The short long book

Martin Flanagan has written a book about Michael Long, I can’t believe it has taken this long for a book about him to come out. Just started it, already a great read.

Is available from the Bomber Shop as well:

It’s not very long, lol, I downloaded it at about 5 and I’m nearly done. Very funny, sad, yet inspiring.

Good timing. Plnety of time for people to pick up a copy and get it signed this weekend.

It’s made me a bit mad today, I feel like the events of the past year or so that we are losing ground with what he stood against, or maybe it’s just the minority are getting louder?

A lot of people here would be well served to read this book. Its not a story about footy, dont expect to be regaled of tales of footballs inner sanctum and end of season highjinx. Its far more about the man than the game he played. Either way, it sheds light, but doesn’t scratch the surface of the most inspirational person I have ever met. I think thats largely because his story isnt finished.

Picked up a copy on my way home from work tonight. Looking forward to reading it over the weekend

Martin Flanagan says his writing life has been about filling two silences; the one in which his own Irish convict ancestry in Tasmania had been wiped from the collective memory, and that of a silent father who’d endured a war crime.

After two soul-searching years of travelling around the world in his twenties he discovered that the answers to both questions had been right in front of him back in the country of his birth. “My journey into Aboriginal Australia has also been my journey into an understanding of Australia and my place within Australia,” he tells Guardian Australia.

Flanagan’s latest book is an unconventional biography of the champion Australian Rules footballer and indigenous community leader Michael Long. He calls it a “funny, serious book” to match its subject - and it is. It’ll make you laugh at the absurdity of Long suggesting that the biography of a notable Aboriginal man should be called ‘The Great White’ in honour of the nickname that the subject gave the author. Flanagan resisted that invitation but not, he says in the book, “cosmic laughter, everything upside down.”

“That’s a brilliant joke,” Flanagan tells me. “That goes to so many levels. There’s hardly been a whitefella that’s written a book on Aboriginal Australia that hasn’t ended up writing about himself. So him calling the book ‘The Great White’, that’s a brilliant joke.”

What this book also does in its 151 pages of lean, measured prose is to put you through an emotional wringer. That it ended up so slim after ten years of graft on Flanagan’s behalf was down to unavoidable factors; the elusive subject had no interest in reciting the minutiae of his playing career, then time and money constraints put paid to Long’s plans for a different kind of book altogether, one in which he and Flanagan traversed Australia attempting to rejoin the broken links of Long’s family history.

In its place we get The Short Long Book, a funny, deadly serious and moving story over which a dark cloud always hangs. “Michael Long forever stands like a man facing this great dividing range,” Flanagan says, “and that great dividing range is the Stolen Generation.”

When asked what he learned from writing Long’s story, Flanagan says he discovered that Long was foremost an Aboriginal. “A lot of whitefellas would say to me, ‘well we knew that already’. I’d say, I’m not sure you do because to understand that he’s an Aboriginal man means that you have to explore his Aboriginality and once you explore his Aboriginality you come up against the Stolen Generation like a car crash.”

“It’s not only the effect on his mother and father, it also defines the culture in which he grows up. One of the things that’s so impressive about him is that he’s such a clear and honest thinker about it all. This stuff about the jigsaw of Aboriginal identity, it’s really profound stuff.” More important to Flanagan than anything else, Long himself approved the finished result.

You get the sense that Flanagan’s patience, sensitivity and dedication to the story was felt keenly by the man who made his job near-impossible to complete along conventional lines. “He’s connected to people and the land,” Long says of his biographer in the book’s preface. To have ploughed ahead without Long’s blessing, says Flanagan, would have been a “spiritually barren exercise.”

“I had terrible trouble getting him to read it but in the end he did.”

Flanagan says he considered giving up on telling this story “about a hundred times”, such were the frustrations in pinning Long down for interviews, but after meeting a group of young indigenous people and even a university lecturer specializing in racism in Australian sport, both of whom had never even heard of the man who Flanagan says gave Australian football its “Mandela moment,” he resolved that he’d need to see it through.

Michael Long, Michael McLean, Che Cockatoo-Collins and Gilbert McAdam Facebook Twitter Pinterest
A trailblazer on and off the pitch, Michael Long has paved the way for future Indigenous AFL players (seen here with Michael McLean, Che Cockatoo-Collins and Gilbert McAdam). Photograph: Scott Barbour/Getty Images
There are moments of almost poetic beauty in The Short Long Book, but it’s also striking to note the resilience it required to produce such a thorough and wide-ranging account of the man against such steep odds and in so few words. Long is a man with a habit of revealing stories a line at a time across the space of years. Amid a series of images that shed new light on this important Australian, teenage Long’s reaction to the death of his mother Agnes hits you like a medicine ball to the solar plexus.

For a man of few words, Long always seems to find the right one and Flanagan’s knack for isolating them gives us a fascinating look inside his mind. One small paragraph in which Long discusses his former teammate James Hird is loaded with rich subtext. “I don’t know who his friends are,” he says. “I don’t know who he laughs with, I don’t know who he cries with.”

Michael Long, says Flanagan, is a man you can cry with.

The temptation to cry might actually have been quite strong in the author at certain stages. At one point as they’re standing on the wing of a football ground in Darwin, Long’s wife Leslie tells a crestfallen Flanagan that his pursuit is just “another story, another piece of paper”, but then moments later he’s buoyed when he’s remembered by a local Aboriginal man who’d met him twenty year earlier in Melbourne.

“I hear my name and I end up sitting with a bloke who loves a book I wrote, who can’t read,” Flanagan tells me. “I end up sitting with him and his people because they’re paying me respect as a story teller.” This book is Flanagan’s story too, that of a white Australian man on a lifelong journey to understand his country and its people.

“Every time I’ve ever gone on a big project into Aboriginal Australia, you’ve just got to throw away your whitefella compass,” he says. As in any of his work, a central concern was correctly identifying and pursuing the “spirit” of the story, a task made far more difficult by Long’s reluctance to be cross-examined. “I had to abandon not only interviewing him, but I had to abandon questioning him as to meaning because he’s only got a limited patience for it and in the end it just felt rude doing it.”

The Short Long Book is not overflowing with anecdotes from Long’s duel-Premiership, AFL hall of fame career at Essendon but the images chosen do paint a compelling picture of the player and from unlikely sources too. Former Hawthorn Premiership player Peter Schwab describes the jinking, lightning-fast movements of Long like those of a frill-necked lizard. To Flanagan he looked like he’d “briefly tapped into some special energy source.”

When football action is relayed in detail, no vignette is better than Long lining up in the goal square at the Western Oval and dribbling an audacious goal through his opponent’s legs. “He was just using as much energy as was necessary,” notes Flanagan.

Still, he doesn’t shy away from criticism in the case of Long’s shirtfront on Troy Simmonds in the 2000 Grand Final, a question for which the man himself does have an answer. Long explains that he’s “old school”, which is to say he’s the son of Jack Long, a man who once fought off a crocodile and whose reputation as the toughest man in Darwin football is “said of him like it is said of Sydney that it has the Opera House.”

In a list of Flanagan’s tips for interviewing, published to coincide with the book, he speaks of producing “stories that stand the test of time,” and while this is the clearest version of Michael Long’s we’re likely to get, Flanagan concedes it won’t please everyone and reactions might even be hostile on either side of the political spectrum.

“But in the end I don’t really care because I know Longie believes that the book’s right.”

What Flanagan also seems to get right in The Short Long Book is avoiding the rushes of blood a lesser writer could easily have succumbed to when dealing with subjects so loaded and emotive. Instead he somehow lowers his heartbeat to match Long’s, letting the man himself shape the story and slowly reveal himself.

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Nicky Winmar poses with a photograph of his memorable 1993 response to crowd heckling, published in the Sunday Age under the headline: “Winmar: I’m black and proud of it”. Photograph: Hamish Blair/AAP
Within the realm of Australian sports biography it would be almost impossible to overestimate the significance of this book, a keenly-observed profile of a towering figure. Flanagan says it would have gnawed away at him if a writer of less diligence and care had put pen to paper and produced something inferior.

Appropriate weight is given to the contribution of Kevin Sheedy to the life of Long and his people (Sheedy “opened the door for Aboriginal Australia,” says Long), but even more interesting is the picture that emerges of Essendon board member and Long mentor Beverley Knight, a woman whose important contribution to the story could be obscured if not for a writer of Flanagan’s inquisitive and appreciative ear.

Through the encouragement of gallery-owner Knight, Long started to paint, an important part of his journey to engage with his Aboriginal heritage. She relays a truly resonate image of Long’s significance in Aboriginal communities; the frequent sight of a No. 13 Essendon guernsey being used in desert burial ceremonies.

This should be viewed as an important book of much broader scope than football, but sport was the vehicle through which Long had community leadership thrust upon him. His evolution as a man and a leader in Australian society carries lessons that Flanagan has done well to preserve in print and you’re struck by what a lonely and tiring path that must often be for one man. “His phone went off all day with blackfellas who needed him and whitefellas wanting to meet him,” says the author at one point.

Released to coincide with AFL Indigenous Round, The Short Long Book is also now all the more topical for the discussion surrounding the war dance performed by Sydney’s Adam Goodes, another source of Flanagan’s interest. “He’s of a new generation,” he says of Goodes. “He is to Michael Long what Noel Pearson is to Patrick Dodson. He’s a whole step on.”

“I think what he [Goodes] did is hugely consequential, without being able to predict what those consequences will be.” The writer says he wouldn’t be surprised to see other young Aboriginal men in AFL ranks make similar statements in future years during the Indigenous Round. “If there was one image that was really going to hit the nerve in this country on all sides, that was it. We’ve never fully respected the warrior tradition in Aboriginal culture like the Americans have respected the warrior tradition in Native American culture.”

More than Goodes or the divisive subject of constitutional recognition, Flanagan says it’s the closing down of remote Aboriginal communities that’s the major testing issue on the horizon. “It’s huge at a symbolic level and it’s huge at an actual level,” he says. “Most Australians are indifferent to it and in the end indifference amounts to a political attitude.”

Martin Flanagan hasn’t hidden himself from view in The Short Long Book but he says he wouldn’t trust any journalist who did. Having failed to produce a conventional sports biography, he’s nevertheless told a story that’s of great significance to all Australians.

Like in one of his columns, Flanagan signs off from our conversation by providing a concise and fitting description of his work, one that applies just as well to what he’s now achieved with The Short Long Book.

“I’m a whitefella who has a much richer life and much deeper love and appreciation of my country because I engage with Aboriginal culture and I’ve been doing it for thirty-something years and I’ll keep doing it to the end.”

Really enjoyed it.

Felt like I came away with a better understanding of the man and, sadly, an unmistakable feeling that this club has lost something these past 10 years.

im surprised more blitzers have not read it yet, its seriously only an afternoons work.

Picked up a copy today, on holidays so I might have crack at it this week.

Just finished this and I’m not sure what to make of it.

l well remember a lengthy article in the Bomber magazine years ago on Long that revealed much of what would be covered in much greater detail in this new book. l was astounded that a simple little football club fanzine would dare to include such an article, which went so far beyond the normal subject matter of such material, that it demanded attention. l don’t know who made the editorial decision to include the Long article, but that person is to be applauded. l will be doing my best to track down a version of this book and it will be a proud cornerstone of my personal library. Much did Michael Long teach us, much more still remains to be learned.

Fore warning for people expecting something more run of the mill footy book, it’s not.

It’s a book about trying to write a book about Michael Long, and you learn about Longy by learning about why it’s so hard to write a book about him

Fore warning for people expecting something more run of the mill footy book, it's not.

It’s a book about trying to write a book about Michael Long, and you learn about Longy by learning about why it’s so hard to write a book about him

As elusive off the field as he was on.

Just finished reading it…I enjoyed it but it left me wanting more…just like Martin Flanagan I suppose.