A bat or a book, or both

I’m looking back on my favourite events of Rare Book Week in the City of Literature.

Melbourne Cricket Ground is a sporting arena known by my football-mad son as ‘Mecca’. Two years ago we took the tour together, and that was my first tantalising glimpse into the Melbourne Cricket Club Library. As we walked up to the G for the recent Hawthorn v Essendon game, it was just possible to see the members with papers in the library armchairs, making the most of their reading time till bounce down.

It didn’t even occur to me to look for children’s books on that first visit, but the library does have a collection.

Timber shelves with children's books displayed in front
View of children’s book collection at the Melbourne Cricket Club Library

The session I’d registered for (Collecting Sport Revisited) was aimed at grownups, though. The RBW program promised a ‘stimulating and entertaining panel discussion on what people collect, use for research, and enjoy reading in the world of sports books, magazines and related ephemera.’

MCC Librarian David Studham introduced a panel of distinguished sports writers and, to my delight, opened the discussion by asking each of them what their earliest reading was.

John Harm’s family was ‘a book family’ – his father was a clergyman. Watching and listening to sport was given an extra dimension when young John could read about it as well: ‘It was where the big characters were brought to life.’ Frank Tyson’s books and Football the Australian Way were early gifts, and from there he graduated to libraries and eventually his own higher education in history. Reading about the rigours and conventions was interesting, but it was the storytelling aspect -‘the beer in hand at the bar’-  which appealed most to Harms and is characteristic of his Footy Almanac.

I remembered Football the Australian Way as a staple of the public libraries where I worked in the 1980s. Researching this post, I reserved the wrong copy at State Library of Victoria – it had no dust jacket to photograph. Opening the book evoked another memory from those public library days.

title page of book about football
What’s left of the title page of SLV’s Football the Australian Way

Someone with a razor blade had removed their favourite pictures and it makes for a disjointed read, to say the least. (SLV has a proforma in the front noting the damage.) In this picture, it makes an oddly pleasing peek-a-boo to the chapter headings.

Black and white photo of footballer with text
Chapter by Kevin Sheedy from Football The Australian Way

The picture thief didn’t think Sheedy worthy of his attention and you’ve got to love that heading.

Christian Ryan reported that the only books in his house were by Doris Lessing, and he was too busy playing cricket every day to read. Brought up in Darwin post-Tracy, the school and local library were not great. His first book purchase (‘I did a million chores to get it’) was R. S. Whitington’s Australians Abroad. There was a romance to following overseas cricket tests in print, and he read it to bits. Literally, as it wasn’t well-bound. A re-reader, now and then, he said he will read something 100 times before moving on, and the non-sporting childhood favourite that fit into this category was The Girl with the Silver Eyes.

Gerard Whateley had two libraries in his childhood home. ‘Mum’s was in the lounge’with the World Book encyclopedia’, and ‘Dad’s was in his office’. From those shelves, he can remember Tangles by Max Walker, and ‘a book by Tony Greig’. Home-delivered newspapers were daily reads. His favourite writer is Les Carlyon : ‘the Melbourne Cup wasn’t officially over until you’d read his article in the Age the day after.’ The written words matter tremendously and the link from sport to reading is a natural one. Whateley shared his philosophy of children in bookshops – ‘let them roam free and see what they find’ and described his two-year-old observing this to the letter and poring over a $160 book on Tasmanian trains. Naturally this warmed my heart.

Russell Jackson’s parents weren’t big readers themselves, but believed in reading to him and his older brothers at night. He was not allowed to touch his older brothers’ bats or their books. This sharpened his desire to have both of these for his own – his parents bought him One Summer Every Summer by Gideon Haigh. This book was the one that introduced him to the idea that everything viewed the summer before (just once, pre-YouTube) could be re-lived over and over in print. He haunted the local Trash & Treasure where he picked up this gem.

Cover showing artist's impression of great cricketers of the present and past
Cover of Russell Jackson’s Trash’n’Treasure find

Over 600 pages of photos and captions, which Jackson conceded wouldn’t be published today, but was ‘a revelation’ to him as storytelling. SLV’s razor-fiend had left this one alone so I could page through it – it resembled a black-and-white cricket Pinterest.

It was very pleasant sitting there as the discussion ranged over Wisden-collecting, bindings, and whether or not James Joyce was a Richmond fan and I wasn’t the only one who didn’t want it to end. But I did have a chance on the way out to look at the children’s collection. David Studham observed that recent surge in sports-themed publishing for kids echoes that of the nineteenth century.

Spines of children's books
Sport books for children from three centuries at the MCC Library
Children's books displayed so that their covers can be seen
New additions to the children’s collection on display at the MCC Library

I can see Bomber Baby on these shelves one day.


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