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One year, the girl who came to stay was the most extraordinarily beautiful creature who had ever been seen in the village. She was incredible. So many people, on walking into the pub and seeing her for the first time, would involuntarily exclaim, Jesus Christ! that she assumed this was a customary local greeting, and without thinking she started to use it herself. ‘Jesus Christ!’ she would cheerfully say, as people came in from the cold, ‘What can I get you?’

So there I was chuckling away on the couch to an early episode of The Mighty Boosh (the ‘Mod Wolves‘ one, if you are interested), when Stephanie leaned over and said ‘Don’t you have a review to write?’

How could I forget! Senility has obviously set in already.

Today’s story is set for the most part in and around a small seaside town pub known as The Anchor. It opens with three men who have spent years sharing a couple of drinks each evening, having the same conversations, peppered with the same jokes and catchphrases. Mr Puw, tall Mr Hughes and short Mr Hughes are the names they are popularly known by, although tall Mr Hughes is not all that tall and is in fact only an inch or so taller than small Mr Hughes. Mr Puw is the most cheerful of the three, enjoys making a point of smoking a pipe as most other people smoke cigarettes and has a habit of indiscriminately referring to all women of his acquaintance as ‘Thunderthighs’. The Anchor’s landlord, Mr Edwards, responds to most exchanges by saying only ‘Holy mackerel’, a phrase which can be employed in numerous contexts. Then there’s Septic Barry, the local sewage processing magnate,  who has lived on the same campsite since he ran away from home as a teenager and despite his frugal lifestyle is known for having a wide and varied lovelife.

Every year Miyuki Woodward returns to visit the town for a short holiday, renting a cottage for the duration of her stay, gorging herself on comfort food and beer and deigning to supply the answers to any questions relating to Japan when they come up in The Anchor’s pub quiz. In keeping with the offhand naming traditions of the town, she is commonly known as ‘Japanese Girl’.

The lives and loves of this small group of people are dwelt upon during the course of the novel, with Miyuki an outside observer who sits in The Anchor each evening with a novel and a pint, listening to the town gossip. Despite her outsider status she enjoys a strong feeling of fellowship with these odd characters. Over the years she has come to love the town, finding real beauty in its ordinariness. She decides to mount an art project of a sort, in an effort to share her vision of how perfect and golden the small community appears to her eyes with its inhabitants.

The novel proceeds at a leisurely pace, veering from the plot to explore comical digressions and histories on a whim. There is a bemused tone underlying the proceedings, but also a quiet sadness as well. A fateful encounter between Miyuki and tall Mr Hughes dances around the abyss of crippling depression, before side-stepping into confused conversation about blood diamonds and Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Then there’s the paradoxical figure of Septic Barry, serial seducer and sewer monger. He appears at first to be an entirely self-interested and miserly sort, but over the course of the book is revealed to feel tender concern to some of the other patrons of The Anchor.

Ultimately though Dan Rhodes has crafted a beautifully constructed tale about the fragility of life and love. It is a truly extraordinary book, capable of moving the reader to tears and laughter on a single page. I recommend following his blog for more pearls of wisdom from the man himself.

This is officially my favourite book of the new year, a romance about the love that can be felt for a place, as well as between people.

At times it felt as though we were playing two different codes. We saw the paddock as an ever-changing pattern of lines. The Irish, on the other hand, saw the field as a sort of steeplechase, covered with low barriers and walls which as far as they were concerned were there to smash into. They believed in luck. They were like kids taking it in turns to kick a pebble down a bumpy road.

We longed to tell them what they were doing wrong.

I have been to two football games in my life. If you think that’s bad, neither game was even the same kind of football. In 2008 I went to see a Sydney Swans game with my cousin playing at home. Years before then, when I was still a child and to be honest I cannot remember now how old I was, my dad brought me to see Ireland’s international rugby team play in Dublin. I cannot remember who the opposing team was, although I have a strong suspicion we lost. When I was a kid, Ireland seemed to lose a lot of games, regardless of the sport. Stephen Roche winning the Tour de France in 1987 was like the second coming of Christ as far as my dad was concerned, more so because the cyclist had broken our pan-sport losing streak.

What I’m getting at is that sport never really figured largely in my life. Yeah I’ve been to the pub to watch a few games, with the Duke off Grafton Street a great venue for a rugby international if you’re that way inclined, but over the years I simply did not take any interest in sport generally. So to find an historical, if poetic, account of the 1905 All Blacks Originals’ campaign not only readable, but gripping, riveting stuff, was something of a shock.

The opening of the book describes the long sea voyage taken by the New Zealand team, travelling up along the coast of South America, before making a break for the Atlantic. The men take to practicing their manoeuvres on deck. Eventually during a break on shore, they return to the vessel with pumpkins to catch and toss. The women passengers on board stick below deck in the saloon where it is nice and warm. The All Blacks can see each other’s faces freezing in the cold, drifting across a vast ocean travelling further and further away from home. Together they are farmers, civil servants, husbands, miners, bankers, factory workers and amateur sportsmen. Their manager George Dixon instructs them in a series of exercises to build up a team dynamic, such as describing the women in their lives, or if they have none, to imagine one based on the traits described by their fellow players. Throughout the book Dixon invents more and more bizarre bonding exercises, until the team becomes a cohesive whole. Finally the shores of England come into view. Many of the men are descended from immigrants who left the British Isles, some more recently than others. It is a strange homecoming, to a place far away from home.

The second half of the book describes the team’s epic series of wins against local clubs and international teams such as England, Scotland and Ireland (although they run into a spot of bother with the Welsh). As their fame grows, the men measure their fame by the numbers drawn to greet them at the train stations, the sophistication of the menus served to them at dinner, or their column inches in the newspapers. Their meteoric popularity soon eclipses other events in the world, such as massacres in Odessa and war in Japan. The men dressed entirely in black are at the centre of the world for the duration of their tour and defeat becomes a rare experience they are almost curious to experience.

Lloyd mixes history with fiction, prose and poetry, to dizzying effect. There is a telling sequence where the All Blacks team are invited to dine with Oxford scholars, who lecture them on different schools of learning (the haka, they are informed, is similar to the war cry of Achilles). Lloyd’s group-mind narrator states –

What we knew

What we understood

Had no beautiful language at its service

Lacked for artists and sculptors

What we knew was intimate

As instinct or memory

That to me is the central point of this book – to make of the game something alike to Art.

Wonderful.

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