Opening speech by Gerald Murnane

Opening speech - Sports

27 July 2006

Gerald Murnane

I prepared two speeches for tonight's event, not knowing what sort of audience I might have or what sort of mood they might seem to be in.

The first speech lasts for twenty-eight minutes and, if I say so myself, it's an eloquent and persuasive speech. I begin that speech by setting out much evidence for my claim that the social phenomenon of sport has influenced the endeavours of creative persons much more than is commonly acknowledged. In the second part of my speech, I mount an argument on philosophical grounds that the importance of sport as a stimulus to creative ... (long pause) ... as a stimulus to ... (appears startled and anxious; glances into upper corners of room) ... stimulus ... There was a third part to my speech. In that part, I claim that the university library has a central role to play in the dissemination of ... the dissemination of ... (again pauses and glances upwards in seeming confusion) ... the dissemination of something-or-other ...

Look, I'm going to have to deliver the second of my two speeches. Unfortunately, this speech has no coherent argument; and it lasts for only eight minutes.

Some of you will be close enough to see between these two fingers a multi-coloured glass marble of a sort that has not been manufactured since at least the 1930s. (Holds aloft between right thumb and index-finger a glass marble of the sort known in the 1940s in Bendigo, Victoria, as a rainbow-alley.) Those of you too far away to see the marble can look instead at this coloured photograph of the same marble on the just jacket of TAMARISK ROW, my first book of fiction, which was first published in 1974. (Holds up in left hand the said dust-jacket.)

This marble is one of a precious collection of marbles that I keep at home in a cupboard near my desk. My marbles are so precious to me that this is the first occasion I can recall when I've dared to take a marble more than a few metres. from their home-cupboard. You can learn from that, Richard, (turns towards Richard Overell, Rare Books Librarian) how seriously I've taken your invitation to open this exhibition.

This marble, which will probably never appear in public again during my lifetime—this marble came into my possession in about 1945. I will never know how many previous owners my marble had during the twenty or fifty or a hundred years of its existence before I acquired it. Nor will I ever know what names, if any, the marble had during that mysterious time. I can tell you, though, that the marble has had three names since I've owned it—or, rather, I can tell you the three separate names that the marble answers to, so to speak.

This marble is variously named IDAHO, S.J.TUPPER, and BOB McKENZIE.

I named the marble 'Idaho' in 1946, when I was seven years old and living in a back street of Bendigo. In that year, I devised a means of moving glass marbles around the threadbare mat in our lounge-room so that the marbles became for me racehorses and the mat a racecourse. Anyone wanting to know more details about this elaborate racing-game can find them in the pages of TAMARISK ROW, the dust- jacket of which I held up in front of you a minute ago.

I gave names to all my marble-racehorses. I preferred names from far away or long ago. And this marble, as I've said, whenever he represented a racehorse, was named 'Idaho'.

But he did not always represent a racehorse. In 1947, or was it 1948?—in the late 1940s, the leading citizens of Bendigo instituted the Bendigo Thousand, a foot-race with a rich first-prize to be run each year on the Labour Day Monday as a lead-up to the famous Stawell Easter Gift. After my father had taken me to see the inaugural running of the Bendigo Thousand, I began arranging my own foot- races at home. The Bendigo Thousand was run over 130 yards and lasted only twelve seconds. Rather than have my glass-marble footrunners creeping slowly around the lounge-room mat, I used to line them up, five or six at a time, on the stained boards in the front passage of our house, between the carpet-runner and the skirting-board. I held them like this, with a wooden school-ruler behind them. (Holds up left hand with fingers outstretched; explains that this hand was in front of the marbles to keep them steady in line; points with right hand to imaginary marbles lined up against left hand; holds up right hand to 'show' the school ruler that was used as a starting device; places imaginary ruler behind imaginary marble-footrunners...) I called out to the marbles 'On your marks ... get set ... When they were all perfectly steady, I called out 'Bang!' in imitation of a starting-pistol. At the sound of the starting-pistol, I lifted my left hand and propelled the runners forward with the ruler. (Lifts left hand; thrusts right hand forward as though propelling imaginary marbles forward with imaginary ruler.)

Each race was over in a few seconds. I tried to scramble beside the runners on my hands and knees. I wanted to observe the changes in their positions before one of them rolled over the finish-line ever so slightly ahead of the others.

In a heat of the real-life Bendigo Thousand, a man named S.J.Tupper had come from far behind the pack and had only just failed to win. The marble that I named Tupper disappointed me somewhat. I would have liked him to fail heroically like the human Tupper, but glass-marble Tupper was, and still is, a smooth marble with hardly a chip or a flaw in his surface. He often rolled to the front at the start and led all the way to a commanding win, as a sports-writer might have written.

The marble that had been both 'Idaho' and 'S.J.Tupper' in the 1940s was known 'as 'Bob McKenzie' in the early 1950s. During those years, my mother would not allow me to play racing games with my marbles. She wanted to keep me from becoming the sort of hopeless gambler that my father was. Our family had lived at fifteen different addresses before I was fifteen years of age, largely as a result of my father's gambling on horses—but that's another story ... well, if you're interested you can read a fictional version of part of that story in TAMARISK ROW.

When horse-racing games were banned, I played on the lounge-room mat a game of Australian Rules football. The players were all marbles, of course. The football was a tiny steel ball-bearing. The nearest player to the ball always took the next kick. I would pick up that player between these two fingers. (Holds up the thumb and the index finger of his right hand.) Using the marble-footballer somewhat as a billiards cue is used, I would cause him to send the ball in the direction of a team-mate. Players kept to their positions in those days. There was no such thing as flooding, and players were ordered by their coaches to send long kicks down the ground and to use handball only as a last resort. This player, Bob McKenzie, (takes marble out of pocket and holds it up again) rarely strayed far from the half-forward flank. Nor did the real-life Bob McKenzie, who was my hero in those days. Bob played for Melbourne in the early 1950s. He was one of the most brilliant footballers I've ever seen, but only for five or ten minutes in any one match. Bob seemed to lose interest or even to daydream or sulk for long periods on the field. But then he would grab the ball and do something amazing. He was not a team-player. If he got the ball anywhere short of the centre-wing, he was apt to weave and dodge his way forward and then to drop-kick the ball through the goal-posts from forty metres out.

I've been talking about my childhood, but I assure you that images from certain sports, and especially from horse-racing, are more important to me nowadays than they ever were. Last year, a collection of my essays was published with the title INVISIBLE YET ENDURING LILACS. In one of those essays, I state in all seriousness that images from horse-racing are more important to me than images derived from literature or music or the visual arts. In my book EMERALD BLUE is a story about a man who made it his life's work to record every detail of every horse-race run during a period of fifty years in a country that existed only in the man's imagination.

I'm far from being the only writer of fiction whose life has been enriched by images and themes from sports. Jack Kerouac, to mention only one, used glass marbles to represent racehorses ten years before I was born, although I didn't know this, of course, when I first devised my own marble-games. Jack also played throughout his adult life a series of imaginary baseball games; he created the games by shuffling a pack of cards that he himself had made.

I declare this exhibition open and I commend it to your attention. I commend it all the more because it has been my experience that academics in general are less than well informed about horse-racing and, probably, about other sports as well.

On a certain Labour Day in the late 1980s, I sat absolutely alone in front of a television set in the audio-visual area of a certain campus of a certain university in a certain suburb of Melbourne. (I can assure you that the university was not the worthy institution whose library we are presently gathered in!) It was a normal working-day at the university, but many people in Melbourne were on holiday and many of those were at Flemington Racecourse to watch the Australian Cup. This was no ordinary Australian Cup. The publicity beforehand had been unprecedented. The race was predicted to be a match-race between the New Zealand horse Bonecrusher and the Queensland horse Vo Rogue. Luckily for me, I had no class timetabled for the mid-afternoon, and a friendly technician had tuned-in one of the television sets so that I could watch the race. But I was disappointed to be alone in the room. Of the hundred and more academics on campus—my colleagues—seemingly not one cared about or, perhaps, even knew about the big race.

But then, just as the horses were going into the stalls, I heard two people step into the room behind me: two male persons, to judge from their voices. 0, joy! There were, after all, at least two other academics whose souls were attuned to horse-racing. Were they mathematicians, perhaps, fascinated by the laws of probability as they affected the results of races? Or, were they sociologists, who loved the way horse-racing appealed to all classes of people? Perhaps they were from the Philosophy Department and could see, as I claimed to see, a deep meaning underlying the colourful spectacle of horse-racing?

I turned to see who my fellow-souls were. They were Bob Bennett, the Buildings Officer, and Jason, the apprentice gardener.