Our souls, singing

When I woke up this morning it took me a few moments to remember that it was Anzac Day. The sudden thought filled me with warmth. Anzac Day is my favourite day of the year. It’s the most Australian of days, and the day I think that sees Australia at its best. And it’s a public holiday.

By the time I woke a good part of the days events were already completed. The dawn service is a solemn event attended by many thousands each year. People rug up their warmest clothes while it is still dark outside and travel across town to stand around one of the memorials across the country – here, in Melbourne, the most impressive of them, the Shrine of Remembrance. They stand in humble silence while the proceedings begin, the military ceremonies, the speeches commemorating those who fell, and those who fought, remembering their sacrifice, and the playing of the Last Post on a melancholy bugle – designed always to send a chill up the spine.

Ceremony over the crowd filters off, enlarged I think in some way, moved, grateful not just for what we celebrate on a day like today, but also for the rare opportunity to join as a community and to touch upon something much larger than ourselves.

By then the Anzac Day parade will be getting itself organised. Old diggers from different wars will meet again and greet and then with medals poinned to their chest march stiff backed down St Kilda road in front of an adoring crowd cheering them on. They snake their way towards the Shrine hearing the applause and cheers, remembering doubtless those who aren’t there for various reasons, fallen then, or since. It is not a sad occasion however, but rather one of pride. I was lucky enough to march a few years back wearing my grandfather’s medals, my nephew beside me. I look back on it as one of the great occasions of my life. The veterans were welcoming, friendly and supportive. We were ushered into place with military precision. Then we marched with a sense of wonder as thousands of strangers looked upon us and cheered.

As I write the parade will be nearing its end. Each year there are fewer, for obvious reasons, but the fervour and sense of gratitude is undiminished. Sometime soon these old diggers will get together over a cold beer and remember old times. Or else they’ll get together in some laneway or out of the way spot and play two-up, the only day of the year that it is legally permitted.

To this point the national psyche, the national memory, has transitioned through different stages: remembrance, pride and celebration. The next step is less official, but to my way of thinking, very Australian.

The Anzac Day footy match is a recent tradition, but at least here in Melbourne, very deeply entrenched. There are some few who decry it as something either irrelevant or disrespectful to the true meaning of the day, but I strongly disagree. I recall the day I marched how the old diggers spoke as we got organised, or as we stood afterwards, of the big game ahead. Some were looking forward to going to the G in a few hours to witness it. They have a history, and a place in our story, but end of day they’re just like us. A good game of footy stirs them as much as it does me. And a good game of footy somehow epitomises the spirit we celebrate.

It was always a big thing for Australian soldiers of the first war that they should be ‘game’ – that is to be brave and forthright, to never shirk an issue, to be worthy of the respect of your mates. Much of this ethos was born on the sporting fields of Australia. It’s still there. Other’s will scoff, but the reality is that there is a great spiritual attachment to competitive sport here in Oz, born, I think, from the desire to measure up, to prove oneself competitively and courageously. I sit here in suburban Melbourne writing this, but feel those fires in me too.

The big Anzac Day clash then is in a way a spiritual culmination of all that has preceded it. We have remembered, we have been solemn and humble, we have been proud – now we go to battle. This is what makes our souls sing.

The day itself is beautifully done. I’ve been to about a dozen of these matches. Even before the game begins there is the sense of grand occasion. More often than not the day is bright and sunny, much like today. The birds twitter in the trees. The sky is blue. People converge wearing their club colours – red and black, or black and white – in clumps on train stations and tram stops around the suburbs, before streaming into the parklands of the MCG in long, colourful, excited ribbons. Sitting in the sunshine inside the ground there is a hum of conversation building into expectation. Then the designated time approaches. The teams take to the ground bursting through banners, they kick a ball around before lining up opposite each other. Then under a blazing sun before a crowd of a hundred thousand the solemn ceremonies of the dawn service are repeated. A slow, solemn drumbeat marks the beginning as an army colour sergeant barks orders the whole ground can hear (though not understand). Silence permeates the ground, you can hear a pin drop. The Ode off Remembrance is recited by the RSL president to a hushed crowd (They shall grow not old…).

It’s a great thing to behold and to be part of. It catches in you, this communal devotion. Then the bugle begins it’s slow lament, a few notes at first drifting on the breeze before gradually hurrying into something that is both a call to arms and a tribute to those left behind. You stand there in the crowd feeling your heart in your chest. Perhaps there is a tear in your eye. Electricity runs from one person to the next, regardless of team colours. And then as the last notes of the Last Post drift into the blue sky a we’re asked to listen to the national anthem. As the last strains of the national anthem are heard a guttural roar emerges, like a distant train at first that is suddenly right there, filling the stadium and pushing at the sides of it. The scalp creeps, you feel ready to jump the fence and take part – you want to jump the fence and take part, oh so badly. Instead as the roar dies away and the players take their position you become part of the great shifting crowd taking to their seat. Then the umpire raises the ball aloft, the siren sounds to a new round of cheering, and the game is on.

At the end of the day there’s a collective sigh all over the country. It’s been so big, so filled with stuff that is meaningful to most of us, that at the end of it we are happily spent. While the genesis of this day is in many ways solemn, I always find it a happy day. It means something to most people, much more so than Australia Day. And because of that I think as a people we are at our most humble. It’s the closest thing we have to thanksgiving day, but celebrated in our own unique way.

Always remembered

Anzac Day is just about my favourite day of the year. Yesterday it was fine and mild. I headed off early to get myself a seat at the MCG for the big match. Bought a badge at the ground, one of the marinated chicken rolls I like so much, then settled in for the game. IMG_0091

As always it was very impressive, and very moving. The two teams burst through the same banner before lining up across from each other for the last post and the national anthem. Everyone stood. In the silence you could hear the flag flapping in the breeze. In the national anthem 90,000 sung along to the words everyone now knows so well.

It was a cracking game, worthy of the day. We lost, which was no great surprise, but we gave them a fright, and played with intensity and heart. I left satisfied knowing that we are the real deal, thinking that we are ahead of everyone else in the comp but Collingwood. That's a big call, but I've seen no other team this year approach the intensity and skill on show by the two teams yesterday.

Last night I watched some of the programs I had recorded earlier. I watched the pre-game show, which featured interviews and conversations with the usual experts, but unusually also featured social commentators and journalists. Anzac day is the big day in Australian culture, and yesterday was deep immersion.

I found myself greatly adffected by what I saw. Many times I found my eyes glistening with emotion. Interviews with old diggers relating their stories. Commentators putting into some kind of context. And in the background looming was the big game.

There is occasional controversy over whether a big game of football devalues the day, or commercialises it. I find the arguments specious rubbish. I'm loathe to get into discussions about what people fought and died for because it becomes trite in the expression – however, if I want to attribute any meaning to it then I would suggest these men marched off to war to preserve the lifestyle and freedoms we all so cherish. Football may seem small beer, but it is a good part of our culture and in its way representative of those hopes.

Football is not life and death (though it feels it sometimes), and it doesn't pretend to be. We fight for 4 points, and no lives are on the line. Only the very lame draw those parallels. It is who we are though, proved by a crowd yesterday of 90,000 and a TV audience of millions, including thousands of ex-servicemen. It's part of the life these great guys fought for, and a day like yesterday the perfect celebration of what they stood for.

What is also often overlooked is how a game like this has put the spotlight on the Anzac tradition. The teams, the AFL, are very respectful of the day and what it means. The hype and and aura of the game feeds into the Anzac legend, which the teams and the media pay homage to. I truly believe that this game creates awareness, and in the periphery of it educates as each year other stories are highlighted.

The other argument is whether the day should be the sole provence of Essendon and Collingwood. Not surprisingly there are many envious of the tradition and granduer of the big Anzac day clash. For me it's a no-brainer. These are the two biggest and most popular footbal clubs in Australia. Support for them is tribal and vociferous. Between them they have created this tradition around which so much has accreted. They have made Anzac day this celebration, and it is the tradition and the rivalry between these two clubs that has made it so.

To change that formula would be to diminish it. The magic is in the tradition and the clubs who have built it. It would lose the glamour and mystique if it was just another home and away match.

Footy is a good way. This is a great season so far, and the Bombers are looking good.


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The sport of Gods


Last weekend I went to a big game of footy at the MCG. Carlton versus Essendon is always hotly contested regardless of the scores on the field. The two teams hate each other, and that fierce rivalry extends to the crowd. I went with Donna, a typical Carlton supporter who hates Essendon above all others. We sat in the tightly packed members area amid supporters in the blue of Carlton and the red and black of the mighty Bombers. I was pretty relaxed, as I usually am, but desperate for a win against this mob. Donna was a bundle of nerves. I’ve been to about half a dozen of these games with her, and only once has Carlton won in that period. By the end of the day, that stat remained unchanged, though in unexpected ways, and Donna was literally all a tremble.

Great rivals make for great contests. A crowd of 80,00 helps, but there is so much history between teams like this that it will always be a desperate battle. There’s a buzz in the air as the players take the field, a crackling tension almost as the ball bounces and the crowd roars and the ball whizzes from one end to the other, bodies careen off each other and the crowd stills and roars like at the Colosseum. It’s wonderful theatre.

It was a wonderful game too. The re-born Essendon took control early and looked the goods. Then, in a few minutes, two season-ending injuries to key players turned the tide of the match. It’s tough to win, to even be properly competitive, with two players down. Gradually Carlton evened the match up, and early in the second half looked like they might skip away. Each time they got to a couple of goals lead though the Bombers would hit back against the odds.

The last quarter was like that also. Essendon kicked the first goal to go ahead by that margin before Carlton kicked the next three in a hurry to grab a handy lead. That Essendon was able to fight back once more was a testament to Essendon resilience, to a few quite remarkable moments of football, and a combination of laziness and panic by Carlton.

With a few minutes to go, Carlton led by a point. Then Garlett marked in their forward line within range and, looking over his shoulder, decided to play on. Bad move. On his tail was the oldest player in the competition, Dustin Fletcher (BOG for the match), who chased and then desperately lunged with his long arms to bring Garlett down and save the day.

Not long after, Carlton was in control of the ball with that lead when they kicked backwards and then out of bounds on the full. A hurried kick forward, a spill from a pack, and then a snap from the boundary line by Zaharakis saw the scores levelled. Moments later, the siren went: draw.

As an Essendon supporter, I was happy. We had no right to be so close, given the handicap of our injuries. It was a terribly gutsy effort by the players and might just be the making of the team. Backs against the wall, and they never gave up.

Tomorrow is another game that epitomises that spirit – the annual Anzac Day match between Collingwood and Essendon. This is the biggest game of the year outside the finals. There’ll be 90,000+ there tomorrow, and I’ll be one of them. Collingwood is the reigning premiers and top of the table; Essendon is the glamour team of the moment, playing purposeful, attractive football led by a favourite son. Tomorrow’s game has extra significance because James Hird, our coach, was a hero in so many of these matches – he won the Anzac day medal three times. You can bet he’ll get the team properly geed up for the occasion.

Collingwood goes in favourites, and that’s fair enough. Essendon knows they’re the underdogs and have boldly selected a team that might prove a masterstroke or backfire badly. I love the thinking, though: let’s attack. I hope we win tomorrow, and I think we’re a chance if we get our defensive pressures and our run going. Regardless of the result, I have a strong feeling that we’re a real contender this season. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I think we can go all the way.

On a related note, I have to comment on the early death of one of my favourite players growing up. Alan Noonan died last week after a long struggle against cancer. He was 61. If I had a duffel coat when I was young and had the number of any player – as was the custom in those days – it would have been the number 10 of Alan Noonan.

My dad and I went to the footy most weeks from the time I was about 7 until 15, and pretty well every week, we played at Windy Hill. We had reserved seats in the Reynolds Stand, of which I still have many very vivid and exciting memories.

Amongst the players I watched week in, week out, my favourites were Noonan, and after him Graham Moss. Noonan was a very good CHF, underrated by posterity, but a powerful competitor, a good mark and a booming kick. He was a good looking man, I guess about 6’3″ in the old vernacular, dark hair long in the fashion of the day, high cheekbones, a big porn star moustache. Well muscled, he seemed to always have a year-round tan, his skin slick with the liniment they applied pre-game. His look was rugged, masculine and somewhat brooding. As you can probably tell, that very young me wanted to be him.

Strange to think he’s gone. I’ve not the personality type to have heroes, though certainly, I have admired many. Alan Noonan, I think, was one of my few heroes and the very first. For an impressionable kid growing up in the tumult of VFL, sitting in the crowd as it roared and cheered and drummed its feet on the wooden floor of the stand, chanting Esse-en-don…Ess-en-don… joining with all my might, enchanted by the colour and spectacle, the noise and wonder, small still, impressionable, impressed as I was by the clever men who sat beside us week after week making witty, intelligent comments on the game, the thump of boot on ball and the waft of liniment coming from the ground, lifted by it, transcended by mysterious passion and carried onwards by the moments collecting all on the field I was in a kind of childish heaven. Others would come, others great and many who remain, but in those days, it was the sight of Alan Noonan roosting the ball through the big sticks from 60 metres out that was my idea of absolute bliss.

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