Caught behind


Don Bradman is an Australian icon, yet he was such a distinctly un-Australian hero. Teetotaller, Protestant, Mason, closer to his wife than his mates, a leader, a loner, never one of the boys—the list of culpable behaviour goes on. Always shrewd and calculating, in both his batting and business endeavours, he never bet on horses, never swore. Not rugged. He is un-Australian in the way Menzies is un-Australian. Both were patriots, but patriots of a nation founded on British blood and Empire. That is just one of the paradoxes of the Bradman myth that Tasmanian sociologist Brett Hutchins has set himself to solve in Don Bradman: Challenging the Myth, and he does the job pretty well.

The ‘true’ Australian, as first described and analysed by Russel Ward in Australian Legend, was egalitarian, a swearing and drinking male who bonded with other blokes of his type but was ill at ease with women. He was the product, Ward assures us, of the distinctive, masculine ethos that sprang up in the Australian bush in the 19th century—a tradition and shared set of values bequeathed by countless gold-diggers and shearers, ex-convicts and stock-drovers. It took the first Sydney Push of the 1890s—which included the Bulletin writers, the Henry Lawsons and Banjo Pattersons—to assert that the bush didn’t just foster brutes, as had been previously thought. Rather, it was the cradle of a distinctively Australian civilisation. The cities were unstable, as the 1890s Depression proved, while the bush was the home not just of the weird but of the truly authentic and real.

Since this argument was first coined in the 1950s, it has been criticised for leaving out as much as it includes. One thing it fails to explain is how Don Bradman has been incorporated into the Australian tradition; how a man who was consistently sober, reliable, monarchist, monogamous and ruthlessly accumulative, whether at work or play, could so effortlessly become the definitive Australian hero.

Hutchins provides one answer. Alongside the Wardian bush ethos there is the social conservative tradition, both Australian and Anglophile. The Menzian worship of British institutions, culture, values and habits is the final apotheosis of a very British cult of respectability which took root and flourished in this very alien ground, living on in Australia’s longest serving prime minister’s mind well after the British themselves had packed up their empire and gone home to join a European union. In this context Bradman joins with politics to make an Anglo-Australian sort of authority and legitimacy. He is used to reinforce dominant social values, and to convince us that stability, predictability and methodical cultivation of talent can be just as Australian as doing just enough work to get you through to next smoko.

Combine this influence with the Bradman industry—the ever increasing production, sale and consumption of a ‘wide array of Bradman-related products’—and you have a self-perpetuating cycle, a commercialised tradition, one which makes money for many while also affirming core elements of the conservative tradition. ‘Those seeking to demythologise the Don face a considerable task’, Hutchins muses darkly. ‘Popular hagiographies, members of the cricket fraternity, sections of the media, the memorabilia industry and people such as the present prime minister influence the way we conceive of the Don.’ We are confronted with a legend that is masculinist, monocultural and ‘largely positive’ about Australian identity, and Bradman is part of this fabric, implicated in ‘these reductive and narrow configurations of gender, cultural and historical identity’.

Hutchins looks at the way the achievements and legacy of a sporting hero came to enshrine a particular mode of national being, a kind of verbal iconograph that someone like John Howard could pit against the demons of multicultural Australia. Hutchins does his analysis very well. He examines not only cricket’s role in developing a sense of specifically British (yet quasi-autonomous) nationhood in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but also the way in which Bradman’s own life, achievements, characteristics and beliefs came to be incorporated into a quite Australian story, even though Bradman himself was ‘never quite typical’. He is a sportsman who incorporates—and to a certain limited extent transcends—two distinct strands of Australian history: the boy from Bowral, and the loyal servant of the King.

But when we try, like this, to explain why Bradman has become ensconced in myth, we have always to come back to the fact that he was the finest cricketer who ever lived. His batting average so far surpasses that of all others that Peter Roebuck, celebrated cricket writer, was right to remark after Bradman’s death that not since Shakespeare has one individual so outshone all contemporaries. If you average 99.94 runs every time you walk out to bat then you could be Jack the Ripper and still be incorporated into a nation’s psyche—however ambivalently. Hutchins acknowledges Bradman’s statistical prowess in his first chapter, though a little grudgingly. You get the feeling that he’d prefer it if Bradman’s achievements had been not much more than average, thus providing further proof that Bradmania is no more than the creation of an Anglo-Protestant elite conjoined with a posse of marketing executives.

Which is fine as far as it goes: it is important, and salutary, to have a sceptical analysis of the particular stories and cultural configurations produced by one man’s sporting ability and personal character. But it is a pity when there is no room in the analysis for the mythic aspect of sport, where spectators identify so vividly with individuals and teams, and not because the spectators are dupes of dominant institutions, texts and powerful people. A myth inspires passionate identification with its ‘truth’ for deep reasons. A myth, wrote Mircea Eliade, is a ‘true story’ because it is ‘sacred, exemplary and significant’. Sport is living myth in that it is a human drama continually enacted, revealing for participants—and spectators are participants—something authentic about themselves and their place in the world. It is this sort of thing that Manning Clark probably had in mind when he pointed out that most Australian men experienced their moments of spiritual epiphany while watching sport.

In Don Bradman’s case his mythic aspect was perhaps best put by singer and songwriter Paul Kelly, whose lyrics announce that ‘He was something like a tide, he could take on any side’, that ‘They always came for Bradman ’cause fortune used to hide in the palm of his hand.’ And yet the story of this figure of quite elemental power is also ‘the story of a man’. This is more than simple false consciousness, and it too can be caught in the net of sociological inquiry. Why do people react so strongly when watching other people dressed up in funny clothes, chasing, throwing and whacking a ball around? Those questions belong here too. 

Don Bradman: Challenging the Myth, Brett Hutchins. Cambridge University Press, 2002. isbn 0 521 82384 6, rrp $39.95

Alex McDermott is completing a PhD at La Trobe University, and is the editor of The Jerilderie Letter (Text publishing).



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Existing comments

hahaha you are saying that he is un-australian because he spends time with his wife and therefore he is not a hero

deal with it, he is the greatest cricketer of all-time and he is a legend.
john | 11 December 2008

Tariff reductions should not have been a surprise to anyone. Since the late 'sixties the Tariff Board and its successors, eg Industry Commission had been broadcasting its obvious desirability. It came with some pain but we are all better off because of it. For example, assembly line hands would have suffered some trauma but many would have found a much more desirable life working in the tourism industry on the Gold Coast and the Sunshine Coast.Vive la spin!
Phil Smith | 15 March 2010


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