‘There was no holy water
No one spoke of fame
There were no reliable works
We were left to figure out things for ourselves’
On the 8th August 1905 twenty-seven men boarded the SS Rimutaka in New Zealand bound for England and a punishing series of more than forty rugby matches against the home nations; small clubs, larger clubs, the English Counties, the well-established names and thus the All Blacks were born and it is all recounted in The Book of Fame which came in just on my 200 page limit and really kick-started my reading again.
Now I didn’t really know I was that interested in rugby.
I have grown up watching it on TV rather than on the touchline, neither sons nor daughter took to playing it and for that I think I am grateful. The recent world cup and its proliferation of cauliflower ears and off-centre noses can only hint at the potential for damage. England’s early exit from the contest solved a dilemma and we rapidly switched our allegiance to the All Blacks in solidarity with Offspringette busy setting her alarm for crack of dawn in order to watch the matches…because it would seem you have to embrace rugby if you live in New Zealand. I am also reliably informed that I won’t be allowed past customs if I can’t answer All Blacks’ questions.
After forty days at sea and much training on the decks of the ship, the 1905 team landed at Plymouth, breakfasted at The Duke of Cornwall hotel (still there the last time I looked) and one perceptive squad member astutely sums up the smell of England…
‘England’s old official air – something like leakage from a five pound note.’
It’s true, five pound notes do have a certain aroma to them and off they set on a train journey across the West Country towards civilisation…
‘We lined the carriage windows and gaped at the thatched cottages, at the tidy figure in the paddock, the tame hedgerows. There appeared to be little in the way of landscaping left to do.’
And the unknown underdogs trounce every county team with their new and innovative style of play, fleet of foot doesn’t come near…
‘Why don’t our men tackle ‘em?
‘My son if you read the rules you would know you are not allowed to tackle a man until you have caught him.’
These are the days of no film, no action replays and no match analysis and the British are flummoxed by this magnificent team display of sporting prowess..
‘Think of us as fifteen sets of eyes, pairs of hands and feet attached to a single central nervous system,’ says Freddy Roberts and the obvious parallels with the 2015 All Blacks team are obvious.
For one who didn’t really appreciate the finer points of the game there is nothing more likely to concentrate the attention than the All Blacks performing the haka, and there I was shrieking ‘Forward pass,’ and ‘Line out’ and ‘Go Ritchie’ with the best of them through this recent series.
You don’t have to like or even watch rugby to enjoy Lloyd Jones’s book because it is about much more than the game.
It’s a book about teamwork and looking out for each other, about prejudice and pre-conceptions, about generosity of spirit and likewise meanness of spirit. It’s about winning and losing… because in amongst the 830 points ‘for’ and the 32 conceded there is defeat, but there are lessons to be learned and the All Blacks learn them. It’s about grit, determination and adversity, about cultural difference and sportsmanship, dedication, commitment and loyalty.
It’s also about the birth of the celebrity. Hailed as ‘the greatest team ever to visit England’s shores,’ the men are soon recognised wherever they go and as result hunt down deserted monasteries and castles to visit on their rest days rather than face the adulation.
And world events are woven into Lloyd Jones’s narrative too along with remarkable first sights for the men from the Southern Hemisphere. The team share column inches in the press with the Russian oppression of the Jews in Odessa, the tide of refugees attempting to cross to America… they see their first black man, the Atlantic ocean for the first time, they take afternoon tea up the Eiffel Tower.
There is humility and modesty (and didn’t we see that in the All Blacks team this autumn) and some relief as they head across America and sail for home from the west coast, soon finding themselves beneath the Southern constellations..
‘Our arrangement…our sky …at a glance the mountains can suck up all knowledge and render you speechless.’
I could quote for ever from The Book of Fame, it is astonishingly poetic, and sometimes laid out as such and I loved it.
Published in 2008, I am surprised that this one wasn’t it piled high in bookshops for the duration of the World Cup?
Maybe it was and I missed it, but when I asked for it in several it was blank looks all round.
The book is based on fact , with ‘imagination slipping into the gaps’ and there is one fact that still reigns supreme…
‘The quickest road to fame is to play the New Zealanders.’
If you have read The Book of Fame I would love to know your thoughts…
And did I miss it piled up in bookshops in recent months… if not then the booksellers missed a trick with this one.
Any converts to rugby out there…
Does anyone honestly understand the rules…