Gerald Murnane, Something for the pain: a memoir of the turf
Gerald Murnane is one of Victoria’s, if not Australia’s, great writers. His works are not many in number, nor is he as well known as others, and his style is highly distinctive. He is by no means a traditional novelist bent on characterisation and narrative; rather, he excels at observation and evocation. And he loves – is obsessed with – racing.
Something for the pain is a memoir of observations. Observations of an inner world that from primary school was bound up in racing. While other boys obsessed over football players and their numbers or stats, or the horsepower of cars, Murnane memorised the colours worn by horses and their jockeys. They work for him as a part of memory, as, say, snatches of a song or the waft of a floral scent do for many of us. Indeed, these colours are so strong, he can also smell and feel them.
He loves – is obsessed with – racing.
Murnane’s memoir takes us back through his long life in themed fragments, always with racing as the touchstone. In particular, he takes us back into what he calls the Great Age of Racing and his experience and understanding of it.
A not-so-benign institution
Racing is the form of gambling most normalised in Australia. By this, I mean it is little criticised and mostly accepted, even though the number of people who attend or bet regularly (the punters) is less than one in five. Contrast its acceptance – indeed, institutionalisation – with the current angst around sports betting. Betting on sports such as football or cricket is seen by many as a debasement, something that threatens the value of the sport. But this is no different from racing, where a continual battle with cheating is also institutionalised.
Racing is the form of gambling most normalised in Australia.
Betting on racing is not a harmless activity. It’s right up there with pokies and casino games as a major source of gambling harm. Murnane’s father, based on the description of him and the consequences of his betting, undoubtedly had very serious gambling issues. His debts and losses meant a childhood of shifting house.
The Great Age
Murnane clearly loves betting on horses, albeit in more moderation than his father. But the betting is just a part of the love of the sport. He talks of that fondness – perhaps an Australian trait, or just a human one – of the unfancied horse making a late run for the win as they come around towards the straight. He loves the contest, the effort and the unpredictability.
He reminds us that up until at least the mid-1960s, as around eighty thousand Melbournians made their way to the Saturday VFL games, they shared their trains with another thirty thousand heading to the races. He imagines the Great Age as part of a world where horse races ‘were an ever present background’.
All very different from today. This was not Spring Racing Carnival crowds after the AFL finals, this was every Saturday from the start of the footy season until after its end. Football and racing were the major cultural pursuits of working and middle-class Melbourne.
As around eighty thousand Melbournians made their way to the Saturday VFL games, they shared their trains with another thirty thousand heading to the races.
Bookmakers were not on TV telling punters they were there for them. Rather, the punters, including the horse owners and trainers, knew they were in a bare-knuckle fight with the bookies.
For Murnane’s father, spotting the horse that was being kept back from showing its ability, so as to push out its odds at a big race, was a major preoccupation. This meant not just following races, but keeping a close eye on the owners and trainers and those associated with them. And using cleanskins like your son to place the bets with unsuspecting bookies, timing the plunge as close to the race as possible to catch them unawares.
Murnane notes that during the Great Age of Racing the gambling industry was not shovelling in such piles of money as to make the prize pools sufficient to make a living running horses. Rather, those who owned and ran the horse would all too often need to make money from the bookies, which meant making sure the odds did not get too short.
There are many stories in this book that evoke a world we have lost, but there are striking reminders of the relationship of that world to the one we are in now. The TAB displaced the off-course bookies and now the TAB is under threat from the new online bookmakers operating out of the Northern Territory.
While attendances at the track have been falling steadily for years, race betting has more or less plateaued. Apart from one month of the year, racing now seems more a subculture, albeit a powerful and well-connected one, than a major part of everyday Victorian life.
However, it lives on as a provider of gambling opportunities, and the money made from bookies flows back into it. The question Murnane’s book raises for me is whether the kind of love and meaning he found in his life of racing, of which betting was just a part, will continue to persist. Or whether the new bookmaking industry, with its driven focus on racing as a series of opportunities to generate bets, will ultimately hollow out racing as a sport and a culture.
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