Monday, June 14, 2010

The Shadows of Past World Cups

The FIFA World Cup is officially underway and here in little old New Zealand it's the only conversation to be had around the watercooler. It's great to have football (or soccer as we are wont to call it at any other time) supplant rugby from its roost every now and then.

Things like the World Cup and the Olympics always get me thinking about what I was doing at this time, 4, 8, 12 years ago.

Four years ago I was in Brisbane. 2006 was the year I did my MA in Creative Writing in Wellington, but the World Cup coincided with the break between the first and second semesters. Since we had no exams on the MA, I had about six weeks to go back and be with M. in Brisbane.

It was, of course, the first time Australia had made it to the World Cup finals for several years (similar to the All Whites this year, though with more close calls), and the Socceroos were all over the media. The TV coverage was great, with every game (if memory serves) free to air on SBS, and plenty of highlights and analysis in between. We were living with, amongst others, a guy from Auckland who was doing his best to be a full-time gambler. He and his father had owned horses back in New Zealand, so the races were his main focus in terms of making money, but he followed the form guide for most sports. It was great to have someone to talk to about teams other than Australia. But as Guus Hiddink guided the green and golds through to the knock-out stages, it was impossible to resist the lure of rooting for Oceania's best (at that time), to the point where I was severely gutted when Australia was eliminated by Italy in the 93rd minute (courtesy of a dodgy refereeing decision).

While all of this was going on, I was working on my MA manuscript, a novel I talk about too much for something which never made it into print. But I remember those ‘mid-winter’ Brisbane days, strolling around Robertson and MacGregor (suburbs you only go to if you live there) in t-shirt and jandels, thinking about football and having conversations with characters in my head. Wonderful days, those. At the time I thought this would be what it is like to be a fulltime writer. In the intervening four years I haven't been as close as that to being a full-time writer, and I suspect nothing will quite compare to that first time I was allowed to take the game of being a writer seriously while the world elevated the game of football to life and death.

Four years before this, my memories of the tournament as a whole are less vivid. Back in 2002, I was studying again, but subjects less sexy than Creative Writing (try 200 level accounting papers and Advanced Statistics for Business). The final must have fallen during the varsity holidays once again, because I remember watching the contest between Brazil and Germany in Palmerston North, in a mini-grandstand they had erected in Icons Bar on the Square. This was back before cheap flatscreen TVs, so the bar had a big pulldown screen and a projector. Everyone seemed to be supporting Brazil (South American flair over German efficiency - not a hard choice for the impartial observer), but my friends and I decided to root for the unterhunds (I mean unterlegenes). This was a few years before I made my first German friends, and a full five years before setting foot in the country, so the only Deutsche we could spreichen between the five of us was a sentence one of my friends recalled from third from German: Wie komme ich am besten zum bahnhof? (Can you tell me the best way to the train station?) Turns out this is a thoroughly chantable sentence — we even got some of the other neutrals to join in.

Germany didn't win, but I've never forgotten how to ask for directions to the train station since.

One other memory from the 2002 final — and again, it's nothing to do with the game itself, is it ever when you watch sports in drinking establishments? — is when a large woman walked in front of the projector and cast an even larger shadow across the screen. When she returned, her shadow blocked out the screen once more, just as Brazil moved into a scoring position, bringing groans from the rest of us on the mini-grandstand. Later on, this same girl and her equally large friend walked past, presumably for another bathroom visit, and one of us, it may even have been me, shouted, "Shadows." It was simply an attempt to alert these girls to the results of their movement — the negative impact they were having on our night — but it quickly evolved into its own pejorative term — an in-joke to be muttered when our coterie of twenty-nothings passed a group of larger people. "Shadows" stuck in our vernacular for at least another year, subtle enough in its cruelty as to delight us (we were, after all, former students of an all boys high school, so had the combined emotional age of a spoiled toddler), so malleable in its uses as to remain funny.

Nowadays, when I see this group of friends, I feel the temptation to pull out the old in-jokes, to revive the language we developed to fill the walks from tee box to fairway, fairway to green, without actually saying anything. When I see these friends — some of them earn twice my salary, others have fallen off the hamster wheel — they too sink back into familiar roles: the relentless mocking, the utter fear of emotion or femininity. They will mock my blog which no one reads, the piddling amount my book will sell, the fact I have (no doubt about it) gotten dumber since high school, and I will mock them for the workplace trysts they thought no one knew about, their beancounter jobs or the fact they still dress like their clothes were meant for their larger brother. It is just like it was four, eight, twelve years ago.

When I look back on the 2010 FIFA World Cup, I will not only be looking back upon the time the All Whites took to the world stage, but upon the lead up to the launch of my first short story collection.  Add to this a period spent looking in the Property Press and thinking about next steps, in day jobs and in life: of trying to piece everything together (but isn’t that every period of life?).

Looking back — seeing what can and cannot pass in four years, what can change and what can remain — I cannot predict what things will be like by the time the world cup hits Brazil. Will New Zealand qualify once again (will Oceania even exist as a federation)? Will I still have a day job unrelated to writing, a mortgage, a kid or two, or will I have written something worthy of changing all that? Does writing have any bearing on the mortgage and kids? Will everything come up Millhouse? I doubt it. If you asked me in 2006 what would happen with the novel I was writing, I would have told you it would get published. I believed it — one must to get that far — but it didn’t transpire. If you’d told me I’d have to wait another four years and write more than a million more words before having my first book published, would I have chosen to spend the next four years differently? I hope not. In a way I’m glad things did not all fall into my lap. I’m glad Australia got knocked out by Italy and I could go back to being a proper Kiwi. I’m glad I’ve had some downs in my writing career well out of the public eye. I’m prepared to have a few more downs (pretty soon if anyone deigns to print a review of A Man Melting) more in the public arena (but pretty obscure).

Whatever will happen, will happen, and I will stop at certain intervals, prompted by sporting events, elections or the purchase of a pair of jeans, and think back to the last time, hopefully with a smile on my face.