writing my novel

Or, footy and its fictional life

Football is a mythical, character driven narrative. Each club has a collected history of marvellous victories and painful defeats, of moments and dramas that are told and retold and woven into an identity. When you put on the jumper, when you support the club, you promote and sustain the narrative. But it is not just professional teams where this storytelling takes place. Football clubs, playing Australian Rules Football, have been in existence since the 1850s. These were belonging to rural areas of Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania and New South Wales. The trajectories of football clubs intersected with natural disasters, floods and fires, with economic depression, with the World Wars and moments of social change. It would be easy to eulogise such spaces, just as it would be easy to condemn them. Football has always been, and continues to be, a contested space and practice; it is both inclusive and exclusive.

Australian Rules Football promotes social cohesion and diversity, but it is also angrily endorses white patriarchal privilege. Roy Hay and Athas Zafiris, in “Australian Football’s Indigenous History,” note that “there are many references to Indigenous adults and children playing varieties of football in Victoria and South Australia from the 1860s onwards. The much maligned colonial archive reveals the achievements of early Indigenous football teams and players. It is a history replete with disturbing prejudice, ignorance and lazy misconceptions.”  It is this complexity that, in part, led me to Henrithvale.

faded yellow by the winter is not intended as a condemnation or celebration, but as the story of some people in a small town where the football club is important. The club does not exist independently of relationships, personal and collective histories, and economic worry. It functions to support and exacerbate these conditions. The novel does not give equal space to all the characters; it is not inclusive of all perspectives. faded yellow by the winter, is largely the story of Vic Whelan, a person in the world doing what he thinks, or hopes, is best; he is a person somewhat aware of how the past that has shaped him, somewhat aware of his motivations and someone uncertain and concerned about the future.

In writing faded yellow by the winter, I wanted to draw on my own observations and experiences, of watching and playing footy. Mary Tomsic and Jordana Silverstein, from University of Melbourne, write, in Footy, History and a Changing Australia, that by “understanding footy – past and present – we can get a snapshot of Australian cultural history. And not just our sporting history – but societal changes, particularly where gender and race play a central role.” In telling the story of Henrithvale, or at least attempting to tell “a” story from Henrithvale, I am also discussing the processes of change, of belonging, of displacement.

The seeds for this novel were planted at the MCG, Sunday, August 25, 1996. Although I am an ardent and passionate Hawthorn supporter, on this day in 1996 I had gone to see the last game the Fitzroy Football Club  in Victoria. Fitzroy, formed in 1883, a foundation club of the VFL, were to be merged with the Brisbane Bears from 1997 onwards and relocated to Queensland.

Fitzroy played Richmond in their final MCG game. Despite some early fight, Richmond won by 149 points. I remember the players from both teams gathering near the middle of the ground, I remember Richmond supporters singing their theme song with such gusto and joy. Not all of them, admittedly, but enough so that Richmond has forever been placed on a list of teams that I love to see lose. Then the Fitzroy players made their way to boundary line to acknowledge their supporters and the Fitzroy club song played and the players jogged a lap. As they reached the Southern Stand, heading towards the city end, supporters navigated their way through ground security and joined the players. It was appalling. Many Fitzroy supporters turned away from football, hearts broken.

Yet there are many other clubs that have been disappeared or merged and their loss is no less tragic and no less devastating for those who supported them. I had already completed my novel when the Timothy Boyle article, “Country footy: Australian folklore’s dying giant,” appeared in The Age in mid-2018. Boyle stated:

Scott Pearce - Player
Real footy players wear their socks pulled up.

“Country football is a dying giant of Australian folklore. Dozens of towns in western Victoria are struggling to preserve their sporting clubs, which, since the decline of the church, are standing as the last institutions between a community’s living identity, and history.” Martin Flanagan writes of the ‘shrinking eco-system‘ of Australian rules football. The AFL is swollen with corporate riches, while amateur leagues and clubs flounder.

All of the professional cliches about football are actually meaningful and true when applied to country football. “It’s more than a game,” for example. The football-netball clubs have become so central to the social fabric of these towns that to lose them is a risk to people’s general wellbeing.”

The sense of connectedness with others is felt more broadly: the land and its usage, the unaddressed colonial past and present, the hard-fought ground gained by women who have for  too long been derided and denied equal participation in football, and shifting global economy that reshapes imports and exports. These factors all impact upon football clubs.

In narrowing my focus to Vic and to his story, I endeavour to tell one story well. The characters in this novel are, not as I see it, fictive. That would be a cruel thing to say. They are people I have lived with for years, telling me their stories in different ways. Although, some are much louder than others.

I am hesitant to say too much about the characters. I have the feeling I am betraying their trust in me. Here is the compromise: before writing about characters I must first get to know them and know far more about them than what appears in the text. I write from the position that there are always complexities at play within a person, even for those characters that are deeply flawed.

The people in the novel are products of time and place and experience.  The characters, i hope, encourage readers to consider their own lives and the truths we live by and how we might behave in similar circumstances. I endeavour to show characters in a plain manner; to tell their story as it is, to describe it rather than prescribe.

Yet, having said that, this is Vic’s story, he frames the narrative, so his prejudices are present in the text. Certain characters are excluded, pushed to the boundaries and a lot of what they had to say has been left out. Some of them aren’t given much space. I could rewrite this story from Jane’s point of view or Brian’s point of view, and it would be a very different story. For me, Henrithvale is directly and indirectly confronted by questions that we, personally and collectively, are sometimes reluctantly confronted with: what does the past mean for the present and the future? When we are so positioned that it seems we must act, that we must speak, what do we do?

Scott Pearce - Fan
Portrait of the novelist as a young fan

In writing faded yellow by the winter, I am reflecting on and critiquing my own love of football, on my love for the Hawthorn Football Club and on the notion that a football player has two intermingling identities; that of a player and that of a person. There is crossover, but also privilege. Yet, there is also space, space not yet fully opened, for everyone regardless of gender, sexuality, ethnicity or religion. I support Hawthorn because when I was five or six years old, I could not decide which team to follow. My mother supported Collingwood, my father supported Essendon and my sister had joined him. My Nanna had lived in the suburb of Hawthorn for a period in the mid to late 1920s, somewhere near Glenferrie Oval. She was a Hawthorn supporter. She recalled watching them train and play when she was a child. She told me they, “they weren’t very good at football, but they were always friendly and good to the kids.” That was enough for me. I joined with my Nanna and supported Hawthorn, but I think it was fated to be that way.

*Photos thanks to Mum. 

**To order a copy of faded yellow by the winter send an email to readingsidewayspress@gmail.com. The book will be available from mid-April 2019.