As every Speccie reader certainly will be aware and no doubt heartily applaud, the game of rugby league was born in the north of England as an assertive child of the working class. The northern clubs, determined to pay their players for missing a shift on Saturday in the mines or mills, broke with the London controllers of English rugby, who refused to tarnish the amateur status of the game.
The critical foundation meeting took place at the George Hotel, Huddersfield in Yorkshire, which assumed the proportions of Valhalla in Steve Mascord’s childhood mind. In 2016, in the northern drizzle, he confronts the reality in Yorkshire of boyhood dreams from Wollongong.
‘Where I stand, fumbling with my mobile phone, is roughly where – on August 29, 1895 – 22 clubs voted to break away from rugby union and form what would become known as rugby league. While other kids were obsessing over Batman and Charlie’s Angels, I was trying to memorise the names of these long-dead men and the exact order of their actions. In suburban Wollongong during the early 1980s, watching Seven’s Big League starring Rex Mossop and Barry Ross, memorising Malcolm Andrews’ The A to Z of Rugby League as if it was the New Testament and I was planning a life in the clergy, I devoured everything I could dust off about the game.”
How Mascord, a gifted writer on both rugby league and rock and roll, comes to be standing outside this boarded up but historic edifice in Yorkshire (on the evening of his bucks night no less!), is central to an appreciation of Touchstones. Mascord is on a pilgrimage, taking in a match and music for a year, from the struggling rugby league in North America to famous and forgotten ‘Hair Metal Bands’. These are his dual obsessions and his odyssey aims at discovering what is truly significant and memorable in his life.
From Kiss to the Kangaroos, Mascord is a well-informed enthusiast. But he has discovered something about himself, courtesy of his partner, Sarah, that generates another dimension to his life, beginning in a happy childhood in Windang, NSW.
Steve Mascord is adopted. His real name is Andrew John Langley and he becomes a critical Greek chorus in Mascord’s opus. He is often scathing, sometimes brutally so, especially when responding to Mascord’s observations on his life:
‘Andrew John Langley says: Hello! You go to the rugby league game and you get paid, you go to the hair metal concert and you don’t. How is this a conflict? You chose the bloody job, now do it. My other self is off with the fairies.’
Mascord may not be Herodotus but neither does he claim to be. What he has written is an enormously entertaining and enlightening book, which will immerse every rugby league tragic and cause every rock and roll devotee to question what is in the personal memory vault. Were the Rolling Stones better in 1973 at the Randwick Racecourse than at the Sydney Olympic Stadium in 2006, a generation later?
If rugby league has a hold over our pilgrim, rock and roll absorbs him, propelling our traveller across the Pacific to North America and the Atlantic to Europe. Kiss launches Mascord into adolescent rock admiration, on to Van Halen and Guns N’ Roses. The music from the heavy metal bands in the 1980s was both aspirational and individualistic, he argues, truly inspiring to the young Mascord. If born female, the author confesses, he would have been a willing groupie.
So from huge arenas to small clubs, from the famous to the obscure, Mascord rakes over the embers of rock and roll culture, while concluding that rock inevitably teaches young boys lies. Mascord has written with real commitment and style for various rock magazines, including Kerrang. He was one of the influences behind the groundbreaking Hot Metal.
So rock’n’roll is the other great passion for the writer, whose life has been mostly without marriage or mortgage, but who is nonetheless perpetually broke. A lock-up full of football and musical memorabilia appears to be his only asset.
Rugby league remains the game of the working man and woman. An ocean of faces at a major game is a kaleidoscope of modern Australia, with origins everywhere. And the code remains largely free of the strictures of political correctness, although the disappearance of the shoulder charge is troubling for some traditional adherents.
Mascord is definitely a purist, but without in any sense wishing to ‘bring back the biff’. His purity is revealed in a searing critique of State of Origin football:
‘State of Origin is a cultural phenomenon. It’s a television leviathan. It’s the NRL’s cash cow. It’s also an unedifying, crass sell-out by the sport of rugby league…. A former senior NRL executive was mortally offended. “You can’t over-commercialise Origin”, he said the next time he saw me. “That’s what it is. It’s a commercial entity. That’s what it’s about”.’
Actually, it’s merely what Origin has become. But our author looks elsewhere for the soul of the game, showing particular interest in minor games in rural France.
The fate of French rugby league was determined with great brutality by the Vichy regime in 1941, as described comprehensively by Mike Rylance in his definitive The Forbidden Game. League’s property was seized and handed over to rugby. The collaborationist regime supposedly detested rugby league for its professionalism. In reality, Vichy despised rugby league because it was supported by the French working class; by trade unionists, the socialists and the communists.
Touchstones is a clear milestone in Steve Mascord’s life to date. Our pilgrim moves resolutely across the landscape, meeting an impressive range of characters and, alternatively, surviving or enjoying his experiences. So does Andrew John Langley.
Would Steve’s life have been dramatically different if he were Andrew from birth? I suspect not. Rugby league and rock and roll are in his genes. He may not have begun his football devotion as an Illawarra Steeler but the North Sydney Bears would have had another tragic in the ranks. Hair metal devotion would not have been in doubt.
Stephen Loosley attended his first rugby league game in 1962; his first rock concert in 1971.