Every so often, an actual book passes over The Big Smoke’s sportsdesk. The Game of Their Lives chronicles the footballers who fought, and ultimately perished, in the horror of WW1.
Sports books, especially sports biographies, autobiographies of footballers (or the endless stream of cricket tomes chronicling tour diaries and their ilk) have never been high on my list of must reads. Like many wannabe intellectuals of my age group, I intend on one day reading James Joyce’s Ulysses, which according to the idiomatic custom, I was supposed to have done prior to my turning 40. So there’s a pile of reading to be done before Steve Waugh’s Ashes Diaries gets a guernsey.*
There’s a mark of scepticism, therefore, on a book about footballers during the first world war – some chaps who amid the battlefields of Gallipoli and the Dardanelles put on an exhibition match in London. As chronicled in Nick Richardson’s The Game of Their Lives, part R&R, part publicity exercise, it is set out as a tremendous example of how the game unifies, and in spirit can, and will prevail against difficult odds (“difficult odds” may be slightly underselling the circumstances of the Great War).
The really interesting line the book draws is the way the pro vs anti-conscription forces in Australian politics at the time used sport as a linchpin for their arguments. Some, like those in the VFL, thought the competition should go on. The heavy lifting was being done by the working classes, and the game they enjoyed on a Saturday afternoon in predominantly working class inner city suburbs was the small respite from shitty, hard work. Then there were the others, where the gnome-like perpetual troublemaker PM Billy Hughes was fiercely in favour of conscription and thought that the VFL competition should be called off. Not going without his two cents was the headmaster of Melbourne private school Wesley College, Dicky Adamson, a mad, elitist, opportunistic fascist if there ever were one. The argument went: what would our boys overseas think; that while they were taking it to Johnny Turk and Fritz, there were a bunch of layabouts back at Victoria Park lobbing a ball about?
(Spoiler alert: they were in favour of it.)
Richardson’s research is thorough to say the least and draws particularly vivid strokes of the lives of the players who ended up participating in the 1916 London exhibition match, and brings up some pretty interesting facts about the game itself during wartime, such as the 1916 season, where the league was reduced to four teams (Carlton, Collingwood, Richmond and Fitzroy, after Essendon, Geelong, Melbourne, South Melbourne and St Kilda all refused to play in the VFL competition on “patriotic grounds”), who played each other four times over 12 rounds. The Brownlow count that year probably wasn’t that interesting a sit (it’s a barn-burner these days, scoff).
Nick Richardson, to his credit, has written this book as a fact-based, predominantly unsentimental look at a fairly unheralded moment in history. It presents the game (and sport in general) as having a significant, if not vital role to play in the lives of a burgeoning nation, and how class, culture and politics played a role in forming a national identity.
It’s a marvellous read; a fascinating insight into the game and its worth in the nation’s history. Highly recommended for both lovers of the game and history buffs alike.
*someone gave me a book to read once, by an English soccer player named “Gazza”. Let me summarise it for you: “Then I played more football, then I got drunk and did something stupid, but I couldn’t help it coz I was drunk, innit?” Thrilling.