State of Origin in Melbourne jogged this in my memory. It's the launch speech I made for John Harms' The Pearl, his bio of Steve Renouf, at the North Fitzroy Arms in 2005. People might be interested in how much I characterise myself as a rugby league supporter. I was certainly surprised. I'll ponder more about this.
John invited me to speak today possibly because I’m one of the few people he knows in Melbourne who cares passionately about both Rugby League and writing. We’re possibly a rare breed anywhere. But definitely so in Melbourne.
Coming to Melbourne after living most of my life in Queensland was a great move for me. I could go on about the positives: but there was one great negative: the absence of Rugby league – whether live, on television and radio, in the print media. My main winter sporting interest was relegated from pre-eminence to the bottom of the pile. Even when I lived in New Zealand in the early 80s I had been able to keep in better contact with the fortunes of my team, St George than I was able to in Melbourne in 1994.
As a result I’ve lost a little contact with Rugby League. I occasionally go to watch Melbourne Storm but I feel as if I’m watching something alien to what I loved about the game in the 70s, 80s and early 90s.
Hopefully, this helps to explain why I read John’s book in one day. A couple of months back I was off work sick and received John’s book in the morning mail. I finished it that night.
I’m a sponge for writing about Rugby League – especially when it’s well-written and thoughtful with a good sense of the game’s history.
But it was more than just the Rugby League content that kept me riveted. There are at least four things I admire about this book.
1. John Harms is a bloody good writer. He writes with a lightness of touch and a clarity that is truly enviable. He’s funny. He’s not afraid to be child-like and vulnerable in the way he expresses himself either.
A few weeks ago he had a terrific piece the Age about two contradictory aspects of Australian Rules Football.
I had footy in me, but not in the way the tough kids had it in them. Theirs was Clockwork Orange football, whereas mine was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
But I think the most admirable quality of his writing in this book is his creation of a mood or a tone that captures the Brisbane I remember to a tee – an atmosphere of brightness and freshness undercut by a deep inferiority complex and ideas of persecution. In relation to sport this became a brash confidence never quite confident enough to spill over into arrogance. When we win we win because it’s only right.
2. This book is the story of a great player’s life told well. John has done the research; he’s become acquainted with Steve and his family and has revealed a life that is interesting in itself. He has also revealed a character who seems unclear about his role in life after football – especially his role in Aboriginal politics.
3. It’s a book that recognises the importance of Aboriginality in Australian sport and society. The book charts the changes in attitudes of the media and sports administrators to Aboriginal sportsmen over the past two decades. John reminds of the disgrace of the treatment of Eddie Gilbert and how much things have changed. But he also demonstrates how far there is to go on this issue. Steve’s wife Elissa makes this contradictory defence of her parents’ attitude towards Steve. “It was just because he was an Aboriginal bloke. They weren’t prejudiced or anything, they just didn’t want their daughter to be going out with an Aboriginal.”
John’s contrast between Anthony Mundine and Steve’s attitude towards Aboriginal politics is a highlight of the book.
4. The book has some great Rugby League writing in it. A passage on p194 is particularly memorable. But perhaps the moment that convinced me how good this writing is is his description of Steve’s try in the 1992 Grand Final on p 124.
Reading this I was gripped and transported and willing Renouf over the line. For a St George supporter, that’s something akin to treachery, though I’d prefer to see it as reconciliation.
Finally, I am pleased to say that John Harms has outed himself with this book. Outed himself as a passionate Rugby League fan. He couldn’t have written this book if he wasn’t.
When John first came to Melbourne a couple of years ago I thought in a more cynical moment (just what we need: a Queenslander spruiking for AFL). Reading this book has made me realise that John is much more than this. While he clearly is a lover of AFL and his perennially underperforming team he is more than this; he is a sportswriter of the highest order.
If you haven’t read John yet, buy a copy of this book and find out why. If you have read him you won’t need me to convince you.