ALICIA SOMETIMES and NICOLE HAYES (Eds) From the Outer: Footy like you’ve never heard it. Reviewed by Jean Bedford
From the Outer, a collection of tributes to and critiques of Aussie Rules, canvasses fresh perspectives on the game its fans just call ‘footy’.
This book is well named. In AFL parlance the Outer was the uncovered, and usually unfavourably vantaged, spectator area, and of this book’s 31 contributors, 22 are women, several are gay or lesbian, Indigenous, migrants, from ethnically ‘other’ backgrounds, or a combination of the above. Not the usual demographic for public speaking about AFL.
In the Introduction, the editors say:
The idea was to wrest the conversation around footy from the usual suspects and hand the microphone over to those writers with something new to say, in an attempt to explain our often complex but still deeply felt relationship with the game.
Complexity is the name of the game here, and ambiguity of response. How can feminists and LGBT people relate to this sport that is all about men (mostly white, mostly heterosexual)? ‘Men, men, men,’ says Catherine Deveny (who hates footy) in her piece ‘There was a Choice?’, suggesting that the AFL’s recent moves towards combating racism, homophobia and sexism are little more than a PR exercise.
The essays in this collection go a long way to explaining, or at least illuminating, the apparent paradoxes. In ‘Rookie’, Miriam Sved describes her journey to footy faith from scepticism:
These men who ran around chasing a ball: mostly pretty obnoxious men, judging from the headlines … The thing I couldn’t grasp was: What does it have to do with you?
But later, after her wife has inculcated her into the game: ‘… as soon as I was inside the story – as soon as I cared – the game became hypnotic.’
Alicia Sometimes talks of an earlier, more innocent (or ignorant), era in ‘1991’:
When you knew Brereton was full of strut but could always follow through. When you thought he was the one being singled out just for being a genius. Before you heard years later he had racially taunted Chris Lewis and you felt floored and sickened.
Mostly, the contributors are fans, though some are highly critical of the culture. Maxine Beneba Clarke, in her impassioned poem ‘Marngrook’, talks about the appropriation of the Indigenous game – ‘Before football/there wz marngrook’ – and the way this reflects Australia’s endemic racism. Racism is a topic addressed by several contributors, and Nicky Winmar and Adam Goodes are mentioned. As Stan Grant puts it in ‘I Can Tell You How Adam Goodes Feels’:
To Adam’s ears, the ears of so many Indigenous people, these boos are a howl of humiliation. A howl that echoes across two centuries of invasion, dispossession and suffering.
Some writers are active participants as well as fans – like Chelsea Roffey, the first woman goal umpire at an AFL Grand Final. In ‘An Open Letter to Doubting Thomas’, she talks with wry humour about the disadvantage of not having played the game and the difficulty of asserting her authority in the struggle between oestrogen and testosterone on the field:
In my case, channelling the voice and stern words of a mother brandishing a wooden spoon has been a successful tactic. [and later] … in truth I devote weekly sessions to looking at my reflection, repeating ‘Who’s the man?’ before slamming down a goal signal and shouting ‘I am!’
Several essays speak from the point of view of women who have struggled for an active role in this still macho culture: as officials (like Roffey, Bev O’Connor, the first female Essendon Board member, and Peta Searle, a girls’ footy coach), as players, like Kirby Bentley (‘I look forward to a time when women are recognised as “footballers” and not “female footballers”’), or as wannabe players.
In ‘The Arc’, Nicole Hayes, who played as a kid – though she wasn’t allowed on a proper team because ‘footy wasn’t safe for girls’ – has gracefully made the adult journey from participant to observer, with some lingering regrets:
… even today, there are occasions when my gut twists, deep and aching, as I watch a local game, remembering those stolen moments when I held the ball, and the ball held me.
Christos Tsiolkas and Jason Tuazen-McCheyne write about their responses as gay men to AFL and its homophobia. Tsiolkas has returned to a love of footy – abandoned when one joyous moment with another boy at school was misconstrued, and rejected later as ‘uncool’:
Footballers. I have admired them and I have loved them, and for part of my life I hated them. Nowadays … I still think them the most beautiful creatures in the world.
I still want to kiss them on the mouth.
Demet Divaroren in ‘The Year of the Dogs’ describes falling in love with a footballer who visited her school and how footy became a way of fitting in, of speaking the language, for a Turkish immigrant longing to be accepted:
… my tongue spoke mainstream.
‘What a shocker!’
‘You’re a joke, umpire!’
Footy as a gateway to acceptance is a theme repeated in ‘Footy Dreams in Struggletown’, where Alice Pung and Nick Cadle discuss migrant kids and their instinctive knowledge of the physical language of football, rather than its terminology:
Many don’t speak English let alone understand the language of football. Yet Atali, Baal, Joel and Mike – these kids are all native speakers trying to live out their dream.
lan Duffy, a Pommy migrant, also deals with ‘fitting in’ in his piece ‘Stellar Hawks’:
‘This is a Hawks family, Alan,’ were the words my prospective in-laws told me when I first started dating their daughter nearly six years ago … I had completely underestimated the footy in this country, the all-consuming hold it has on the loyalty and love of a nation.
There are stories here that will resonate with any AFL fan, like Honey Brown’s ‘The Calm Supporter’ – ‘We are the muffled cries inside our cars’ – and Anna Spargo-Ryan’s lovely nostalgia piece ‘How to Love Football’, about her unintentional ‘training’ taking place in the back of her grandfather’s car, listening to the game on the radio. Erin Riley’s ‘Sleepless in September’, describing her changing relationship to footy, particularly rang a bell with me (as a Swans fan who once watched them lose from an eight-goal lead at half-time) – ‘I loved that a 30-point margin at three-quarter time wasn’t enough to feel safe’ – as did Van Badham’s ‘The Blazer’, about her mother’s allegiance to Sydney:
‘It was when Plugger was playing that that I think it got crazy for me,’ my mother says. ‘Because now we had an actual chance of winning.’
‘Melbourne: The year 2195’, by Angela Pippos, postulates a future in which the AFL has taken over the country under the leadership of Gary Ablett Junior V. The season lasts all year and the year is divided into AFL periods. The days are in quarters, weeks are named after players (‘I’ve always had a soft spot for Brereton Week’). A restaurant – Plugger’s – only serves pie and chips, to the accompaniment of piped Dermot Brereton platitudes (here’s where it became sinisterly dystopian, rather than simply futuristic, for me). The piece takes a sly swipe at AFL culture, with a nice feminist sting in the tail.
There are also essays that raise questions, like Rebecca Lim’s ‘Play the Ball, Not the Man’. Lim has calculated that from the early 19th century to the present there has been a maximum of 23 players of Asian descent. Why are there so few? Is it self-perpetuating, that kids don’t aspire to the AFL because they don’t have familiar ethnic role-models? Or is there a deeper racist element at play here that doesn’t get noticed in all the discussion about Indigenous players?
For those who are not (yet) fans of AFL, this book will perhaps enlighten and inform. For those of us who are already footy tragics there is a great deal to enjoy and to ponder over. We are united, readers and contributors, however conflicted and ambiguous our feelings may be, however flawed our heroes, as a community that loves watching superb athletes at the height of their skills, playing what has to be the most exciting spectator sport on the planet.
Alicia Sometimes and Nicole Hayes (Eds) From the Outer: Footy like you’ve never heard it Black Inc 2016 PB 256pp $27.99
To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.