Saturday, 5 August 2017

Les Murray on Laszlo Urge, and non-linear academic discovery

This is something I started last year but never got around to finishing. Seeing as how Les Murray the soccer pundit passed away this week, and seeing as how South has a week off, it's about time I fished it from the depths of my drafts folder, finished it off, and got it out of the way. I liked what was going on in this a lot more back then than I do now. A more useful version will hopefully end up buried in my thesis' literature review in due time.

This is the story of both the sometimes tedious and arcane nature of academic research, but it's also a story about the meeting of two parts of Australian culture that have little do with one another. If, as the popular notion seems to suggest, that sport and the arts in Australia are inherently irreconcilable pursuits, whose meetings are at best rare and awkward, then perhaps nothing quite encapsulates that cultural schism quite like the existence of Australia's two Les Murrays.

For perhaps most of Australia, even that which is not particularly enamoured with soccer, Les Murray remains the better known of the two Les Murrays. As the face and voice of Australian soccer, and by extension also the face and voice of SBS and a certain strain of the Australian multicultural experience, Murray's fame exists outside of the narrow trench of Australian soccer; this is best typified by the Australian public's familiarity with that strange, untraceable accent, which famously prompted TISM to ask 'What Nationality is Les Murray?' - a song which would not have worked quite so well had people had no idea who Les Murray the soccer pundit was.

Then there is the 'other' Les Murray, often lauded as Australia's greatest living poet and among the finest living poets writing in the English language, but whose work most Australian have probably only come into contact with by accident and most recently twenty years ago (unless they teach poetry in schools; do they still do that?) as the co-author of John Howard's preamble to the Australian Constitution which was attached to the republic referendum. For a minority of Australians, those who might be classed as too educated for their own good to care too much about sport and popular culture, as the poetry editor for the right wing literary and cultural magazine Quadrant, Les Murray the poet is a figurehead of one of the two sides waging perpetual cultural wars against each other.

So how is it that these two Les Murrays would have anything to do with each other? Many years ago while I was still an undergraduate, I seem to recall - though this could just be me inventing a myth of my own - that some now indistinguishable person told me, probably somewhere in the imaginatively named Building 8 at Victoria University's St Albans campus, that Les Murray the poet had written a poem about Les Murray the soccer pundit. Not knowing where to start looking for it, and not having much help from either the person who must (or may?) have mentioned it, the notion of trying to find the poem died quickly. This was before I had even decided that my honours thesis let alone doctoral thesis work would focus on soccer and its relationship to Australian literature; before, too, my ending up teaching some of Les Murray the poet's works in the Australian Literature unit that we teach to second and third year students at Victoria University.

After laying dormant for so many years, the re-ermergence of this apocryphal poem owes as much to the accidental happenings one experiences when travels Melbourne in the style of a flâneur, as it does to the inner suburbs of Melbourne still having enough bricks and mortar bookshops so that the act of finding one is less a freak accident than a statistical probability.

After meeting with my mate Chris Egan in the city, and conducting another piece of historical detective work at ACMI, we decided to head towards Lygon Street for lunch. Taking the tram up there from Federation Square, we - probably mostly me - had stopped paying attention to where we should have gotten off, went several stops further up Lygon Street than we had intended, and then kept walking in the opposite direction to where we were supposed to be going. By a happy meeting of statistical probabilities, we ended up outside Red Wheelbarrow Books, a small independent bookshop. While we could have turned around and just caught the next tram back, there in the front window were an assortment of books by the anarchist poet Pi O, so of course I decided to enter the store.

After discussing Pi O with the store's proprietor and being offered a returned/secondhand copy of one of Pi O's Selected Works for $15 (as opposed to $35 for a new copy), we somehow moved on to discussing my current doctoral work on Australian soccer and literature; the chance to discuss one's thesis work with interested parties who happen to be people other than one's supervisors being an opportunity few PhD students can afford to miss. The catalyst for this was I suppose my making a remark on Pi O's lack of interest in sport, especially soccer, despite his extensive work covering (whether incidentally or not) the lives and language of migrant Europeans during the 1970s and 80s.

Indeed, one couldn't help but note the sole poem where Pi O does discuss soccer, a piece called 'Soccor', which still barely manages to discuss the topic of soccer at all. From there the proprietor of the bookshop managed to make a couple of suggestions about other literary Australian soccer texts, including Peter Goldsworthy's Keep it Simple, Stupid, which I was already well aware of, but he then recalled that Les Murray the poet had written a poem about Les Murray the soccer pundit.That he could recall no further details of its content, title, year etc was now far less of an issue than it would have been in the past. For nearly a decade on, I was now armed with the resources of the AustLit database and duly went off to search for the database entry on Les Murray the soccer pundit, and works which were about him.

Alas, there were no poems listed as being about Les Murray the soccer pundit. What to do? After noting my disappointment on Twitter that the existence of this poem may have merely been an urban myth - a poem by one Les Murray on the other Les Murray, surely it was too good to be true - someone working diligently and anonymously behind the scenes at AustLit came to the rescue.
As it turned out, according to people at AustLit the poem had never been published either in a literary journal nor in a collection of work by Murray, but rather in one of the supplements of the Weekend Australian in October 1991. So, after a detour to a university bake sale, it was off to the State Library of Victoria to search through the microfilm, sifting through generic right-wing commentary and classified jobs for professionals, until there it was - in all of its if not quite unfortunate mediocrity, then its being something quite different to what I'd expected.

One didn't expect one of Murray the poet's more stunning efforts, but even so, I could not help but be underwhelmed by the poem's style as well as its content. To begin with, even a quick overview reveals that the poem is not about Les Murray the soccer pundit at all, but merely dedicated to him - and even then, not to Les Murray the soccer pundit, but to Laszlo Ürge, the identity the soccer pundit had left behind at the start of his television career.

Without knowing of the existence of any possible prior interactions between the two Murrays, the motivation for Murray the poet writing this poem and dedicating it to Murray the soccer pundit is hard to fathom. At the end of the poem, Murray the poet affirms that 'I'm Les Murray', but it is hard to read between the lines of whether this signing off is meant to be playful and linked to the opening gambit in the dedication itself, or whether it is instead some sort of pointed attempt at reclaiming the rights to the Les Murray name - and if so, what would be the nature of that resentment?

The poem then seeks to describe, in the semi-abstract, various sports played by Australians - among them rugby union and league, Australian Rules, soccer and basketball - but with a kind of dismissive attitude. These sports seem to Murray to be fueled by an anger and relentless trudging and sense of aimless, furious activity; worse still are those who aren't participants, but who live vicariously through the athletes making those exertions. In that sense the poem's tone is entirely consistent with Murray's oeuvre so far as I'm familiar with it - an innate distrust of modernity, and also of the speed and lack of space for thought and contemplation that is attached to that notion of modernity.

It is strange then that as an Australian bush nationalist of sorts, that one of Murray's preferred sports at the specific time of this poem's publication is not cricket, especially as it may manifest itself in those idyllic John Harms-ian forms played in the Australian bush, but instead what he calls American cricket - in other words, baseball. This is strange in the context of Murray's politics because as Michael Manley has noted, whatever elements of idleness, rest, anticipation and craft are shared by cricket and baseball, cricket in its purest essence is an agrarian and time-less game, while baseball was moulded very early on into becoming an essential part of the ordered and regimented cycle of life in the modern industrial north of the USA.

Strange also are Murray's interpretations of those sports, especially the various football codes enjoyed by Australians. Here Murray plays the accidental historian, placing the rugby codes first in order of genealogy but re-interpreting in a sense the origin myths of union and league, and therefore rugby as a whole itself; while one can perhaps sense Murray vaguely alluding to the class split which saw league split off from union, at no point does Murray place rugby union's origins in the English public school system, nor allude to the inherent link between industrialisation and the professionalism of rugby league. Instead we have 'poachers in blue', who one supposes may be members of the upper classes or the military, playing for a time at least either with or alongside - it's not clear to me which Murray deigns to mean - 'farmers in brown'.

The depiction of Australian Rules in this poem is typical of the generic response someone from the northern states may make of the game - the comical appearance of the players in their sleeveless shirts and tight shorts jumping on top of each other, and the near incomprehensibility of the large crowds who are there to watch them. Murray's familiar dislike of crowds and fear of their encroachment on his personal space gets doubled down in the depiction of soccer - the implied barbarity of the kicking of heads among caged foreigners, with little definition of who is being separated from whom. Aside from this however, Murray the poet offers little more on soccer than this scene of stylised allegorical violence and the crowds of foreigners who watch the game - an unusual step to take when dedicating a poem to a soccer man.

For the rest, basketball gets short shrift, as does tennis and the grunting efforts of its players. But the point seems to be that those watching either in person or drowsily watching on a TV screen, combined with the furious exertions of the players, are suffering form a kind of madness. For Murray, for whom crowds are a form of madness in their own right, the sporting machine is not a benign illness. It's almost as if Murray sees modern professional sport - such as it was in 1991, and goodness knows it's only gotten worse - as a corruption of both work and play. the idea being that play should be left alone, untainted by commercial interests, for when play is turned into work, work too loses its own nobility. Modern sport and professional athletes begin to less resemble people participating in a vocation or ritual attuned to the rhythms of nature, becoming instead automatons.

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