Holy ground

Brian Matthews’ reflection on the Melbourne Cricket Ground is published at a time when the ground itself is at a crossroads, a fact immediately perceptible to anyone who has laid eyes on it in recent months. On the third day of the Boxing Day Test, I sat in the modestly named Great Southern Stand and looked across at the old Members Pavilion as it stood half-demolished, teetering on the edge of collapse. With the construction site visually inescapable, the thought of the eclectic collection of stands from several generations giving way to a new monolithic structure was mirrored by the thought of Steve Waugh playing in his last Boxing Day Test.

And this is precisely what Matthews’ text so vividly brings to light: the critical importance of the present, tempered by the knowledge that it will fade into the past. Sport at the MCG plots the seasonal life of Melbourne, as the winter to summer progression of football to cricket is punctuated by the events which mark the unique nature of each season: the memorable matches, moments and characters, and the special events, such as the Olympic Games and concerts.

However, Matthews does not offer a history that can be easily defined and categorised. It is not a standard textual analysis of a site in the way that a jaded reader of high school history may expect, nor does it offer the daily drama that a reader may expect from a text which proclaims itself a ‘life and times’ document. It does not offer a chronological explication of events, either of the ground’s formation and construction, or of the sporting and other fixtures it has housed. Nor is it a standard sporting history. It does not provide tables of statistics, or detailed listings of great achievements, high scores or career totals. Nor is it simply a series of autobiographical experiences, though of course these  play an important role.

A reader expecting such a text may be, at first, sadly disappointed, but then, perhaps, charmed by the unusual and unexpected mode of presentation. The first clue that such an innovative approach has been taken is the sparse yet striking black and white illustrative photos. Rather than plundering newspaper archives for shots of famous faces and events, Matthews has chosen a series of shots depicting crowds, stands and curators. Particularly striking are the photos by Megan Ponsford, which comprise around half of the collection. Megan has an intimate relationship with the ground: she is the granddaughter of Bill Ponsford (Australian cricketing legend of the 1920s and 30s after whom the now demolished Ponsford stand was named) and has recently released a photographic journal of a year in the life of the MCG, entitled Home Ground.

The text itself mixes the fictional and fantastic with the factual history of the MCG. After briefly relating how he first became familiar with the ground, Matthews evokes the ghost of Tom Wills, the man who, while being a successful cricketer with the Melbourne Cricket Club (MCC) and Victoria, is better known as one of the founding fathers of Australian Rules Football, the game which occupies the ‘G several times a weekend for the winter half of the year. Matthews has imagined Wills as a witness to the history of the ground, who, with the wave of a baton, brings to life its defining moments. The figure of Wills is complemented by Matthews’ effortlessly shifting voices; at one point a suitably loutish and syntax shattering homage to the Mexican Wave segues into a lovingly detailed history of the infamous Bay 13 (now Bay 20). Matthews would be intrigued to note that at the recent Test match, the pavilion was still booed when the wave went past, despite being completely deserted.

Matthews’ command of narrative voice enables a detailed yet affectionate history of the ground to emerge, a necessarily polyvocal account of a place which proclaims itself ‘The People’s Ground’. The order of events recounted at first appears haphazard. However, as the narrative unfolds, the text begins to relate the resonance of the ground’s ability to engage with so many of the myths which form the foundation of individual and collective identity in Australia. Many of these are overtly masculine, such as mateship, hard work and determination, and stoicism under adverse conditions. However, Matthews is able to convey a deeper level of human connection, one which is ephemeral and yet solidified in time and place. The narrative style is both personal and authoritative, able to move from a humorous account of the Puritan origin of queues, to the recognition of the use of the ground in wartime, including a passing reference to Billy Hughes’ use of the ground as a soapbox to address a crowd of 75,000 on the issue of conscription.

As a landmark—perhaps Melbourne’s most famous and recognisable—the MCG is a perennial visible presence in the city. But it is also much more than a sporting venue. With the ghost of Wills showing the way, Matthews presents memory as quite literally a spiritual affair, and as a temple, the MCG provides a site in which the faithful may worship a live religion which is continually producing its scriptures.  

The Temple Down the Road: The Life and Times of the MCG, Brian Matthews. Viking, 2003. isbn 067091178X, rrp $39.95

Ralph Carolan recently completed a Bachelor of Arts at Melbourne University, with honours in English Literature.



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