MICHAEL SEXTON Stories for Harry & Ray. Reviewed by Bernard Whimpress
In Stories for Harry & Ray, Michael Sexton brings together 43 of his essays on sport. The result is a small gem.
Fellow Adelaide sportswriter Michael Sexton has a number of impressive books to his name – 1964: A Season, A Game, A State; Chappell’s Last Stand; Border’s Battlers; and The Trials of Jack Broadstock among them – so I always look forward to any new release.
Harry and Ray are the author’s grandfathers, Edgar ‘Ray’ Sexton and Henry ‘Harry’ Barrey. He opens with an account of how Ray, a reader, and Harry, a listener, are enthusiastic when a young Michael tells them he wants to become a journalist. Ray takes him to a city bookshop and buys him a dictionary and a thesaurus, while Harry relates a story the writer Alan Marshall (I Can Jump Puddles) told on the radio of jotting down rough notes whenever he heard something interesting that he could use later. The dictionary, thesaurus and habit of making rough notes become tools of the journalist’s trade in Sexton’s working life with Channel 9, the BBC and ABC.
Now [as a writer] a time has come that I can put together some stories. They are centred on sport and the stage it provides, but more so the people who inhabit those theatres and tread the boards.
This is written with thanks to, and love for, my elders and with the thought that Harry and Ray might have enjoyed reading them.
I can’t wait to begin and am especially excited when, turning to the Contents page, I find that the book is structured in five sections – Australian Football, Cricket, Tennis, Anzac, and Connections. Eighteen are in the Australian Football section, although another four footballers’ names are found under ‘Anzac’ and ‘Connections’, so that constitutes half the book. Many stories concern South Australian heroes, but there is nothing parochial about them and there is no shortage of international stars such as Lew Hoad, Jean Borotra, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Don Bradman, Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, Allan Border, Kapil Dev, George Best, Muhammad Ali and Lance Armstrong.
The book’s cover depicts a lineup of the 1952 Koolymilka football team and the man/boy holding the football at the head of the line is 18-year-old Neil Kerley, who would become a South Australian legend in the code. Few readers, even SA football aficionados, would recognise Kerley, and writing of Koolymilka, Sexton tells us ‘it is almost impossible to conjure up’ what it was like ‘because nothing exists of it today’.
It was a labour camp for the nearby Woomera test range. It is a desert where the earth is a blend of scorched sand and gibber stones made smooth by thousands of years of biting wind …
They made Kerls captain-coach of the footy team because he seemed to have some skills, whereas the others didn’t … For matches they brought a grader onto the ground to push the bigger stones to one side. The smaller ones cut the players up.
The football was played with a frontier zeal befitting a cold war outpost. Wearing only work boots, singlets and shorts …
The team received guernseys after five rounds and then some boots. Players started kicking straighter and marking. There was enthusiasm around the camp after playing, even through the long training sessions. Saturday nights came alive in the tent city after victories.
Koolymilka won the premiership.
Sexton closes his Kerley story with the octogenarian gazing at the River Murray from his Walker Flat shack, saying, ‘I’ve had an unbelievable life.’
The wider stories convey the richness of lives, a connectedness, and, as noted on the book’s back cover blurb, ‘their theme is humanity as displayed through sport’.
Peter West plays left back for South Australia’s soccer team against Manchester United in 1967. United win 5–1, the five goals are expected, but ‘the one in reply was a thing of beauty to be carried in their [SA players’] memories’. As a boy in England, West dreamed of a professional career with Fulham, but migrated to Australia with his family as £10 Poms. After the game against United, West hosted George Best and others on a trip to Elizabeth for drinks and parties. Years later (as Sexton relates) Best couldn’t remember the football match but ‘the parties were smashing’. For West, the match was as close as he came to a pro career.
Stefanos Tsitsipas is one of the elite players in modern tennis. As a 21-year-old in 2019 he knocked his hero, an in-form Roger Federer, out of the Australian Open in the fourth round, but he also has strong links to Australia through another sport. Tsitsipas’s maternal grandfather, Sergei Salnikov, was a striker in the Soviet Union’s 1–0 gold-medal win over Yugoslavia at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in the 1956 Olympic Games. In a 2021 interview Tsitsipas talked about having the site of his grandfather’s triumph next door to the tennis centre at Melbourne Park.
Honestly, every single year coming here I like to show the best version of me at the Australian Open due to the fact that my Grandpa won the Olympic gold many years ago here … It kind of motivates me. It gives me an extra kind of boost knowing that it was here magic happened. It is a big thing for me and my family …
There are more stories, and stories behind stories: of Jeff Thomson bowling to Don Bradman on the backyard pitch of surgeon, Korean War hero and cricketer Dr Donald Beard; of Norwood enforcer John Wynne’s deliberate confrontation with Jack Oatey in the Sturt coach’s concrete bunker during the third term of the 1978 SANFL grand final; of Lew Hoad’s last hurrah as a tournament player, turning back the clock in his victory over Pancho Gonzales in the 1967 Wimbledon World Professional Lawn Tennis Championship; of Graham Nicholls, Norwood and state footballer, chorister with the Sadler’s Wells Opera Company, and Methodist church minister – a success in sport, music and religion.
One could go on but ‘Making Sense – Alex Jesaulenko’, the last story in the book, takes us back to the author’s Melbourne boyhood when, aged six, he witnesses the Carlton star kick his one hundredth goal for the 1970 VFL season.
We saw it all from halfway up the Olympic Stand facing the sea of green. The coming-of-age moment had been earlier, straggling into the ground to see football for the first time in colour. Carlton’s navy jumpers were hypnotic. The ball so red. There he was in the goal mouth, number 25. He moved like a cat. He never fell over. Some kids ran on the ground when he reached his century. It felt exuberantly anarchic. We shredded a copy of the Football Record and tossed it like confetti over our heads and sang ‘Jezza’ in as many ways as we could, like it was a one-word opera.
I have written elsewhere that Michael Sexton writes prose like a poet. He also brings a spiritual feel to his work. Stories for Harry & Ray is an outstanding collection of essays that merit a wide readership, but it’s unlikely you’ll find it in your local bookshop. Since it has been privately published in a limited run, inquiries should be directed to the author’s website.
Michael Sexton Stories for Harry & Ray 2023 PB 256pp $30.00. Available from sportswords.com.au
Bernard Whimpress usually writes on sport and his most recent book is On Sport: Reviews 1995-2023 (2023), www.lulu.com/spotlight/bernardwhimpress
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