"Mummy! Mummy! That funny old man is talking to a dead horse!" an urchin dobbed me in to his mother during my visit last weekend to the Melbourne Museum.
The anxious parent hurried her child away to a safer, eccentric-free part of the museum. Meanwhile I, the 'funny old man' of the excited child's report, continued, reverently to address a few words to the stuffed and embalmed (but still glossily magnificent and somehow eerily alive-looking and present) Phar Lap, the museum's greatest treasure.
What was I saying to Phar Lap, and why did Margaret Court's controversial name and the imbroglio surrounding her crop up in my few remarks to Australia's greatest ever racehorse?
All will be explained in a moment but first, just to recap, as much-reported in the news and as much-discussed among the commentariat Tennis Australia has after all invited Margaret Court to attend the 2020 Australian Open so as to be honoured for her stellar achievements as a player.
But, alert to how her zealously Christian homophobic ideas have appalled so many (there are continuing calls for her vile name to be dropped from the Melbourne Park tennis arena that bears her name) Tennis Australia has spelled out that its invitation to her does not endorse her statements of her anti-gay beliefs. Her sentiments, TA says, "have demeaned and hurt many in our community over a number of years".
The media is throbbing with opinions about all this, about whether or not TA should invite her to 2020's Open, about whether or not we should, whether we can somehow separate Court's achievements as a tennis champion from her behaviour and beliefs as an outspoken, chronically Christian citizen and zealot. It is a gorgeous issue, full of nuances for those of us who are students of sport's part in dear Australia's unique zeitgeist. It is bringing out everyone's didactic side but your columnist, a chronic thinker, is still making up his mind.
But, handcrafting this column on Wednesday (who knows where I'll stand tomorrow?) I find myself shyly supportive of Margaret Court.
For me, on balance, her beliefs and the evangelical need she sometimes feels to gibber them give her personality a welcome third dimension so often missing from Australian sporting heroes.
Irrationally, capriciously, we prefer our sporting heroes not to be fully human. We want them to be superathletes, sporting gods and goddesses, and nothing else. When they pipe up with contrary, unsettling ideas this somehow detracts from their godliness.
What I was saying to Phar Lap, thinking aloud, was that perhaps one of the things that always made him the perfect legendary sporting hero for Australians is that as well as being such an utter champion (a source of scarce pride and joy for battling Australians during the Depression) is that he was never opinionated. He never said anything that alienated anyone.
This explains why tennis players like Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall, Phar Laps of their sport (in that like him they never seem to have expressed an opinion about anything, to have stood for anything) are so dear to us. But Margaret Court, in having beliefs and a conspicuous personality offends against the Phar Lapian, Rosewallian, Laveresque, sports-legends-should-be-seen-but-not-heard ethos.
I have a wistful daydream in which the hitherto Phar Lapian Rod 'Rocket' Laver, presenting the men's singles trophy after the Australian Open final played in the Rod Laver Arena on February 2 next year takes the microphone and, revealing he has an actual, politicised personality and strong feelings after all, softly announces he wants to say a few words. A reverent hush falls on the arena and in the TV watching world tens of millions prick up their ears as 'Rocket' says that there is a great issue on which he can no longer remain silent.
Here daydreamers can insert the issue of their choice, but in my daydream I have 'Rocket' condemning the Australian government's shameful abandonment of Australian citizen Julian Assange so as to suck up to the Americans who want him to die in one of their vile Guantanamoesque prisons. Then I wake up.
And for me the sincerity of Margaret Court's beliefs is a redeeming feature of what she believes. She truly believes that God intervened miraculously by giving her His almighty nudge into close study of the Bible, thus curing her of a dangerous medical condition and of crippling depressions and giving her a new, exuberant, faith-filled lease of life. No wonder that, thus misguided, she takes what God says (and in the Bible she says she finds Him seething against the abomination of homosexuality) very seriously.
"And, your Thoroughbredness," I mused to regal Phar Lap in his glass case in Melbourne, "isn't Margaret Court's power to influence anyone with her ideas vastly exaggerated anyway?"
"Her church/cult in Perth has a teen-weeny following and her medieval Old Testament ideas about gayness surely struggle to take root in the stony ground (a clever little Biblical allusion there) of our dear nation's increasingly secular nature. What do you think, revered gelding?"
But the towering, charismatic, rich chestnut gee-gee declined to answer, maintaining today the enigmatic silence so endearing in his heyday when he galloped into the nation's heart.