Greg McGee and telling tales

"Rugby is organised violence but I think it gives expression to something that is in the nature of man. Men, and many women, they want a form of contact sport, and I'm very appreciative of things rugby does in our society."
"Rugby is organised violence but I think it gives expression to something that is in the nature of man. Men, and many women, they want a form of contact sport, and I'm very appreciative of things rugby does in our society."

THERE WAS something about school that Greg McGee didn't like, so he took off. The headmaster of Casa Nova School in Oamaru noticed the five-year-old escaping, "and he sent the whole of Standard Four after me. So here we were, all tearing down the highway - the school was probably about a kilometre from home - and I just beat them there", McGee recalls.

"I can't remember, I think mum gave them all a biscuit or something and said, `Good to see you'."

Later the same year, the lad tried again "and made the terrible mistake of pinching the headmaster's bike, or somebody's bike, and he came after me in his car". McGee hid at his nana's place till the headmaster turned up, and then scuttled into a plum tree. "I was up there, with my nana and the headmaster pleading with me to come down. I was hurling plums at him."

McGee, you could say, had a certain independence of spirit. He was also a terrible fibber. "Once mum packed me off to school and there was an empty section across the road with long grass, so I just went in there and waited till it seemed like the whole day, ate my lunch and came home - about an hour-and-a-half later. Mum asked me where I'd been and I gave this long bulls--- story about what I'd done at school."

He would tell tall tales at morning talk. The five-year-old bragged once that his father used to let him back the van out of the garage in the morning, and it must have sounded plausible. His mother got a call from the teacher asking what was going on.

McGee was a writer, filling exercise books with words, before he left primary school. He doesn't know why.

New Zealand's celebrated playwright came from a working-class family that never went to the theatre: that was for toffs.

He was a big lad who loved rugby and was outstanding at it - he was an All Blacks triallist - and wrote the definitive denunciation of redneck rugby culture, Foreskin's Lament. He made literature out of the scrum and the kick to the head. He still loves rugby.

McGee's new book, Tall Tales (Some True): Memoirs of an Unlikely Writer, explores these and other mysteries. The man himself, at 57, is tall, hefty and modest, even perhaps a bit shy. Certainly he doesn't like his photo taken. The day is cold but the pub in Auckland's Ponsonby is warm, and soon he relaxes. Besides, the McGees were good talkers and so is he, precise as well as rumbustious.

The rising young rugby star wore his ginger hair down to his shoulders, an act of subversion in New Zealand in 1970. The collision between the intellectual fullback Foreskin and the tough middle-aged coach Tupper forms the heart of Foreskin's Lament, the 1980 play that electrified New Zealand and made its author famous at 30. This collision was also "central to my life and to some extent, I think, my generation", he says.

"We were brought up by tough old bastards who'd lost their childhood to the Depression and their youth to the Second World War, and they were tough. I guess looking at us they thought, `We fought for that? That lack of respect for us and for our values?' So I think with me and the coaches there was a bit of that intergenerational thing going on."

The 60s came late to New Zealand, he says. In 1970 he was long-haired but many of the other players still wore ties and blazers. "Within two years it was all afros and beads and everything changed so quickly." But for the few years before that, the fight between young and old was at its most terrible.

McGee remembers being caned by the maths teacher who discovered him lying at the back of a class, reading a novel. "He said to me, `McGee, there's no money in that!' And then he held up a slide rule and said, `Unless you can use one of these you'll have no career'!"

Looking back, McGee thinks he probably deserved the whacking. "I was so uninterested. I thought, `Who gives a f--- what X equals? I think I got 24% in School C maths, only because I couldn't leave till after half an hour."

But he doesn't want to overdo his image as a rebel. True, he did run away from school a bit at first, and his mother used to worry terribly about her beloved second son. But later another primary teacher assured her he would be all right because "he's not dumb. He'll be looking out the window or whatever but you ask him a question and he knows the answer".

And at Waitaki Boys' High School he became a prefect and got lots of academic prizes besides being a hero of the First XV. Three teachers in particular helped him survive high school, and all three married intellect and sport. "They believed there was no way one should exclude the other, and I think that was really powerful."

So the boy who had grown up reading Reader's Digest condensed books, war comics and, oddly, his mother's Nursing Manual - "I saw the most grotesque photos - it was amazing!" became interested in serious literature. He was the first of his family to go to university (law at Otago).

But the rugby culture in those days was "predominantly misogynist and redneck and rural", and so the long-haired student player discovered a certain tension between himself and his teammates. His chapter about his games against the notoriously brutal Canterbury side is eloquent and revolting. He recalls waking up in his hotel room to find a party in full swing and "a couple of my room-mates were rooting away in the beds alongside me". On the field, "someone, with surgical precision, used their sprigs to slice open my knee". There is much, much more of this.

 

ISN'T RUGBY actually a celebration of violence? Isn't it rotten, in other words, at its heart, even after all the changes in the rugby culture of the last 25 years?

"It is organised violence," McGee argues, "but you know I think it gives expression to something that is in the nature of man." And it is better there, on the field, than somewhere else. Besides, "men and many women, they want a form of contact sport, and I'm very appreciative of things rugby does in our society, particularly Auckland. If you take a club like Ponsonby, they opened themselves up to enlightened ideas and the Pacific Island community and Maori ahead of the general society".

Rugby had brought Pacific people into the whitest areas of the south there are now "old North Otago family names" that are Tongan and Samoan. Rugby had helped race relations.

Even during the 1981 Springbok tour - when McGee famously joined the protesters and publicly burnt his All Black triallist's shirt - the angry pro-tour people were not usually racist, he says. At most they were "abstract racists" who "couldn't get their heads around concerns for an abstract bunch of people in South Africa", he says.

There was also a sense in which half of McGee's heart was on the other side. He was one of the protesters who took the field at the Waikato game, but inside he was hoping that if the game went ahead that Waikato would win.

Isn't rugby inherently sexist, a celebration of the bull male? It is macho, says McGee but not necessarily sexist. He has coached women's rugby teams, and has been impressed or even terrified by their oomph. The heart of rugby is the physical collision, and some women clearly enjoy it too. And that "fierce joy" in the clash is a necessary part of the game.

"I used to find that I had enough natural aggression to play once every 10 days, but unfortunately we had to play sometimes twice a week. I didn't have enough natural aggression for that - I'm not painting myself as a shrinking violet or anything - so I had to rev myself up to play more than that. So I'd use Led Zeppelin."

At the same time, McGee is ready to accept the paradox. "It always intrigues me that these young men are expected to go out there and be gladiators on Saturday or Sunday and are then supposed to be role models for the rest of the week."

Has the rugby culture changed since the roaring, snorting, swilling, shagging and bashing days so fiercely condemned in Lament?

Well, the TV cameras have reduced the level of dirt, he says, but the collisions are more brutal than ever because the players are so much bigger. Certainly the players are far more diverse, reflecting a much more diverse society. Consider the captaincy of Tana Umaga. "I just thought that was so fantastic, that we could have a dreadlocked Samoan as captain of the All Blacks. His face would not have fitted even 10 years before then. And yet Tana embodied the toughest of attitudes - a lot of the values of Colin Meads."

So has rugby really changed that much? McGee says it's hard to tell. In the professional age, PR rules, and "all the players are media-trained, which enables them to say nothing at great length".

 

WHILE Foreskin's Lament is remembered as a play about rugby, it is just as much about the New Zealand intellectual culture. Foreskin's culture is largely an imported one, and his famous tirade to the audience at the end of the play was based on the American beat poet Allen Ginsberg's poem Howl. Most of its literary allusions are American. The playwright's culture was similar.

"Foreskin is in the act of trying to discover his culture," McGee explains, "and it's somewhere between the imported intellectual culture, if you like, and the native rugby culture. He's not, to my mind, embracing or fully embracing or rejecting either. He's lamenting the fact that there is no in-between, there is no standing place for him."

These days, says McGee, there is standing room. Many new writers "are throwing their pebbles on to the mosaic and that is gradually, with its colours and shapes, developing and determining who we are".

McGee has played his part in that, with some ground-breaking television and film scripts along with more plays and now, his memoirs. This unlikely writer says only that his work is "just another pebble". And now it's time to head back out into the cold.

* Tall Tales (Some True): Memoirs of an Unlikely Writer by Greg McGee (Penguin, $37) is available on August 4.

Sunday Star Times