Since 1997, Toby Martin has been the singer and songwriter with the great Australian band Youth Group. Over the course of their career they have released four cracking albums, including the hands-down classic ‘Skeleton Jar’. Last year Toby released his first solo album, the wonderful ‘Love’s Shadow’. He can write a song, to put it mildly. In his time with Youth Group he’s toured the world, supported the likes of Coldplay, Kings of Leon, Interpol and Death Cab For Cutie, sung with The Triffids and had a number one single in Australia with ‘Forever Young’. He is, in our humble opinion, one of the great Australian songwriters of the past 20 years. Here, Toby writes beautifully of growing up in Carlton, his love for the game, and how it connects him to his Dad.
Growing up in Carlton in the late 1970s and early 1980s it was easy to go see a few games at Princes Park. Last quarters were free: you could stand amongst the crushed cans, invariably see the Blues pummel a bottom-of-the-ladder dweller on their way to the finals (in my memory, usually Fitzroy) and then have a bit of kick-to-kick on the oval afterwards. (I loved that. You had to not just watch your ball, you had to watch the countless others flying into your head from sideways angles.)
Mostly by virtue of geography and circumstance, I was a Blues fan. My favourite player was the ‘flying doormat’ Bruce Doull and like any proper 6-year old footy fan I had a duffle coat emblazoned with my favourite player’s number – 11 in this case – on the back. Doull was closely followed in my heart by the thinking-man’s ruckman, the moustachioed future bureaucrat Mike Fitzpatrick. These early crushes were to be replaced by my first long-term relationship with one Steven Silvagni. Just as Johnny Depp changed his tattoo from ‘Winona Forever’ to ‘Wino Forever’, around 1986 I simply removed a numeral from the 11 on my duffle coat and it became 1: Silvagni’s number. How easily I moved on.
I didn’t come from a Carlton family. My Dad followed Essendon, but was happy for me to pursue my own peculiar affectations. And in fact he was the one who took me to the last quarters at Princes Park. As for Mum, she regularly lamented winters in Melbourne and complained that all the news reports were concerned with was the state of ‘so and so’s groin’. But many of my football memories are wrapped up with Dad: the last quarters, indulging my passion for commentating every moment of kick to kick (Martin passes to Martin…oh what a goal from Martin!), and one memorable moment when Essendon won a particularly close final sometime in the mid 1980s and Dad returned from the game, stumbled in the front gate completely voiceless. A tall, bearded and fairly reserved man, Dad was not given to public displays of passion. So for my Mum, my sister and I, we were left to imagine the strange image of him actually shouting at players on a field.
I am feel pretty certain that my pattern of allegiances are very similar to those of other ‘Presentation Night’ readers and contributors: I was obsessed with footy and cricket as a kid; I kinda swapped sport for music in my mid-teens; re-discovered footy sometime in my late 20s to early 30s; and today watch it with more passion and involvement than I did when I was a footy kid. From talking to friends, this feels like a common phenomenon. What’s it all about?
It seems to me that barracking for a football team is an expression of tribal identity: it is about belonging to something bigger than you. And importantly, it’s an identity that you didn’t appear to choose. Most people feel that they didn’t choose their club; their club chose them. And this is important. The most powerful group allegiances we have are to organisations that we seemed not to choose (ie nation, family, home town, footy team) as opposed to those we did (ie workplace, new home, political party). For me, I barrack for Carlton because that’s where I grew up. (And because they were winning a lot in the early 1980s probably). It feels like part of my biography that I had no control over. It’s just ‘who I am’ rather than ‘who I chose to be’.
And tribal identities are complexly entangled with memory. I feel that when we (and by ‘we’ here I mean ‘men’, although I could be wrong about that) get a bit older we start becoming more interested in the tribal identities of our childhood, in addition to individualistic ones (like being in a band, or being ‘an artist’). And we start looking for the things that formed us: the things we didn’t choose. Footy, such a big part of my childhood, became the thing that most evocatively stirred my sense of belonging and my memories. Every time I see the navy Blues run onto the ground I am seeing them run onto the ground every winter weekend in my memory. There is a satisfying sense of continuity in this (often ruptured when they wear their ‘clash strip’ of white or baby blue!). Players change, but numbers and uniforms and associations remain. So many of my associations with football are nostalgic. In particular a nostalgia for things that seem gone forever (which is what nostalgia is I guess): my childhood; intimate suburban grounds; great facial hair.
So it’s no coincidence that I started getting back into footy around the time Dad died. As I lost a link with my childhood memories, I sought to replace it with another one. Footy perhaps offered the shelter and reassurance of a surrogate father-figure. I think for Dad too, footy offered a lot of joy and contentment in the last few months of his life. I remember watching the Anzac Day game with him and his Collingwood mate – Dad already frail in his Essendon scarf. I remember his growing obsession with star player and Indigenous spokesman Michael Long (an obsession that led my Aunt to hang around after training to get his autograph). And I remember thinking it was particularly cruel that Essendon had perhaps its most famous grand final win in 2000, just a few months after he died. I also remember thinking that him missing this was so trivial in the scheme of things, but it gave me an aching pang just the same. I suspect now that footy wasn’t as important to Dad as it seemed to become in his last few years of life; but I think it gave everyone an emotional focus and an outlet for things. And now it gives me a powerful way to orientate my memories.
Here’s a good story. The night Dad died, Carlton beat their arch-rivals Collingwood by more than 100 points. The reason I remember this is because Dad’s Collingwood-supporting mate, on the way home from the hospital, stopped at a 7-11. There in the aisles, forlornly shopping was then Collingwood captain Nathan Buckley. As Bill tells it, he said ‘How ya going Nathan?’ Nathan says, ‘Not good, we got thrashed by Carlton today. What about you?’ Bill says ‘Well, my best friend just died’. And there, in the neon light, the midwinter Melbourne night outside, Nathan Buckley gave my Dad’s mate a hug.
Men embracing men; fathers and sons; sporting teams; bands in vans; man-crushes; moustaches; guitars… As I write I can’t help but think what gender scholars would make of all this sentimental masculinity! Or, even, what women think of it. A search for male intimacy, they might say. They might be right. Let’s talk. Why not?