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ROLLING BOTH WAYS

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The United States Roller Derby came to town in the sixties. It was something like a wrestling match on wheels. The spectacle was stage-managed for television. It was mayhem, with manufactured enmities to amuse the crowd. However, it takes a top class skater to choreograph a fight while hurtling at speed around a banked track on one leg – the other one being waved in the breeze or whatever – and come out with an intact set of bones, ready for a repeat performance the following week.

Although the States also had a home league, which skated by the rules, and from which the theatrical troupe were picked, the dramatized version was the only one filmed on television in Australia, leaving a distorted view of the game.           

Some bright spark decided that we should start our own league. Manresa Hall in Hawthorn was available. A team was formed, with both male and female divisions. My brother Bob and I joined in, along with a lost musician, Graham, who was squatting at our place at the time. Initially we practiced on the flat surface of the dusty hall, until we eventually built a somewhat shaky banked track.

As many of our skaters came from the St. Kilda area, we called ourselves the Southern Flyers and designed a red, black and white uniform. The emblem on the front was a black roller wheel with red wings. As the name suggests, we relied on our speed and skill, rather than trying to emulate the mocked up thuggery of the professionals.

Other teams were also developed and the Victorian League was formed. We hit the big-time, as a curtain raiser on the track at Festival Hall, just before the international stars performed. Unlike the Americans, we had to skate strictly to the rules. Any fights, mock or otherwise, had dire results, such as time out on the penalty bench. We used our own names, rather than wildly descriptive ones such as Dorothy Daisy Cutter or Annie Arm Crusher. Nevertheless, it was speed skating with extras and accidents did occur. Being slammed into the wall at speed resulted in the odd broken finger and if you didn’t have bruises at the end of the game, you hadn’t played. Bob Locke, a tough Liverpudlian with a distinguished history of speed skating, was our coach. I was the original captain of the women’s team.

Despite being relative beginners, we were elated to be breathing the same air as the professionals. The roar of the wheels, accompanied by the ear splitting cheers of the audience as we exploded onto the track from the change rooms below, is indelibly printed on my mind. The adrenaline flows just thinking about it. Interestingly, by the time we had skated half way around the track, a strange thing happened. The sound faded completely away as we focused on the job in hand. Eventually we topped the Victorian League.         

Fund–raising for the Good Friday Appeal in 1966, the Southern Flyers skated from St. Kilda to the Children’s’ Hospital, collecting on the way. There was an unauthorised stopover at Young and Jackson Hotel, opposite the Flinders Street Station. At this stage, women were excluded from public bars. We rattled our tins at the door and the men invited us in. Someone promised money if a girl skated the bar. How could I resist? It’s much harder than dancing on one, but yes, I clambered up and rolled shakily along without tipping over anyone’s beer. The tins were soon filled.

We were filmed progressing down St. Kilda Road. Television was relatively new at this stage, and my small daughter was reportedly upset at seeing a shrunken mum inside the set, wondering how she would get out of it and return to the right size.

Ronny was one of the best skaters in our team. A country boy, he was living with his fiancée’s family in the western suburbs. Then he came out as gay. He needed alternative accommodation in a hurry. It was logical for him to crash on my couch for a while. He was amongst friends. Half the team members were either in my house or living in the surrounding streets.      

Ronny was also an extremely good dancer. We would occasionally go out together, generally down Fitzroy Street. The George Hotel and Les Girls at the Ritz were favourite haunts. Not only was I getting to see some areas in St. Kilda that I may not have had entrée to otherwise, but I also had a competent partner. In between working, skating and dancing, Ronnie painted our lounge red and designed dresses for my girls’ dolls. They had the best dressed Barbies in town.

One day, we ended up in the Australia Hotel in the city. Ronny showed me a new part of it – well new to me. It was the downstairs lounge, which was famous as a homosexual hang out. It was a warm Melbourne day and we chatted away, solving the world’s problems as usual. A large gentleman came up and introduced himself.

“I’m from Queensland. Can I buy you a drink and join in? It’s great to see a normal couple. This place is full of poofs. I love talking, but hell, you wouldn’t want to chat to that lot.”

 “Sure. Pull up a seat.”

He returned with a jug of beer. Ronny and I looked at each other, smothering our smirks. We talked about Melbourne weather, skating and footy. A considerable time later, having drunk more than we had planned, we took our leave. He thanked us for our company and on being such a nice normal couple. We burst out laughing.       

“Not quite.”

There’s a memorable line in a Kris Kristofferson song, ‘To Beat the Devil,’ which he sang at the St Kilda Palais on his Australian tour. It succinctly described the interchange:  “I aint saying I beat the devil, but I drank his beer for nothing”

Brenda Richards  

2017

Original Captain of Southern Flyers girls team

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