Thursday 27 August 2015

Whaddarya? David Slack talks Rugby at the Ika Seafood Bar and Grill.

Whaddarya? David Slack epitomises the thinking, egalitarian, inclusive and creative half of New Zealand society that has always been so feared and despised by the hyper-masculine, woman-hating, anti-intellectual, Rugby-worshipping half. How we Kiwis have made one nation out of two such mutually hostile traditions was the subject of David's "Salon" spot at Ika Seafood Bar & Grill on Tuesday night.
ALL NEW ZEALANDERS must live with Rugby. There is no possibility of escaping, and absolutely no chance of ignoring it. Rugby, love it or hate it, has exerted, and continues to exert, a tremendous influence on the way New Zealand presents itself to the world. It has certainly left its mark on David Slack. In the “Salon” spotlight at the Ika Seafood Bar & Grill on Tuesday night (25/8/15) the professional speech-writer, author and broadcaster proved how impossible it is to discuss New Zealand’s brutal national game without, at the same time, discussing the nature of the society which supports it – and oneself.
Slack was born in Feilding, a small town in the Manawatu, that could easily have been the setting for Greg McGee’s extraordinary play about Rugby, Foreskin’s Lament. The sort of town about which these lines from the play could have been written:
“This is a team game, son, and the town is the team. It’s the town’s honour at stake when the team plays, god knows there’s not much else around here.”
The frankly fascist implications of the statement “the town is the team” need little elucidation. It was Mussolini, after all, who came up with the slogan: “All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”
Slack’s description of his Fielding contemporaries as “knuckle-dragging sons of the soil” speaks eloquently of a young boy made to feel like an “exile” from his own country. Growing up in Fielding, Slack’s subversively divergent personal priorities (he read books!) would elicit from his peers, over and over again, the single, brute interrogatory: “Whaddarya!”
“Whaddarya!” is, literally, the last word of Foreskin’s Lament. Its electrifying effect produced by McGee’s inspired inversion of the word’s usual purpose. Instead of drawing attention to the “other’s” difference – and so confirming his or her exclusion from the team/town/nation – the word was hurled back in the audience’s face. “Whaddarya!” was McGee’s defiant challenge to a country that was already, in 1980, gearing up to welcome the Springbok ambassadors of apartheid.
1981 – and all that. The Springbok Tour cannot be avoided in any honest discussion of New Zealand Rugby (unless, of course, you are the Prime Minister). It was as if both sides, Pro- and Anti-Tour, had contrived to line up and scream “Whaddarya!” at each other for 56 days of utterly uncharacteristic political passion. For Slack, and the tens-of-thousands of others who opposed the Tour, the issue was whether or not the more open and diverse country that New Zealand was becoming would prevail, or, be smothered to death in the fascistic headlock of all those “knuckle-dragging sons of the soil” who wouldn’t have hesitated to affirm the slogan: “All within Rugby, nothing outside Rugby, nothing against Rugby.”
After 1981, it seemed that the two halves of New Zealand could never be brought back together. Rugby became a litmus test. If you were a fan, then you were morally reprehensible: a “Rugby thug” who was also, no doubt, a racist, sexist, homophobe. In the new New Zealand that was rapidly taking shape there could be no place for such people.
But, of course, there was a place for them. As the hero of Foreskin’s Lament reproves the liberal feminist character, Moira, following one of her diatribes against the piggishness of New Zealand’s Rugby culture:
“This is the heart and bowels of this country, too strong and foul and vital for reduction to bouquets, or oils, or words. If you think they’re pigs, then you’d better look closer, and get used to the smell, because their smell is your smell.”
Remove Rugby from the New Zealand equation and we no longer add up.
Slack has written a delightful history of the childhood game of “Bullrush”. In it he celebrates the “teamlessness” of the game, and the way people remember it with smiles and laughter. This, he seems to be saying, is the true essence of the Kiwi character; the way we really are before the “town” turns us into emotionally-stunted sacrifices to the mud-splattered god, whose only gospel is “kick the shit out of everything that gets in the way of winning the game”.
But that just won’t do. And, in his gloriously meandering address, Slack more-or-less conceded as much. Yes, New Zealand is about the anarchic individualism of Bullrush, but it also about the fascism of the First Fifteen. We are, if I may borrow that most overused of Rugby phrases, a game of two halves. And at some point over the past 34 years, almost unnoticed, those two halves have become one again – at least when the All Blacks are playing.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 26 August 2015.


Anonymous said...

I'd guess that different cohorts of New Zealanders see and think about the game quite differently. Most people under 40 are too young to know much about the 1981 Springbok Tour.

My experiences of rugby in New Zealand are very different to those you describe. So much so, I've always tended to think of it as a force for cohesion rather than division.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

A guy I used to work with was walking past a demo in 1981, got picked up by the police and slung in the back of a van, to be taken to Auckland Central. Irony was he was a big rugby fan and in favour of the tour. Taught him a little bit about the way the police operated though. We were at teachers training College at the time, and someone organised a trip to the central police station as part of a field trip exercise. The rather nice looking female constable who showed us round, took us to some sort of lecture theatre type thing, and said "this is where we put people on stage so that the bobbies on the beat can have a look at them, and...." "This is purely voluntary on their part of course." – And this guy got up and said "no it bloody isn't, two bloody big policeman come into your cell and drag you out and shove you on the stage." To which she replied "oh God I knew you'd all be stirrers." – To general laughter.

Anonymous said...

I could probably buy NZ character/ culture being rugby based though I believe that is changing fast. MMP is one of the causes and so is the massive immigration the country has experienced in the last decade. I was a active participant against the Springbok tour. The left and the David Slacks of NZ tried to subvert our democracy by supporting Kim Dot Com and his attempt to get into Parliament through the Internet party / Mana party rort. Millions of dollars were involved and many of the left received their share. Most immigrants could not give two figs about our rugby culture and thankfully most of NZ did not give two figs about KDC.

Tiger Mountain said...

Whadarrrrryaa!! indeed, still use that one in various ways with a few extrrra rrrrs etc for effect

the winter of ’81 was unforgettable if you were there which is why dear leader remains so obviously bullshitting re his memory loss on the Springbok tour

thugby culture remains strong as shown by the PMs 2014 election time appearance on the cover of Rugby News as the de facto All Black captain, so powerful for some and so ludicrous to others, and narrowly avoided being considered a Nat ad by virtue of appearing in a periodical

to me rugby remains risible with its macho man hangover and in rural areas assuming the role of Nat front organisations along with fire stations, police stations and lodges etc but the professional era brings its own amusing conflicts with the “old kiwi culture”–I chortle at the monday morning PR sessions with head down players apologising for getting on the piss or whacking their missus, er, partners, and being ‘bad role models’ c’mon guys own your oafishness! Whadarrryaa!!

Guerilla Surgeon said...

I remember driving past Petone railway station years ago and seeing graffiti which said "why don't all youse cocernuts go home?" Or something similar – to which somebody later added "Don't be stupid, if we did, the All Blacks would be shit."

Richard Christie said...

The main reason thugby remains unavoidable and on centre stage in this country is because it is a commercial enterprise.

It is Big business with a capital B.

Truck loads of money and promotion ensures that we can never escape it unrelenting presence - hell, it can even command changes in our liquor laws.

Anonymous said...

Must be a different bullrush where he is from.

All I remember was playtime fights masked as the game, and all the best players went straight into senior school rugby teams

Charles E said...

Yes well put. Sure is a game of two halves when it comes to who likes it. Half the country cringes at the love of rugby the other has. I adore the game but understand those who don't, as I grew up in a family where the other members had no time for sport, esp rugby and wanted NZ famous for the arts instead. My Mother referred to the ABs as the 'Nazis of sport'! Extreme but amusing.
She did not stop me playing it but in parallel would not let me join the Scouts because she thought they were too alike Hitler Youth. So I joined the Young Nats to annoy her (and meet girls, which was a very poor plan) so she threatened to vote Labour to cancel me out. I left (they were more like Hitler Youth!) and voted for the Wizard instead.

SHG said...

Springbok tour! Foreskin's Lament! Jesus, this post is like a time capsule of lefty baby boomer nostalgia.

Anonymous said...

the winter of ’81 was unforgettable if you were there which is why dear leader remains so obviously bullshitting re his memory loss on the Springbok tour

Here's the thing. If Key came out and said "I was pro-tour in 1981. So was half the country. I was wrong, but it's past now, let's move on," no-one would care. No-one ever bashes Jim Bolger for being pro-tour. It's the fact that Key feels the need to lie about it that makes it such an issue.

Anonymous said...

Bullrush is a primary school, with relatively weak kids rushing past each other, but with in most cases most of them not strong enough to hurt each other. Even those who have played, at third form level in good rugby teams for one the nations more serious rugby schools, know the power level is already immensely greater, particularly if your playing Temuka who will be using players who are 15 and two grades above legality in a 0-0 draw.
Bullrush is just a burst of exhuburance and many New Zealand supposedly greater rugby coaches like Vodanavich and to a degree Fred Allen saw the need to play glorious flowing Rugby and chuck the ball around, but to my mind it was a mindless and hopeless way to play the Springboks in 1970 and Carwn James who ran the Lions in 1971 like a military general against the 1971 All Blacks which were largely inexperience and also considerably dumber that the 1960=-1970 All Blacks.
To me the New Zealand approach of always playing the best team, pointlessly running out 70-0 victories, senselessly wasting players and risking injuries and not sometimes throwing provincial games to rest good players is madness.
Australia and the boks play a intellectual planned game, even now which is why I considered the selection of Robby Deans as Wallaby coach ludicrous. Generally serious Rugby players and quality sportsmen have to be fairly bright in Australia. My view is the Australians misinterpreted Deans Christ College background and the power of his heritage and he would be particularly difficult person for Australians place.

Anonymous said...

Rugby, and Sid Going not passing (his whole job).

Yeah, it's mostly for conservatism, but Israel Dagg after all went to Lindisfarne so his text for the Nats can't be considered entirely representative. There are pluses and minuses to every people, and I don't think you can escape them equalling out. Rugby is an accepted metaphor of that for NZers.

Perhaps the Irish are an exception to that rule (this from a NZ Scot).