1905: A Sports Odyssey, Adrienne Simpson

The Book of Fame
Lloyd Jones
Penguin, $29.95,
ISBN 0140296948

New Zealanders love sport. The truth of this frequently-heard comment is daily demonstrated by the amount of space our newspapers allocate to sporting activities. Success on the cricket pitch, putting green or rugby field often takes precedence over political and economic matters on our television screens, and even public service radio allots a separate and substantial section of its major news bulletins to sport. Whenever I am tempted to wonder whether the great Kiwi preoccupation is a media beat-up, talkback radio reminds me just how important sporting expectations are to the national psyche. At times the intensity of feeling can be almost unhealthy. The New Zealand team’s perceived failure at the recent Sydney Olympics and the All Black’s early exit from the last Rugby World Cup provoked reactions more indicative of irrationality and obsession than love.

Given such a passion for sport, the lack of quality sporting literature in this country is surprising. There are sports books galore but few are worth reading. Most are ghost-written hagiographies compiled from publicity handouts, a few taped interviews and a sheaf of press-cuttings. Short on style, low on insight and evaluation and generally devoid of context, they are hyped for a few frantic weeks as “an ideal gift for Father’s Day” or “a perfect Christmas present for the sportsman in your life”, before being relegated to the remainder bin. Even in cricket, that most literate of games, the best we produce tends to be serviceable rather than exciting. Patches in the earlier works of R T Brittenden, or in more thoughtful tour journals such as Don Cameron’s Caribbean Crusade, hint at something better but we have nothing that approaches the quality of Charles Williams’ Bradman, no equivalent of C L R James’s Beyond a Boundary, no stylist to rank with an Arlott, a Kilburn or even a Robertson-Glasgow. In rugby, our national game, the situation is worse – although rugby can at least lay claim to a couple of excellent plays: Greg McGee’s Foreskin’s Lament and Roger Hall’s C’mon Black.

At the Stout Research Centre’s October 1998 conference The Real Level Playing Field?: Sport, Society and Culture in New Zealand, Lloyd Jones mourned what he called “The Missing Literature” and suggested reasons for New Zealand’s dearth of fine writing about sport. He talked about the problem of intellectual snobbery, the denial of personal perpective and the uniquely New Zealand notion that sport and culture are somehow incompatible. “If sport really is the cradle on which our society rocks, where is the proof on our bookshelves?” he asked. “Perhaps it is a case of the wrong people writing about sport in this country. Or to put it another way, not enough of the right people – writers, novelists, poets, essayists – pick up the subject.”

At this point, he could easily have dwelt upon the lack of outlets, the unwillingness of publishers to take a punt on any sports book that does not come with the name of a popular sporting figure attached, or the vested interest sports journalists have in keeping outsiders away from what they clearly consider their exclusive territory. Instead, he chose a more positive approach. As an example of a great New Zealand sports story just waiting to be written, he put forward the already legendary tale of the 1905 All Blacks, “The Originals”.

Most rugby enthusiasts have heard of this team, but few know much about it. The 1905 All Blacks were a group of ordinary blokes: miners, farriers, farmers, bootmakers and bank clerks. They left this country without fanfare, sailed halfway round the world to do battle on the playing fields of Europe and America and found, on arrival, that they had invented a different type of rugby. With their new formations and a refreshingly open, running style in which forwards handled as skilfully as backs, they captured the imaginations of those who saw them play.

Over the long, bone-jarring months of touring they overcame illness, injury and fatigue to demolish all save one of their opponents; and their deeds aroused such an unprecedented level of national pride that, when they returned home, they were fêted as heroes. They had made New Zealand famous. This was heady stuff, since New Zealand had never been particularly famous for anything before. It was the 1905 team that laid the foundations of this country’s reputation as the most innovative rugby-playing nation in the world. Even its solitary defeat, at the hands of Wales, assumed mythic proportions, with protagonists from both sides hotly disputing whether or not the Canterbury farmer, Bob Deans, had scored the try that would have won New Zealand the match.

In his conference paper, Lloyd Jones described the story of the 1905 All Blacks as “almost Homeric”. Now he has turned it into a literary work of characteristic originality. The Book of Fame is an amalgam of fact and possibility. Fragments from diaries, newspapers, newsreels and other contemporary records are blended with the imagined thoughts and reactions of those involved. The result reads like a cross between a bardic epic and a film script and often looks more like poetry than prose upon the page. Although the book is described as “a novel”, it is sometimes hard to know where invention ends and verifiable truth takes over because the author’s knowledge of the historical source material gives his narrative such a convincing air of authenticity. You cannot say “this is how it was” but you can certainly believe that “this is how it might have been”.

Jones is good at recreating the innocence of these young New Zealanders abroad. They are used to thinking of Britain as “home” but they know it only from books and family memories. “Each of us entertained a private notion of what England should be like,” notes the anonymous, composite narrator of the story. “We tried to locate something of what our parents had said, or a vista passed down by our grandparents.” Faced with “a tidy world, a spoken for world” so different from their own reality, they feel “oddly self-conscious. We did not want to interrupt England. We did not want to draw attention to ourselves.” The team’s nervous wonderment is painted in deft and evocative phrases. We experience, as if we were there with them, how the players’ initial uncertainty is replaced by a belief in their own skills.

Jones writes lyrically of fame – of how it caught the tourists unawares, how they coped with it and what its effects were. There is a marvellous passage in which the players see themselves for the first time on a flickering screen at a London theatre. At first these unfamiliar shadow selves make uncomfortable viewing. Then, with the professionalism which made New Zealand rugby great in the days before it actually became professional, they stop worrying about their own images and start, instead, to dissect the failings of their game that the newsreel footage reveals. Eventually they learn the price and value of their celebrity status and begin to understand how the tour has changed their lives. As the narrator puts it, towards the end of the book:

People flocked to see us
as they did
the African pygmies
sword-swallowing Moroccans
the bloated Japanese carp
and Annette Kellerman
at the London Hippodrome

We were up there
with Asia and floating icebergs
a thing of wonder

We who had come to discover
found ourselves discovered
and, in the process, discovered
ourselves –

 

The Book of Fame is written with a grace and sensitivity that seems to mirror the team it honours. Just occasionally I feel the author overdoes particular devices, such as the repetition of a word to start a succession of sentences, or the comparisons between the number of lines newspapers allotted to certain games and the number given to seemingly more important international events. Also, because the cast of characters is large and surviving sources of personal material scarce, few of the 27-strong touring party emerge as individuals. Only Billy Stead, Billy Wallace and, fleetingly, Deans and the team manager, George Dixon, avoid the anonymity of the collective “we”. In a sense this hardly matters since the important factor is the team itself. If I want to know more about these men, it is simply because I enjoyed their story so much.

The Book of Fame is compelling reading – short enough to be devoured at a sitting yet substantial enough to yield further insights at a second and third reading. It is a jewel of an addition to the woefully small number of finely crafted New Zealand books on sporting subjects.

 

Adrienne Simpson is a Wellington music historian who is an avid follower of cricket, rugby league and Ipswich Town Football Club. 

 

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