Ostensibly The Book of Fame is a book is about a rugby tour, but it’s about much more than that…
This is the blurb at Goodreads:
Winner of the Tasmania Prize and the Deutz Medal for fiction this is a singular melding of history and imagination.
In August 1905 a party of young men boarded a ship for England. Among them were four farmers, two bootmakers and a boatbuilder. They set out from Auckland, never dreaming they would conquer the world. By December they were the ‘wonderful All Blacks’ who had beaten Yorkshire, England and Ireland.
They were a tribe far from home, weary, bedazzled, a little lost – but the world showed them wonders: the Eiffel Tower, snow on Tierra del Fuego, English lords, Consomme, Sarah Bernhardt. America! But years later, it was something else that remained indelible. A feeling shared, grave and simple, that survived all the acclaim.
The Book of Fame is a meditation on celebrity, and how the ordinary blokes from a football team learned their strange new place in a world remote from everything they knew.
Outside Tussaud’s, we noticed that unless you were a Lord or Viscount or Admiral you worked hard to get your name in the newspaper. Something out of the ordinary pitched your name forward. For example, the woman who spent fifty-one years in bed after a mistaken diagnosis; or a much younger woman who died of apoplexy from laughter at a pantomime.
‘Shooting himself with a revolver, Baron Salomon de Gunsborg, formerly a banker, committed suicide in Paris, yesterday.’
‘Miss Morris, a teacher in high school in Chesterfield, Iowa, was lecturing on electricity when she was struck by lightning…’
‘The yacht Catarina, in which the absconding French bank clerk Galley sailed to South America, is due at Gospert in about a week’s time.’
So we were surprised when we found ourselves
in the Illustrated London News,
sharing the limelight with the Russian uprising,
portraits of Tolstoy,
the auctioning of Napoleon’s chair,
and a series of illustrations
demonstrating the Indian method
of using elephants
to crush offenders to death. (pp. 56-57)
As you can see, the author has written much of this book in poetic form. This has the magical effect of concentrating the eye on every word. But in a pastiche comprising all kinds of texts – lists, dinner menus, dance cards, injury lists, dialogue and the narrator’s musings – it’s 160 pages that purport to be historical fiction, when really it’s about a different kind of reality altogether, one which reveals that celebrity is not something invented in the mid 20th century, but long before that. The narrator – not named, but a member of the team reflecting on events from long ago – tells us much about the dawn of a democratic age. In England in 1905, rugby is played by gentlemen, not by ordinary blokes as in New Zealand. And the Empire, what’s more, is not expecting to be beaten by a bunch of nobodies from the other side of the world. The invincible Welsh don’t take kindly to the way this team has blitzed its way through the tour, and the Scots are spectacularly rude. The Kiwis are merely surprised that the Brits don’t seem to know how ordinary their playing is, because they don’t realise that they have invented a new way of playing the game. They enjoy themselves in France and Canada much more…
The All Blacks are astonished to find that their possessions – indeed, anything they touch – has acquired a value.
One morning we are visited by a small nervous man, a museum curator, who asks if we can give him something. Jimmy Duncan thinks he means money, but quickly withdraws his hand from his pocket when the man adds, ‘…anything at all, really.’
McGregor and McDonald happen to be playing noughts and crosses on a table napkin. Jokingly, McGregor holds up the napkin with the game on it and asks if this will do, and the little man, the curator, well, his face grows keen. He gives a small greedy nod, then he asks, ‘I wonder, would you boys mind signing it?’
The curator closes his hand over his mouth to stifle a yelp. ‘Both signatures. Please,’ he says, and bites his hand.
Jimmy Duncan laughs. ‘Next you’ll be wanting our train tickets.’ The curator turns his head to look at Jimmy, and his lower lip drops. He bites his hand again, and nods. So Jimmy has to pull out his Leeds to Cardiff ticket. Jimmy Hunter fishes out a London to Oxford stub. Soon everyone is emptying their pockets and old theatre tickets and train tickets are falling to the carpet and the curator is scrambling on his knees to collect them all.
Bob Deans hands over a pair of cufflinks. Billy Glenn unknots his tie and gives him that. George Nicholson gives the man a handful of boot sprigs. It had started out as a joke but soon a small box has to be found. We fill this and a broken suitcase that we have no further use for, and hold the door for the curator to haul his booty off. When a gust of wind removes his hat we are surprised that he doesn’t stop for it; and turning away from the door we look at one another, and it is about then that we realise we have been looted.(pp 61-2)
What they learn is that ‘the news’ is relative. Emotion and interest is pitted against significance. They note that people do pointless things like cycling to Persia in order to become celebrities. At times the blokes are the only ones with a sense of perspective:
In Dublin as Dave Gallaher stepped from the train a young newspaperman bounded up to him. ‘Mr Gallaher. Mr Gallaher, sir. How does it feel to be famous?’ Gallaher told him, ‘The pyramids are famous, son.’ We liked that; we liked Dave’s gruff dose of wisdom. (p. 63)
Fame also means seeing in newsreels, their own previously forgivable mistakes. On screen they can see that they didn’t mind making occasional errors during a game, but confronted by them afterwards, they do mind. And they mind being in the public eye, too:
We grew tired of who we were
the way complete strangers advanced with an outstretched finger. ‘You’re ’im, aren’t you?’ The stranger’s face lighting up. ‘It is you.’ Then, turning to his friends with his discovery. ‘Look who I’ve got here. It’s him.’
The way their ruddy faces closed in and trapped you with their pints held to their chests to talk about the game against Middlesex, say. (p.116)
Their tour becomes a circus and they are the unwilling acrobats.
I bought this book because Hamish Clayton, one of my favourite Kiwi authors said in an interview that it influenced his writing. I was a bit dubious when I discovered it was about rugby, but was delighted to find that I loved every word of it.
Author: Lloyd Jones
Title: The Book of Fame
Publisher: The Text Publishing Company, 2010
ASN: B005651P26, Kindle Edition
Source: Personal library