Respecting Australian rules

Australian writer Martin Flanagan is like a modern day shanachie. In Irish tradition, every village, no matter how small, had a storyteller, known as a shanachie, who told stories about their people and the society they lived in. The shanachies effectively helped preserve Irish culture and a sense of history; they instilled a sense of justice in their children.

Flanagan’s writing is like the story-telling of the shanachies on several levels.

He too addresses issues of fairness and history, and tells the untold stories of the ordinary person. Through that process,he looks at many of the major issues confronting Australian society today.

Both in his daily journalism, writing for The Age newspaper, and his books (there are eight to date), Flanagan is a beautiful writer. He writes about Australian culture, Australian people and the games they play. The relationship between black and white Australia has long been a focus of his work. He has been called Australia’s best sports writer but his work deals with much more than sport. Of course, sport embraces much more than just a game. ‘Any popular game properly understood will always tell you about the values of the society at the time,’ Flanagan says.

His latest book, The Game in Time of War, was inspired by the events of September 11 and the subsequent attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq. In short, it is the story of three men going to the football, and the events in the world around them during that time.

In the book, he examines society using the medium of sport—from World War I to the present day. Flanagan found solace in the football at a time when the world seemed to be going mad. ‘So all of a sudden this bloody war’s coming and the only thing which provides me with any sort of degree of relief is going to watch this game. I’m as aware as anyone that that’s almost absurd but equally it was the reality.’

So what is it about Australian Rules that provides that relief? ‘There is something about the Australianness of it ... going and watching a game of footy—which some people would say is violent, but to me isn’t ’cos it’s sort of codified Greek conduct—and just the earthy candour that surrounds the game that was no longer in our public life. And the egalitarian nature of it, all those sort of things.’
The Game In Time of War deals with culture and politics, religion and self-discovery, nationality and humanity—like much of Flanagan’s work, it is heartfelt and raw. While dealing with complex and confronting issues, his writing remains simple and accessible.

This is no coincidence—he works hard at the process. He puts it down to his experience as a journalist, wanting his writing to speak to the broadest possible audience. He also credits other influences: ‘I was persuaded of that by [cartoonist Michael] Leunig, who said “the simpler you can make your work the more people you’ll take with you”.’

‘I am in the business of trying to deposit ideas in mainstream Australian culture. It’s like posting letters—you’ve got to get the ideas through a slit and I regard my art in part as making the complex simple, so it’s absolutely about accessibility. People have got no idea the labour that goes into being simple. I try and be really hard-headed about my writing, like I interrogate it, [asking] “What are you saying? If you say this, do you mean that?” I just go back and through it again and again.’

Actor/writer John Clarke also made an impact, saying ‘The trick to performing is not to perform’. According to Flanagan: ‘I translated that to mean the trick to writing is not to write elaborately, showoffedly, unduly, expansively or indeed for effect. Simply say what it is you have to say, trust the words that appear before you. And they are your truest words. It’s simply about having the guts and the courage and maybe the patience to wait for the words to appear and to learn how to be in the right places for them to appear and then having the courage to just write them down when they do. That’s the process.’

Writing was a secret passion for Flanaganfrom an early age, but he completed a law degree, painted houses and travelled the world before getting a cadetship at the Launceston Examiner. The interest in law is not surprising. There is a strong social
conscience in Flanagan’s writing, a desire to tell the stories that deserve to be told. Studying law in his early 20s left an indelible imprint on him. ‘Law was good for me because it taught me a certain intellectual discipline,’ he says. ‘It taught me that when the rules are defined you won’t get away with bullshit. When the rules aren’t defined, you will. When the rules are defined, good minds will catch you out.

‘It also led me to think much more  seriously about the notion of witness and the notion of evidence. Good reportage is about the act of witness.’

Commitment to these themes is particularly important to Flanagan; they recur throughout his writing, both in The Age and in his books. ‘When I got into journalism, one of the things I found was that you can speak for other people,’ he says.

‘That became one of the really meaningful things to me. Early on I met Ernie Dingo and he said to me “White artists always see themselves as being outside of the group but black artists see themselves as speaking on behalf of the group”.

‘So I’ve always taken incredibly seriouslythe role of being the medium for other people’s stories. And that’s a lot of what I’ve done as a journalist, is just try to convey other people’s stories I thought  the public should know. And try to get them to the public. That’s a very intimate thing to do, there are huge amounts of trust and you’ve got to have this sensitivity and reception to what other people are on about.’

That intimacy and honesty is reflected in Flanagan’s writing about himself. Reading In Sunshine or In Shadow, you feel you have travelled with him on his quest to establish a sense of self. His wife, Polly, said to him when she first read the book ‘It’s all in there’. As a reader, you certainly get that impression—he lays himself bare.

Growing up in Tasmania, with an Irish convict background, Flanagan felt a strong desire to connect with his ancestry, which led him overseas in his early 20s. ‘I think I’m actually a traditional man, it’s just that I was brought up in a place where my tradition was absent and then I had to go looking for my tradition,’ he says.

He travelled to Ireland on a kind of pilgrimage to seek out his forebears and to establish a connection, and found he still felt like a tourist. After his return to Australia, Flanagan started exploring this country and travelled to northern Australia, which made a huge impact on him. He was introduced to Aboriginal people and culture.

‘The first people who understood my dilemma, my inner restlessness, were Aboriginal people. The last people on earth who I expected to understand me understood me. That’s the great defining irony of my life,’ he says.

‘By exploring this country and the people and its history I have a far larger sense of what it means to be Australian. I’m not ashamed to say I love this country and a large part of the love I have for it, this comes from my relationship with Aboriginal people.

‘I just hope and pray that Australians, black and white, [can] see, respect and honour what is great in Aboriginal culture and in the spirit of Aboriginal people, as demonstrated by Uncle Banjo Clark, by Patrick Dodson, by Archie Roach, by Joy Murphy Wandin, by Auntie Beryl Carmichael, by many Aboriginal people I’ve met ... their largeness of spirit, their compassion, just so many qualities about them I admire ... I hope that Australians will not confuse this largeness with the sort of behaviour we have seen from certain ATSIC leaders recently ...’

Asked about what might assist the process of peace and reconciliation for Australian people, Flanagan doesn’t profess to having the answers. The bottom line, as he sees it, is to act.

‘I’m sorry to keep bringing this back to the personal but I can only do what I do. I write a book, which is quite absurd. Which is ultimately the story of three men going to the football, one of whom is a Muslim, one of whom is a Jew and one who comes from a Christian background. It’s absurd. That’s what I did. That’s why the war cry in that book is John Kennedy’s famous half-time address: Just do something. Just do.

‘I don’t have the vision that will remedy the world but I do know that there’s an energy that we can give one another that will give us all a better show of doing things we’re proud of.’

The themes of peace and the need for respect for all people emerge again and again in Flanagan’s writing. But it’s not preachy or holier than thou: his stories simply tell it how it is. Writing about good things and good people can suggest that the writer is somehow beyond question or doubt; Flanagan is concerned that people might make such assumptions.

In Australia in 2003, there’s still a long way to go towards achieving peace. ‘As a nation, there is both a growing conformity and a dangerous blindness affecting our national intelligence,’ Flanagan says. ‘Over the past seven years or however long it is since Howard was elected, certain arguments have triumphed that are spiritually mean and intellectually deceitful.’

Australia’s involvement in the most recent Gulf War filled Flanagan with a deep foreboding for this country: ‘I suppose what offended me most was when I realised it didn’t matter what Australians thought or felt, they were in it whether they liked it or not. They were in it because of one man’s ego and understanding of the world.’

Even so, he has hope for the future. ‘I have to be open to reality. I deny nothing. I’ve looked at the horror of my own nation’s history in the eye I believe and, ultimately, I haven’t been defeated by it.

‘My view is that there will always be war. I’m not an idealist in the sense that I don’t think you can create an ideal world. It seems to me that ideals are permanently born and almost immediately they begin to be corrupted. I take my faith from the fact that they keep being reborn and that’s the process. What I do know from my reading of history, [is that] situations, no matter how bad they are, could always be a helluva lot worse. And the energy that keeps them from becoming so comes from us.’

Just after the start of the second Gulf War, Flanagan went to watch AFL team Hawthorn. Afterwards, he wandered into a bookshop and found a pamphlet featuring the writings of Martin Luther King. What King espoused resonated for Martin Flanagan: ‘His essays were what persuaded me that peace, like love, has to be made. That’s what we have to do.’ 

Martin Flanagan is currently working on a stage adaptation of his book The Call, to be performed by the Playbox Theatre in 2004.

Kerrie O’Brien is a freelance writer and editor.
Photo by Bill Thomas.



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