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Authors: Gerald Murnane

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BOOK: Something for the Pain
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I have a lasting memory of Dennis Hanrahan from a day at Flemington in the early 1960s. He and I were on the old Hill, watching the finish of a weight-for-age race. Three outstanding horses were fighting out the finish. Dennis would have backed one or another of the three; he could never watch a race without having a small bet on it, although he had to give up betting when he was appointed assistant judge for the VATC. But betting was always for Dennis and me only a small part of the marvellous pageant of racing. When the leaders were about fifty metres from the finish and the result was still impossible to predict, I heard Dennis say—not to me but to himself, and in the same tone that he and I as Catholic schoolboys had formerly used for our prayers in classroom and chapel—‘Racing at its best!'

David Walton is my oldest friend. We met up in the school ground at De La Salle College, Malvern, in February 1952, when we were both in short trousers. David's father was a bookmaker, but David seemed uninterested in racing during our schooldays. He and his wife, Yvonne, spent more than twenty years in the Middle East and, after their return to Australia in the early 1990s, they and my wife, Catherine, and I sat together in the members' stands of all four Melbourne racecourses on almost every Saturday until my wife was no longer able to go to the races. What most unites David and me as racegoers is our interest in the
people
at the races. I have seen David sometimes turn away for a moment from watching a field of horses in the straight in order to watch a nearby person or a group of persons that he knows to be among the owners of one of the horses. Likewise, when most spectators are watching the winning horse and rider returning across the mounting yard, David will have his binoculars trained on the stalls at the edge of the yard where the owners and trainers of the placegetters, each in his or her unique way, register elation or ruefulness or downright disappointment. In the language of pop psychology, David is trying to relate to the people around the stalls or to empathise with them. In the language of his and my childhood, the language that I call backstreet Australian, he is stickybeaking. It's a harmless but salutary exercise, and I join him in it often, even if our other racing interests don't always coincide.

Timothy Doyle and I went to the races together every Saturday during the late 1980s, and we still meet occasionally at Caulfield. Timothy appreciates most of the pleasures of racing but nothing as much as backing a winner at long odds. If it were permitted to write doctoral theses on topics related to racing, Tim would have written long ago, and would have been awarded first-class honours for, a thesis with the title
Form Reversals: The tendency among favourites that have run unplaced subsequently to return to winning form at longer odds, and the degree of predictability of this phenomenon of the turf
. Tim is ever alert to the humour of racing, but he and I did not meet until I was well past forty, and I find it hard to share with him many of my formative experiences from my early years as a racegoer.

Because my surname is Irish, some people have foolishly described me as an Irish-Australian, whatever that might be. Of my eight great-grandparents, the only Irish person was the man whose surname I've inherited. The other seven were all English—and Protestant, if they were anything. I was much more influenced as a boy by my father's relatives than by my mother's, but the Murnane men were far from resembling the square-jawed cartoon Irishmen who brawl and booze and burst often into sentimental song. My father and his brothers were teetotallers who neither smoked nor swore nor told off-colour jokes. If not for their interest in racing, they could have been called Catholic wowsers. Even their talkativeness and their wittiness came more, I suspect, from their mother, a Mansbridge with a Sussex father, than from dour Thomas Murnane, their father, who was, in any case, only half-Irish himself.

My favourite among my father's brothers was the youngest, Louis. I probably confided more to my uncle Louis than to my own father. I certainly talked much more about racing with Louis than with my father, who became more and more distracted in his later years by his mounting debts and his efforts to recoup them by betting. I grew apart from Louis in his later years and was estranged from him after he took offence at the two books of mine that were published during his lifetime, although we shook hands on his deathbed. Fictional versions of my favourite uncle are in several of my books. Even thirty years after his death, when I was writing
Barley Patch
, I was driven yet again to fictionalise him.

Louis and I were great racing friends, but there were definite limits to what we could share. At one time in the late 1950s or the early 1960s, a young apprentice rider named Ricky Chrisp was listed in form guides. I doubt whether he rode more than a few winners and, like most apprentice jockeys, he was driven out of racing by increasing weight or decreasing opportunities. One morning, while I was poring over the results of the previous day's races at Woodend or Pakenham, I was amused to see Ricky's surname printed as
Christ
. I saw Louis only a few times yearly, but I knew that he, like myself, read the racing results carefully every day. When I next visited Louis in Warrnambool, I reminded him of the misprinted version of the apprentice's name. He gave a nervous smile, and I should have left the matter there. Instead I went well beyond the unspoken bounds of our racing friendship, and I still cringe when I recall the discomfort I caused him. I said something to the effect that I had always been prepared for the Second Coming of our Saviour but that I was most surprised at His returning not in glory but as an untalented apprentice jockey.

My wife, Catherine, rode ponies as a girl, although she had no contact with horses in later years. We were not able to go regularly together to the races until after our three sons had reached their teens and Catherine had taken early retirement. We made up for her lost racing opportunities by going together to most Melbourne meetings during the last fifteen years before her health failed in 2006. Catherine loved to immerse herself in the details of the form guide. She would devote twenty minutes at least to selecting the horse that would carry her ten-dollar bet in each forthcoming race and when, as sometimes happened, her selection won at good odds, she would suppose she had discovered at last her own selection method. What I never understood about Catherine was her utter lack of interest in racing when she was not at her table in the members' lounge of a Saturday afternoon, studying her form guide, or in the grandstand watching race after race. I never saw her look at the racing pages of a newspaper in our house. She never asked to accompany me on my many trips to our local TAB agency. She enjoyed being a racegoer, but for six days of the week she spared no thought for racing, whereas I walked often in a fog of racing memories and racing possibilities.

I tried once or twice to acquire a new racing friend; to convert to my way of life someone who seemed peculiarly in sympathy with me in fields other than racing. When
Tamarisk Row
was published in 1974, a man I had never heard of wrote in a newspaper review that the book was the best he had read for many years. I later met up with him, and we became good friends. His name was John Tittensor. He was perhaps my closest friend for ten years, until he left Australia after the death of his two children in a house fire. One day, encouraged by the close affinity that we seemed to share, I told John the story of the two Maikais.

In the Great Age of Racing, betting on horses was almost the only legal form of gambling in Victoria. In those years, the nearest equivalent to the lotto draws of today was doubles betting on the Caulfield and Melbourne cups or the Doncaster Handicap and the Sydney Cup or a few other pairs of notable races. Specially licensed doubles bookmakers posted every few weeks to their clients detailed charts showing the odds against many thousands of combinations of horses in the two designated races. Even the combination of the favourite in each race might be quoted at a hundred-to-one, while a pair of outsiders could be backed at odds of ten thousand-to-one or even more. Bookmakers were able to offer these seemingly generous odds because no refunds were made for scratchings. In July, when the first charts were issued for the Caulfield and Melbourne cups, the entrants for each race numbered several hundreds. Hardly more than twenty started in each race. All the money wagered on the hundreds of scratched horses stayed in the bookmakers' pools.

In the winter of 1939, when I was a babe-in-arms, my father's smart racing mates were informed by others of their kind in Western Australia that a horse named Maikai (colours unknown), which was little known even in its home state, was being prepared to win both the Caulfield Cup and the Melbourne Cup. My father at the time was a warder at Pentridge Prison, with a weekly wage of perhaps five pounds. He trusted the smart men in the west enough, or he was foolhardy enough, to bet two pounds on the two Maikais, which was the expression used for the combination of the same horse in each of two feature races. Maikai was a rank outsider in each race, and my father stood to win forty thousand pounds.

In the following months, Maikai performed just as his stable had expected. He won several major handicaps in Western Australia and was one of the better-fancied runners in the Caulfield Cup. The pain suffered by the followers of Maikai on Caulfield Cup Day would have been severe indeed, but worse was to come. Maikai ran second in the Caulfield Cup to the mare Rivette (Black, rose diamonds and cap). All bets were, of course, lost, but what would the Maikai camp have felt on Melbourne Cup Day when their horse again finished a close second to Rivette? Just the one rival had thwarted a once-in-a-lifetime coup. Had Rivette not started in the cups, my father might have lived afterwards from the rents of a street of terrace houses rather than a prison warder's wages.

I told this story once to John Tittensor. I'm sure I mentioned enough background details for him to grasp the full import. To judge from his comment afterwards, he had got my general drift, as they say, but I learned from that same comment that John was one more of the many intelligent, imaginative persons I've known for whom racing is a closed book.

Said John: ‘If only your poor father had backed it each way!'

9.
Illoura and Miss Lawler

DURING THE SEVEN
years between my leaving school and my meeting up with the young woman who was later my wife for forty-three years, I had only three girlfriends, and the total length of time during which I was thus provided was about six months. During the other six and a half years, I was a solitary. In my solitary periods, I went out once or, at most, twice with each of five young women. During the same periods, I invited each of three other young women to go out with me but was turned down. All this seemed rather dispiriting at the time, and yet I was aware even then of a sort of paradox in my romantic life, if it deserves to have been so called.

During the long periods when I was solitary and without a girlfriend, I considered myself deprived, and my prevailing mood was a sort of low-grade misery. And yet, my state of mind whenever I
had
a girlfriend, or while I was trying to acquire one, was no sort of improvement on the earlier state of mind and not at all what I had hoped for. The advantage of my being solitary was that things were settled and predictable. I read more and wrote more as a solitary and was able to become accustomed to my gloomy moods. Whenever I had a girlfriend, I lived in a permanent state of uncertainty. Even my free time was mostly given to wondering and speculating: what were her true feelings towards me? how long would it be before we fell out? But the worst hardship that my three short-term girlfriends caused was my enforced absence from the races during our time together. I felt obliged to go out with each girlfriend every Saturday night. This in itself was a strain: I could seldom think of anything better than to go with her to some or another tedious film and to drink an over-priced cup of coffee with her afterwards in some pretentious so-called coffee lounge. I needed to conserve my nervous energy of a Saturday afternoon and, sometimes, to be ready early in the evening if we were to have a meal together before our outing. I was obliged to stay at home every Saturday afternoon and to listen to radio broadcasts of the Melbourne races, often without being able to have a bet.

I can distinctly recall each of the three occasions when I went to the races for the first time after an enforced absence caused by my involvement with a girlfriend. My two or three racing acquaintances made no fuss over me, but I felt as though each detail of my surroundings had acquired an aura or radiance as though to remind me that racing had remained true to me, even though I had thought to desert it for the sake of some foolish illusion.

The first of my three returns to racing took place in September 1957, the second in March 1960, and the third in February 1964. This section of this book is concerned with the second of the three. I lost the first and the third of my girlfriends as a result of
their
deciding to end our association. My parting from the second of the three could be described as having been by mutual consent. My first day back at the races was the Australian Cup meeting at Flemington on Monday, 7 March, which was a public holiday. In Melbourne during March, the sunlight has a quality that has always affected me strangely. The harshness of the summer light has been somehow altered. Distant scenery appears as though under glass. Something in the air promises me answers to questions that have for long teased me. (I wonder whether my becoming unsettled by the sunlight in March is connected with my first exposure to sun and sky. I was born in late February. In the earliest photograph of me, I lie in a cane bassinet under a gauzy cloth on a patch of lawn behind the boarding house in Breese Street, Brunswick, that was my parents' home at the time. The month would have been March or April.) Even if I had not been still affected by the loss of my second girlfriend, I would have derived a bitter-sweetness from the notable sunlight on Australian Cup Day, 1960.

BOOK: Something for the Pain
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