Saturday, 20 December 2014

Book Review - Sweet Time, by Graham Reilly

Graham Reilly's 2004 novel Sweet Time is a nostalgic look at the birth of a soccer club, and the community which created it, as an assortment of mostly Scottish migrants attempt to settle into their new lives in Australia.

In the 1960s, former Catholic priest, now high school teacher Douglas Fairbanks and his wife Kirstin arrive in Australia from Glasgow. More specifically, they arrive in Melbourne, settling in the fictionalised western suburb of Baytown. As with many migrant tales, it is the immediate differences which fascinate them. The heat (they can't figure out whether to keep their butter in the fridge or pantry), the people and the sense of opportunity that exists - the working class Glasgow streets they've left behind being mired in the usual social ills.

It's perhaps a slightly atypical Australian migrant narrative, in that the focus is on British migrants, mostly from Scotland. It's also for the most part light hearted, as the migrants of all stripes try to make the best of their situation, appreciating what their new country has to offer. The main conflict in the novel comes from inside of Douglas, unsure about the choices he's made in his life, including his marriage, a struggle which doesn't necessarily engage as much as it should - but that may be an issue of personal taste.

What is most fascinating about this text, at least for me, are the passages dealing with the creation of the Baytown Soccer Club. In large part, this is because the suburbs of Baytown and its new soccer club share a few traits with the suburb of Altona and the Altona City Soccer Club. The now long defunct Altona Star newspaper becomes the Baytown Star. Like the fictional Baytown S.C., Altona City was formed in the 1960s in Melbourne's western suburbs, on swamp land across the road from Cherry Lake. 

Since Reilly was a 1960s migrant himself to Altona, and because of the obvious references to those real life entities, it makes one think about which parts of the Baytown club are based on actual Altona City history, which parts are a re-telling of historical facts about other clubs in an amalgamated context, and which parts come entirely from Reilly's imagination.

Overall, the soccer narrative, like the rest of the text, is couched in nostalgia. The group which forms the new soccer club, despite being dominated by Scots, also includes Maltese, Italians and the odd local, breaking with the commonly held idea that soccer at that time was a sport completely dominated by mono-ethnic clubs. Indeed, apart from a brief mention of Celtic, there is no mention of any other clubs, scant mention of the Victorian soccer system, and no mention of ethnic divides within the game. The club also has relatively humble ambitions, unlike those clubs which exist in say relevant novels by David Martin or Peter Goldsworthy.

As mentioned earlier, the club’s land is located in semi-reclaimed swamp land, mirroring the fringe lands historically allocated to other soccer clubs. The volunteers put in countless hours of labour to get the place up to scratch. There is also antipathy from certain quarters to the establishment of the soccer club. This includes members of the council and the local Australian rules football fraternity, who attempt to sabotage the creation of the club. At different times, they pull down the fence, destroy the field, and burn down the pavilion. Compare this treatment to the real life attempts at sabotaging soccer grounds (Middle Park and Hobart) and denying soccer clubs access to land (Footscray JUST and Hakoah).

Part of this antipathy and vandalism is linked in the novel to local antipathy to migrants and ‘their’ game – the inference being that they should assimilate and all that - but also to the mayor (and president of the Australian rules football club) who is seeking to drive the club away from the land allocated to them, in order to build a new large scale housing development. It's an interesting tack to take, pairing soccerphobia with self-interest, even if the mayor's villainy makes him look a little cartoonish, with Reilly taking much glee in creating a caricature of the ultimate soccer hater. In some ways, it's an antecedent of the soccer hating journalist from Adrian Deans' Mr Cleansheets.

Reilly also tries to find ways to secure an Australian place for soccer, by showing the hard work of the soccer club's volunteers, as well as their diversity, open mindedness, and their ability to participate in other parts of Australian society. Reilly attempts, not very subtly but effectively nonetheless, to overcome the perception of soccer as a weak game.The most notable way he does this is via the teenage ‘schemie’ immigrant Wullie Henderson, who has a no-holds barred attitude to violence and swearing. Wullie, with his accent and role as comic relief, is also by far the most interesting character in this novel.

Even without the Altona City touchstone, you don't need to know how the soccer side of the story ends. The main plot involving Douglas' internal struggle has its dark moments, but overall this is a text that would rather celebrate the migrant narrative than question it, seeing in it an overwhelmingly positive story - and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. A good, entertaining read.

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