The appositely titled The Book of Fame by Lloyd Jones is a triking expression of how much the significance of rugby has changed. Once our fanaticism was a touch bloody-minded. We competed as masters, and our pride was aggressively masculine. Only white South Africans saw in the sport a similar national vindication. In New Zealand’s case, it was the best – in fact, but for the odd opera singer making it big internationally, the opportunity to go to war in the service of the Empire, or a very occasional Olympic gold medal, it was the only – antidote to our international insignificance. The Boers had, of course, more compelling reasons for feeling excluded and inferior, which is no doubt why their violent and arrogant behaviour on the rugby field exceeded even our own.
The counter-balance was that New Zealanders drawn to anything “intellectual” mockingly distanced themselves from the accomplishments of the great national team. In his playing days, Colin Meads might have been a hero to school-boys, yet as “Pinetree” he was as thick as a fence-post to the effete chattering classes.
However, Jones’s portrayal of the national heroes of 1905 realises a notion of Fame which is quite different from that normally on show. In fact, he has accomplished something very rare in our rugby writing, in that he has celebrated what he sees as the quintessential national qualities without succumbing either to an aggressiveness born of inferiority (“we showed the buggers”) or to the gobsmacked humility of the colonial boys in the Mother Country (there is no “struth Gallaher did you know George IV actually slept here?”). Furthermore, he has done this with the first All Black tour when, one might have thought, both solecisms would prove unavoidable. These are our men, utterly rooted here. They neither deride nor glorify the world they visit. They have need of neither. The Fame and Place they, by proxy, win for us all is both heroic and mundane, as though both were there – inscribed – from the very beginning; the struggles on the field are “merely” the means by which they find expression. One notes in particular the pedantic cataloguing of column inches the Times accorded the “New Zealanders” vis-à-vis the great events going on in the world “outside”. It evokes the classical narrator’s chronicle of leagues covered, enemy slain, and days spent ploughing from isle to isle, town to town … all undertaken for the winning of Fame and as far from home as the “mounting wave” can take one.
We should not be surprised that the book’s subtitle insists that it is fiction, though “novel” is too precious a word for the epic form in play. Consider the univocal story. We begin with the men leaving by boat, their arduous journey carefully recorded. We end with their return. In between, not a single narrative trick is played; nothing happens outside the unwaveringly lineal chronicle. But this is not done to build up tension focused on a great climax. There isn’t one. Nothing extraordinary will happen when they return; no false suitors need be slain on Ithaca. Our argonauts simply come back from overseas – leaving their wounded behind. The job has been done, and only their authentic New Zealand lives – together perhaps with death in World War I – await them. Nor is there any appeal to the conventions of narrative. If readers desire the vicarious thrill of a dramatic retelling of the – already known – events, they’ll be disappointed. The results for all the games are baldly given “on arrival” in England. This is our type of Epic, self-evident and seemingly free from artifice. As a result, a text evoking the most stupendous atavistic and classical qualities has foregrounded itself as utterly unproblematic, and in a manner so prosaic as to be liberated from poetry, while retaining all the paraphernalia and power of heroic verse. It is a magnificent piece of propaganda and, quite probably, magnificently fraudulent.
Some feel for the trickery in play might be got from asking: What would this idea of Rugby amount to if it were indeed the contemporary site of a paradigmatic national identity? First, it would tend toward an overloaded symbolism. And this does to some extent happen. When appointed captain of the All Blacks, Taine Randell was asked how it felt. He replied that before you could be captain you had to first win an All Black jersey, thereby displaying more skills as a cultural theorist than he was later to show leading the team. The jersey is indeed now overloaded with meaning. It gets talked about, commercialised and worshipped in a manner that would have baffled “The Originals”. But this compromises its iconic status. Far from being unique, it is ubiquitous, bought in every high street by parents prepared to pay over the odds for what is little more than an ordinary sweatshirt. The same kitsch applies to the national anthem, now gushed out by, as likely as not, one of those “cross-over” warblers popular with those who wouldn’t know a tight-head from a jockstrap.
But the greatest benefit that would follow from elevating (Jones’s fictional) rugby to the most privileged level of significance would be the transcendence of success and failure. We would become more comfortable with the game. It would be like the weather. We would complain about it when it went badly but accept it and go on doing our best, enjoying the good times when they came – which they would. We would also discover a greater tolerance, born of a more benign sense of identity. The activity of itself would articulate everything possible. In such circumstances, to fetishise the score line would be to miss the point. But that is exactly what does not happen. Never have we been more rabid in our appetite for winning, more foul in our inability to lose. Books recording the statistical advantages enjoyed by the All Blacks over the other rugby-playing nations now stand on the shelves of every acolyte. Every point lost is bitterly contested in the collective mind long after it can effect anything but mental and spiritual meanness. We are befouling the very thing that we looked to to keep us decent.
Worse still, our huge symbolic investment is going awry. “The Originals” left largely unconsidered on the SS Rimutaka. The last time the All Blacks departed heavenwards for a northern hemisphere World Cup, they had a send-off that would have embarrassed a Caesar. And we are doing all this at the wrong time. The All Blacks may have been the first to develop a new type of fluid, total rugby, exploiting the last rule changes, but, in starting from scratch, we risk losing our privileged position. Today, repairing the fencing on the King Country farm is not enough to guarantee adequate strength in the scrum. In the end, we will, as always, be condemned by the limited population and resources of a small country. And rightly so, if we were only adult enough to take pride in it.
Sadly, our rugby is not about Fame and Nation in the best sense, although we have never insisted more hysterically that it is. It is inherent in the great mysteries of signification that they take on their most livid form just before they prove themselves hopelessly anachronistic. Empires are always most arrogantly self-assured as they begin to decline. But all the brouhaha cannot blind us to the realisation that the game is up. Even our emotions have become commodities: jingoistic acts of vulgar public exchange rather than private satisfactions. It is this debased mentality – the spirit of 1905 deformed – that explains why, when the All Blacks “failed” at the last World Cup, their – and our – coach was spat at on returning, and his horse booed at the races. Mr Jones’s book is either very timely, or just a tad on the late side. We are now condemned to a practice of Fame that is either an orgy of victorious Schadenfreude or a pettiness in defeat.
Barry Emslie is a New Zealand writer living in Berlin.