Celebrating Richard Flanagan’s Man Booker Prize 2014: footy

Overnight Richard Flanagan was awarded the Man Booker Prize 2014 for his novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North. For the first time in 2014 the prize was opened up to include any work of fiction in English. Very great congratulations to him.

I’m part way through my reading of it; enjoying it very much.

R Flanagan’s father Arch served on the Thai-Burma railway. His experiences no doubt led to this story being written. It is a significant book.

R Flanagan is a Tasmanian. His main character in The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Dorrigo Evans, is also Tasmanian. Arch Flanagan played for North Hobart Football Club prior to the war. As such, footy enters the Man Booker Prize.

Below is an excerpt (pages 8 and 9), to celebrate R Flanagan’s prize and the small but telling place of footy in this monument of a story. Well done R Flanagan.


From: The Narrow Road to the Deep North – Richard Flanagan

“…and so to receive a scholarship to Launceston High School. He was old for his year. On his first day, at lunchtime, he ended up at what was called the top yard, a flat area of dead grass and dust, bark and leaves, with several large gum trees at one end. He watched the big boys of third and fourth form, some with sideburns, boys already with men’s muscles, line up in two rough rows, jostling, shoving, moving like some tribal dance. Then began the magic of kick to kick. One boy would boot the football from his row across the yard to the other row. And all the boys in that row would run together at the ball and – if it were coming in high – leap into the air, seeking to catch it. And as violent as the fight for the mark was, whoever succeeded was suddenly sacrosanct. And to him, the spoil – the reward of kicking the ball back to the other row, where the process was repeated.

So it went, all lunch hour. Inevitably, the senior boys dominated, taking the most marks, getting the most kicks. Some younger boys got a few marks and kicks, many none or one.

Dorrigo watched all that first lunchtime. Another first-form boy told him that you had to be at least in second form before you had a chance in kick to kick – the big boys were too strong and too fast; they would think nothing of putting an elbow into a head, a fist into a face, a knee in the back to rid themselves of an opponent. Dorrigo noticed some smaller boys hanging around behind the pack, a few paces back, ready to scavenge the occasional kick that went too high, lofting over the scrum.

On the second day he joined their number. And on the third day, he found himself up close to the back of the pack when, over their shoulders, he saw a wobbly drop punt lofting high towards them. For a moment it sat in the sun, and he understood that the ball was his to pluck. He could smell the piss ants in the eucalypts, feel the ropey shadows of their branches fall away as he began running forward into the pack. Time slowed, he found all the space he needed in the crowding spot into which the biggest, strongest boys were now rushing. He understood the ball dangling from the sun was his and all he had to do was rise. His eyes were only for the ball, but he sensed he would not make it running at the speed he was, and so he leapt, his feet finding the back of one boy, his knees the shoulders of another and so he climbed into the full dazzle of the sun, above all the other boys. At the apex of their struggle, his arms stretched out high above him, he felt the ball arrive in his hands, and he knew he could now begin to fall out of the sun.

Cradling the football with tight hands, he landed on his back so hard it knocked most of the breath out of him. Grabbing barking breaths, he got to his feet and stood there in the light, holding the oval ball, readying himself to now join a larger world.

As he staggered back, the melee cleared a respectful space around him.

Who the fuck are you? asked one big boy.

Dorrigo Evans.

That was a blinder, Dorrigo. Your kick.

The smell of eucalypt bark, the bold, blue light of the Tasmanian midday, so sharp he had to squint hard to stop it slicing his eyes, the heat of the sun on his taut skin, the hard, short shadows of the others, the sense of standing out on a threshold, of joyfully entering a new universe while your old still remained knowable and holdable and not yet lost – all these things he was aware of, as he was of the hot dust, the sweat of the other boys, the laughter, the strange pure joy of being with others.

Kick it! he heard someone yell. Kick the fucker before the bell rings and it’s all over.

And in the deepest recesses of his being, Dorrigo Evans understood that all his life had been a journeying to this point when he had for a moment flown into the sun and would now be journeying away from it forever after. Nothing would ever be as real to him. Life never had such meaning again.”


from The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan, Winner 2014 Booker Prize.


About David Wilson

David Wilson is a writer, editor, flood forecaster and former school teacher. He writes under the name “E.regnans” at The Footy Almanac and has stories in several books. One of his stories was judged as a finalist in the Tasmanian Writers’ Prize 2021. He shares the care of two daughters and a dog, Pip. He finds playing the guitar a little tricky, but seems to have found a kindred instrument with the ukulele. Favourite tree: Eucalyptus regnans.


  1. Neil Anderson says

    Such a familiar story for those of us who participated in the lunch-time ritual of ‘kick to kick’.
    It was all there. The senior boys dominating, the junior boys and the more timid fringe-dwellers at the back scrounging for the crumbs. As a fringe-dweller I found that if I did somehow get the ball, I could never kick it as long or as sweet as those revered jocks. I would try and gain a few yards by having a bit of a run-up in front of the pack so if I kicked the ball it would at least reach the other pack to lessen my emabarassment.
    Just like the Russians reading Pravda and saying, “Vot is the meaning of this shirt-front business that the Austrian Prime Minister says he is going to do?” I wonder what overseas readers will think of Richard’s wonderful description of kick-to-kick?

  2. Captures the moment perfectly.
    I went to this guy’s interview at book week during the festival where he read from this book. Not from these pages unfortunately. I haven’t read this book yet, but he is a fantastic writer.
    I rate “Death of a River Guide” as the best book I have ever read.

  3. Melanie Wilson says

    I have only ever played one game of football in my life (Wesley College teachers v Gr 12 student – I was on the losing teachers side), but reading this passage and re-reading it here, I felt that I knew it and understood it. It is about being Australian and feeling Australian.
    Flanagan has long been my favorite Australian writer – The Accidental Terrorist and Wanting are both brilliant books, but it is here with Narrow Road that I have been really touched. A beautiful book that is still with me months after I finished reading it.

  4. Dr Goatboat says

    Thanks for this….fond memories….at school it was coupled with the concept of “waxing”, where you partnered with a mate to share kicks in turn….it was always an advantage to manage to wax with a better mark than oneself…
    the first class after lunch was hot and sweaty, often buttons missing…..and I agree, it was embarrassing not to reach the other group with a flat punt…and of course the droppy was the ideal kick to try and snaffle

  5. Malcolm Rulebook Ashwood says

    Yep bought back memories also yes re waxing ( John Hall Norwood 84 Premiership ruckman the desired partner ) and definitely getting closer to make the distance at the other end thanks OBP

  6. Keiran Croker says

    Thanks e.r, read it last year. It is simply a classic, brilliant book. I love the work of both R.Flanagan and M. Flanagan.

  7. Thanks ER. Magnificent prose. Those of who labour days over a thousand words for a book report. Struggling for a new angle. A novel phrase. Something that captures the moment and the feeling.
    A novelist repeats it for months and years and pages and chapters on end. That fragment you reproduced is so expressive of the inner and outer states of a person, a place and a time. Then you realise that is just the early pages set up of the character.
    Reading all the reports on RFlanagan’s great achievement I was struck by 2 sentiments in particular:
    – More men died on the Burma Railway than there are words in his epic novel.
    – A few years back he thought of chucking in writing to work in the Pilbara to feed his family.

  8. Bob Speechley says

    The book is full of wonderful short Australian stories within the panorama. I find myself reflecting on many of them and pondering the characters that emerge throughout. The staging of the work and the places encountered are vivid. Food for lingering thought. Will read it again.

  9. PB I’m pretty sure the working in the mines thing was said with a sparkle in his eye.
    He’s a ripper bloke. Rare in the world of writing, where dicks of every variety abound. He’d enjoy an Almanac evening (though knows/cares nothing of footy.)

  10. neilbelford says

    Ah kick to kick. I spent more time playing that version of the game than the one with goalposts and umpires. There can be something metaphysical about a pack mark and that captures it.
    Very very happy R Flanagan got the award, for a number of reasons – probably the main (perhaps selfish) one being that there is a my version of Australia, that is nowhere represented anymore except at moments when the likes of Richard Flanagan have a microphone in front of them.
    I am looking for more of those moments. Does anyone think the Footy Almanac should become a political party.

  11. Neil, working up a deal with Clive Palmer at the moment.

    Thanks ER for highlighting this.

    Kick to kick is a sacrament: it is Australia’s contribution to the mystery which gives rise to religious thought.

  12. I look forward to the picture caption:
    Senator Harms dog.

  13. Clive is my federal representative. Or would be if he ever turned up…

    Heard snippets of R Flanagan being interviewed (while hunting for a 5/8 rubber cap to fit on a 84 Landcruiser cooling system. $7 at ‘Supercheap’, $1.50 at Auto-Pro…) on ABC radio. A very interesting man, subject and book. He talked of getting hit by one of the old Japanese guards to see what it felt like in order to find the larger truths. Also of ‘Weary’ Dunlop.

  14. R Flanagan barracks for the Bulldogs.

  15. Neil Anderson says

    I like him even more now as well as his brother Martin who spent a year (1993) at the Bulldogs writing his book ‘ Southern Sky, Western Oval ‘.
    Great articles by Martin Blake in the weekend- papers regarding Richard’s achievement and particularly how their mother predicted the win although she was a bit confused along the way about the need to be short-listed first.
    I’ve got my order in for ‘ The Narrow Road ‘ for the birthday coming up on Almanac launch- eve, so I’ll bring it along to the launch and JTH can give it a second launch in the salubrious surrounds of the Waterside Hotel.

  16. P Daffey references this thread in his Sunday Age column today.

  17. Thxs for bringing this to our attention. Richard Flanagan is an excellent
    Writer & Person. It’s worth watching ABC’s Australian Story feature on him
    from a few years ago. People like him, his Family including his Dad & Brother Martin,
    Bob Brown & the late Olegas Truchanas are Tasmanian treasures.

    POW’s including Weary Dunlop, Tom Uren, Russell Braddon & Richard’s Dad suffered privations that are hard to imagine. As did those at Sandakon.

    It is a humbling experience to visit the Death Railway area of Thailand.
    There are 2 well maintained Commonwealth Grave Cemeteries at Kanchanaburi
    there, one in town, the other on the other side of the Kwai river. It was sad to see how young these fellows were. Plus no apology from Japan.

    I wonder if Australian History is still taught & valued.
    Another reason why people like Richard are Treasures & worthy award winners.

  18. Australian history is certainly taught in our home John, and no doubt in some others, and in some schools. When I was teaching history in Queensland schools 1986-95 it was part of the Grade 8-10 history syllabus, but there was no Australian component to Grade 11 and 12 Modern History. I thought that was ridiculous. However it was very well-served at the University of Qld where there were numerous lecturers and researchers approaching it using all of the customary lenses of the moment. Personally I preferred the traditional narrative approach in my own postgraduate stuff. That was very uncool at that time (the 90s) but has made a tremendous comeback – and rightly so in my view!

  19. Nice to see the reference to the Almanac from Daff. It’s a terrific extract, first pointed out by E Regnans here. I look forward to reading the book.

    This is a really interesting thread above, with thought-provoking comments.

    There actually are some depictions of the metaphysics of kick to kick and the speccie of which you speak Neil. Some of those depictions are on our pages. Bruce Dawe, Vin Maskell.

    I will dig out a few and post them separately;

  20. I am part-way through the book and when I read the part on Dorrigo’s kick-to-kick experience it certainly struck me as being so very well written and true to the experience. I particularly love the bit near the end where instead of everyone being in awe of the new kid, in true Aussie style one kid says “Kick it! he heard someone yell. Kick the fucker before the bell rings and it’s all over.”

    Also glad I did not come across this piece before I read it.

  21. Just finished the book, a magnificent read.

  22. That is a great piece from Flanagan. The kick to kick is the quintessential Australian experience. It just doesn’t get better than that in terms of defining what is required to have an Australian upbringing. However, another good variation on the kick to kick is the footy game loosely referred to as The Chase.

    The ball is kicked 10 metres in front of a pack, about 40-50 out from goal, everyone rumbles for the ball, and after much exhaustion and maybe a few participants receiving less than fair treatment someone comes out ahead and kicks for goal. A few more injuries perhaps but still a bit of fun.

  23. Good on you E.regnans for your thought provoking article from Richard Flanagan’s book.

    When having a kick to kick do is the term wax still used?

    Another name to complement your list John, is Phil Hodgins & Haiku PB.
    Remember Phil’s ‘A Kick of the Footy’ including the Torpedo (Spiral) Punt.
    Doug Wade was a great exponent.

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