Culture

EXCLUSIVE: Urthboy And Writer Geoff Lemon Pay Tribute To Phillip Hughes

Today marks one year since Phillip Hughes' death.

UPDATE: Friday November 27: Today marks one year since Phillip Hughes’ death.

The following essay was written to accompany the premiere of Urthboy’s new track, ‘Nambucca Boy’, which is dedicated to Phil Hughes. Stream it below.

Under floodlights in the middle of an oval humans have six shadows, or eight, or twelve. Bodies move and drag this strange array beneath them, shapes that could be spider-limb prostheses or the swirl of anti-matter stars. This is an interim space, a kind of half-reality. The field is a lurid green no grass will ever be. Hat-brims shield eyes under black skies. Players act out characters with real names that mark the backs of replica shirts. They pace out the story on televisions. They are based in fact but lacking some substance of it.

Some news, you remember where you were when you heard it. All of these thousand thoughts going through the back of your mind. Phillip Hughes was hit by a cricket ball on a quiet afternoon one year ago today: I was tapping out an article, one eye on the Shield scores. The updates started coming through, contradicting and retracting and asserting. I sat up most of the night scrolling the screen, strangers gathering online in mutual disbelief.

That’s our instinct: to seek that comfort, forcing ourselves to believe unreal things by shared acknowledgement. It took two days for his death to become official. The worst aspect of tragedy must be the vigil, marking time at a Schrödinger intersection. Looking back, the faces of hospital visitors, they already knew. But only an announcement collapses other possibilities. That night the cricketers in Sydney gathered impromptu round the SCG pitch as the floodlights beamed. Urthboy saw the glow from the wheel of his car, and put down the memory in the song released today.

Some people will ask why, or whether it’s needed, or whether he got it right. He and I discussed the same things: why some deaths have such potency, why we mourn for people we never knew. It’s been a global conversation recently: how many tragedies go unnoticed beyond their own vicinity? But humans can only feel so much. We can criticise the reasons for prioritising grief, but that doesn’t make the grieving less real.

He was brought up Nambucca River way

Town of Macksville, young kid begins to play

The way he wields the willow outside off, no matter

What was thrown at him, well it’d bounce right off

Different things get to you with Phil Hughes. The smile beaming from the photographs. The energy of his batting, the absurd talent. We can’t say he would have been great, but he might have – we never got to find out.

I was at Trent Bridge for his best innings, that 81 not out overshadowed by teen heartthrob Ashton Agar. It hadn’t been long since Hughes was the teen heartthrob, although teen angry-windmill-falling-over-backwards was more his style. I saw his double hundred against South Africa A in Townsville, the way he’d contort his body like a Gumby figurine to get that traction though the off-side.

Runs came in fifties and tons, ever since he was young

Save your legs Phil, it’s four more runs

Baggy cap was not a match for the Australian sun

Necks and noses got burnt for the emblem on the front

And of course talk of cricket seems trivial, but it’s twinned with his life and its ending. The sense of injustice through his career, how he was messed around and dropped and recalled, shuffled through the order, given no leash at all. How the hottest possible streak for the national reserve team couldn’t get him promoted. How his last Shield innings would probably have had him back in the Test side. Trivial in context, but reflecting an unfairness on a whole different level. The part that the song can only skip over; a final act like an unthinkably malicious joke.

When assault rifles hit Paris two weeks ago, Robert McLiam Wilson wrote to the Guardian from his home in a sleepless 10th Arrondissement. Wilson grew up in Belfast and this year worked with Charlie Hebdo after another Paris massacre – he knows the worth of refuge. After both attacks he tuned his television to the other side of the world: there was “something about the Australian sunlight, its promiscuous optimism. And the sheer, pointless beauty of cricket. It felt like life, being thoroughly and joyously lived.” So losing a cricketer, young and full of life, while playing the game that brings us joy? It was a transgression of sanctity, shattering the windowpane in front of the Christmas display.

In the end, Urthboy and I reached the same conclusion. The reasons didn’t matter: we both grieved for a kid we never met. A song is a fair expression of that, as is an essay. Their subject was part person, part persona. He was a symbol and an individual. He was Phillip Hughes as his family knew him, source of a personal grief that sits uncomfortably alongside its public counterpart. He was Phil Hughes to those of us who make up that public, and mourned him nonetheless.

When the floodlights are on, things are half-real. We’re talking about a person, but the fraction we’ll ever know. Even his teammates only get part-way. Then their final gathering. All of the thousand thoughts going through the back of their minds. Walking out the dressing-room door, solemnly and side by side. The turf glows, a nuclear herbarium. Thousands of bats in the night sky, trailing Sydney’s dusk behind them. Thousands of bats placed by front doors. There is a sadness to this that doesn’t go away. The reason doesn’t matter. The lights are on, and we’ll honour what we see.

Visit Urthboy’s website here, and watch his new clip, ‘Long Loud Hours’, here.

Geoff Lemon is a writer, radio broadcaster and editor of Going Down Swinging.