Courtesy of The Weekend Australian
THERE is a lot of talk these days about childhood memories being the fountain from which we replenish our unique but depleting adult selves.
This generates even more talk about the reliability of memories. What follows is constructed out of irreplaceable, indispensable, unreliable memories, the only corrections being those insisted on by my brother, David Jewell, who played for the Newtown and Chilwell Cricket Club over many years.
Remembered: a cricket ground at Queen’s Park, Geelong. A beautiful ground ringed by a white line to mark the boundary, a white fence for leaning on and an outer ring of storm green pines. The sun is high at 2pm when the game begins; the shadows lengthening, the sounds of bat and ball more distant as the sun slants and the game moves to its close at six.
For me the cricket is always sunlit, perhaps because on wet or blustery or blistering days I find something else to do. The players in their creams and streaked white boots lounge on matted pine needles or in the natural armchairs of pine roots polished by years of exposure and a couple of generations of human bottoms. Someone — the one-legged opener? — is sitting, rather grandly, on a deck chair; beyond him, Captain Morry’s 1932 Chevy. Its handsome red grille noses the fence. A shadowy someone is in the passenger seat: Mrs Morry? No other women. Wives are present only in the gleaming cream of cricket shirts and pants.
And I have my first puzzle: how was my recalcitrant mother persuaded to fuss over cricketing creams in the clatter and steam of her huge Monday boil-ups? My brother tells me that afternoon tea used to be served by the home team ladies during the 20-minute break, but now, at the close of the war, there is no afternoon tea and minimal fraternising with the opposition.
In our cluster there’s some moments of clapping, some peaceable ribbing — to a player back after the second ball has spread his stumps, “Couldn’t bear to leave us, Charlie?” — but mainly we watch in silence, and when it is over everyone goes home for the meal we call tea. My family eats at six, but on cricket nights my mother has the meal on the kitchen table at 6.30 sharp. Talk and analysis, if they happen, happen elsewhere.
All this is 60-plus years gone, but in the wide-open eye of my mind it is yesterday, as luminous, as indisputably actual, as a Manet. But this Manet is framed not in gilt but in swirling vapour trails . . .
In the second half of the 40s Geelong was a small town laced together by sporting clubs which often had a church in the background, not that it mattered. My second brother played under-15s cricket for St Matthew’s Church of England without seeing the inside of a church.
The Catholic-Protestant division ran bitter and political but while the purest Protestants played only between themselves the Catholics fielded teams in the general senior competition, and when Newtown and Chilwell won the premiership in . . . 1947? 1948? . . . it was a Catholic team they beat (my brother making an elegant 70-plus). Most of the people in the team, like most of the people I knew, seemed to profess nothing beyond a cheerful secularism.
There were no visible class distinctions, either. Pastry cook, dairyman, schoolteacher, clerk, chemist, railway worker, carpenter, cobbler — the team’s string of occupations reads like an old-style nursery rhyme. Captain Morry was foreman at the local ropeworks; the ropeworks manager-owner played under his strict captaincy. Carson Carroll, a small, dark, gentle man I suspected of being sweet on my dashing big sister, ran a dairy farm at Fyansford; my big brother’s best friend’s father ran a pub.
Then there were the schoolboys from Geelong High or the Gordon Tech recruited by one of our eager army of spotters. The clubs were short of men, by war’s end. My big brother, six years older than me, was one of the team’s star batsmen when he was still at school, going in at one or two down, often scoring better than 50 and (to my mind) always beautiful to watch.
I also remember my scalding envy when my other brother, a mere three years older than me and still wearing short pants, was urgently called to the crease towards the end of a tense match (had someone been hurt?). He can’t have been much more than 12, but he made three, carried his bat, and a handful of years later was one of the club’s steadiest batsmen.
In those days when, say, a batsman crumpled, everyone came running, then huddled unhappily while a privileged few helped the wounded one from the field and into more expert care. I simply can’t get used to the fish-eyed indifference projected these days, with even the men closest standing like logs and everything left to the pros. As for sledging! As for a captain whingeing at an ump’s decision!
Back then, decorum ruled and umpires were a tribe apart. They might chat briefly with Morry (if they’d met him in the street there’d be handshakes and shoulder-clasps) but at the ground their aloofness protected their authority, which was absolute. There might be lip-tightening at a decision, but never an audible murmur of dissent. Nor do I remember any altercations between players and no swearing, either, on field or off.
Watching, I’d be freshly astounded, as I’d been through season on season of impromptu beach cricket, at the male passion for inventing rules and then for passionately honouring them. This was a most durable form of sacred men’s business, being produced through shared ceremonial action in a specially sanctified space, and consolidated into lore through the slow drip-feed of talk, time and experience, with all this happening inside a democratic male tribe where hierarchy depended a little on age, more on character and most on god-given talent.
Yet there were, it seemed to me, moral oddities. One example: when our one-legged opener peg-legged out to the crease, the opposition would bring on their slow bowler so he couldn’t just prop back and whack ’em (he had a great eye) but would be forced to use his mismatched feet. And I worried: was this a fair tactic to use against a man with a wooden leg? Yet it never raised a murmur. Yes, he had only one leg and was therefore allowed a runner, but he fielded usefully (in slips) every week and every week he earned his place. Of course they should bring on their slow. Anything other would indicate lack of respect.
And now I have to face Mrs Morry. A dear friend of mine insists that her vivid, detailed, emotion-drenched earliest memories are camera-accurate, and I believe her. But I discover some of mine, however vivid, however cherished, are fantasy.
I have cheated Mrs Morry. I have evaded or blurred her, when at every match there she would be, sitting very upright in the passenger seat of the Chevrolet, watching the game through the upright windscreen — and keeping immaculate score. As I now know. As I now (almost) remember. What I remembered until yesterday was that I was the one who kept score, but now that my brother has reminded me, I can see her, faintly wavy behind the glass, obdurately there. Perhaps my false memory rests on some crisis occasion when she was ill.
Remembering harder (blinking into the smoking crystal) I see Carson Carroll sitting beside me, a little away from the main group, repeating the numbers, watching my pencil, praising my exactitude. His wrist is in a cast. Carson is the fill-in scorer. Carson is also being kind to a droopy 10-year-old female hanger-on who happens to have a pretty sister. I was never the scorer, not even once — and a private, secret source of self-pride shreds. I think I managed my lonely childhood by imagining myself to be socially invisible: the watcher unwatched, the never-participant observer. Decades too late, I burn with shame to know I was not only seen but managed, pitied . . . But there is no one to complain to. Kind Carson has been dead for years, and my brother has been putting me back in my box for what seems centuries.
The worst of it is that memory once corrected is like fraying silk or a disintegrating ice floe: losing existential integrity, it is opened to decay. “The Cricket” I loved — my luminous Manet — is diminished now, as a detail flakes away to slither into an undifferentiated past too featureless for human use.
There are some enduring legacies. The cricket gave me a safe perch to observe a weekly march-past of ideal ways of being male, from calm reliability through eruptive power to glancing grace. I could assess the attributes desirable in a mate quite as directly as if the pines had been palms and the men in their creams had been leaping and stamping with plumes on their heads and bones through their noses.
Cricketing creams are as elegant a masculine display rig as I’ve seen, and instead of dancing I was offered a quiet walk to the wicket, the taking of guard, a light tossing of a red ball, a tensing, then an intense concordance of fluent and magnificently unpredictable action.
Somewhere beyond and above us hovered the Australian Test team, every player a deity with his own distinctive attributes. I had chosen mine: small, dour Lindsay Hassett, once a useful bowler, now a middle-order batsman capable of opening if he had to do (I liked him to open). He might seem an improbable choice, given the presence in the team of, for example, tall, handsome, narcissistic Keith Miller, but my devotion never wavered.
It was based, in part, on delusion, as devotion so often is.
I had somehow persuaded myself that a bat my older brother used and which I spent many hours grooming had belonged to, had even been used by, the great Hassett. (I was so solitary and secretive a child I could manage to believe almost anything.) I now think, or my other brother thinks, that it must have been a “Hassett bat”, not Hassett’s personal own.
But I know I went through the delicate, sensuous business of maintaining it believing it to have been his: oozing on the golden oil, tap-tapping it tenderly into the silky wood, testing with my fingertips the fine tough cord close-wrapping this brave, worn, wonderful, history-drenched object through which a glorious past sang. I could not have loved it more had it been wielded at Thermopylae.
I think it was Hassett’s dourness, his tenacity, his intense privacy which lay at the core of my devotion to him. I saw him as a man of Thermopylae: gallant, isolated; ready to sell his life, but at the highest price possible. This heroic identification was reinforced by the vocal theatrics of that celebrated cricket commentator, Alan McGilvray, on that most intimate and insidious form of public communication, the radio.
I also remember from those days, with access to radios limited, the mournful cry that would come echoing from passing trams, along empty corridors, between houses and gardens: “What’s the score?” And sometimes, just sometimes, an answer, jubilant or glum: “Four for 148, and MILLER’S GONE!”
McGilvray instructed me why I should love Hassett by representing him as the ultimate in reliability and moral poise — “at the wicket all day, scoring 20, just what Australia needed” — yet capable of moments of heart-lifting grace: “And it’s short and Hassett is dancing down the wicket and he’s cracked him through the covers for four, glorious shot, glorious shot!” And from the dozens of photographs and the handful of newsreels magically animated by that voice, I would see him dance.
Then came 1948, with the Invincibles touring England, Hassett vice-captain to Don Bradman and leading the team whenever Bradman was resting, therefore subjected to constant vociferous appraisal. His public elevation saw an end to my private devotion. It is true I also turned 14 that year.
But my cricket-forged ideal only went underground. Years later (after, I admit, marrying a non-cricketer) I would name my second son Richie for Richie Benaud’s imperturbable possession of self.
I remember those afternoons, and those men, with love. I don’t know what scars they bore because when they were playing cricket they set them aside. I think it was their best selves who played there at Queen’s Park, and that is how I remember them.
This is an edited extract from Inga Cleninnen’s essay, In the Pines, in Australia: Story of a Cricket Country, edited by Christian Ryan (Hardie Grant, $89.95).