Clinton Walker is one of our favourite Australian writers, so it’s no exaggeration to say that it’s an honour to welcome him into the Presentation Night fold. Clinton has written about Australian music and culture with style and heart since the late seventies, and has published many fantastic tomes covering Australian underground music, culture, motoring and more. In short, everything he’s done is right in the Presentation Night (forward) pocket. Our personal favourites of Clinton’s published works include ‘Inner City Sound‘, ‘Golden Miles‘, ‘Stranded‘, ‘Buried Country‘, and this amazing piece, ‘Life Coaches‘- and these are just barely scratching the surface. In 1998, Clinton published a companion piece to the excellent ‘Stranded’ called ‘Football Life’, covering his own footballing journey as a player, fan and observer. We have often had the book recommended by friends on the know, but sadly it’s long been out of print, a loss to say the very least. We’re very excited that following a quiet campaign from one of our very own Presentation Night favourites and alumni Toby Martin (not a bad scribbler himself as you’ll see here), Clinton has painstakingily re-typed this extract from the book for us, having found that the files he saved the original on couldn’t be opened. We think you’ll agree that it was well worth the effort, and we’re the richer for it.
Many thanks Toby for encouraging Clinton to revive this extract and of course to Clinton himself for letting us post this fantastic piece of writing that hits you in the chest like a stab pass.
It was a strange experience revisiting this bit of old text, extracted from my 1998 book Football Life at the suggestion of Presentation Night, with thanks to Toby Martin for his encouragement and brokering. But it was originally written more than twenty years ago, when the VFL’s expansion into the AFL was still a contentious and fragile venture; when the Sydney Swans themselves, after all the glorious excesses of the 80s with Warwick Capper taking speccies they almost certainly wouldn’t pay now and Leanne Edelsten landing at the SCG in her pink helicopter, were suffering a hangover that engendered a record 26-game losing streak (and I went to every one of those home games, in 1992/’93), and so it seemed like a worthwhile exercise to take this glimpse back in time. Of course, the turnaround, for the club and the code and the city, came quickly enough, in 1996, when the Swans made their first Grand Final for fifty years. Since then of course – and I will never forget that loss, that day – the Swans have become an intrinsic part of the Sydney landscape; plus the AFL has added another six interstate ‘franchises’, including GWS, and the Swans have magnificently won two Premierships. And when they did that, and I rate the 2012 flag as an even greater victory than the 2006 one, I was taken a bit aback to realise just how much joy and meaning such an achievement can still have, even for a now-remote, fair-weather fan like myself.
I came back to Australia, and to football, in 1983. They say you’ve got to go away before you can really appreciate where you come from, and that’s probably so. I had had it with London. Eventually the day-to-day grey tawdriness got too much. I missed Australia’s huge open sky.
I don’t recall I ever considered resettling anywhere else but back in Sydney. Sydney was where I’d left off, and it was the cosmopolitan, bustling national capital at a time when 80s money was just starting to become unreal. I fell straight back into writing for all the fashionable alternative magazines – RAM, Rolling Stone, Stiletto – and I carried on in my drug-taking, womanising ways. Then one afternoon I wandered down to the SCG – after half-time, when you got in for free – and I saw the Sydney Swans for the first time, and the process of being drawn back into football began. I suppose it’s also fair to say that from that day on I was a Swans supporter.
My first diary entry of attending a Swans game does not appear until 1984. All through those hazy years I kept appointments diaries that now provide me with some signposts to my past. I was a professional, even when I was constantly out of it – a reliable junkie! But I wonder now if I didn’t actually make a diary entry until I went to my first full game, because I do recall the first few games I saw were only after half time, after they opened the gates and let you in for free in the same way you used to be able to get in for free for the lest session of the cricket. That doesn’t happen anymore either.
I fell for the Swans, in the first place, because they were my local team. Very local. I lived in Darlinghurst, of course, in a tidy little bachelor pad, and on a dead winter Sunday afternoon it was a good option to just stroll across Moore Park and go and see a Swans match. Or half of one! Go to the Hopetoun afterwards. The Hopetoun was the Surry Hills pub that is today one of Sydney’s rock’n’roll landmarks. Singer-songwriter Paul Kelly had just moved up from Melbourne and was reinventing his career, starting at the Hopetoun, and going to the football occasionally too, and it was keeping company with people like him and his band (Essendon barrackers), and with fellow erstwhile Victorian folk-rockers Weddings, Parties, Anything (creators of “Monday’s Experts,” one of the best footy songs ever), that further rekindled an old flame.
Like everything I was doing at the time, I just drifted, happily, into becoming a Swans barracker. I didn’t so much as discard my old team St.Kilda. At first, in fact, I didn’t think in those terms at all. I was just going down to the ground to watch a game. That much made sense to me; I hadn’t got loyalties yet. Soon enough though, it was apparent people were going along every week to bag the Swans – and that I could never understand. I thought, well, love the one you’re with. The Swans were my team now, as if they’d chosen me rather than vice versa; the past was past, and as much as it could never be forgotten or unappreciated (1966!!), neither could it be revived. Sydney was my present and my future and so the Swans were my team whether I liked it or not.
The VFL were not, at that time, in my estimation, bad guys. Really, I don’t suppose I thought about the VFL very much at all. I just knew I was glad to have the Swans in town so I could go and see games. To me, as someone who had moved around a bit, the argument that football needed to go national was not an issue. Of course it did. I’d lived outside Melbourne in Brisbane and Sydney and I knew that both these places could well use Australian football. Needed it. A place wasn’t really Australian without football. The principle that Australian Rules belonged to all Australia, and not just Melbourne, was a given to me and it preceded every other consideration.
As well as being my local team, the Swans were a spearhead that would drive the pestilence of Rugby League – at worst, an imperialist imposition – from the land. Like any good disciple, I knew this was a holy war and I knew that it was winnable.
The once-dubbed ‘Barassi Line’, which marks where football’s dominance ends and rugby’s begins, tracing a half-moon from north Queensland to the south of New South Wales, also happened to mark the fastest-growing part of Australia. More new money from Asia was coming into the country through Brisbane and Sydney, and this emphasis was almost as if at Melbourne’s expense. Turning on the fulcrum of Sydney, Australia’s eastern seaboard, from Woollongong just south of Sydney to Noosa just north of Brisbane, was now the country’s most densely-populated strip, and it was the key market in the rapidly burgeoning national television spread.
Victorian football had no choice, then, but to launch an invasion of such rich enemy territory. Football was already a media game, a TV game, and if it didn’t complete its nationalization before television did, there wouldn’t even be room left for it on Melbourne television.
The problem was that the VFL, in its typical myopic arrogance, overestimated the opening that did exist in Sydney. Sydney was swayable, that was certainly the case. Rugby League and Union divided the city’s men along class lines. Perhaps the only reason Australian football was ever able to survive in outposts like Brisbane and Cairns was because it not only cut across class distinctions but also those of gender. Women, in other words, are much more likely to enjoy Australian football than either of the rugby codes. In that respect, its potential appeal in Sydney was enormous, because Sydney is actually a more egalitarian society than Melbourne. The metaphor for that is in the leveling beach culture that is even more characteristic of Sydney than of hotter, albeit landlocked Brisbane. In this too, however, lay the seeds of football’s peril in Sydney – the city’s casualness and hedonism, its diffusion of passions. Sydney blows with the wind. It wasn’t enough, as the VFL seemed to believe, for the Swans just to land in town – they were going to have to win. Because if there’s one thing that flighty Sydney loves above all else, it’s a winner.
If this piece has whet your appetite for some more Sydney-themed music and footy chat, well… our first ever Sydney show takes place on Wednesday 13th August at the Vic on the Park in Enmore, Sydney. Our stars? Jude Bolton and Urthboy, hosted by Francis Leach . Tickets available here.