Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 178 pages; 2000.
A book about rugby would not normally be my cup of tea, but Lloyd Jones’ The Book of Fame is a beautifully realised novel about the power of sport to transform lives, create history and engender pride in an entire nation.
Based on the real-life story of the Original All Blacks, the New Zealand rugby union team that toured the world in 1905-06, it reveals how a motley crew of young unknowns returned home as heroes having won every match they played, bar one (that was against Wales, who won 3-0).
These young men, who were farmers and miners and teachers in their normal everyday lives, had spent a year playing matches in Britain, Ireland, France and the US, storming to victory wherever they went and winning the hearts of sports fans who gathered to see them play. In a true spirit of sportsmanship, and in a time long before money and sponsorships put a different spin on sport, they were lauded wherever they went.
Astonishingly, given they had done little training apart from some exercises on the steamboat they took from New Zealand to Portsmouth, they only conceded 59 points, and won 976, across all the games they played in Britain. (Check this Wikipedia page for more detail.)
Unusual structure and point of view
Rather than tell the story from one person’s point-of-view, Jones chooses to tell it from a collective voice to further cement the idea that this is a story about a team. He structures it around seven parts, which chart the evolution of a successful sports team from a group of strangers. And he writes it in a lyrical manner, setting out his prose like stanzas in a 174-page long-form poem.
Somehow, despite this unusual structure, the book works as a powerful hymn to another time and place. It is a fascinating portrait of travel before the age of commercial airlines; of the world of sport before it became professionalised; and of a team that did things differently (the All Blacks famously introduced several innovations to rugby, including the idea that each player in the scrum had a specific role to play).
Space was our medium
our play stuff
we championed the long view
the English settled for the courtyard
The English saw a thing
we saw the space in between
The English saw a tackler
we saw space either side
The English saw an obstacle
we saw an opportunity
The English saw a needle
we saw its mean eye
The English saw a tunnel
we saw a circular understanding
The formality of doorways caused the English to stumble into one another and compare ties
while we sailed through like the proud figureheads we were
The English were preoccupied with mazes
we preferred the lofty ambition of Invercargill’s streets
Jones depicts the ups and downs of travelling between matches; the injuries the players put up with; the hopes and fears of the men, and their wonder at being abroad and discovering new people and places and food and customs; and the team’s encounters with local fans, including the women with eyes for rugged New Zealanders.
And by contrasting the team’s success against the political and global news stories of the day, he shows how the All Blacks tour often eclipsed everything in its wake, garnering column inches after column inches in all the leading newspapers.
On the field we moved to the whirring breath of cameras
Men crouched under black hoods aimed their tripods at us
or, as it sometimes happened
you might look up from breakfast
with a mouthful of toast
to find a man with a white napkin draped over his wrist
Admittedly, the style can wear thin after a while, but it’s a short read so it didn’t actually worry me. I found myself surprisingly enthralled by this tale of a rugby team that forged the All Blacks legend and now I want to read more by this talented writer.
This is my 2nd book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. I purchased this book secondhand last August. It wasn’t until I got it home that I realised it is a signed copy.