A Wink from the Universe
Martin Flanagan wrote a book about the Western Bulldogs in 1993, back when they were still Footscray Football Club, still stuck in a premiership drought, still burdened with an ingrained expectation they might always come up short, or be short-changed – given short shrift somehow by fate and foe alike.
Invited into the Dogs' "inner sanctum" to see a season unfold, his words in Southern Sky, Western Oval – about a failed season – became a gift to the football public. At the time, the imperious Don Watson suggested Flanagan never be allowed to stop writing about football, given the quality of his prose: "I think he could nearly describe a heartbeat."
Twenty-three years later, the Bulldogs of course won the unlikeliest of flags. This time Flanagan was not embedded at the Whitten Oval, but instead persuaded by coach Luke Beveridge to spend the following year recreating the 2016 premiership, stitching it together thread by thread. Flanagan doubted it could be done but "Bevo" assuaged him: "A good story's a good story whenever it appears, isn't it?"
Indeed it is. But it must have been testing. Observing nothing and recalling everything means painstaking reportage. Sketching long-lost dialogue, actions and emotions means overcoming the notorious whim of human memory.
Yet there are also advantages that shine through. For one, the players had time to reflect. They might have forgotten a few visceral details, but also invariably latched onto the important ones. This story thus turns on the pivotal scenes.
Flanagan also has a famous knack for describing the physical play, and even working from video replays his skill is on show here, a snapped kick becoming one "pure elastic motion". His ability to assess the gravitas of those plays is peerless, too, such as when Liam Picken takes a mark that echoes one by his father, Billy Picken, many years prior on the same stage. "Ghosts jostle one another," he writes, "awakening."
Flanagan begins his book with a lengthy dissection of the character and history of the western suburbs and the Dogs, and this feels right. He said to me once that in telling stories about people he looks first – always – to place.
He has an ear for truth, too, mixing the blunt prose of the layman with the deeper reservoir of his own intellect. The title of the book is a bit of both – a direct quote from a fan, Carmen Petropulo, who considers the controversial pre-finals bye, and how it might be enough for the team to lick their wounds, to breathe, to pause, and then surge. "That's all we need," Petropulo thinks. "A wink from the universe."
That's page 205, incidentally, and the next hundred or so - a full third of the text - are devoted to the finals. And why not? What a run it was. Flanagan, a master of metaphor and simile, revels in the sprint. A mark is "gripped like a gold nugget" while a young ruckman "gallops about like a draught horse who finally has the harness taken off his back". He pays particular attention to the fans, too, and how stories of Bulldog devotion emerged "like bees out of a hive that's been shaken".
Indeed their experiences are as valid as the players and coaches, and so all are deftly interwoven in vignettes and scenes that pulse and soar. Flanagan knows his audience, and his subject. A Wink from the Universe is almost his sermon – a book about our secular religion, about the true believers, and a unique blessing from the footy gods. It is about the power – and occasional delirious reward – of our faith.
Konrad Marshall is the author of Yellow & Black: A Season with Richmond (Slattery Media).
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