Poetry: The Book of my Enemy — In Praise of Marjorie Jackson | clivejames.com
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

In Praise of Marjorie Jackson

In 1999, the year before the Sydney Olympics,
Her face all laugh lines, regal in her scarlet coat,
The gold in her teeth aglow like her set of gold medals,
At the brand-new stadium she said exactly the right thing:
‘What a heritage for our kids! It’s lovely.’
As usual her words rang bells all over Australia.
She could always do that, tap into the national pride.

Fifty years back, she was the fastest kid in Lithgow.
She could run the boys into the earth,
And when she ran the legs off Fanny Blankers-Koen
(Who, visiting Sydney, expected to win in a walk)
The good citizens of Lithgow were not surprised —
Unlike the rest of Australia, whose collected sporting scribes,
When their mouths had returned to the normal, merely open, position,

Gave her an express train’s name to match the way she ran —
She was the Lithgow Flash.
Young Marjorie, who could always do the right thing,
Went back to Lithgow with a modest, pre-cosmetic smile,
Quietly amused at the ratbag outside world.

Lithgow, hemmed in by its hills and one storey high
At its highest, didn’t even have a running track.
They cleared her a stretch of ground to prepare for the Olympics.
Tired after work, she would train there in the dark:
Lit up by car headlights that turned the loitering fog
Into the nimbus of a legend about to happen
As she sailed like an angel through the clouds of her first glory,
The most brilliant thing Lithgow had ever seen —

The right thing, the thing she could always do
With a whole heart, putting one foot in front of the other
Like the fists of Jimmy Carruthers tapping a punchball.

At Helsinki she ran in metres instead of yards
So the stretch for the sprints was just that little bit longer
Each time, two ghosts of a chance for the others to catch her
After her start that uncoiled like Hector Hogan’s —
But they never got near her.
In both events, she won scooting away like a wallaby
With its tail on fire, and collared those twin gold medals
With a smile for the camera that signalled her gratitude
To God and the world, to Finland, Australia and Lithgow —
The right smile, again the right thing exactly.

She came home in triumph, with ninety-six miles of people
From Sydney to Lithgow shouting congratulations —
The kind of acclaim that used to make Roman generals
Decide it might just be their turn to go for the title.
It would go to anyone’s head, but it didn’t to hers
Because it wouldn’t have been the right thing:
She married her cyclist Peter and the people of Lithgow
Collected a total of seventy-seven pounds for the wedding —
The nearest she ever got to the big money
And the nearest she wanted.

When the last of Peter’s health melted, what could she do
Except the right thing? She lent her undying lustre
To fundraising for leukaemia research.
She groomed herself as a speaker, walked with the poise
That only those who have danced on air can possess
(Or walked on water, like the RiverCat named for her

You can catch tomorrow from the Quay to Parramatta,
Watching the way its keels, like the spikes of a sprinter,
In their lightweight trajectory barely impinge on the world)
And still, with her seventieth year coming close to her heels,

She looked fit to make that spanking new surface at Homebush
Unroll from the balls of her feet like a belt going backwards
Into the past, into the headlight-lit mist
Where she was the quickest of all my fantastic girls —
Than Shirley Strickland, than even Betty Cuthbert she was quicker —
The very first of the fleet-foot females Movietone flung
Flying towards me but forever out of reach
Up there on the screen, their green and gold strip black and white
To the lens, but to my pre-teen eyes spilling fire
From the warmth of their bodies, the strength of their softness, the sweet
Line of their slimness propelled by the will to excel
And cold lamb cutlets for breakfast.

Yes, still in short pants I was out of my mind for them all,
But somehow I knew — I don’t know, it was something about her —
That she — the unglamorous one but in motion a goddess —
That she was the one who, had I been able to catch her
And run at her side for a while as I gasped out my feelings,
Would have done the right thing,
And smiled without laughing before she raced on and away —

Or even said, even though it wasn’t true,
That if I’d had the luck to have been born and brought up in Lithgow
Where the nights were cool, the stars were close and the people real,
I could have been a sprinter too,
And run for my country at the same amazing time

As the Lithgow Flash shot through like the Bondi Special
Into the language, and Australia rose to its feet —
Cheering the champion, which, even when all are equal,
And sometimes especially then, is the right thing to do.

Note (from Collected Poems)

Scholars of Australian slang will notice that I use the correct term, Bondi Special, in my oblique reference to the hallowed motto ‘He (or she, they or it) shot through like the Bondi Special’. The popular but corrupt version is ‘shot through like a Bondi tram’: more immediately appreciable, perhaps, but incorrect, because an ordinary Bondi tram would have stopped at every stop, whereas it was the Special, which usually ran late at night, that went non-stop all the way from the city to the beach. In her later life Marjorie Jackson was Governor of South Australia, and when I was filming in Adelaide she kindly invited me for a tour of her official residence. Among the trophies on display, along with her collection of Olympic and Commonwealth Games gold medals, was her famous first pair of running shoes, aptly made of kangaroo skin.