This novel is based on the 1905 New Zealand rugby tour of Britain, when the All Blacks achieved unheard of success in thirty-three of their matches, losing only one against Wales. In the country they call 'Home', these unassuming Kiwi men achieve massive public acclaim and become heroes.
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Multi-award-winning novelist Lloyd Jones was born in 1955 in Lower Hutt in New Zealand and graduated from Victoria University. He has worked as a journalist and covered Papua New Guinea’s blockade of Bougainville during the 1990s, which formed the setting for his bestselling, Booker-Prize-shortlisted Mister Pip.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
There were twenty-seven in our party. Besides George Dixon, our
manager, and Jimmy Duncan, coach—
Billy Stead was a bootmaker
Bob Deans, a farmer
Bunny Abbott, a farrier and professional runner
Dave Gallaher, a meatworks foreman
Billy ‘Carbine’ Wallace, a foundryman
Jimmy Hunter farmed in Mangamahu, north-east of Wanganui
Fred ‘Fats’ Newton
Bill Cunningham was a miner
Frank Glasgow, a bank officer
George ‘Bubs’ Tyler, swimmer & boatbuilder
Eric Harper, farmer
George Smith, former jockey, professional runner
Mona Thompson, a civil servant
George Nicholson was a blacksmith & bootmaker
Billy Glenn, farmer
Bill Corbett, miner
& Charlie ‘Bronco’ Seeling
8 August, 1905
A crowd of one hundred braved the sleet and cold to see us off. We stood by with our luggage and football boots, our collars turned up against the weather, aboard the SS Rimutaka, and slowly like a big log wedged then freeing itself mid-stream, our lives came round to port then stern, then out to the Heads, whereupon the tugs dipped their flags; and clinging together the tug men gathered on the foredeck with their farewell song. The wind tore away the last line of ‘Auld Lang Syne’, the tugs dropped out of sight, and after that we hit out on our own.
We were Aucklanders, some Otago and Taranaki boys, a few Cantabs and Wellingtonians; Stead was a lone Southlander, Corbett a sole West Coaster, and Hunter came out of a place near Wanganui with a Maori name in which every sound spoke of bush-creeping isolation. The larger sense of who we were hadn’t yet forged itself. But in small telling ways, through gesture and anecdote, we revealed ourselves to one another—
The bookworm in Billy Stead
Mona Thompson’s fondness for setting his hat brim at a low tilt
Eric Harper’s learned ways with cutlery and table napkins
Dave Gallaher’s passion for cards
Jimmy Hunter’s habit of closing his eyes and touching his nose whenever praised
George Nicholson’s singing
Cunningham’s singing and Frank Glasgow’s piano playing; it only took a snatch of a melody from Cunningham for Frank to produce the whole works
Bob Deans’ pious ways; his knocking on our cabin doors to rally up a respectable showing for evening chapel
The devotion of Bill Corbett and Fats Newton to breakfast
The way George Tyler would butter his toast and afterwards, lick each finger tip
Cunningham’s love of shovelling coal into the stoker
Seeling’s refusal to do the same
The lags and wisecrack artists emerged
The sleepers—Mackrell, McGregor, Glasgow
Those who were early to bed and jovial and spry at breakfast
Bubs Tyler’s tale of a man he knew who got his kneecap bitten off after a large shark thought to be dead was paraded through the dance hall in Tauranga
Those to whom a story was turned over, stone by stone, as if seeking evidence of the ‘true and false’ variety—Was the shark dead? How long had it been out of the water?—and others who sat back and enjoyed it like music.
Second day out we got on with our shipboard training—
‘Chalking the deck’
Cricket with other passengers and crew
Us against ‘the world’
We won that, then turned the ship’s rigging into an obstacle course
We divided the ship and took the lower deck for a ‘training field’—
and congregated on the upper deck using it as a ‘classroom’ for
& passing rushes
On the sixth morning a watch for icebergs was kept
the barometer read 7 degrees below
& the water pipes froze
We were 800 miles south of Bluff
We passed a pod of whales, their sides covered in barnacles
The skies turned to thin glass and it grew steadily colder
Billy Stead stayed up one night to catch an iceberg ‘in its luminous haze...quiet, mystic, not a sound of progress...’
In the morning cold rain and hail drove us indoors, and kept us there;
day and night, lanterns swayed in the creaking dark.
We were studying lit diagrams in our laps and George Tyler had put forward his ‘shark story’ to illustrate the value of ‘surprise in unexpected places’ when the wind chopped round to the south-west and a sea struck on the starboard quarter, right against our cabins, with tremendous force.
Portholes were shot through with ocean spray; cabins flooded; some had to pick themselves off the floor.
In the saloon we waded knee-deep in water.
In the smoking lounge, thirty-two feet above sea level, the skylights, strutted with iron bars, broke like matchsticks.
Glass ashtrays washed across the timber floors.
George Nicholson kicked at the spume, yelling at it, ‘Go on, get outa here!’ Mister Dixon shook his head. ‘Fruitless, George, talking back at the sea like that.’
Bill Mackrell, who wasn’t feeling well, simply climbed to a higher bunk.
The upper deck received a giant wave and the chef, carrying a bag of flour and a dish of raisins, fell breaking three ribs.
There was a moment when the storm stopped to catch its breath and the skipper and chief engineer said it was the worst storm they’d known, not ever, but since 1893; and that year, 247 wrecks were reported in a single night in the English Channel. Shipwreck? It hadn’t entered our minds until that moment.
The storm passed and we ventured out on deck to an oyster-grey world.
The seas were a grey slop with long traces of spittle.
We looked around and found ourselves walled in by ocean and sky.
We were the only ones out on deck and it was an unpleasant surprise to find ourselves so alone. There were five women in our saloon but we wouldn’t see them again until we’d rounded the Horn and, by then, come in to shirt-sleeves weather. At that moment all of us seemed to know this, and we hunched our shoulders and tried not to look too closely into one another’s cold faces.
Being nowhere in particular, and without traditions to adhere to, we could be whatever or whoever we chose.
At night, awake in his bunk, Bill Cunningham struggled to conjure up ‘the pick ’n’ shovel’ rhythm of his miner’s life—already it felt distant, like a place inhabited by cousins once visited as a child. While you’ve never gone back you can’t forget it either.
He turned his head on his pillow to the oiled walls inches away from his
Mining is forever squeezing yourself into tighter spaces.
At sea, you expand. You develop wings. You lift off.
At sea, you can be anything.
So there he is, dressed up as Neptune,
a ‘minstrel’, and once or twice, even as a woman,
tottering back and forth to Fred Glasgow on piano.
With whole days to kill we found ourselves discovering and favouring one part or another of the ship—
the crafted vee where ship rail meets ship rail to divide the ocean,
the homeward drift of the black funnel smoke.
We were in danger of going our separate ways until Mister Dixon called us together. While we packed our pipes we listened to him propose that, from now on, all knowledge and experience would be pooled. Tomorrow morning we should come into the world as if we had no prior knowledge of it. We should wake up and proceed looking afresh and start the naming process over.
In this way we renamed the stars. On the following nights we tried to remember where we had put them.
Mister Dixon scratched his chin. We were almost there, but not quite, he said. He was more anxious to create ‘an atmosphere’ where we might share and share alike. Tobacco. Stories. Whatever we happened to carry in our pockets or in our thoughts. ‘Let’s crack open that treasure and share...’ In this spirit, those who had wives and girlfriends at home found themselves donating small descriptive features to the men who didn’t, thus allowing them to construct and furnish their own visions.
To get the ball rolling Mister Dixon spoke of Mrs Dixon: ‘...her tsarina pose, chin raised...’ As we watched, Mister Dixon’s placid eyes appeared to fade and drift away from us. ‘I’ve got her in my sights now. It’s a Sunday afternoon and she’s lying along the couch with a book, sun streaming in the window.’
‘...the line of her mouth tightening, eye sparkling...Sometimes,’ says Gallaher, ‘I’d think she was holding back something.’
‘...on Saturdays she’d wear a blue bow in her hair. And I’d say, “Hallo, look who’s come gift-wrapped...” ’ Duncan McGregor raised his eyebrows and hands as if to ask, ‘Will that do? It’s all I’ve got.’
George Smith mumbled into the mid-distance, ‘...her hips moving under her dresses...’
‘...a face containing a kind of forbidden language. Eyes blue, dark background, crooked teeth...’ We all looked Simon Mynott’s way; the balding sections of his head shone in the ceiling light. We were interested to pursue that theme. But Bob Deans brought us back on track with ‘...picking blackberries, a light mist on her chin and throat... shadows in her white cotton shirt...Her name was Natasha. It was her name I liked best, I think.’
‘...long black dresses, her white shirt sleeves rolled up, a riff of dark hair on the arms...’ Massa Johnston sat upright, his arms crossed in an air of matter-of-factness.
‘...just walking along, saying nothing, our elbows, arms touching...’ (Deans)
‘...chestnut hair...I can tell you it was genuine chestnut. More than that I won’t say...’ (Simon Mynott, again)
‘...ears tipped with cleverness...’ (Jimmy Duncan)
‘...her teeth a gorgeous rabble...’ (O’Sullivan)
‘...you saw her bare shoulder and you thought of a low and narrow doorway. I understand her grandparents are from Dalmatia...’ (Massa)
‘...left foot trailing over stern on the Wanganui River...and all along bellbirds calling to us.’ (Jimmy Hunter)
‘...the way she’d get out of the bath—collecting herself in her arms...’ (George Smith)
‘...and all of a sudden she’d say, “Pull in here, Jimmy.” ’ (Jimmy Hunter)
‘...nibbling of your lips like a sparrow...’ (O’Sullivan)
Then George Smith mentioned ‘her salmon-coloured lips’ and everyone fell quiet.
On the thirteenth day we saw the snow-clad hills of Tierra del Fuego. The snow melt, and the dark solid bits that held it together. Well, it was a thing of beauty. In our football kit we stood up to the ship rail and in a single glimpse we rediscovered our taste for land. Tyler jokingly threatened to swim ashore. Then Cunningham took control. Turning his back on Tierra del Fuego he clapped his hands and called for another scrum to be put down.
In calm seas we rounded the Horn. During the warmest part of the day, we placed our cheeks against the deck where the sun preserved itself in salt and paint.
Two days later, Massa Johnston and Frank Glasgow hauled the piano out on deck and sang ‘Rowsy Dowsy Girls’ to celebrate the re-emergence of the five women from our saloon.
As the weather got warmer, the piano thawed and began to leak. At night a seabird would walk across its keys, and George Nicholson lay in his bunk ticking off the notes—E fl at, and that, I believe, is F sharp. Now we saw flying fish cut across our bow. George Tyler grinned down at the gossipy pattern they left on the water. ‘Hallo you’, he’d say to a fish with butterfly fins.
Two days later, we found ourselves steaming across a fishing ground. We leant over the rail picking out fish and their small darting shadows. From the stern, Dave Gallaher and Jimmy Duncan threw out baited lines and brought in Cape Pigeons and Mollymawks to entertain the ladies.
One morning the land rose out of the sea. It looked startlingly near. We stared back at it trying to make up our minds about South America. The Otago boys were reminded of the coast around Timaru—a rough outline of life, cattle grazing over green slopes, clouds moving off the hilltops.
Montevideo. Our first experience of a foreign city. We went ashore, Carbine with his camera to photograph the monuments.
Cunningham bought an alligator egg, and Smith some primitive carvings.
Jimmy Duncan complained of the locals speaking Spanish and making no bloody attempt at English, and on top of that—which he found the worst aspect—they acted like they’d never heard of it.
Likewise Roberts who asked for a cup of tea.
But it was pointless.
That night, in the glow of an oil lamp, Stead began a letter home. ‘Imagine everybody in Invercargill using garlic and onions for every meal, and cobblestones sticking up at every kind of angle and hawkers hawking anything from brooms to livers, all exposed to air...’
That was Montevideo. None of us liked its foreignness and open sewer pits. But we were there to take on coal and passengers. We leant over the ship rail feeling possessive of our little ship.
A man ran up the gangway, his paintbrushes tipping out the open end of a canvas bag.
Some Indians wrapped in old blankets and with the faces of ghosts waded up the gangway like it was a mountain path; a Frenchman in a white suit and white boater with a snakeskin hat band oversaw the loading of a number of cages containing native parrots bound for a circus entrepreneur in Europe.
These passengers and cargo were followed by Bob Deans. We cheered him aboard. Bob had been out to buy a dozen hard young pumpkins for the backs to hone their passing skills.
Off the coast of Uruguay, Jimmy Duncan called for a practice. We set up a drive; performed some dribbling and passing skills.
The next morning we lined up to face Brazil and practise our haka.
Among the onlookers, a group of Uruguayan women in white pinafores and parasols.
The nights were now warm and clear and we met on the upper deck to debate football matters. The angle of the scrum. The formation of the backs. Billy Stead and Fred Roberts arranged the pumpkins on the deck and we stood over them with our pipes, debating possible lines of attack. Billy convinced us to embrace the idea that everything we did on the field must have as its end design ‘the creation of space’. Time and again we rearranged the pumpkins and determined to find new ways through. The ways were seemingly endless.
Mister Dixon distanced himself from these discussions. He sat in a deckchair compiling thoughts and observations to write down in his diary.
‘Warmer weather as we go north. Chief Engineer took some snapshots of Heaven. Cunningham’s knowledge of scrumwork proving invaluable.
Aug 23. Most of us are stripped down to our football togs all day.
Aug 29. Hottest day yet. Not a breath of wind and the sea is gluey. Passed a shoal of porpoises...
Crossed the Equator this morning and immediately changed course out to the Atlantic...’
That evening we gathered up the pumpkins to make space to dance. Mister Dixon handed out dance cards. In addition to the piano, we had a violin and piccolo orchestra. There were only six ladies to go round, plus Cunningham in fancy dress; the rest of us danced with dummies. On the stroke of midnight Jimmy Duncan gave each of us a gentle shoulder-tap reminder that we had training in the morning, and one by one we sloped back to our bunks to swap notes.
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