Sunday, March 05, 2006


As anyone who has ventured there knows, Ern Malley Alley is a hall of mirrors, an infinite regression, a world of answers without questions and questions lacking answers. You go there at your peril and if you will be so bold or so foolish, you need allies: a sense of humour, an unimpaired sceptical sense, what Keats called negative capability ... anyway. Something I hadn't quite considered when I entered the labyrinth was that I would be dealing with my father's generation, obvious as that might seem. He was born in 1920, the second of three brothers. Ern Malley was born in 1918, the 14th of March, Einstein's birthday; James McAuley in 1917, Harold Stewart in 1916 ...

Another thing I did not anticipate is that I would find myself wrangling with the ghost of Don Bradman (b. 1908). How did this happen? Well, partly it's simply local history: the boy from Bowral made his first century in Sydney grade cricket just down the road from here, at Petersham Oval (there's a plaque), which means it's at least possible that Ern, who grew up in the area, was there that November day. Partly, too, it's because if you read Australian history between the wars, you simply can't escape the Don. He is ubiquitous. So that, a few weeks ago, I went to the Ashfield library and brought home a couple of books, one of which, written by an Englishman as social history as well as sporting biography, was so good that I read it cover to cover in a matter of days. Now, coincidentally, I've just watched the second instalment of a two part television documentary on ABC, which covers the same ground as the book and even interviews its author. So what have I learned?

Well, it's an emotional minefield. And very personal. My father loved two sports, rugby and cricket. He'd played both, with some skill, in his youth, coached school teams while he was teaching, later on spent a lot of time listening to games on the radio or watching them on television. I inherited these enthusiasms from him and maintained them during his long decline partly so as to have this neutral common ground where we could always go when we talked. Now he's gone I don't know why I keep them up because the actual sporting culture as it has evolved, mostly disgusts me. That's one thing. The second thing is the intimate relationship between Australian life and sporting prowess. Much has been made of the fact that Bradman's prodigious feats as a batsman began during the Great Depression and that for many people living in penury and misery, he became a kind of secular saviour ... this strange contract, between sporting success and the pride of individuals in themselves, is not confined to Australians but they - we - are certainly paragons in its expression. As an expat New Zealander who is an Australian citizen, I express this fanaticism in reverse, taking no pleasure in Australian wins and great delight in their unfortunately rare losses. Weird, huh?

But, Bradman. The great hero of the common man, and a common man himself ... except he wasn't. He was a protestant in a land of Irish Catholics, a teetotaller in a country of drinkers and drunks, he played the piano and listened to classical music, in the evenings after a day's play, instead of celebrating with his mates, he'd go to his room and write letters or read books. And get an early night. He was also a Royalist in a culture that at least fancies itself to be 'naturally' Republican, he earned his living as a stock broker and wasn't above taking financial advantage of circumstances when he could see a way to do so - when, in 1945, his boss in Adelaide informed the Stock Exchange he could no longer meet his commitments, Bradman had taken over the office and hung his shingle out within 36 hours of the declaration, apparently with the consent of the receiver. In some of this, he shows a character not unlike that of my paternal grandfather, who was all of those things: protestant, teetotal, royalist, businessman, devious, a sporting fanatic - and Australian; most of this description also fits the present Australian Prime Minister, John Howard (I don't believe he is teetotal). The other thing the three men - Bradman, my grandfather, Little Johnny - have in common is their ruthlessness.

As we know, sport is a surrogate for war and despite all the waffle about playing the game, you can't really engage in it without a determination to win. Afterwards you may fraternise with your opponents but while the game's on you have to be prepared almost to kill. In our peculiar culture, that analogy with war does extend to business and to politics, but with this difference: the wins and losses are real, there are real victims, real casualties, real deaths. Bradman's extreme ruthlessness as a cricketer, later as Australian captain, was mostly visited upon the English, whom he took great delight in humiliating howsoever and whenever he could; but there was no contradiction with his Royalism or his Empire Loyalism, because it was just a game. For precisely the same reason, sport/war is a very bad analogy for business and politics, but pervasive nevertheless. Watching Little Johnny bask in the approbation of the local version of the great and the good during his ten year anniversary celebrations made me realise that he has a conscience white as the driven snow, as they say, most likely because he's left all that behind on the playing field. Watching the obsequies for Kerry Packer, that superlative sporting man, the other week led to the same conclusion. For these kinds of people, the end does justify the means and the end is, in the end, very simple: to win.

My father set himself against his father and attempted to live an ethical life; it ended in alcoholism, loneliness and despair, with one of his few consolations, the rugby or the cricket on the TV or the radio. This doesn’t mean that he made the wrong choice and nor is it sufficient to ascribe his fate to that choice: of course not, there were a lot of other factors involved, which I can’t go into here. But it was a conscious choice: the poetry he wrote in his youth he abandoned in order to dedicate himself to a form of social action which would make a real difference to peoples’ lives and in this he was remarkably successful; the visits he sometimes got from those he had taught were another of his consolations.

Ern Malley didn’t have to live with the consequences of his dedication to poetry, though both James McAuley and Harold Stewart did. Sometimes I imagine Malley as a kind of Anti-Bradman, feckless where the other was conscientious, ironic rather than sincere, profligate not abstemious, raucous not calm, unsporting, twisted, decadent, sardonic, rude … but of course he wasn’t an Anti-Bradman so much as an Anti-Everything: everything, that is, that could not be fitted into the world view of two gifted yet resentful men, both self-hating, one of whom became a Catholic conservative academic, the other a scholarly Buddhist monk. As for Bradman, he lived to a ripe old age and was, so far as one can tell, kind to his old opponents - but never forgave his enemies. I understand John Howard is a great hater too.