy.

BRISBANE IN THE 1970s was a split society; one part sought to cling to its past but another began to seriously challenge for the future. The Joh Bjelke-Petersen governments were keen on infrastructure development but not on social and political evolution. So Joh, in his cultivated bumbling way, would point to the cranes that dotted the Brisbane skyline and challenge people to say that it wasn’t development, as all the while, under the cover of night, heritage buildings would be demolished, despite the protests of citizens attempting to save parts of the city’s history. At the same time authorities would try to preserve a particular brand of law and order that wasn’t putting too fine a point on respecting everybody’s idea of civil rights.

Counter to this was a burgeoning arts and music scene that went hand in glove with a greater social and political awareness of the world beyond the city borders. It was part of an unstoppable tide that would flow over Joh and his fellow travellers, but in the meantime under the 1970s umbrella of a city in evolution, there was a whole world of daggy endeavour.

Daggy adventures in the old Brisbane included the Warana Festival, a collection of floats and people sweating underneath papier-mâché costumes, or Mater Prize Home outings, where on a given weekend a good number of Brisbane’s population would slowly walk through a new home that would be raffled for the Mater Hospital charity. Or the Monday morning Courier Mail sports results, where a parade of truly odd Queensland games and pastimes might be seen. The cribbage, euchre and croquet results were there, along with vigoro scores.

Vigaro was the greatest mystery, a cricket-like game played by ‘the ladies’, with a soft rubber ball and a paddle bat. There was a large woman from Margate whom I would see packing her car around 8.30 on a Saturday morning as I came back from the beach after fishing. She always wore a swirling pleated skirt and a white short-sleeved shirt, sunglasses and very red lipstick. She was preparing to head off into the mythical place of ‘girls’ sport’ – Downey Park, the home of hockey and netball and her particular pastime of vigoro. My mother knew her as ‘Oh Desley, down the road!’ and we would always be informed, via Mum’s declarations from the Courier Mail, of how ‘Desley had done at Downey’.

The BRL was one of the other grand pillars of dag from this time. Despite occasional intrusions courtesy of the yearly pastings by New South Wales in the interstate series, it was a universe unto itself. It couldn’t last, of course, and didn’t, but I think the mid-1970s was probably the height of the BRL. Everything was, for want of a better term, so wonderfully Brisbane and homemade.

The club songs are a perfect example. All were sung to familiar tunes like ‘Waltzing Matilda’, ‘Lili Marlene’ and ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’. Memorable efforts were Wynnum Manly’s song to the tune of ‘Men of Harlech’, Redcliffe’s dirge-like version of ‘Click Go the Shears’ and Wests Panthers’ imbecilic ditty to the tune of ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’. The two beauties of the BRL club songs were those of Brothers, or, to be more accurate Past Brothers, my second team, which was sung to the tune of an Irish shanty. It included the rather dubious lyrics, ‘When the season is done and the playing is over/It’s Brothers the premiers rolling in clover’.

‘Sounds like a police charge sheet,’ my father would helpfully add in his clarion voice whenever the song was played at Corbett Park. Nothing, though, could compare to Norths Devils’ anthem sung to ‘March of the Toreadors’ from Bizet’s Carmen. ‘The other team will hide/From Satan’s side/Norths will shout with pride/Stand up and cheer/Stand up and cheer/Stand up and cheeeeeeeeeeer!’

This last was a particular favourite of mine for no other reason than once when I was wandering through uptown New York, I heard it being sung rather loudly by a gentleman who was being helped into a town car after what must have been a very good night out. Amid the rest of the noise of that night, it stood out like a dog’s balls. I was stupefied but very appreciative of the efforts of whoever it was who had travelled from Albert Bishop Park, Nundah, to Harlem.

AND THEN I remembered another celebration of the 1970s BRL universe: the matchboxes.

As we wandered on the golf course, I asked PB if he remembered the matchboxes. He looked at me and then he laughed, ‘4IP Colour Radio!’ He remembered them, all right. In 1975, a collection of matchboxes featuring club crests and players was produced by somebody as a way of cashing in on the popularity of the code. Probably the radio station 4IP, which would promote itself by whatever means available to them. They’d even turn up to Mater Prize Homes openings in a Mini Moke with a couple of local radio personalities handing out station stickers and the odd balloon. Their voices, when we heard them as they regaled us with their ‘4IP good guys giveaways!’, bore no relation to what they actually looked like – which was a random assortment of blokes at the bus stop.

And why wouldn’t they get on the bandwagon of commemorative matchboxes? It was startling to see such a bold marketing step and it seemed rather modern and daring to have at your fingertips such a basic necessity as matches, decorated with team colours and identities.

It only lasted one season but they were memorable.

Take the Bevan Bleakley matchbox from the 1975 Brisbane Rugby League series, produced by the Australian Match Manufacturing Co Pty Ltd and ‘League Action Live on Colour Radio 4IP’. The immortal description of the Dolphins’ flaming redheaded Bevan: ‘Truck driver, fierce front rower who plays full bore for eighty minutes.’ I wondered why on earth Bevan had been selected for the honour of having his face stuck on a box of matches. We all thought he was terrific – but really he was as rough as guts and a bit of a wild man at heart. Then it dawned on me that there wouldn’t have been that many redheaded tearaways pounding around on the footy fields of Brisbane. In fact, I could only think of one other redheaded player – the rather unfortunately named Gary Prickett, so why wouldn’t a Redcliffe ranga be thought a good ambassador for redheaded matches?

My mother had kept a set of BRL matches, constantly refilling the Bevan  box, using it again and again until the flint sides of the box had almost worn out. ‘Come on Bevan, light up for Iris,’ she would say and Bevan’s matches would explode into flame and light the wooden stove in the kitchen or the homemade barbecue in the backyard. ‘Well done, Bevan!’ my father would cry out in answer and invariably give my mother a bear hug.

Bevan was a particular favourite in our house, not just because he was full bore but because you always heard Bevan Bleakley stories. Like the time he was prevented from entering the Settler’s Inn bar at the back of the Moreton Bay Hotel by the then proprietor, Artie Beetson, because Bevan wasn’t dressed appropriately. Thongs and stubbies weren’t allowed, not even by Artie’s casual standards. Bevan was not going to argue with Artie but he was also not going to be deterred when it came to a bit of socialising. The story was that he wrapped himself from the waist down in toilet paper and fronted up. Apparently Artie Beetson laughed and let him in.

‘Bevan’s a thinking man’s boofhead, all right,’ my mum said rather proudly when told the story. There were others, too, on other matchboxes, with photos so hopelessly unposed they looked like they’d come straight from the pages of somebody’s family photo album.

There was always a photo of the player’s head and, underneath, his name and titbits of information that somehow seemed gloriously small town and almost like a fable. Of sorts. Another Redcliffe tough nut, Rod Halley, was billed as a concrete worker and a crash-tackling forward whose nickname was ‘Kamikaze’.

Really, you couldn’t make it up.

Tony Trent, a Norths second rower, had a head of hair that basically told the story of the 1970s so beautifully that no words were needed. It was all there in that continent of hair follicles – the optimism, the sprawling development, rebellious directions, inflation, a hint of disco and even a sniff of the oil crisis. And in keeping with the unposed nature of the whole matchbox exercise, Tony’s photo caught him almost mid-blink so his eyes were slits and he had a happy gormless grin on his long, lantern-jawed face.

His matchbox description was a variation on a theme, his occupation being listed as ‘transport contractor’. Which basically means, I suppose, that he was a truck driver. He was also at home in the forwards or the backs; he was ‘versatile, with a capital V’, said my father, as if Tony were some ancient philosopher. Versatile. My father, inspired by Versatile’s matchbox photo and encouraged by my mother, would refer to Tony Trent as ‘you eyeless bugger’.

Norths certainly had all the hairstyles covered. Steve Calder was an attacking second rower and cost clerk who had a basin-cut only a mother could love. He looked like a cross between a pageboy from Prince Valiant and a storm trooper. But a Wynnum Manly player named Bob Clapham, sales representative, took the hair stakes by a country mile. He had a moustache that looked like a walrus and his hair was a mountainous fountain of black. He looked very happy with himself, as if he was a fusion between some extreme glam-rock guitarist and a baron freshly arrived home from a riotous good night out at Charles II’s Restoration court.

The names and faces come from another more insular and homogenous era, before Australia’s multiracial society became the norm. In that way, the 1970s BRL comp seems even more remote and distant: those names are usually Anglo-Australian with few syllables.

‘You remember John Payne?’ I asked PB. John Payne – who never got his melon on a matchbox but did do a print ad for the Permanent Building Society wearing his rep jersey – was an honest toiler who came up from Sydney and played with a fair bit of dash for Easts and then Norths. He also played for Queensland and then Australia.

PB said he did. ‘I remember him, saw him sitting in a change room after a game. Blood streaming from his knees and elbows, just sitting absolutely ragged, with a can of beer in his hand.’

I had forgotten PB was one of the chosen ones, a ball boy for the senior grades. He was a good player, Payney. The last time I’d heard his name was at a function I had attended at the Broncos Leagues Club in 2015. It was a Men of League do, a charity organisation filled with old familiar faces from the long ago and distant days of John Payne.

In front of me at this function was Bob Green, an amiable roguish man in his late sixties who used to be described by journalists as the West Panthers hard man or enforcer. He used to have a snappy mo-and-beard combo, which had a hint of the court of Phillip II of Spain. Now, clean-shaven and sporting a comb-over, he was straight-faced as he said, ‘I never did a dirty or illegal thing in my career,’ and then erupted into a wheezy peal of laughter. He was laughing together with a matchbox face, the pageboy storm trooper Steve Calder from Norths, who now wore his grey hair close-cropped. I was standing not too far away, beer in hand, towering over both of them.

It was a collision of past and present that caused a slight recalibration in the way one perceives oneself. If these old men around me used to be young men I watched playing when I was a boy, where does that leave me? Standing with a beer in my hand watching two old footy players laughing at each other, getting on with life. I suppose that is what I am doing too, in a roundabout way.

But then I saw something else, that Men of League is one of those organisations that doesn’t forget life can throw up all sorts of things at people. It can be a mixed bag. Life can be a grand ride, following a set and planned course, but it can also be a bit rough, a bit unexpected. Still, it’s just life.

And life had happened to John Payne; he had gotten old and had battled with his health and needed a bit of a hand. Men of League did their best to extend one and sorted out some accommodation for him in an aged-care facility. Just making sure that a player like John Payne – who gave his all on an almost forgotten Sunday afternoon game – wasn’t forgotten.

LEAGUE HAS CHANGED a lot. We all have, I think. When I was a kid watching the double seller who saw into tomorrow stalking up and down the sidelines, I never thought I would be walking like him on a lovely afternoon of golf.

That amiable form of gambling he was involved in looks more than quaint now in the shadow of the multimillion-dollar betting industry that drapes itself not only over rugby league but all sorts of sports. ‘Please gamble responsibly’ comes the almost comedic phrase from various spruikers of the gaming industry. And they try to say it straight faced after a frenetic greasing of the odds and betting specials that are used as berley to lure the punters to click on their phones with a wager. As if betting on a game is a completely integral part of sport, just another facet of enjoying the spectacle, for rugby league today is more a part of the entertainment business than a sport. The players look like they come out of some sports laboratory when compared to the matchbox heroes. Modern players are fitter, faster, come from all over the globe, are better paid and generate blaring headlines and hype almost every day as befitting their professional entertainer status. The matchbox faces, by contrast, all had occupations outside their rugby league identities. Sales reps, concreters, transport operators (truck drivers please, who was old Tony Trent fooling?), teachers and so on and on. They were the blokes down the road who had a life in between the weekends, things to do as well as running around in shorts and long socks for an hour and a half on a Saturday or Sunday arvo.

Men like Bevan Bleakley.

I remember buying a Bevan Bleakley matchbox on eBay when I was waiting for a delayed plane in an airport lounge, surfing mindlessly on the net. I have a habit of occasionally typing in a name from the 1970s BRL just to see what pops up. Well, up came Bevan’s matchbox melon shot and his mug. I laughed in delight. It was like seeing an old friend, old Bevan on the screen, with his great granite face exploding in a huge smile. Then I was quiet for a few moments and pressed the ‘buy’ button.

In the quiet, I thought of my parents. And of dear old full bore Bevan Bleakley. I used to love watching him play. I thought of how, when I was young, I must have thought that my parents would never be anything but big and loud and loving. How I could never have comprehended that they would one day be just a memory. Well, if we are lucky, the memories will be good ones; it’s nothing to get too sad about during a game of 1970s golf, but it is something to think about.

I get ready to play another Basil Fawlty fairway shot and, mid swing, my son and my friend PB yell in unison: ‘Six for ten, eighteen for twenty!’ I take out a divot from the turf that is big enough for an in-ground pool. And I laugh.

And ask PB what it – ‘Eight for ten, sixteen for twenty!’ – means. Again.

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