Monday, October 6, 2008


In a league of their own

In my natal town Sydney, the 2008 Rugby League Grand Final has been decided, with Manly (Sea Eagles) 40 defeating Melbourne (Storm) 0 [nil, they never crossed the opponents' line to try to score a try, nor got out of gaol to achieve the goal of kicking a goal]. We're talking about football here, in case you don't understand the RL reference.

Manly is one of the beaches of Sydney (I used to go there on the Manly ferry, and one time I was admiring a good-looking sheila from behind and found out it was my cousin Judith). The aboriginals sighted on that shore by the first English explorers were considered to look manly, and the name stuck. I, with my British skin, used to sunbathe there to try and get a tan equal to the original Australians; also at Cronulla (which never wins the Grand Final); Bondi I usually avoided, because the sewers emptied there. Botany Bay beach (no surf) is where I taught myself to swim (the graceful 'dog-paddle' stroke), and where my ancestor George Colless was sent in chains for his sins. Well, they can tan me hide when I've died, Clyde (quoth Rolf Harris, last seen painting Queen Elizabeth's portrait, but not with a large brush and a can of the best of British paint), but my pelt is still pink and white, though spotted and scarred and sagging as a result of sun-damage. Melbourne was the last Australian city I lived in, and I got my worst sunburn there riding my bike from Brunswick (remember Death in Brunswick?) to Geelong and back, in short pants and no sleeves in bush-fire weather (110 degrees Fahrenheit).

Funny thing, when I lived in Melbourne (1965-1969), and in Adelaide (1962-1963), the southern Australians showed no interest in Rugby football (whether lower class Rugby League or middle class Rugby Union) but played an energetic vaulting game known as Australian Rules (but related to an Irish form of football). I have never learnt even the rudiments, but the exciting thing is that you get big scores (some of the points are called 'behinds'), far superior to soccer (allegedly the true football), where they run around madly for a couple of hours and fail to score any goals at all, by kicking the round ball through the goal posts, past the goal-keeper; if only they removed that spoil-sport from the game, they might get some figures to write home about, like cricket scores.

Nevertheless, though I digress, Melbourne manages to cobble a squad together for the Rugby League competition, to defend their honour against several teams from Sydney and Brisbane; and even Auckland (New Zealand) has the Warriors (which beat Melbourne but lost to Manly in the run-up to the final contest).

I hail from Balmain, and my parents and my two younger brothers and I all followed the Tigers. At Balmain primary school (Gladstone Park, 'pigeon ground') we got coaching on Friday afternoons, free and in school time, from a famous player (the skills were punting, drop-kicking, tackling, dribbling). This helped a bit when I was forced to play Rugby Union at Fort Street Boys High School (the headmaster wanted us to learn to give a knock and take a knock, making it sound like a knocking shop). My wife Helen went to the same school (though the girls were on a distant segregated campus, so we never met); she did not play Rugby (though my daughter Laurel did); but Helen's rugby league team was called Western Suburbs, and they and Balmain eventually combined (as she and I did). My son Michael lives in Sydney and even though he was born in Canterbury hospital, he insists on following Saint George.

If you redd (sic, if I wrote 'read' you would not know how to 'read' it) the one-word headline, you are wondering when I am going to give you a hug. Well, first let me say I was amazed to see all the Manly players embracing one another passionately ('rugby' is certainly an anagram of 'bugry', but the physical contact is not at all erotic). Apparently you are no longer thought to be a poofter if you hug your mates. That's nice. Hugs are special, in a league of their own.

Tonight I was hurrying through our public gardens (The Esplanade) to get to choir practice, and I passed a Korean family; the mother fell on my neck and hugged me; then I recognized her as one of the pastors from the Methodist church; no time to revel in the close encounter, though.

Yesterday, walking in company with Helen and Betty, alongside the rushing Manawatu River with its passing parade of floating logs and branches, we paused to admire a eucalyptus tree; the migrant magpies and possums must have brought their gum trees over with them, and the native tui birds have taken to them with gusto (Yeah, right!); there are two magnificent specimens in view through my office window here. So, we were admiring the colours of its 'skin' (it sheds its bark); they reminded us of Australian Aboriginal art.

I approached it and found these words inscribed on it: HUG ME. I willingly complied, flinging my arms around as much of the trunk as I could encompass. I let out a pained yelp,because the palm of my right hand had been pierced by the point of a screw poking out. (I still can't work out how the blighter managed to screw it in backwards.) I hope that's the nearest I will ever get to crucifixion.

But that's the point about hugs: if you have a hug you don't expect a screw.

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