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R&R 077 | The Book of Fame

I've been sick for a while but I'm finally starting to get better! Not 100% there yet but there is improvement. I'm happy… Starting the new year sick is no way to go!

Lloyd Jones
The Book of Fame
First published in: 2008
This edition: John Murray, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-7195-2294-9
Cover design: N/A

R&R 077 | The Book of Fame
I don't believe the All Blacks actually use the throat gesture anymore.
But I couldn't resist.

I'm not much for sports really. I played some tennis when I was younger, but most of my other extracurricular activities included ballet and drama. I watched skating at times, but only because one of the country's former top skaters is a distant relative and I kind of liked rooting for the guy. But I can't say I really care about sports. So why did I pick up a book about a sports team? A book describing games, wins, tactics?

Because this book was about the New Zealand All Blacks. Now that's a country and a team I have a recent weakness for (ever since visiting the country, ever since watching the team on TV performing their haka warrior dance). Because of the subject, I expected to like this book; I did not expect that I would end up falling in love with it. It wasn't love at first sight, but the kind of love that grows.

In a dazzling style of prose which I can only describe as poetic, New Zealand author Lloyd Jones (known better as the author of Mister Pip) combines fiction and historical facts in this wonderful story of how the All Blacks won the public's respect and love. Following the team through their tour across the UK in 1905, the reader gets a sort of insider's scoop into how these lads played won games, and along with it all, gained their fame.

And although this is definitely a book about sports in itself – offense! defense! scores, injuries, plays & tactics – The Book of Fame lives up to its title, and becomes mostly a study of what it's like to become famous, unexpectedly and wholly.

The All Blacks, back in the day, was made up of farmers, miners, a banker here and there, a bootmaker. Diverse people, but most importantly: just average blokes enjoying their game. They don't know what hits them when suddenly, they are recognized on the streets, cheered on by strangers, adored by women who want nothing more than to marry them… They came to the UK to play rugby. What they got was something else altogether. The Book of Fame is about triumph and the beginning of something grand and everlasting. (But it's also about the exhaustion, the inability to go anywhere in peace and quiet.)

There's a sense of excitement and anticipation, and the men are definitely appreciative by all the support at first (and tired by all of it later; fame has its downsides) – but they also remain the way they were before. An example of the general attitude: when the team captain Gallaher is asked what it is like to be famous, he dryly replies, "The pyramids are famous, son".

These are normal men. Lloyd Jones describes them as they nervously empty their bladders before a match, as they see themselves projected in film for the first time (magic!). The individual player's quirks and habits are described – there are so many i's in one team, so many different individuals to get to know, but you do feel connected to the team from the start.

What helps is the narrative style; the story of this team is told by one of the team members, although we never learn which one it is. It could be any one of them. The team is telling the story. This is a very effective strategy, because it adds to the feeling that the reader is on this journey with them. The reader, by getting to know the team members up close via small details, could be part of the 'we'. That's how it feels. That's the charm of the book.

These men, they are real men, but in a way I felt like hugging them all. Their fame made them feel so small at times, boyish; there is a downside to fame and these men felt it rather quickly. They're away from home. One team, together – but alone – on a journey. Traveling to places previously unseen, experiencing things previously unknown (food is an example; menus are shared in the book at times). They never once expected that they would be there, and then, as they were little boys growing up.

But there, and then, the now grown-up men ache for one thing more than anything: their home country, New Zealand. Their fame could never top their home. Perhaps this international journey in 1905 with all the stress attached to it has also provided the early All Blacks with the inspiration and motivation to get stronger – and stay stronger. I don't know the team today. I haven't read a book about them. But part of me likes to believe the current All Blacks are still playing for home.

R&R series © Karin E. Lips 2008, 2009 and beyond

Karin Elizabeth
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