Monday, September 27, 2010

a hydra to deliver out a hiding

I might have been reading one of Greg Baum's articles when it occurred to me that some of the more imaginative football commentators, verbal and written, do as Dickens did, and superheat their prose with allusions, both classical and vernacular -- treating the classical as a more powerful and tweaked version of nonetheless natural language, so that if Dickens can, in chapter eleven of Bleak House, allude to Macbeth by writing, "It is anything but a night of rest at Mr. Snagsby’s, in Cook’s Court, where Guster murders sleep by going ... out of one fit into twenty," then Greg Baum can allude to Romeo and Juliet with,

Perhaps also, it was Gary Ablett's valedictory as a Geelong player, for Gold Coast's bullion will weigh more heavily now. If so, this was parting with sweet sorrow; in a team that was crushed ...

Rex Hunt, calling Saturday's Grand Final on Triple M, urged the players on the field to, "Run like the Light Brigade!" meaning, I suppose, quickly and forcefully and in a heroic manner. This was delivered in a shout, at the heat of the moment, without preparation or special treatment, as if a reference to Tennyson is more or less the most natural thing in the world to summon out of your memory half-way through a Saturday afternoon in 2010 at the climax of the footy season.*

I'm not sure exactly what goes on here, but it seems to me that the emotion that collects around the phrase in its original context, plus the emotion of recognition, the extra scrap of mental effort that goes into making that recognition, the unexpected engagement of the brain in directions that it didn't expect to be engaged right at that moment -- the surprise -- the joke -- the reminder of the larger and less focused world -- coupled, in a contradictory way, with the comforting endurance of tradition -- gives the allusion its kick, its heightened burst, in an atmosphere that is already heightened by the tensions of the game; and wraps football itself in the mantle of history, as if those forty-four men and their Sherrin and a crowd of one hundred thousand and sixteen, are part of the same world as -- are unified with -- poets and warriors. Which, you could argue, they are, simply by being human, as the poets and warriors were human, and alive, as the poets and warriors were alive; and everything mixed together, a vast web of human behaviour, with Collingwood and the Saints tucked in there somewhere next to the Mayans, the Greeks, and Proust's imaginary Françoise, the cook who is also an artist, and her teased kitchenmaid, Giotto's Charity.

And the language used around football is intensified anyway, with slang, with ritual descriptions, and with a habit of grand phrasings, so that the game, in the prose of football journalists, is transformed into "the land," as in, "He's the fastest runner in the land!" or, "He's got the finest boot in the land!" as if the speaker is conferring magical qualities on knights and princes. Australian Rules takes on the enclosed attributes of a principality kingdom, and it becomes apparent that its true language is the language of mythology. Ablett, Baum writes, "is, as all the world knows, Gold Coast's cynosure and the club's ardent courtship of him has grown into a saga." In another article: "Football fans love signs from their gods: here were three." A team can be a "hydra." "Collingwood played its patented total football, marked by feverish, frenzied tackling, with lots of goalkickers, a hydra to deliver out a hiding."** When the final was followed by rain, then a vivid and symmetrical double rainbow, M. noticed that the last part of the rainbow to disappear was the leg that landed near St Kilda, and suggested that it was a prophecy.

* Although Tim Lane confused everyone around him when he decided that a game between Sydney and West Coast needed a direct quote from his lordship's Ulysses.

** I've seen Caroline Wilson use 'hydra' as well, but where that article is I do not know.

Why -- I'll add this in case you're outside the Rules umbrella and you're wondering -- why a prophecy? Because the game was a draw, and the two teams have to play again next week, and one of the teams comes from St Kilda, a bohemian seaside suburb in the process of returning like a greedy dog to its pre-bohemian state of gentrification. It took its name long ago from a schooner named Lady of St Kilda, which took her name in turn from a Hebridean archipelago where there never was a saint.

Update. St Kilda lost.


  1. I was staying in a hotel the other day that had a huge television in the room. When I switched it on, I couldn't get the sound to work at first. I started flicking through the channels and was surprised by the number of intellectual discussions there were - on several different channels, I saw round table discussions of the kind that dominate French television - groups of men arguing passionately and at length. Who says Australia's not engaged with ideas, I thought.
    Of course, it turned out, once I got the volume to work, that each of those debates was about sport and how exactly the weekend's game had been played out. That is not to say they weren't as tightly argued, as carefully thought out and as well-grounded in deep understanding and long term study as any more conventional examination of the meaning of life.

  2. It's when you get dedication like that, coupled with personal ambition on the part of the commentator, and an enthusiasm for language, that the interesting mythologising gets done. I turned on the TV last night and came across a man and a woman arguing about footy tradition, and part of the woman's argument was that we had the best football code "in the world." That's the kind of hermetic stubbornness that people perceive in the French (by which I mean: it's part of the French stereotype, the superiority) and I think it's wonderful.

  3. Love your deconstruction of commentator language dks ... as usual I feel I can add nothing more.

  4. Thank you. (I hate those moments when I'm staring at someone else's blog, thinking, "I want to say something here, but what can I add? I can't think of a damn thing." I run through something like that over and over again in my head for several minutes and then I click myself quietly away to another site, looking sober.)