Or, conversations with Canberran taxi drivers
Or, does Canberra deserve an A-League licence? No, of course they don't.
Or, three or so mostly wasted days in the nation's capital due to cutbacks to the National Library
The driver of the Greyhound coach leaving Melbourne for Canberra in Thursday morning runs through the list of essentials: what to do with your rubbish, where to go to the toilet, and not to use deodorants as it gets into the air conditioning. Seeing as there's only five blokes on the thing, spread out across the bus, that shouldn't be an issue.
Steve from Broady had asked if I wanted to join him on this trip - no budget airlines fly to Canberra, remember - and I said yes, thinking I could also double up by doing some research up there. Apart from a dodgy roadside cafe cheeseburger somewhere Albury, the bus ride up is uneventful, even as it stops to pick up no one on at least half a dozen occasions.
Our first cab driver of the trip, taking us from the Jolimont Centre towards our budget hotel in some suburban outpost, takes up the soccer theme. He himself was a player he says, for Olympic in Canberra and Canberra Deakin, as well as some Spanish mob I didn't quite get the name of. He also takes credit for introducing Tom Rogic to football, which is the kind of claim that’s impossible to verify under those circumstances.
If, as in my day job, I was marking someone’s paper at uni, I could go back and check the reference, or mark them down for not including it. In this case that’s impossible to do. He also asks us if we know about Johnny Warren, which is like asking a Christian do you know about Jesus. Even if I’m not one of those who has beatified Johnny, I can’t help but get offended at the question. Still, he gives us the good advice of making sure to get to the ground early before the traffic builds up.
Another Socceroo fan staying at the hotel (the Ibis Budget out in Watson - don't go there, just pay the extra bucks for something closer to town) ends up inadvertently stealing our cab to the ground, and while there are also a couple of guys from Wollongong waiting fort an Uber service, we get another taxi instead and make it to the ground well in time. That's more than can be said for many of those attending the game, who get caught up in traffic on the way to
The match seems to play second fiddle to everything else. There is some sort of carnival atmosphere here. I suppose you take it for granted in Melbourne or Sydney that you’ll see the Socceroos play at least some sort of upper lower middle class team on a reasonably frequent basis. In the outposts, you take what you can get and make the most of it. The merchandise stand is making a killing, several local radio stations are in place, and there are two brass bands. Ordinarily that would be overkill, even one would be overkill, especially when they start playing AC/DC covers, but in a stadium with a bowl shape, that sense of Americana is not entirely misplaced.
Adjacent to the home end, we have a prime seat – that is near enough to the worst seats – to view the antics of the home end crew. A megalomaniac of sorts has a megaphone, and as the night goes on starts abandoning chants in favour of taunting the families of the western stand (who initially won't respond to his spit roast chant) as much he taunts the Krygyz players with comments about Russia and the USSR. Worse, there are even people wearing onesies, a fad which passed by my metropolis years ago.
One deadbeat in front of us offers to go buy some beers for his mates during the first half, but after going up three steps, realises that he doesn't have any money and comes back down to take some out of his partner's purse. Another group go off to buy beers before Australia has even scored, at the a moment where the ball is desperately pining around the Kyrgyz goal. That's something I've never quite understood, this inability to at least time your run to the beverages or have the patience to wait until the end of the relevant play at least.
Others watching the game both in the stadium and at home seem impressed with what the Australians are trying to do, even if they aren't quite up to doing it yet. Me, I think we're playing like donkey balls, but that's a matter of taste, no? In this case it's also a matter of perspective, because the view from right behind the goals in row R (in a part of the ground that for some reason skips rows O and Q) is kinda crappy. And who the hell built a stadium in a wet city without almost any roofing? It's a good thing the rain paused for the duration of the game. All things considered - the weather, the opponent, the weeknight fixture, the crowd number, at a touch under 20,000, was excellent.
Exiting the ground has the vibe of less muddy Waverley Park. Those on shuttle buses do OK; goodness knows how long it took to get out of the car park for those who drove there. The bus driver on the shuttle bus back to the city loses his cool when someone presses a button they shouldn't have, and then goes on to deny it. The bus lights are blue, which makes me wonder if Canberra has a night time bus riding junkie problem, but it turns out the real reason for the blue lights is for reducing glare for the driver at night.
The next day, trying to measure the impact of what had happened is almost pointless. My goal here in Canberra is to delve in the past. On the way to the National Library, the cab driver has the local commercial talk radio station on, and the presenter muses about whether Canberra could ever host an A-League team, before moving into an aimless discussion with the resident meteorologist about how much it had actually rained in various Canberra suburbs and the peripheral Yass.
I'm in Canberra to look at the archives of David Martin, and to confirm the existence of properly record materials to do with 1962 novel The Young Wife, which includes several soccer passages within his fictionalised Greek-Australian milieu. A magnifying glass helps sort out some of the handwritten details - I'll feature this as an artefact someday - but the thing I thought I had once perceived in this collection, an extended opening where Martin muses on the nature of sport in Australia turns out to be a mirage. That disappointment is compounded by the cutbacks to the library meaning the library not only does not open its special collections room on Sundays, but doesn't even make any deliveries on Saturdays at all. It's a terrible disadvantage for interstate scholars, both professional and amateur.
I turn up dutifully on the Saturday anyway, and having started on Martin's autobiography back at the hotel, I am able to at least get closer to what it was Martin was trying to do in this novel - and how, contrary to the praise he received for his work at the time of its publication, actually produced at best a fascinating failure of a novel. I also come closer to understanding his connection to soccer, but not close enough for my liking.
On the Sunday, the taxi driver taking me from my hotel to the National Portrait Gallery notes how he misses the EPL. Back in Cambodia, he could watch to his heart’s delight on dirt cheap subscription packages, and at reasonable times. Work now rules that out. How many Cambodians in Canberra? I ask. About 100 families he says, not like Springvale eh? He grins, and mentions his shock and delight at tne memory of hearing voices in his native tongue on the streets of Melbourne. It turns out the guy plays as well, socially at least in open parks with other taxi drivers and local uni students, but he rushed to play one day after getting off work, didn't bother stretching and did his back. Every time he comes back after a two week layoff, he ends up hurting it again, but he loves playing the game.
The National Portrait Gallery is worth a visit. It opens up with a room that's a sort of pantheon of mostly eminent scientists and the odd celebrity, before moving through history. Sketches of Indigenous peoples, explorers, and an endless series of black clad Australian petit bourgeoisie men, and their mostly pasty skinned wives. As time goes on, the works become more daring and more colourful, and their subjects more diverse, even if there's still way too many of the Fairfax family in there. Many of the subjects are either leaders of commerce and governance, or friends of the relevant artist. That makes sense - the former have both the desire and ability to afford their portraits being painted, while the latter are the persons the artist will most like to paint. I preferred the more adventurous and diverse subject matter - both the lefties out there, the huge Bob Brown portrait really has to be seen in the flesh, even though the subject himself is uncomfortable with the implied notions of sainthood bestowed upon him in the photo, as well as the disproportionate credit allotted to him.
The main gallery section finishes off with portraits of women. Unlike most of what has come before, many of these are photographs instead of paintings. I'm not sure of the reasons for this, and while I'm not generally not a fan of this kind of photographic work, the Lee Lin Chin portrait is stunning. Sports people get short shrift in the main selection. There are three fluoro images of famous cyclists (Cadel Evans, Robbie McEwan and Stuart O'Grady) and a stern Margaret Court. The seasonal gallery, which was in its last day, was called 'Bare' and was about various figures in different states of dress and undress. The Les Patterson on the toilet is a corker to see in the (too much) flesh, but other than that, it's not a particularly impressive collection. Sports persons get more time here, but too often its hackneyed, the photographers (most often its photographers) being unable to find the balance between the certainty and doubt, the athletic and the vulnerable. The only soccer man is a bare chested Harry Kewell, Liverpool era.
Some of the things I liked were Dave Graney's deliberately hilarious pose of dangerous sexuality; the frightening Robert Hughes; Les Murray attempting to sprawl, but coming across as timid in trying to do so; Arthur Boyd's portrait of his friend Carl Cooper on the edge of madness; and astronomer and physicist Penny Sackett, in a modernised renaissance pose, complete with screwdriver in hand. Someone in the gallery's guestbook grumbled about Rolf Harris' portrait of the Queen being removed, putting it down to political correctness. There were enough lords and ladies in there anyway, and a huge Queen Mary of Denmark.
The next day, my last cab driver in Canberra, in between grumblings about the apparent waste that is the planned light rail line and the pointlessness of the existence of an ACT government, asks me why I’m here. I tell him I came up with a friend to see the Socceroos, and he notes that he started watching it at home on SBS, not realising it was delayed, before his wife told him the final score – he’d forgotten that it’d also be on Foxtel. The circus, scaled down as it was for the provinces, came to town and left just as quickly. Anyone trying to weasel some sort of meaningful metrics out of that as a measure of what an A-League Canberra should probably find something else to do with their time.