I rode up Lennox Street and then through Abbotsford. The dealers and users were on the corner of Victoria/Lennox. I rode through the intersection and past Aldi. Leaves covered the bicycle lane and now and then I drifted to the centre of the road, wary of any quickly-opened parked-car door. I turned right into Johnston Street and then left into Trenery Crescent and past the eastern end of Victoria Park. Riding north. I got onto the Merri Creek bicycle path at around Dights Falls. Clifton Hill. These are the recent names given to this part of Wurundjeri Country. The flats of footy ovals, playgrounds and football fields on my left. To the right, the small valley of the creek and the higher ground on the eastern side. The sun shone and I remembered past conversations I had shared with friends as we had walked along the same path. This time, I carried with me a small bag with a couple of articles to read and some snacks. A casual footy picnic, while watching the game at Northcote’s Bill Lawry Oval. I was passing up on the Richmond-St Kilda game and going elsewhere.
It is the last weekend of autumn and yet the ground remains firm and in good nick. The centre square turf is thick and black in patches, but nothing that would prevent players from bouncing the ball with only the slightest degree of caution. A crowd of supporters is gathered on the northern wing. Some sit on the stone wall fence a metre back from the white picket fence that rings the field. It feels like a cricket oval. There are some spectators who seem to be injured players: they’re full of energy and perhaps are mildly frustrated about not being out their themselves. They stretch their legs and sport the team’s tracksuit jacket. At the back and a fraction higher up on the grassy mound, a couple of men stand with cans of cider. The crowd is small enough that you feel like checking with those around you: am I blocking your view?
On the southern wing, there is a pair of cameramen filming the game. Otherwise, it is empty. There are some large trees which would provide cooling shade in the summer. Two large blocks of housing estate apartments loom in the background. They appear poorly kept, yet the decorations on the windowsills indicate they are not only inhabited, but that the occupant is seeking to adorn them with his or her own style. The housing flat commissions are indicative of an earlier era of urban planning. The scoreboard in the south-west pocket is also a reminder of things past: analogue and clunky and operated by an unseen figure (or figures) inside the metallic box and is dedicated to the memory of Geoffrey Guille and Arthur J. Spain. Behind the eastern goals, a man sits alone, at the back on a piece of outdoor furniture. He is smoking a pipe and shouts occasionally towards the players. It is unclear whom he is barracking for: he applauds good skills while bemoans mistakes.
Entrance today is free. But a sign remains up for cost of other games that are held at this venue. Just inside the gate is the merchandise stand selling the Darebin Falcons official beanies, scarves and peaked caps. Some in the crowd mark their affiliation with the club through wearing these items. Perhaps they are friends or family of the players; perhaps they have a voluntary role with the club. Girls, under ten, run around in the Falcons’ jumper: they may have had an away game, elsewhere, earlier in the day. At half-time, a father and his son come down the eastern end for a bit of kick-to-kick through the goals. The boy is dressed up in Essendon clothes, indifferent to the misdemeanours of the club’s recent dubious practices. The boy attempts to mark some of the Falcons’ goals as the ball sails over the low fence. He fetches it and drop punts it back to the young lime-green boundary umpire who runs the ball back to the centre circle with meticulous efficiency.
The game is tightly fought throughout the first and second quarters. The ball moves well between both forward lines; forward thrusts often being stopped some 30 metres out from goal. But the play is clean despite the low scoring: true drop punts kicking diagonally across the field and making space. Solid bumps and broken tackles and the occasional clanger. Darebin takes a narrow half-time lead and then runs away with it in the third, kicking towards the scoreboard end. Casey have ended up being outplayed in their back third of the field, but, otherwise they seemed on a par with Darebin. It was tighter than the sixty point margin suggests. The margin is one thing; the feeling is another.
From my spot at the eastern end mound behind the goals, I keep my head down and read, now and then, when the result is beyond doubt. There is construction noise in the distance, but otherwise, I have a soundscape of players’ calling out to another, the umpires whistle and instructions, the thud of the ball into the fence, and magpies having their warbles. This rendition of footy seems far from the packaged spectacle taking place a few kilometres down the road. This feels like a picnic: bucolic and tranquil.
Even though the name is ‘Bill Lawry Oval’: I find myself thinking more of Pastor Sir Doug Nicholls. If I am not mistaken, this is the oval where he played for Northcote while in the VFA. Nicholls had left Carlton due to racist abuse and found a home at Northcote, before later playing for Fitzroy in the VFL. Then, while Bill Lawry was playing for the national Australian cricket team during the 1960s, Sir Doug was busy setting up the Victorian Aborigines Advancement League and the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. Sir Doug’s authority and ability to attract the interest of a wide audience in part came from his fame as a sportsman.
Field, Ground, Oval, Stadium
I ride back south while also thinking of Timmah Ball’s essay in The Griffith Review #60 on the contested historical ground on which the MCG stands. She writes, “Australia’s colonial past thrives while we watch footy matches played on Wurundjeri/Boon Wurrung land, in a stadium named after the invaders’ favourite sport” (Ball 2018, p.216). The narratives facilitated by geography interplay with those of individuals and who gets remembered and who is forgotten. Footy grounds, ovals, stadia, are a part of shared social spaces; they are spaces which shape us and which we shape in turn. By the time I get home, I see my team is winning at the Stadium over the road. My app tells me so. Today, I don’t think they’ll notice my absence.