When I was just a boy

I was reading last night a book in which ex-AFL players described the first time they picked up a football. There were some colourful stories. Many had come from the bush and told how they’d played imaginary games among the cattle, or used a silo to practice their high marking. Some, pre-1950, had come from disadvantaged circumstances and described how they had scrabbled to play the game, many of them using a makeshift, handmade ball, rather than the real thing. More recently – from about my vintage on – the stories became more familiar to me. They spoke of the footballs coloured in club colours – I remember so well – and kicking in the street.

It got me remembering when I was just a kid and enraptured with the game. I had forgotten but now recalled, how on twilit evenings I would go out into the backyard with my footy and by myself would imagine whole games, inclusive of commentary.

We lived in a developing suburb. The back fence was wire and beyond it was paddock in which horses would occasionally graze. There were a lot of kids in the street – five to one side, about ten to the other (with more to come), and a few over the road. It made for competitive games of street cricket and occasionally untidy sessions kicking the footy too and fro on the road. There were three of us who were the eldest who set the agenda, with everyone else following. That was still to come though, I think, when I started kicking a ball around the backyard.

There was a copse of straggly gum trees in the backyard, and a pool against a side fence. These presented constraints on the playing field, but occasionally would represent imagined opposition. Taking the ball, I would run with it in the yard, baulking trees as if they were lunging opposition players, or steering the ball between them as if they were goal posts. Up and down I went, commentating aloud “…and H takes the ball and dodges around one player, then another, he kicks for goal…and it’s a goal. Great play, H!” To which I would add in some crowd noise.

I ran to exhaustion, the fantasy game consuming my imagination, kicking little chip kicks or handballing, blind-turning past invisible opponents and bouncing the ball until it got too dark to play.

It was a fond experience recalling that last night. I’ve seen kids do similar, totally enraptured by the fantasy, and it always warms the heart. I imagined what I would have thought had I seen myself play back then. It seemed a thing of blissful innocence. Briefly, I wondered what my parents must have made of it peering out the back window at my strange antics. I imagine there was both affection and humour in the sight.

I was about eight then, cute as a button. And that was me – not the person looking on, not the parent watching, that was me, in that small body, full of dreams and fantasies, imagining a world I was to come into one day, imagining myself – as small boys do – as the star of some fantastic scenario. It seems awfully sweet.

After I put the book down I wondered at the context of it. I can barely recall the first ever AFL game I attended, against Melbourne I think at the MCG. My memory is impressionistic, of colours and movement and unexpected noise. Later we became members and we – my father and me – would go to every home game at Windy Hill, and quite a few of the away games. I remember so much still of that, which went on for about a dozen years together, right from searching for a parking spot to the kids selling the footy record outside the ground and the radio afterwards on the way home the Captain and the Major mainly, with Jack Dyer in his irascible way commenting on the game and giving his ratings of the players.

Then there is the game itself. Most of my memories seem to be against Richmond for some reason, even when very small – I was sitting in the stand above the day of the infamous Windy Hill brawl. And I remember a game against North Melbourne when they were at their peak, and we stormed home with the stand thrumming with feet beating against the wooden floor and the chant going up “Ess-en-don…Ess-end-don…” and for a kid, it was absolutely intoxicating. I remember a headline in the paper the next day, or the following week’s record, “Essendon burst North’s bubble.” I remember Ken Roberts kicking the ball over his head for a goal from the point post and Alan Noonan – my favourite player – muscled and tanned, his skin gleaming with oil, a big moustache in a handsome face playing forward for Essendon.

That went on for years. Players came and went, the memories shifted and updated, and though it was full in me as a boy and the memories vivid I had little conception of the broader game until 1977, the year the grand final was first telecast live. Till then the finals had largely past me by. I might hear a game on a radio, and once the next door neighbours took me to a final (Richmond vs. North Melbourne) at VFL Park, but we were more likely to be riding our bikes somewhere.

That changed in 1977 when North Melbourne took on Collingwood and I watched the game with my best mate in our lounge room. Peter Woody was a Collingwood supporter, but I hated them even then. At ¾ time in that game, it looked like the Maggies would break the drought, but then the Kangaroos, inspired by Barassi, stormed back. It was only a late goal by Twiggy Dunne – I can see it now – that ultimately allowed Collingwood to draw the match. And so the next week Peter Woody and I sat where we had the week before and watched the replay, and the Kangaroos win it easily. From that moment on, I understood the game in a broader context – not just moments, but the meaning of it.


Family split

These days I dream every night and mostly in vivid detail, more than at any other stage of my life. I’ve given up thinking anything much of it. Occasionally I might dwell briefly on a dream, surprised more about the unexpected faces featuring in it than any deeper meaning. But then, as dreams go, they’re gone.

Last night though I dreamt of my step-sister and I woke up this morning feeling sad.

I was very close to my step-sister. When my mum married a second time we became an extended family. She was about 17 then and crushed on me for a while, which is probably not unusual in the circumstances. She wanted nothing more than to be part of a family again and she loved my mum, and as part of the package she gained a cool older brother.

As it turned out we hit it off naturally anyway. She was an attractive, intelligent, bubbly personality. Everyone loved her because she was so easy and natural with them. I don’t think she ever stopped crushing on me completely, but in return I grew very fond of her. (Even after she married I often felt as if she felt more in tune with me than with her husband). The truth of it is that in the extended family we were the two closest siblings, even though our relationship was purely by marriage. Certainly I was much closer to her in nature, in attitude, in personality, than I was with my own natural born sister. For many years we shared good times.

That all changed in the aftermath of mum’s death. The family split in two along bloodlines and her side of the family chose to challenge mum’s will. From principle as much as anything else, we resisted. The fall-out was that our relationship ended, even after a settlement had been reached.

I was sad at that but at the same time the dispute had soured me of families for a while. I accepted our break as a consequence of that.

In the years since we’ve had no direct contact. She made a late night call to me a few years ago that I didn’t notice till the day after. Last year I was surprised to find her following me on Facebook, and eventually I sent her a message hoping to repair the relationship. She never responded.

Catching up with my cousins lately I got some news of her. They’re still friends with her on Facebook and until recently, my Aunt told me, she had been sending birthday cards up. I knew she had split from her husband a few years back. They told me she had taken up with an older man in Queensland, where she lives. They told me she’d just returned from a visit to Melbourne.

I thought about her on the drive back from lunch. A lot of that time feels wrong and nothing will change that because a lot of that time was wrong. Looking back it was an ugly and terribly difficult time of my life. Not only had my mum just died and a conflict erupted over her will, but I was also broke and unemployed and almost certainly suffering from depression. I was a mess.

I understood the rupture between us at that time, but always felt as if I had more reason to be aggrieved than her. I would have accepted whatever was in mum’s will and all I was doing was defending her final wishes. It was my step-sister and her family who were challenging it.

We lost contact and she deleted me as a friend on Facebook. I understood that, but she also unfriended Donna, who had nothing to do with this. They were friendly and got on well, though Donna first and foremost was my friend. Once more, I can only presume it was that relationship that my step-sister could no longer abide. She became collateral damage and I never really understood why.

So now I’m dreaming about her and what I feel is affection and sorrow. We had a deep connection. I loved her, and she me. After losing my mother that was he next biggest loss I suffered, and they came as a double whammy. Clearly I’ve never got over that loss completely.

I’m tempted to let it go and accept it as one of the unfortunate mischances that occur in life. Sad, but there it is.

It’s an interesting case for me. I’ve never really been someone who’ll let fate dictate my life. That’s just not my nature. Common sense tells me to let it go, but I wonder how that will leave me feeling. No matter everything that’s happened to me I’ve never lost my sense of hope. Part of that is the belief that it’s better to do something than nothing. You have to try. It seems to me that if I let it slide then it’s an acceptance that there are no happy endings. As they say though, for all my grumpiness, I always vote life.

When I nearly caught the Easter bunny

Here’s a fun Easter tale.

Way back when I was in about grade one at school – say six years old – I was sitting in class on what was probably the Thursday before Easter. This was at Thornbury PS, which was a combination of old brick buildings and the old portable classrooms. Our classroom was in one of the wings of the brick building and I was sitting in about the middle of the room when I glanced across to the windows on the left hand side of the room and unexpectedly saw a pair of bunny ears cross from left to right.

In hindsight I know that someone – probably a teacher – had dressed up in a rabbit outfit, no doubt for a bit of festive fun with us. We were elevated far enough off the ground that all that was visible was the ears. All this I recognise in retrospect. At the time all I knew that this was a momentous moment which I heralded by shouting out “The Easter bunny!”

Without a second thought I left my desk and piled out of the room in search of the Easter bunny – followed by the rest of the class.

We found the bunny and pursued him across the playground calling after him at the top of our voice. He was more hare than bunny as he high-tailed away from us, surprised to have so many young, screaming children after him. We must have come as a shock to the teacher inside the suit. They’d probably planned a more civilised celebration, but my intervention had foiled that.

The bunny got away from us in the end and in all the years since I’ve pictured that teacher, the head of the bunny under his arm, wiping the sweat from his face as he explained with a laugh about how twenty six year olds nearly caught him up.

Old Easter

Easter didn’t feel much like Easter this year, maybe because I was already on hols. And maybe because it came later than usual.

It was pretty mellow in my household, with a bunch of hot cross buns but no chocky. I caught up for coffee, went to the farmer’s market, did some cooking, watched the footy. On Saturday night I went out for dinner at the Cheeses. On Sunday I went out for a deeply indulgent lunch. Monday I took it easy.

It used to be that I’d spend Easter with the extended family down at Yarck, where we had a property. More often than not I’d stay in the log cabin separate to the house. The days we’d spend reading in front of the pot-bellied stove or going on short trips to places like Mansfield. In the evening we’d eat well and crack a few bottles of red wine. Occasionally we’d sit down and play a board game or two, something I would always pull a face at but secretly enjoyed.

We did that for about 15 years, long enough that it became a ritual you couldn’t imagine ending. It did though. My step-father, Fred, who I loved, sold the property when he got ill with cancer in 2007. He died that year and a few years later, in 2012, so did my mum. Her death basically decimated the family group. There were about 14 of us, including kids, who would share Easter together. Three of that number are now dead, I don’t see my sister, and the rest (bar my sister’s kids) I lost in the fall-out over mum’s will.

It’s been long enough that I don’t feel the absence of that occasion, though if ever I reflect on it that occasion it seems a golden, happy time. It was a warm and affectionate occasion. It was a cosy sanctuary away from the city and, sadly, there are some I was really close to I’ve now lost forever, and not just the dead.

Places of the spirit

Of course, there are things that run through my head all the time. Often I think I must write about that, but mostly I never get around to it. Until there’s such an application that taps directly into my mind that will be the case.

Today I want to specifically reference the fire that has consumed Notre Dame, in Paris. I feel for the French, and the Parisians particularly, for whom this must feel like a blow to the soul. It feels an unreal event, an affront to nature, something that could never happen and should never happen.

I first walked into Notre Dame about 21 years ago. I’ve been to many cathedrals in my time, but this has always been my favourite. I’m a history buff and knowing that so many momentous events had happened right here was a thrill in itself. There was a deeper, darker connection than that though. I remember standing beneath the high roof surrounded by the immense stone columns and peering at the beautiful stained glass windows and feeling humbled by the meaning of it all. It felt a great spiritual moment.

Places like Notre Dame are living reminders of the wonder and mystery of our existence. We live in the moment so much these days, but Notre Dame had stood for almost a millennia. It teemed with life and history. With luck, it might have gone on for another millennium, or more. I guess that’s true for many such buildings and there are dozens of others who have left me just as impressed – but not so spiritually engaged. Notre Dame felt like a living place to me, not just of history but of humanity as well. I think of only one other place off the top of the head I felt so moved, the Pantheon in Rome.

Notre Dame has not been completely destroyed they say, though the spire has fallen and no doubt the wondrous stained glass is gone – as well as the old, middle-aged wooden structure. It will be rebuilt, as it must, but will it be the same place?

Update: it appears that while the roof and spire have gone and much structural damage otherwise, the bulk of the stonework has been saved – in fact, photos from inside are almost eerie with the area around the altar a pile of blackened ruins tumbled from the roof, while most of the nave seems untouched. Most importantly – and almost miraculously – the famous, magnificent rose stained glass appears undamaged.

Old photos

What I have done in the last few days: I fixed a faulty clothes dryer; I dealt with a creditor after having referred them to the ombudsman; I’ve begun my ‘spring’ cleaning in the house, as well as in the garage; I had a blood test and sorted out my medical appointments; and, naturally, I did some writing. On top of all that I started scanning some old, pre-digital photos into the system. All and all it has been a satisfying week so far.

Digitising the prints yesterday was an interesting experience. I started with pics taken in the early nineties. I didn’t scan every print – there are too many of them – just those I thought worthwhile or, as Marie Kondo would have it, gave me joy. There were a lot of memories, naturally, and familiar, much-loved faces now departed.

I remembered that time so well but there was a disjoint. It was all so real, yet these people were gone and that time lost to me. It was real, I remembered it, but it felt unreal also. I looked in my face, surprised to find myself so handsome. This is me, I thought, that was me. And now here I am today.

There was a sense of how time slips by, how it changes. I posted something to Facebook about how one day its sunshine, next day rain, and it seemed true. Looking back it feels innocent and even looking at how I was then – open, smiling, a fine figure of a man – I was surprised at the difference, though really I ought not to be. What you realise is that it was all ahead of you then and now it’s mostly all behind you.

I caught up with a friend in Prahran last night to catch a comedy show. I caught the train in sitting by the window quietly brooding and listening to old songs from about the time the photos were taken. I had a refreshed sense of self. You walk around oblivious most of the time, ignorant of anything but the moment and the self you represent at that time. But I had perspective yesterday. That was then, this is now. That was who I was, this is who I am. And what I had knowledge of was of all that has happened since.

I was in love when these photos were taken, though it had gone bad. Not that you can see that in my face. I look like a nice guy. But then there was a journey after that and most of it was fine and if not fine then it was interesting and me throughout, the one constant, but changing in ways I never understood.

I got off the train and stood waiting for a tram. This felt familiar, as did the locale. I’d lived a few hundred metres up one way, over Dandenong road, for a year. And the other way, in South Yarra, I’d lived in my own apartment for about seven years in total. I lived there when the photos were taken, and this street, Chapel Street, the shops and bars and restaurants, I’d paraded by them for years on end, stopping now and then, going in here and there, indulging in this and that, part of the streetscape myself.

Now I got on the tram. I was the same man near 30 years on, the same holiday beard now as I did then, hardened now, more cynical perhaps, less forgiving, certainly less open.

How things might have been different. What if I’d made up with the girl I loved and married her as we had spoken of? What then? But we didn’t, she went on to die of her own hand, and here I am today.

It sounds sort of bleak but I didn’t feel that. I felt robust and full. I’ve made my way, I have my style, this is who I am – this is who I became. But at the same time were highlighted things that I otherwise overlook as just being normal. I had looked at my handsome face and wondered why I wasn’t more aware of it then – but I always did okay, as the saying goes. And I have ever since, more or less, but in a certain way that felt stark to me standing on the tram.

I’ve always been sexually driven, so I thought, but I wondered how I was then. And I was then too, but I was also romantic and impossibly tender. I was a good man. Since I’ve been with I don’t know how many women, hundreds, and a part of me has been closed off and even if I have charmed often in that period or seductive and interesting I’ve been the man women would happily fuck but not necessarily settle down with (with exceptions). And I recalled a woman telling me how I intimidated her – not in any harmful or nasty way, just my surety, my lack of doubt, my invulnerability.

Later, after a few drinks and a show, I sat there and there was another woman I wanted to fuck, no different to any other time. It’s fine to feel virile but is there always a point to it? You could argue that sex is a nihilistic act. It’s a moment in time in which you bury yourself in another. Then it’s over. That seemed the point sometimes but, even so, the urge returns all by itself.

I didn’t fuck the woman last night. There was no chance of that, just a passing whim.

I still have a lot to offer. I’m still presentable. I’d like to be more how I was then, regardless of how formidable I’ve become since. I don’t know if that’s even possible or, if it is, how I do it.

Growing up with the war

About a month ago I picked up a heavily discounted book and, having paused for a moment, went on to buy it. The book was Comrades of War, by Sven Hassell, and if I paused it was because I read it many years ago and was unsure whether I wanted to read it again.

Ultimately, that was the reason I bought it, from a sense of nostalgic curiosity.

It seems to me that when I was growing up Sven Hassell was a best-selling writer in his genre. World War Two was much more recent, though long before my birth, and it still had some relevance in the everyday lives of people – many of whom had fought or lived through it. There were movies made of it and documentaries and I recall that my father would have delivered Parnell’s History of the Second World War, which I would read through for years to come and many times over. On top of that, I remember my grandfathers telling me stories of their war years. It was before my time but it was still there.

At school, there were other kids, war buffs, who knew one thing or another about arcane subjects such as the Spitfire and the Hurricane, or about the U-boats. I was into tanks more than anything else and at one time could tell you everything about the T-34 or the German Panther, and many others. I would search through bookshops and occasionally pool my pocket-money to buy a book about tanks or fighter planes and sometimes fiction. LPs or war books, that was my thing.

Somewhere along the line, I found myself inclined towards the German side of the story. When I was very young I had a customary hate of Germans until one day my grandmother took me aside to tell me not all Germans were bad. It was a relief as one of our family friends had married a German, Joe, who I looked up to.

That conversation opened something in my mind. It gave me permission to look dispassionately at the history. I’d always been fascinated, but nothing was more fascinating than the Nazis to a boy. I still remained interested in the basic hardware of war, and much of the best of it was German, and as I read more, as I became older, I found myself drawn into the story of the German war, fighting on multiple fronts, often against overwhelming odds, and frequently in the most difficult of conditions. My particular fascination was the war on the Eastern front, possibly the most ruthless and devastating war of all time.

I grew to have a grudging respect for the common German soldier. I had to admit the Wehrmacht was a formidable, resilient army, more capable – at least in the first half of the war – than any of the Allied armies. That they survived and often triumphed for so long was testament to their skill and courage, regardless of the ideology they fought in service of. That they were essentially doomed was an extra layer of mystique.

About this time there seemed many novels and memoirs of WW2. A lot of them were written from a German perspective – it seems I was not alone in my interest. Sven Hassell was perhaps pre-eminent of those authors and I snapped them up. Though a lot of it is gruesome and confronting it had an allure to a precocious young teenager. Most of the books written from a German viewpoint shared an attitude – cynical, fatalistic, and threaded through with dark humour. They fought to survive, and for their comrades, believing in the most part that they were on borrowed time. None ever owned up to being a Nazi idealist and most were bitter and disparaging towards Nazi ideology and leadership, and almost all felt disconnected from the society at home. Their battles, their travails, their suffering and the horrors they observed had cast them out from the world they had come from.

For a kid, this is heady stuff, and much more complex than the heroic tales of the ultimately victorious allies which read, in comparison, as boys own. There are pathos and tragedy in the tales from German authors, dark in every aspect regardless of wit or attitude.

Hassell was the perfect writer for a kid because his characters were so memorable. As an adult, they seem almost as caricatures, and I think I sensed that as a boy too. I doubted his books sometimes, unable to reconcile the different tales and changing characters, but I read them all voraciously. Comrades of War was the first of his books and the book I liked most because it felt the most real, but it’s a different experience reading it now from then.

I went on to read other German books. From my grandfather’s shelves, I plucked a few books of Willi Heinrich, most notably Cross of Iron. There was another book which became my favourite of this genre, The Torrents of War, by Igor Sentjurc. I still have a paperback of it, the pages yellowed, the spine broken. I think it’s quite an obscure book but it’s full-on, unrelenting, unforgiving, as so many of these books are.

When I was about 15 I discovered The Forgotten Soldier, probably the greatest of these memoirs. I read that again and again until it fell apart. I got given another as a gift some years ago I’ll look to read again soon. This is the classic book of the German soldier on the eastern front, vivid, tragic and poignant.

There were other books I read, many about the U-boat war, which I was similarly fascinated in. Iron Coffins, I remember was one, but there were others I’ve now forgotten, plus The BoatDas Boot – which is another classic I’ve read many times, moved on every occasion.

As an adult, I got into the stories and books of Heinrich Boll. They all capture the humanity of trying to survive another day in a world made bleak and terrible. They draw you out of your comfortable chair and place you in this foreign world which was yet so real once and so true.

This is a big segment of my life. This was something I was drawn too and have never forgotten since. The darkness of these tales may inform my writing, who knows?

I’ve just finished reading Comrades of War, forty years after reading it for the first time. Today it feels episodic, an attempt to tell the story of a whole war in a little over 200 pages – but then, I raced through the last hundred pages, and felt the same sadness I did when I read it first. You come at these things differently after all these years. It doesn’t mean the same. You read with different eyes, informed now by your own experience and exposed to a world unavailable to the naive kid I was then. It’s a different experience, but worthwhile.