(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, July 8.)
We New Zealanders must be a dull, unimaginative lot.
I came to this gloomy conclusion after reading yet another newspaper story (they must be counted in their thousands now) recalling how the former All Black prop Keith Murdoch was sent home in disgrace after biffing a hotel security guard while on tour in Wales in 1972.
It’s now part of New Zealand folklore that Murdoch got off the plane in Australia and disappeared into the Outback, where he has since been sighted only rarely. I guess you could say he was banished, then vanished.
On the strength of this piffling episode, which in any other country wouldn’t even merit a footnote, Murdoch has become a full-blown New Zealand legend. What does this say about us?
America has Bonnie and Clyde, Jesse James, Wyatt Earp, Billy the Kid and John Dillinger. Australia has the rebellious Irishmen Peter Lalor, who led a famous goldminers’ uprising at the Eureka Stockade, and Ned Kelly. England has Robin Hood and Ronnie Biggs. But the best New Zealand can do – a collective sigh here please – is Keith Murdoch, a rugby player whose name means nothing to anyone outside the country (with the possible exception, that is, of the unfortunate Welshman who walked into Murdoch’s beefy fist 37 years ago).
The media’s fascination with Murdoch is as enduring as it is mystifying. Hardly a year goes by without his story being dusted off again.
If an altercation in a Cardiff hotel kitchen had terminated the stellar rugby career of a Kel Tremain, a Don Clarke or a George Nepia, the media’s obsession would have been slightly easier to understand, but Murdoch never achieved their exalted status. He only played three test matches, for heaven’s sake.
His main – indeed, only – claim to fame is that he threw a punch in a moment of anger and the team managers, under pressure from their snooty British hosts, decided they had to make an example of him. Then, for entirely understandable reasons, Murdoch decided he didn’t want to face the music at home.
Let’s have a reality check here. Murdoch didn’t kill the hotel security man or even leave him permanently maimed. His transgression looks almost laughably inoffensive compared with the predatory sexual exploits, drunken assaults and drug abuse that are now almost commonplace in some sporting codes. In terms of infamy, his behaviour pales into insignificance even alongside some of the on-field behaviour of more recent All Blacks.
Yet his story has assumed near-mythic proportions. Murdoch is portrayed as the enigmatic central figure in a real-life Shakespearean tragedy, when in reality he was probably just a shy sort of bloke – perhaps a bit ashamed and embarrassed too – who couldn’t cop the thought of facing a rugby-obsessed media back at home.
Maybe he thought he’d just lie low till the fuss died down and then re-enter the country unnoticed. Perhaps he then got a job in an Outback mining town where the money was a lot better than it was in Dunedin. Maybe he met someone. Who knows? But whatever happened, he hardly justifies the endless media attention.
The latest pretext for recycling the Murdoch story was that the Rugby Union was handing out commemorative caps to all living former All Blacks, and Murdoch was one of those eligible. I could envisage sports editors around the country crying as one: “Hey, let’s do another story about Murdoch.” Never mind that the story, which should never have been more than a nine-day wonder in the first place, is now so familiar it’s imprinted in our DNA.
Perhaps it’s a blokeish infatuation perpetuated by men of a certain age. Mercifully they’ll be nearing retirement now, so maybe we’ll get some relief from the Murdoch saga.
Periodically a New Zealand reporter makes a foray into the Australian desert to track Murdoch down. These quests have taken on something of the epic quality of Sir Henry Stanley’s search for the explorer David Livingstone in deepest, darkest Africa in the 19th century.
Some of these intrepid hacks have reported a brief sighting of the mystery man, much as one might recount an encounter with a yeti. Some even described a terse exchange of words. It all helps keep the legend alive.
It wouldn’t surprise me if we were told he was three metres tall, breathed flames and devoured live crocs for breakfast.
One high-profile rugby writer, seizing on the Rugby Union’s issue of the commemorative caps as an opportunity to recount a moment of glory, wrote a column in which he recalled having eyeballed Murdoch on the occasion of the former All Black’s appearance before a coroner’s inquiry into the death of a young Aborigine man at Tennant Creek in 2001. For a sports journalist, this was akin to touching the Holy Grail.
The rugby writer’s story was headlined “Time to leave Murdoch alone in peace”. It apparently didn’t occur to the journalist that the first step toward leaving Murdoch in peace would be to stop publishing his story over and over, ad nauseam.
The irony, of course, is that Murdoch himself could probably call a halt to the whole charade if he sat down and talked to a journalist. The spell might then be broken. Who knows, he might turn out to be a boring man with nothing interesting to say. But the fact that he has remained a determined recluse serves only to make him all the more fascinating. He is, in effect, the creator of his own myth.
You’d think, though, that we could find a more interesting person to elevate to folk-hero status. Even George Wilder, who of all living New Zealanders probably commands the most media curiosity after Murdoch (probably because, like Murdoch, he has resolutely shunned attention) has a stronger claim to a place in Kiwi folklore. At least Wilder’s spirited jailbreaking exploits were in keeping with the traditions of folk heroes who took on authority and defied the odds.
There’s surely an interesting thesis to be written about why a man like Murdoch should have become the centre of such a cult-like obsession. Perhaps it’s because he is seen as embodying the stoic, taciturn, man-alone quality that has been the theme of so much bleak New Zealand literature.
Whatever the explanation, it seems a damning indictment that we can’t find a more colourful and dynamic legend to celebrate.