Tag Archives: Sport

Stroke of brilliance behind Aussie crawl

“There are not enough great international novels about failure. This is one of them.”

A Writer’s review of Christos Tsiolkas’ Barracuda.

AN Australian book tackling the mask of bravado worn by the successful Aussie sportsman was well overdue by the time Christos Tsiolkas’ Barracuda was published in 2013.

The author could have chosen from a multitude of codes and team pursuits, but focussing on competitive swimming was an exquisite selection. An individual pastime that traps the practitioner in a world broken down into opposing elemental forces – wet and dry, fast and slow, breath and suffocation, diving in and getting out – it also polarises the story’s hero into a gripping battle between himself and others.

barracudaYoung Danny’s wilful ascent to the pinnacle, assisted by the affirmation of a scholarship to a sports-connected Melbourne private school, is told with relentless energy. While he is an outwardly defiant creature who carries important secrets, Danny’s inner voice reveals truths he cannot escape from. Tsiolkas lets us see him within and without, a technique that breaks all the rules yet rounds-out his hero’s lies and hidden pain so effectively.

With his quick, sharp stabs, Tsiolkas is a writer who gets under the skin, but his blade is just in this ripping tale of ambition and competition and their devastating impact on families.

The way the author toys with time challenges the reader’s sense of hope for Danny. Swapping between future, past and present events always gave me hope – too much of it – that somehow Danny would find redemption in his climb to the heights of Olympic fame.

But Tsiolkas’ montage style does a lot more than that. His frenzied, fast-moving juxtapositions underpin the speed at which I was able to read this work. I have not felt so enlivened by a book since Tim Winton’s page-turning, problematic work of genius, The Riders.

In the late 1990s, when Tsiolkas’ first book Loaded was filmed as Head On, I read an interview with Tsiolkas in which he challenged the very idea of the ‘Aussie Battler’, and my life being what it was at that time – in a process of great upheaval as I was coming out – I could do nothing but cheer for his indictment of old-fashioned notions of what constitutes an Australian family.

Barracuda is a deeper exploration of similar territory, although since Head On, Tsiolkas’ work has become far more expansive, taking more prisoners along the way.

In The Slap he was accused of padding out a powerful if repetitive story, but Barracuda pulls off this style in a more life-enlarging way, as Danny’s journey plays out unexpectedly well beyond school and the swimming pool.

His journey back from the brink charts classic recovery territory, but it also breaks new ground.

BIG FISH Australian author Christos Tsiolkas.
BIG FISH Australian author Christos Tsiolkas.

Danny is another of Tsiolkas’ living, breathing gay protagonists, and the choices he faces about loving relationships are written with a resounding ring of truth. The visceral sex scenes, underpinned by gripping descriptions of the desires behind the mechanics, speak to much more than the act itself. They go to the heart of identity, just another tool in Danny’s arsenal of choices, like winning races, remaining his family’s hero, and the role of men in society.

In the dénouement, I wondered whether the amount of expression Danny and his family achieve was realistic – it’s the kind of resolution many yearn for in real life, particularly those who have not lived up to the expectations they’ve put on themselves, or had placed on them by others.

But Tsiolkas’ fractured style allows us to see the untruths and the emotional shortcomings his protagonist does not see in himself. In some ways this puts us, and Danny, back at square one, but it feels apt.


With Danny’s second chance, Tsiolkas is asking the reader to wonder if life is possible without some degree of lying to oneself.

There are not enough great international novels about failure. This is one of them.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article also appears in Michael’s eBook Creating Waves: Critical takes on culture and politics.

Apology from a school bully

HOMOPHOBIC BULLYING has long-lasting impacts on perpetrator and victim.

A Writer’s reply to a childhood persecutor.

THERE must be something in the planets, because this week I was contacted out of the blue on social media by two bullies from my past.

One of them – a family friend in her sixties – is an educated, well-spoken, active-in-the-community, serial bully. She contacted me to get at her daughter, who she’s created devastating conflict with, but all she got was a reminder of her unfinished business with me.

The other is a man I went to school with.

Unlike my family friend, he made an unreserved apology for bullying me at school, some 30 years ago.

“I am a white, middle class, heterosexual male, who, for no other reason than the lottery of my birth, has never had to deal with discrimination,” he wrote.

“I want to be part of the change, part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.”

“All l can do is try to imagine what it would be like to deal with fools like me and their behaviour.

“Growing up, dealing with parents and high school, and puberty, and relationships, while also trying to find out where you fit in amongst it all of it was tough.

“Tough enough without also having to deal with the added layers of ridicule, judgment and misunderstanding.

“I apologise for bullying you, I apologise for ridiculing you, I am sorry for all of the ways I disregarded your feelings and failed to consider your emotional wellbeing.”

Revealing stuff. He asked me for feedback, so here’s what I wrote in reply …

Dear (name deleted),

I am a little cynical about your letter. So often I engaged in conversations with boys in our class, only to find your invitation was really a cruel trap with a bullying sting at the end. Your approach to me now could well be a case of the ‘little boy who cried poof’.

Your particular behaviour was more a sneering from the sidelines of the main bullying action, although I remember one occasion when you openly shamed me about my sexual orientation in front of an entire classroom of people, and I retreated in shock.

That sort of thing definitely contributed to me staying closeted until I was 28, by which time one of my parents had died before I had the courage to come out to her. That’s an irreversible regret I carry.

There is no doubt you remember my mother – she was one of the most active parents at our school, and you benefitted from her contributions.

OKAY TO BE GAY Front cover of the Sydney Star Observer when men could no longer be arrested for sex with men.
OKAY TO BE GAY Front cover of the Sydney Star Observer after men could no longer be arrested for sex with men, in 1984.

My family had survived death and divorce by that time, and the community I lived in, primarily made up of school families, led me to believe that my sexuality was only going to deliver more bad news.

What a fool I was to buy into all your fears.

During our high school years, homosexuality in NSW was decriminalised.

Even though your behaviour was wrong, it was sanctioned by the state and the establishment at a private Anglican school. You and your mates were only responding to society’s pressure to shame and ridicule same-sex attracted people, but it’s great to see you’re not still letting yourself off the hook.

Truth is, our school had as many homosexuals as there were homophobes – staff and students in all years, male and female. The gay staff members were particularly vulnerable to sacking without cause, and still are, so when you were throwing around your accusations, alarm bells would have been ringing deep down for many.

Hopefully you agree that to toy with that bell is a power no child should ever have.

“Bullying children should never have power over gay people.”

If I’d been a smaller person you might now be regretting physically abusing me, but because I grew to the size I am now at the age of 15, none of you ever had the guts to approach me with the kind of abuse many other gay boys endure from their classmates. Even an awkward blow from me would have landed unpredictably and heavily.

You didn’t always succeed in shaming me.  I clearly remember with great delight the day on which I turned the tables on you.

We were playing indoor cricket and I was selected to bowl with you at the crease. Your assumptions about a gay bowler saw you step forward expecting to knock the ball to the ceiling. Instead, it snuck straight under your triumphant pose and knocked the stumps over with a clatter.

The PE teacher gave me a validating look, while you had no choice but to walk to the sidelines, where your attitude belonged.

Team sport… it has its uses.

My other strong memory of you was the day you brought a cassette into English class – Cold Chisel’s “Khe Sanh” – and you asked the teacher if you could play it for us all. She agreed, sensing it was important to you, and you unabashedly sat at the front moving your head and drumming your hand on your desk.

What drew my attention was your affinity with the song and its message, and the shame-free way you claimed your right to self-expression.

I accept your apology because unconditionally offered amends are the very rarest, and you seem to ‘get’ that if I had played a song that moved me in front of our class, the outcome would have been very different.

SMALLTOWN BOYS British Synth Pop band Bronksi Beat.
SMALLTOWN BOYS British Synth Pop band Bronksi Beat.

My choice would have been Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy”.

Have a listen to the lyrics one day and you’ll find some insights. The song laid out the options for growing men as starkly as Jimmy Barnes did for you.

In the 27 years since we left school I have tackled more discrimination than you can possibly imagine. Not the predictable gay bashing crimes, or the puerile name calling, but the far more subtle disenfranchisement that underpins the last frontier in same-sex equality.

I would like you to do one thing, if, as you wrote, you really seek to be part of the solution to homophobia.

Find out where your federal member sits on the issue of marriage equality through the Australian Marriage Equality website, and, regardless of what you find, write to them.

Congratulate them if they publicly support same-sex marriage – they’ll need courage from their constituents to enact change in the small window of opportunity we have to achieve this human right during the current parliament.

And if they don’t, please tell them why you now support the equality that will deliver the greatest message to school children about gay people.

That our love is equal to yours in every way.

And that bullying children should never have power over gay people.

If you do this, I’d love to see a copy of it on your Facebook wall. I’ll know when to have a look when you send me a friend request.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.